Dundas : You can’t help eavesdropping at Fermentations, a sort of upscale Chatterbox Café just south of the Twin Cities. “Happy 81,” a gentleman says to his wife, lifting his wine glass at a corner table. Nearby, a woman lectures her party about the building of St. Petersburg. Dwarfed by a grain elevator and tucked into a row of nondescript buildings that includes two bars and a glass company, the intimate, 44-seat bistro has a surprising and subtle European elegance.
Owner Ed Lundstrom changes his limited menu twice a month, featuring such dishes as potato-encrusted wild salmon on a bed of sautéed asparagus spears and a salad of lobster-claw meat and dried apricots. Staff will suggest flights of two-ounce pours to accompany each course. Thus lubricated, the hours slip past—and the listening grows even more interesting. (Be sure to mention vegetarian or dairy restrictions when making reservations.)
Dinner served Tues.–Sun. • 236 Railway St. N., Dundas, 507-645-8345, www.fermentations-bistro.com. –L.G.
Chetek, Wisconsin: Executive chef Scott Johnson sources each ingredient daily at Canoe Bay, flying in, say, a six-point Berkshire pork loin from England. His dining room is seductive, as is every facet of the serene resort, with its rolling trails and spacious Prairie-style cabins on the shores of a private lake. While overnight guests are guaranteed a table, others are granted same-day reservations only if there are vacancies. Those who make the effort are amply rewarded, from the first bite of fresh-baked brioche to the postprandial hazelnut truffles served in wooden canoes.
The menu, which changes nightly, might include seared diver scallops with a citrus reduction, organic spinach and farmstead chèvre, or chilled raspberry mousse with passion-fruit sorbet. Serving world-class cuisine down the road from a barn emblazoned with the phrase “Agri-Vation,” Johnson proves that good chefs can create good food anywhere.
Dinner served Wed.–Mon. • Canoe Bay, Chetek, Wisconsin, 715-924-4594, www.canoebay.com. –C.L.
Bayfield, Wisconsin: At the end of a long winding drive through the Wisconsin woods, Wild Rice appears at the edge of Lake Superior, just outside of Bayfield. The restaurant, named for its owner, Mary Rice, has been wowing guests since it opened in 2001. The building’s striking design is award-winning architect David Salmela’s take on a modern Scandinavian fishing village, a composite of natural materials and steep pitched roofs. Inside, a dramatic glass floor-to-ceiling “wine cube” holds hundreds of bottles, mostly of Californian terroirs.
Each plate comes out of the kitchen constructed like a sculpture that’s almost too lovely to disturb—it’s no surprise to learn that chef Jim Webster earned a BA in studio art. Some dishes are simple soups and salads: lobster bisque or mixed greens with an herbed sherry vinaigrette. Others are totally over-the-top. The grilled prosciutto-wrapped beef with mascarpone mashed potatoes and Cabernet truffle reduction transcends basic meat ’n’ potatoes. The restaurant’s namesake grain finds its way onto the menu in the popular creamy wild-rice soup with house-smoked chicken and Granny Smith apples.
Dinner served weekends May through December, plus additional weekdays during peak season. • 84860 Old San Rd., Bayfield, Wisconsin, 715-779-9881, www.wildricerestaurant.com. –R.H.
Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin : To some, the notion of “going native” in Wisconsin might conjure up images of a night at Ho-Chunk or a weekend wearing Carhartt and scent eliminator. But when Nathan Berg returned to his hometown of Chippewa Falls last year and bought the former Water’s Edge supper club on the shores of nearby Lake Wissota, he had a different interpretation in mind: he wanted to explore and expand the idea of indigenous Upper Midwest cuisine.
Berg’s year-old Native Bay makes the most of regional finds—locally caught perch, wild rice from the White Earth reservation, high-bush cranberries, morels, and even wapatoo, an aquatic tuber that the kitchen serves raw or mashed. Such plain, hardworking elements come together in surprisingly flavorful ways on the restaurant’s seasonally changing menu. Even when exotic species sneak onto the plate, Berg doesn’t let them upstage the homegrown elements: carmelized leeks hold their own against ahi tuna; simple fennel plays equal partner to halibut.
Regulars swear by the à la carte Sunday brunch, where no item costs more than $4. But if you’re looking to experience life like a true Wisconsinite, pack a cooler full of beer and rent a pontoon from Native Bay for a pre-dinner cruise. Now that’s ’Sconnie style.
Lunch served Tues.–Sat.; dinner Tues.–Sun.; Sun. brunch. • 9504 County Hwy. “S” South, Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, 715-726-0434, www.nativebayrestaurant.com. —J.H.
Superior, Wisconsin: The bright blue Boathouse restaurant sits on the shores of Barker’s Island, once dubbed “Coney Island for Superior.” Barker’s Island went into decline mid-century (sewage dumping spoiled the swimming and hard-up neighbors used the bridge’s planking for kindling), but today it’s experiencing a resurgence, thanks in part to the Boathouse. Massive windows and 40 outdoor seats showcase the bay’s natural/industrial mix: ducks in the foreground; grain elevators in the distance, backed by a panoramic view of Duluth.
