Don’t let the name fool you, the French Hen Café is plating up soul-satisfying meals without the pretenses of haute cuisine.
It’s home cooking, elevated. Though restaurants focused on Southern tradition such as Revival have received recent accolades, this gem in the heart of St. Paul features playfully rich, Creole inspired recipes that have withstood the test of time.
When walking into the French Hen space, you’re bathed in light – a well-deserved respite from Minnesota’s annual war on vitamin D, a.k.a. winter. To arrive, you’ll have to make your way through a natural oxygen bar; the entrance to the café is through Ergo Floral, a neighboring plant store that graces diners with a verdant kiss from Cathedral Hill. Though rejuvenating, the greens I was after would be arriving on a plate and would be soon melting in my mouth like liquid smoke.
Chef Belvin Hill, known only at the restaurant as Benny, traces his culinary foundations to Mississippi and South Carolina via Chicago. Wearing red, yellow, and green I don’t have to ask where he’s from. But I do… Hill’s dad is from Jamaica, and he highlights immigrant influences in his taste sensibilities. Manager Madeline Rivard, whose mom Robin owns the restaurant, points to diverse influences saying, “The menu is a mix of what I like to eat and … what all the other chefs have added.”
Hill is in charge of the collard greens and specials on the menu, which features breakfast from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily. Though he would not get into the politics of who makes the best greens in the cities, he did say emphatically, “There is a secret.” Indeed, the greens that come alongside blackened catfish on fried green tomato croquets, seem to announce themselves: “Can’t tell me nothin’,” they say- indicative of both their harmonizing flavors and the work put in to make them velvety soft. If you’re looking for lighter fare, you’ll have to look elsewhere, though a couple delicate slices of blood orange are presented as citrus palette cleansers.
Other foods cooked slow and low include pulled pork braised overnight and finished the next day with a soy sauce glaze. You’ll find it on their Banh Mi benedict piled high atop crunchy French bread supplied fresh from nearby Trung Nam French Bakery. With the meat’s juices infusing the baguette, drawing spice from the Sriracha hollandaise, you get a luxurious-tangy mouthful softened by a plump and runny poached egg. I recommend nibbling at the nestled jalapeño slices to cut through the butter and fat.
Hill says there’s something for everybody here, though later he would reverse his position.
“I don’t care if you’re a vegetarian or anything you got to eat some type of meat; ham, turkey, pork, beef, something. You gotta eat something,” said Hill.
“What?” Rivard interjects, cracking up.
“It’s true, we don’t really cater that much to vegetarians. I mean there is an omelette on there,” Hill said referring to the menu.
The two are clearly part of a tight-knit team. Both say that leadership is non-hierarchical and that people step up for one another when needed.
Though the French Hen will be completing its seventh year in operation, the road ahead is far from straightforward. Rivard cites a 2 percent increase in local licensing and permit fees that increase pressure on St. Paul’s small businesses, particularly restaurants.
“We have no interest being a business if we can’t pay people living wages, if we can’t offer people time with their families. We’re struggling to do that with the price points we’re at,” Rivard replied when asked about the restaurant’s place in a gentrifying neighborhood. Though all kitchen staff is paid at least $15 per hour, she has trepidations about the mandated increase for wait staff, fearing the toll it will take on the businesses narrow profit margins.
To survive the rising costs and to maintain the restaurant’s neighborhood character, Rivard and the team have sought to make their space amenable to community. In addition to announcing the establishment’s politics with a Black Lives Matter sign in the front window, the space has been used for meetings supporting local activism. Locals have also celebrated special occasions with the French Hen staff including weddings, anniversaries, and showers.
I spoke to one couple, Echo Kokesh and Linden Rael, who were marking their anniversary with biscuits and gravy, a mimosa, and a Hugo, an herbal early morning concoction of elderflower, mint, lime, and Prosecco. Supporting Rivard’s statement that customers can show up in their pajamas and not be looked at funny, Rael affirms that you can come as you are.
“It’s a safe place to be queer,” Kokesh said, “And of course, it’s beautiful.”
For a breakfast spot that transports Midwesterners further south, while making space at the table for all kinds, consider the Hen.
The French Hen is located at 518 Selby Ave in St Paul, MN. Hours are 8:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. daily. For more information: (651) 222-6201. www.frenchhencafe.com