The Great Restaurant Road
Destination dining along the Mississippi
Step away from the Cheetos, the Mountain Dew, and the beef-jerky sticks. Gas stations are for fueling your car, not your stomach. Just a few miles away, along the banks of the Mississippi River, you’ll find your fill of pulled-pork sandwiches and beef curries, of crab salads and fried ice cream. Here are a few of my favorite dining destinations along the Great River Road, in both Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Back in 1875, Red Wing was the wheat-trading capital of the world, and bustling business in the wealthy port town spurred the construction of the grand, Italianate-style St. James Hotel. Passing through the hotel’s historic lobby and descending to its limestone-block basement feels like entering a portal to the past. And yet the menu of its subterranean fine-dining restaurant, the Port, is decidedly modern. A few years ago, the familiar popovers and French onion soup were supplanted by the likes of bison ribeye, duck prosciutto, and imagination-stretchers such as confit pork belly with truffled-popcorn ice cream (more intriguing than delicious, unfortunately). I prefer the fried ice-cream dessert—a Mex-American mash-up popularized, in the ’80s, by the old Richfield-born restaurant chain, Chi-Chis. (I hadn’t seen the stuff since I stopped pegging my pants!) The Port coats a baseball-size scoop of house-made vanilla ice cream in crushed corn flakes and drops it, briefly, in a hot-oil bath to crisp the exterior without melting the center. Whipped honey, cinnamon foam, and toasted pecans add irresistibly sweet, nutty accents. You’ll lick the plate clean before the ice cream has a chance to soften. • St. James Hotel, 406 Main St., Red Wing, 800-252-1875, st-james-hotel.com
After years of taking their show on the road, the duo behind Chef Shack—Lisa Carlson and Carrie Summer, pioneers of the local food-truck scene—have parked their concept in a bricks-and-mortar home. Their chosen locale, Bay City, Wisconsin, consists of little more than a gas station and a drive-through-optional liquor store. But what more does a diner need than a shady back patio with a view of the river? Chef Shack’s small-but-mighty menu reads exactly like what it is: the country respite of two big-city chefs. The dishes—scallops, rack of lamb, house-made charcuterie, just-picked seasonal produce—may be gourmet, but the homey digs make the experience feel less like a restaurant than an at-home dinner party. Brunches begin with a horseradish-speckled bloody Mary, served with a beer back (you’re in Wisconsin, after all). The skewer that rests across the top of the glass sags under the weight of its myriad garnishes, so be careful not to fill up before your veggie-egg hash or pulled-meat sandwich arrives. The dessert menu bears the food trucks’ influence, transforming the mobile Indian-spiced mini-donuts into a rich bread pudding. • 6379 W. Main St., Bay City, WI, 715-594-3060, chefshack.org
With sailboat parking just a few feet from its front door, Nosh could easily fill seats based on location alone, serving nachos and Grain Belt to the topsiders crowd. Instead, the Lake City restaurant offers a menu of surprising range and elegance, from the complimentary shot of, say, a citrus-thyme agua fresca to the seared foie gras to the most famous entrée, seafood paella. Not bad for a shore lunch. Nosh’s offerings are, as the name suggests, well-suited for snacking. They’re also loaded with scratch cooking (spicy house-made sausage) and, when in season, locally grown ingredients (strawberries in salads, sour cherries in tarts). Another unexpected find: Nosh’s extensive craft-beer list—including several hard-to-find sour beers—is one of the best outside the metro. Not surprising, then, that the construction taking place on the building’s first floor is the makings of a nano-brewery. • 310 ½ S. Washington St., Lake City, 651-345-2425, noshrestaurant.com
Harbor View Café
After more than three decades in business, the homey Harbor View Café has adapted to the times and installed a credit-card machine. Happily, the change hasn’t affected any of the former tavern’s inherent charms: chalkboard menu, blue-and-white-checked tablecloths, and book-lined walls. Harbor View’s international reputation (enabled, in part, by visits from famous folk receiving medical treatment at the nearby Mayo Clinic) is based both on its warm hospitality and tasty fare, including the likes of catfish with spicy black-bean sauce, saffron-braised chicken, and stuffed mushrooms on linguine. If there’s Indian-style beef curry on the menu, get it. It has the comfort of stroganoff but is dressed up with warm spices and enhanced with a spritz of citrus and a side of chutney buzzing with clove. And when in pie country, don’t pass up a slice of the mousse-like chocolate buttercream. • 314 First St., Pepin, Wisconsin, 715-442-3893, harborviewpepin.com
The first sign you’ll be well taken care of at Signatures arrives with the ice water, as the server presents a tray lined with slices of lemon, lime, and cucumber for you to customize the flavor—a detail you don’t see even at fancy restaurants in the Cities. It was as much a surprise to me as the Dylan-autographed guitar on the wall and the works of Van Gogh and Picasso in the museum across town. Signatures overlooks the Bridges golf course’s verdant, rolling greens, and its dishes, such as a tower of avocado, ginger, and crabmeat topped with a tuft of microgreens, are equally manicured. Meat and fish come from some of the state’s best sources: duck from Au Bon Canard farms in nearby Caledonia, walleye from northern Minnesota’s Red Lake. Can’t make up your mind? Order the mixed grill of beef tenderloin, house-made sausage, and chicken. • 22852 County Road 17, Winona, 507-454-3767, signatureswinona.com
Rachel Hutton is the Interim Editor of Minnesota Monthly.