Hyacinth has got the glow. It’s one of those restaurant things that just happens once in a while: think of Martina, or Hai Hai, or Saint Dinette. The vibes are good, the rumors are all cheerful, and once the doors are open, all the buzz is positive.
And then you go, and: yep, the hype isn’t hype, it’s an accurate description of a place that managed to kick its doors open with all systems fully operational. This isn’t a complete shock—chef/owner Rikki Giambruno had a good run at the well-regarded Brooklyn restaurant Franny’s, and if you can sling Italian food in Brooklyn and make it work, Grand Avenue in St. Paul should be doable as well. Giambruno’s experience notwithstanding, the level of polish at Hyacinth is legitimately impressive, from the thoughtful wine list to the pared down but exciting menu and the attentive service.
Hyacinth is the freshest part of a welcome crowd of new and newish spots around town that are taking Italian food and reinventing it—bringing in scratch techniques, local sourcing, and extraordinary care to wake up and revive dishes and styles that have grown tired after decades of plodding execution by exhausted institutions. Think of Italian Eatery, and Mucci’s, and Bungalow Club—all spots that are bringing fresh pasta, bright flavors, and indulgent depth to their menus and renovating their genre.
Hyacinth’s menu turns on items that bring a few key ingredients to the forefront and balance them precisely. The Chicken Liver Mousse Crostini ($12) prove that “burnt” doesn’t mean “ruined”—the carbon scorching on the crunchy rounds of bread at the base of this dish is a perfect complement to the rich, creamy mousse and the bright, jammy grape spread beneath it. The three flavors work beautifully together, and the texture of the dish—smooth and light versus crispy-crunchy—is ideal.
The leading element of our Delicata Squash Salad ($14) was—wait for it—parsley. Typically a mere garnish, when parsley is put into the driver’s seat of a dish it actually is a lovely, fresh, exciting way to define a salad, particularly when supported with elegantly charred bits of tender squash, pistachios, raisins, and yogurt. This is a harvest salad that doesn’t weigh the diner down or overwhelm; it’s pure elegance.
We’ve had Cacio e Pepe (pasta with cheese and cracked black pepper) all over the place, and it’s one of those seemingly simple dishes that chokes when it’s done half-heartedly and soars when it’s done well. The Hyacinth version of the dish ($14 for a small portion) is one of the best we’ve encountered, with incredibly fresh and flavorful black pepper lending an almost spicy heat to the rich, soothing, unctuous bucatini and cheese.
Of everything we’ve tasted at Hyacinth, the Roasted Hen ($26) might be the weak link—a mere A-minus compared to the As and A-plusses that fill the rest of the menu. Our chicken was somewhat overcooked, but otherwise presented wonderfully, adorned with wild mushrooms from Forest to Fork at Keg and Case. Accompanying bits of turnip lent spice and substance to the dish, and just barely burnt crostini lent more of that carbony depth while sopping up some of the delicious juices from the chicken.
As for dessert: The closest comparison we would have to explain the Siringate ($8) is a rosette Christmas cookie—dough piped out and deep fried into a light, chewy, churro-like confection. But whereas rosettes are often just dusted with powdered sugar, the Siringate hits the table warm from the fryer topped with a mixture of lemon curd, honey, and poppy seeds. It’s a delicate balance between citrus and sweet, with poppy seeds lending texture and interest. It’s one of the oddest desserts we’ve had in years, in an entirely good way.
On the more liquid side of things, Hyacinth boasts a subtle, Italian-focused wine list and a cocktail menu that can compete with literally any bar or restaurant in town. Hyacinth’s Orange and Plum ($12) cocktail is an autumnal celebration in a glass: an elegantly layered creation revolving around warm spices (primarily cinnamon), a delicately tart plum vinegar, and a subtle orange liqueur and bourbon base. Everything about this drink is warm and cheerful and pleasantly complex.
What makes a proper Manhattan ($10)? I’d argue that the drink is strong, and leads with a brown spirit (in this case rye whiskey), with other elements lending firm but quiet support. Hyacinth’s Manhattan is terrific, packing a rye wallop with the rough edges rounded out by subtle notes of herbs and cherry.
The Gimlet ($10) at Hyacinth is almost like a counterpart to its Orange and Plum—where the latter is all depth and spice, the Gimlet soars with a remarkably crisp, refreshing lightness, lime-kissed with Thai basil. The gin at its core is subtle, a delicate center to a bracingly bright drink.
An evening full of elegant home runs means that we’ll be coming back to Hyacinth soon. If you’re similarly inclined, get your reservation early—the little restaurant has been booking up quickly and far in advance, a just reward for the level of focus and technique evidenced by its food, drink, and service.
What: Hyacinth Restaurant
Where: 790 Grand Ave., St. Paul, MN 55105