There’s also plenty to see in the restaurant’s open kitchen, where, since 2003, chef Kirk Bratrud (former owner of the Bayport Cookery) has worked in partnership with his brother and their parents (Mom is Lanesboro’s original Mrs. B). Bratrud avails himself of the wealth of the wilds, including North Shore berries, fiddleheads, whitefish, and trout. His menu changes on a whim, featuring such delicious dishes as elk tenderloin, hemp tofu, sautéed mushrooms, and chocolate pots-au-crème.
Visitors may also choose to book an excursion at the new Vista Fleet headquarters next door, tour a historic whaleback ship, play a round of mini-golf, slip a kayak into the bay, bicycle the nearby Osaugie Trail, or take part in some of the best ship-watching in the Twin Ports. That is, if you can take your eyes off the food.
Lunch and dinner served Tues.–Sat. • 14 Marina Dr., Barker’s Island, Superior, Wisconsin, 715-399-0076. –R.H.
Wabasha: Wabasha may be best known as the sleepy burg where Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau ice-fished and chased skirt in Grumpy Old Men. The town’s well-preserved Main Street, lined with 19th-century red-brick buildings, can feel downright petrified, save for the occasional dog-walker. Which is why the two-year-old Nosh is a welcome anomaly. From the airy artisan bread to such exotic small plates as Hawaiian ono ceviche to the rich main courses, like duck leg laced with cherry sauce, Nosh is deliciously upscale while still exuding small-town hospitality.
The staff chats with regulars, the plates arrive through a diner-like hole in the wall, and you wonder whether you’ve ever had a better meal in a city so quaint the local hotel lets you reserve a cat with your room. Co-owners Greg Jaworski and Tiffany Byrd make most of their dishes from locally produced food in the summer. Jaworski specializes in Mediterranean cuisine—heavy on the French, with Spanish and North African influences.
And though the restaurant’s river view is now obscured by a condo development, you’re still just a walleye’s toss from the Mississippi—a great place for a stroll after sampling Nosh’s Guinness-and-molasses ice cream.
Dinner served Wed.–Mon. • 260 Main St. W., Wabasha, 651-565-2277, www.noshrestaurant.com. –T.G.
Grand Marais: After an inspirational internship at Alice Waters’s renowned Chez Panisse, chef Judi Barsness renovated a former bakery in downtown Grand Marais and opened Chez Jude last summer. The upscale restaurant overlooks the harbor, with seating both indoors and out. Barsness called on the community to contribute to the restaurant’s décor: local artists created monoprints, sculpture, a glass-tile mosaic, birch breadboards, and metal stands that hold paper cones of pommes frites.
Chez Jude’s reach extends beyond the restaurant’s walls, as Barsness provides catering for weddings and in-home dinner parties, hosts cooking classes, and leads international culinary tours. Barsness, who calls her cuisine “Minn-sine,” uses local, organic foods such as hand-harvested wild rice and fresh fish. The restaurant’s own garden supplies some of the herbs and edible flowers that garnish such dishes as pan-roasted duck breast, cedar-planked pork ribs, wood-oven pizzas, and spring greens salads. If you can’t get a dinner reservation at the 36-seat main dining room, stop in for afternoon tea and treat yourself to lemon curd and scones.
Tea and dinner served Wed.–Sun.; Sun. brunch. • 411 W. Hwy. 61, Grand Marais, 218-387-9113, www.chezjude.com. –R.H.
Marshall: The Landmark Bistro is confronting a challenge common to upscale restaurants in remote areas: trying to fill tables while fulfilling a rarefied vision. The restaurant opened last year under the auspices of the Schwan Food Company with such epicurean entrées (none frozen) as Dijon-encrusted lamb rack and Ocean Meets Lake (grilled sea bass, walleye cake, twice-baked red bliss potatoes, and vegetable-stuffed tomato) in addition to fresh pastas, wood-stone-oven pizzas, tapas, and many martinis.
Now it has introduced a gourmet burger menu and a summer patio with grilled specialties. Even this simpler fare is worthy of the elegant setting in the New Atlantic Hotel building, which has anchored downtown Marshall since 1926. The refurbished space features Brazilian mahogany floors and colorful contemporary artwork. American favorites are given a twist: lemonade is enhanced with flavors of watermelon, mango, and pear; pizza is topped with shredded pork, mustardy Southern barbecue sauce, pepperjack cheese, tomatoes, and spinach.
Every burger (pepper-jack and avocado, marinara and mozzarella, portobello and roasted pepper with mozzarella) is excellent; the bacon and blue-cheese on a potato-and-buttermilk bun is worth the drive—even with gas at nearly three bucks a gallon.
