Hyacinth III (St. Paul, MN)

I ate at Hyacinth twice in 2019. The first time with the missus and some friends; the second time with colleagues. I enjoyed both meals even as I felt that its charms were really those of a neighbourhood restaurant. Nonetheless, if the pandemic had not intervened we would probably have gone back at least once in the last couple of years. And this past weekend we finally did, taking our boys out with us once again to an adult dinner experience. Italian food is the easiest option with them (see oiur previous outings to Terzo, Luci Ancora, Bar La Grassa, 112 Eatery and Mucci’s) and Hyacinth’s current menu seemed like it would suit them just fine. I’m glad to report that this did indeed prove to be the case: they enjoyed their dinner a lot. Their parents liked it too but thought it was a little uneven and we were really not convinced by the meal’s value proposition.

But first, the meal.

It’s hard to remember from three years ago, but the layout of the tables—especially by the entrance—seems to have changed from 2019, and the restaurant also seemed a lot darker than I remembered it being at my second dinner there late that year. It certainly was as loud as it had been on both those occasions: not on account of music but just the general acoustics and small scale of the place. This despite the fact that our table, closer to the entrance, was set off a bit from the long row along the side wall where most of the seating is arranged and also away from the bar. But let me quit my old man complaints about noise and get to what we ate and drank.

We have a rule with the boys when we take them to these dinners that they have to eat everything on the plate. That said, we don’t push the envelope and get plates heavy on things we know they’re going to be reluctant to eat. In other words, no beet salad or fried Brussels sprouts, to name just two smaller plates I would have been interested in on my own (we also get everything to share). Keeping their narrower palates and smaller appetites in mind, we accordingly got the following:

To start:

  • Housemade Flatbread with olive oil and sea salt. The bread was enjoyable but I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that we were paying $8 for what was essentially a small naan…
  • Chicken Liver Crostini with shallot marmalade and crispy leeks. They cut the bread into four pieces for us with the crispy leeks on the side (at least I don’t remember it being served this way in the past). I’d liked the previous version of this dish eaten in 2019 and we all really liked this one too. The shallot marmalade made the liver less cloying and the leeks added textural interest.

To follow we got half-portions of all three of the pastas on offer:

  • Bucatini cacio e pepe. This was the unanimous favourite at the table. The bucatini was perfectly cooked and the sauce was very good too.
  • Fusili with pork & beef meatballs, tomato sauce, pecorino romano. Also very tasty even if the sauce was not very far away from one an adept home cook could produce in their own kitchen.
  • Mezze Maniche with pancetta, Brussels sprouts, pecorino romano. Predictably the parents enjoyed this more than the children but they did also like it.

There were three mains on offer and we got two of them:

  • Fried Half Chicken Parm with cherry tomatoes, burrata, pesto genovese. This was enjoyed greatly by the younger generation. The parents appreciated the execution but weren’t sure that the dish as a whole added up to very much.
  • Hanger Steak with lentils, marinated olives, acetico balsamico. The steak was thickly sliced and was a bit chewier than we would have preferred; it wasn’t over-cooked by any means but the meat wasn’t very tender. I did, however, really like the lentils it was sitting on: very rich but also very tasty; and the black olives and balsamic vinegar provided nice counterpoints.

Two desserts to end:

  • Panna Cotta with raspberry preserves. This was served in a bowl and was barely set—indeed it was more pudding than panna cotta as we prefer it. It was, however, quite tasty.
  • Apple Cake with whipped custard, nutmeg. I think we all preferred this cake. It’s a very large portion, by the way; hard to imagine one person eating the whole thing after a full meal.

Drinks? The boys got a non-alcoholic drink each (we’re not quite that permissive): the Mora Limonata (blackberry lemonade, bergamo, soda) and the Noce Di Cocco (coconut, lime, turmeric syrup). They really like when restaurants have grown-up drinks they can enjoy and they both liked the ones they got very much. The missus likewise enjoyed her cocktail, the Grapes UNLTD (concord shrub, cognac, prosecco). Alas, I did not care very much for either of the two I got. The Claro De Luna (coriander tequila, pineapple, tomatillo, apple) was unbalanced with far too much acid (the coriander tequila was barely palpable); it was also, like the Old Fashioned I got next, too watery.

For a look at the restaurant and everything we drank and ate, launch the slideshow below. Scroll down for thoughts on service, to see how much it cost and for my estimation of value.

They were very busy when we got there at 6 on Saturday and it consequently took a little while to get our drinks and food orders in. That aside, service was very good: pleasant without being overfamiliar, and present when needed.

Cost? The total came to $233 before tip or just about $280 with it. (Another difference from 2019, by the way, seems to be that service charge is no longer included in the price of the dishes. At least it did not say so on the check as it had in the past and the credit card slip had a tip line on it.)

So, the knotty question of value: The boys effectively added up to one adult diner. If you look at what we ate, it basically breaks down as three starters (the bread, the crostini and one half-pasta) and three mains (two half-pastas, the chicken parm, and the steak) and two desserts. And with their drinks we had the equivalent of four cocktails. This meant the effective per head price for three adults eating what we did would have been $93/head. Compare with the $65 and $70 per head at the meals in 2019, which both involved more food and drink. I know prices have gone up across the board in the intervening period but at a restaurant like Hyacinth, in my opinion, it adds up to quite a bit more than the food is able to bear. A few quibbles aside, we enjoyed the meal fine, but $65/head is probably my ceiling for what it was (and I’d like my cocktails to be mixed with more care as well). Your mileage may well vary. And you may well point out that it’s not easy any more to find a fancy’ish meal in the Twin Cities for $65/head all-in in 2022.

What’s next from the Twin Cities? Not sure. Maybe Filipino, maybe Mexican, maybe Nepali. We’ll see. And should I bother saying yet again that this will finally be the weekend when I’ll conclude my Hawaii reports and make a beginning on my Ireland reports? I’ve been saying that for almost two months now…



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