The restaurant business is a tenuous one. Many new ventures don't last a year, and even established places have to worry about drop-offs in business that could ruin the bottom line after years of popularity. Jay's Café, which is about to celebrate its third anniversary, has experienced some ups and downs. Owner Jay Randolph originally opened his café, tucked away in a corner of St. Anthony Park, as a breakfast-and-lunch-only joint, and his first attempt at adding dinner, last winter, was less than successful. He says now that he failed to have a clear plan. But Randolph didn't give up on serving evening meals, and last May he hired a chef to run his tiny restaurant's kitchen and come up with a clear vision for its food.
Chef Karl Gerstenberger devised a fiercely local menu for Jay's, seeking out nearby farmers using humane and sustainable practices. All the meat in Jay's dinner dishes comes from local farms, including grass-fed beef from Thousand Hills in Cannon Falls, which can be found lately on many upscale Twin Cities menus. He sought out exceptional regional cheeses, including organic chèvre from Donnay Farm (but still allowed for the crucial imported Parmigiano Reggiano on the four-cheese pizza). He came up with a short dinner menu that changes seasonally and makes the best of locally available ingredients. His efforts have resulted in meal options fit for a foodie but priced affordably, in keeping with the character of the cute little neighborhood café.
So let's hope that Randolph can keep it up without him. Just last week I learned that Gerstenberger is departing Jay's. For financial reasons, Randolph is taking over again in his namesake kitchen. That shouldn't spell doom for the restaurant; Randolph successfully ran his breakfast-and-lunch kitchen before, and he has decades of professional cooking experience, including a stint as an executive chef at Medtronic, which he says was helpful in learning the business side of the restaurant game.
He's got a great template to work with now at Jay's. Dough for the pizzas, available at lunch and dinner, has been perfected: Made with Heartland Mill organic flour, it bakes into a lovely, crisp, light-golden crust. A pizza I had at lunch was superb except that a bit too much Black River gorgonzola was used: A little of that pungent stuff goes a long way, and in some bites it completely overpowered the delicious combination of bacon, apples, and walnuts ($8). The accompanying cup of rosemary-mushroom soup was deeply earthy and pleasingly creamy without being too thick.
Also at lunch, a meatloaf sandwich ($9.95) was served open-faced on very good toasted ciabatta that shows up on Jay's plates frequently. On the side, the American fries were excellent—large potato slices well seasoned and pan-fried, with a crunchy outer layer—and the carrots were sweet, tasty, and lightly cooked to retain their crispness. It made a fully satisfying meal, the kind of lunch you really want to take a nap after eating. Other sandwiches on the lunch menu include a roasted eggplant melt, turkey with chipotle mayo, and a BLT with avocado. A salad of lots of buckwheat noodles and organic mixed greens with tamari dressing ($7.25) was dotted with miniature crinkle-cut carrots and bits of diced tomato for a fresh yet hearty dish.
Jay's also offers a daily pasty (a savory, filled pastry served hot, still found in some parts of the small-town Midwest but rarely seen in the cities) with ever-changing ingredients, but the restaurant makes a limited number and they often run out fairly early in the lunch service; I haven't been able to try one. Anyone else in the same boat can rectify that situation soon. One of the café's anniversary-week special events is "Pasty Madness" on Tuesday, February 19, featuring a couple versions of the specialty to eat there for lunch or take home, frozen, to bake later ($12 for two).
At dinner (available Wednesday through Saturday), starters included a hearty but not too heavy winter soup of cannelinni beans and kale ($5), with onion, carrot, and celery. It was perfect on a bitterly cold night. Pacific oysters are sometimes available at $2.50 each, and there's an option of mixed lettuces with organic liver toasts, but otherwise no proper appetizers. The dinner salads, though, were wonderful. One was of mixed greens, in which avocado and blood oranges made a clean, refreshing backdrop for the saltiness provided by bits of creamy chèvre and crunchy sunflower seeds. Another featured super-crunchy, breaded, deep-fried portabello mushrooms on perfect organic baby spinach leaves with shavings of Parmiagiano Reggiano.
Here's one wholehearted dinner recommendation: Get the ribs. Falling-apart tender, scrumptiously succulent, braised beef short ribs are accompanied in winter by flavorful garlic mashed potatoes ($19). They're excellent. The chicken entrée ($18) was good, too: The organic leg from Schultz Farm had a crackly skin and was topped with a salty olive relish and served with sautéed kale and a crisp-on-the-outside, creamy-on-the-inside polenta cake.
Two other entrées had mixed results. Porcini gnocchi ($15) were served dry and browned to a crisp, which seemed an odd choice for the delicate pasta; it was difficult to taste the mushroom. But the accompanying yams were perfectly cooked and delicious, not too sweet, and the spinach added a nice touch. At the same dinner, another entrée had another fantastic side and another imperfect main dish: The pork loin chop ($19) was tough and hard to chew. It may have just been too lean a cut; there were a few great, juicy bites near the fat. The second dose of pork on the plate, in the form of a bacon-studded potato cake, was thoroughly enjoyable, cooked crisp like perfect hash browns, the bacon making it wonderfully salty and meaty; and the accompanying red cabbage was flavorful and good.
At dinner in Jay's cozy space, the vibe is friendly, and even romantic if you want it to be; candlelight prevails. The restaurant, in the former Chet's Taverna space, is always welcoming. Lately, in a fresh and fun seasonal touch, its wood tables have been adorned with tiny pine boughs in bud vases, clipped from the young trees in the window boxes in front of the restaurant. Reddish wood covers the bottom half of the walls, giving way to a calming, light-green painted surface decorated with paintings and black-and-white photos by local artists.
The room will make an ideal setting for the intimate wine dinner coming up on Wednesday, February 20, probably featuring South American wines. Check the restaurant's website for updates and for other anniversary specials. Some involve breakfast, a meal that creates a bustle on weekends and offers creative spins on old favorites.
A potato scramble ($8.50) combined eggs, spinach, cheese, and a house-made chorizo that was smoky but not very spicy. Waffles ($7.50) vary daily; a cinnamon-almond one had a delightful, cinamonny-sweet flavor, was laced with pleasingly crunchy almonds, and was topped with good, fresh whipped cream, though it seemed a touch overcooked and tough. A surprisingly flavorful (for the dead of winter) fruit plate ($6.50) included cantaloupe, oranges, strawberries, blueberries, and grapes. Other breakfast options include a popular "surfer" burrito made with avocado, apple-caramel French toast, and an egg-and-smoked-gouda crepe with bell peppers.
Service at Jay's was consistently friendly, knowledgeable, and well-timed, and the desserts, at $5 each, were uniformly charming. There was a tart, lemony apple crisp; apples again in a bread pudding that consisted of soft slices of fruit-stuffed bread with a wonderful, thick caramel sauce; and a chocolate pot de crème, a baked confection that was denser than a mousse, lighter than a pudding, and topped with fresh whipped cream.
So, systems are in place for great food to be served, and Randolph plans to continue along those lines. "I don't see us deviating too far from the things Karl's got going—a pretty simple dinner menu, trying to make the prices a good value and affordable for people to come here once a week or once a month instead of once a year. I'll bring a little different style to it, but the basic ideas are going to be there: the local and organic thing, menu items that are approachable but creative." He also says he's still learning. "Being in business is like learning how to drive a car," he says. At first you're looking out no farther than the end of the hood, but as you gain experience you see what else is going on around you: "The longer I go on, the better peripheral view I get." And the better everyone around University and Raymond gets to eat.