Lunch served Tues.–Sat.; dinner Wed.–Sat. • 100 W. College Dr., Marshall, 507-337-6600, www.landmarkbistro.com. –C.R.L.
Harbor View Café
Pepin, Wisconsin: The Harbor View Café, founded in 1980, is a place where community counts more than accolades, tasteful nourishment more than trendiness. Where the owners read the New York Times to find out what fashionable restaurants are up to—and then do the opposite, even though they have been lauded by the same paper (“an unanticipated boon in the back of beyond,” it said). The restaurant’s original owners met long ago at a Lutheran retreat in Washington state and there was always something Protestant about their disdain for spectacle.
The Harbor View has never taken credit cards or reservations, and the menu is merely scrawled on a blackboard behind the bar. Although the founders moved back to Washington last year, the new owners, former staffers, haven’t changed a thing. The humble building overlooking Lake Pepin is still ringed with bookshelves and pew-like booths. And the food—including pan-fried catfish with black bean sauce, Alaskan halibut, and a coq au vin that the cooks say would “make a Parisian sit up straight”—is still the object of worship.
Lunch and dinner served Thu.–Mon., mid-March to late November; additional days vary by season. • 314 First St., Pepin, Wisconsin, 715-442-3893, www.harborviewpepin.com. –T.G.
Nokomis Restaurant & Bar
Duluth : Last fall, chef Sean Lewis partnered with his wife and grand-parents to buy the Shorecrest Supper Club on Highway 61, about nine miles north of Duluth. They gutted the decades-old space, flushing it of ivy-print curtains, a ’70s hued-color palette, artificial flower centerpieces, and plastic tablecloths. What remains is a bright, unfettered dining room with a wall of windows offering a wide-angle shot of the lake. “Not a bad view in the whole restaurant,” the host remarks.
Gone are the battered ’n’ fried walleye fillets and iceberg lettuce salads. Instead, guests will find an ambitious menu, including rustic pizzas and spring vegetable soup with fava beans, English peas, and tomato confit, served on chic tableware. A puréed soup of apples and rutabagas—sprinkled with spaetzle and garnished with a paper-thin apple chip—exemplifies Lewis’s innovative flavor pairings and presentations. As do the fillet of beef with wild mushrooms and blue-cheese pine-nut ravioli, and the crème brûlée with plum compote. Times may be changing on the shore, but they’re only getting more delicious.
Lunch and dinner served Wed.–Sun. • 5593 North Shore Dr., Duluth, 218-525-2286, www.nokomisonthelake.com. –R.H.
The Angry Trout
Grand Marais: Housed in a funky old fishing shanty—look for the flying fish, perched on the roof like a weather vane—the Angry Trout Cafe is an emblem of the laid-back Grand Marais artist community. As lakeshore property prices skyrocket, and more and more “cabins” (read: million-dollar second homes) are built between Duluth and the Canadian border, the Angry Trout preserves the area’s culture of social and environmental responsibility.
The family-run café serves local foods—Lake Superior fish (grilled, smoked, or deep-fried), plus soups, sandwiches, and homemade soda pop. And it takes a scrupulously sustainable approach to business practices, right down to the small, washable, cotton napkins and re-useable plastic takeout containers. Area residents and tourists alike keep coming back for the home-style cooking, the family-friendly ambiance, and the lakeside view. The best tables are out on the patio—just watch out for the seagulls.
Lunch and dinner served daily, May through October. • 416 W. Hwy. 61, Grand Marais, 218-387-1265, www.angrytroutcafe.com. –R.H.
New Scenic Café
Duluth: The café now known as the New Scenic has been a fixture on Highway 61 for nearly 50 years. Formerly the site of Johnson’s Drive In and the Scenic Café, the New Scenic Café was born in 1999, when Scott Graden and his aunt bought the place. The dining room feels like a cabin in the woods, all knotty-pine walls and ceiling. Graden buys locally as much as he can, from the food on the plates to the artwork on the walls to music from the North Shore’s next Dylan on the stereo.
The Adirondack chairs out front come in handy during the summer months, as patrons loiter among the flower beds, taking in the lake view and waiting for a table. Waitresses sometimes double as gardeners, watering the plants between orders.
The New Scenic embodies casual fine dining: you can order pan-seared sea scallops and dine with the kids. Graden takes equal care with sandwiches—try the peppery bison pastrami—as with entrées, such as stuffed pork tenderloin with sun-dried tomatoes. Vegetarian selections include curried jasmine rice and butternut-squash ravioli.
When the meal concludes, record your thoughts in one of the leather-bound journals. “Fabulous food. Made us fat.” “Elk tenderloin + lemonade = crazy delicious.” And, penned by a couple celebrating their anniversary: “The bread contributed to the erotic experience. I’m taking a piece home.” One group spelled the word “YUM” in giant letters, using blackberries from their dessert. The New Scenic has seen it all.
Lunch and dinner served daily. • 5461 North Shore Dr., Duluth, 218-525-6274, www.sceniccafe.com. –R.H.