Jay's Café (St. Paul, MN)
By Karen Cooper and Bruce Schneier
We chanced upon a gem of a café about a year ago, near Raymond and University, in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood. It's the sort of place you want to keep secret since it's fabulous, but the space is tiny and often full. But we're good guys, and we'll share what we know about the delightful Jay's Café.
Jay is Jay Randolph, owner and the café's original chef. Five months ago, that job was taken over by Carl Gerstenberger, who's picked up some impressive West Coast cooking credentials: Chez Panisse, Stars, Oliveto, and a stint as the private chef for the Estée Lauder family. He's the visionary in the kitchen today.
The food at Jay's ranges from the merely good to delicious. This isn't the spectacularly complex "celebrity chef" food you might find at higher-end restaurants, but simple, good food -- dishes that let the ingredients shine. Not that simple is easy, mind you; Gerstenberger likes to use artisan techniques and not cut corners in the process.
The lunch menu includes five different sandwiches, one of which is the vegetarian eggplant melt, with roasted eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash, sliced tomato, cheese and Romesco sauce, served warm on excellent ciabatta bread. The horseradish beef sandwich is also good, and the BLT with sliced avocado is delicious.
We really liked Jay's pizza offerings, especially the tomato, basil, and goat cheese pizza on the lunch menu, with chunks of fresh tomatoes and a flavorful sauce. You can try artichoke, spinach, olive, and feta pizza at lunch, or bacon, fig, red onion, and Gorgonzola pizza at dinner.
Jay's offers several lunch salads, including a tasty noodle and vegetable salad with tamari dressing or chicken and avocado Cobb salad. The Cobb salad, with spicy honey-Dijon dressing but no blue cheese, is nonetheless a tasty version of the classic.
Lunch entrées include the pasty of the day -- chicken, onion, squash and cheese one day we were there -- and chicken and smoked Gouda-filled crepes. The pork hash, cooked with sofrito, tomatoes, and potatoes, and topped with a pair of poached eggs, is also available for breakfast.
The dinner menu changes weekly. Gerstenberger focuses on sustainable, local sourcing whenever possible, so the dinner menu changes regularly as new ingredients become available. What you find on the menu in the winter is completely different from what you'd find in the summer.
Jay's always has a vegetarian option on the menu, and often a vegan option. Chef Gerstenberger is always happy to produce food for special diets; and if you have any questions about the ingredients or the preparations, don't be afraid to ask. Gerstenberger says that he's regularly called out of the kitchen to talk about a particular dish, and that he enjoys sharing his secrets with diners.
Jay's isn't perfect, though. The place only seats 40 people, and it gets crowded at mealtimes pretty regularly. And when it's crowded, it's so noisy that it can be hard to hear the person across from you. Furthermore, when it's crowded, the service can be slow. We were there once for lunch, and there was only one overworked server for the entire room.
Jay's is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner but doesn't serve every meal every day. Call or check the website before you go, just to be sure.
Schneier.com is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc.