Restaurant review: Myriel ⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
To fully appreciate the extent to which Karyn Tomlinson cares about the terroir of lamb, consider an exchange with our server during a recent dinner at her St. Paul restaurant, Myriel.
First, the bad news: The protein of a main dish had sold out — lamb boulette, more precisely.
"Our apologies," he began, sullenly. "But we ran out of product."
Then, a solution.
"Chef is more than happy to butcher another piece of the animal downstairs. How does lamb loin sound?"
Ah. Whatever abattoir lurked downstairs is best kept under wraps. Loin sounded like a terrific alternative, and ended up tasting the part. Two medallions, each sized like miniature fists, were uniformly pink and tender, like a yielding bean bag. Flavorful, too, with that nascent hint of game.
While boulettes, or meatballs, might have paired better with the caper-studded tomato ragout, our mid-course correction was a welcome one. More often than not, these corrections play a hero role in Tomlinson's whole-hog and farm-to-table narrative.
It's a theme that has driven success for some of the country's most storied restaurants that treat produce as divine. Think of the fresh-as-morning pluots at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse or those mythical carrots that Dan Barber harvests at Blue Hill, the farm-restaurant he built just outside of New York City.
Tomlinson doesn't own her own farm, but her connections run far and wide: from Nyquist Farms in Cokato, Minn., which supplies her with those idiosyncratically patterned Muscovy duck eggs — at one point during dinner service, she presented them majestically on a silver platter — to one of her sous chefs, who scaled a tree to pluck the plums that would later be used in a preserve.
Her talents also run deep: a degree from Le Cordon Bleu; time at some of the Twin Cities' most respected kitchens (Borough, Meritage, Corner Table); and a winter stage at Sweden's Fäviken, chef Magnus Nilsson's ode to hyper-local. Along the way, she managed to become the first woman to win a prestigious whole-hog cooking contest.
While chefs of her pedigree might go on to found sprawling restaurants named — directly or derivatively — after themselves, Tomlinson has gone rogue, naming Myriel after a fictional character from Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables." In the novel, Myriel, a bishop, encounters and then immediately bestows the protagonist with the kind of hospitality that made him weep and think on his sins.
Tomlinson's brand of hospitality takes more time to break in. Never mind that Myriel is situated so close to a barbershop that it feels like an extension of it. The cramped layout, by the entrance, recalls marching in line to meet the friendly bouncer at a bohemian dive bar. The bar seats are right by the door, where plumes of cold wind double as dining companions. Those bistro chairs are about as comfortable as church pews. And the acoustics make conversations a challenge.
But over the course of dinner, charm sets in. Notice that beautiful black marble countertop; the exposed white brick; those minimalist white walls; and the homespun chirpiness of the waitstaff, who drop mini-lectures of the dishes' provenance in such a manner that (affably) borders on sermon. Collectively, they give Tomlinson the stage to showcase her ambidextrous talents: as forager extraordinaire and as one hell of a butcher.
To deliver them, she offers both a small but curated a la carte menu as well as a more breathtakingly priced ($135) tasting option, consisting of 16 or so courses. A dish from either menu is equally reflective of Tomlinson's philosophy. All are exquisite, in that "bring something new to the table" type of way. Some are memorable. A few haunted me.
There was sunchoke soup, which distilled peak winter root vegetable in intense, nutty fashion. Duck fat, likely rendered from duck leg confit, a later course, gave it that splendidly greasy kick; tiny pops of toasted buckwheat added crunch.
There was a sharp and herbaceous juniper cream that made a genius accompaniment to bone-in lamb loin. It was served alongside creamed mustard greens — rich yet weightless.
There was fermented plum, a vivid distillation of the late-summer fruit, that almost upstaged the perfectly cooked duck confit, and that appeared immediately in the next course, as sorbet.
And the ice cream, made simply from pure, unadulterated milk from grass-fed cows, served with exceptionally bright lingonberries the color of crimson.
Even the butter that accompanies Tomlinson's excellent housemade, rustic loaf, mesmerizes: velvety with only a whisper of tang.
Arguably the peak of her whole-hog approach has nothing to do with meat and everything to do with carrot. Its root: slivered into bright, snappy coins. Its leaves: crisp and minimally dressed, like salad. Nestled in those leaves are pieces of brined cheese, faintly reminiscent of feta. It's very good.
A variation of that cheese appeared as a foil for two kinds of beans: dragon tongue and wax beans. One was subtly sweet; the other tart, punctuated with notes of anise. Together, they underscore Tomlinson's encyclopedic knowledge of produce.
That knowledge lends her the distinct authority of making each ingredient the only child on the plate — lavished, and mostly well behaved. She gives freekeh, a type of ancient grain, that attention: Cooked slowly in vegetable stock and coaxed until rich and silky, it tasted like a savory rice pudding you'd feel guilty afterward for eating. And she does it again with black lentils: inky, oblong pearls, the flavor of which carried profound depth.
Apparently Tomlinson has a story to tell with each ingredient. But sometimes even the best stories could use sharper editing. The smokiness of cold lamb tenderloin was smothered in an overabundance of birch créme fraîche, and the raw beet on which the lamb sat was lifeless and bland. The buckwheat tart, a vehicle for kabocha squash, was airy but lacked flavor. The casing that housed a rather mealy pork sausage was tough. So, too, was the duck breast on the a la carte menu. Rye gnocchi, cooked in a Parisienne style, was crisper than what you might be used to — but also dry.
What remains consistent, expectedly, is Tomlinson's flair for exacting technique. A mid-course omelet was a master class in the French canon: polished, with that Meyer-lemon sheen, and neatly folded into a pouch. The brunoise of squash that accompanied the freekeh was so fine and uniform that it looked like it emerged from a 3-D printer. And that flavorful broth that accompanied duck confit — made from pheasant and poussin bouillon and clarified brown butter — had immense clarity.
Servers offer to bring out extra broth to use as a dip for the rye bread. Do it. It's perfectly apt for a place that excels at recycling ingredients and, we now know, has mastered the art of improvisation.
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Info: 470 S. Cleveland Av., St. Paul, 651-340-3568, myrielmn.com
Hours: 5-9 p.m., Wed.-Sat.
Service: Bar and sit-down. A few high-top tables for walk-ins.Gratuity is extra.
Price ranges: Small plates $11-$17, mains $23-$28, desserts $9. Tasting menu $135.
Recommended dishes: Toasted wheat, freekeh, stewed black lentils and lamb boulette (though the menu changes frequently), tasting menu.
Beverage program: Mix of old-world and new-world wines. Cocktails, too.
Sound level: Noisier in the bar area.
What the stars mean:
⋆⋆⋆ Highly recommended
Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune's restaurant critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.