Review published June 2005
FOR MANY TWIN CITIZENS, White Bear Lake brings to mind those unfortunate Tousley Ford commercials, or the dim-witted hookers in the Coen brothers’ Fargo. But a visit to Ursula’s Wine Bar & Cafe should make fine dining and wine drinking what keeps WBL on your mental map.
Ursula’s is a tiny box with a cozy romance to it, the kind more likely to attract a long-married, well-heeled couple cracking into a créme brûlée than Match.com meet-ups. A wine rack covers the restaurant’s back wall, and the others are decorated with handpainted grapevines, abstract enough to seem subtle (except for the ballet slipper–shod, tutu-wearing polar bear who tiptoes across a tightrope in the women’s restroom). Owner Kurt Hegland, a dapper, mustachioed man, is a constant fixture, welcoming guests (many are neighborhood regulars) from the front of the bar. Hegland’s 140-vintage, Wine Spectator–acknowledged list stands on its own “legs,” and his philosophy is simple: he just wants people to get a great glass of wine for a reasonable price.
Since zoning laws require Ursula’s to serve food, it’s fortunate that chef Joel Del Fiacco, formerly of the Saint Paul Hotel and new to Ursula’s as of October, is at the ready with a short, seasonal menu. Some snacky favorites included a molten goat cheese gratin topped with tomatoes that had been roasted to sweeten and intensify their flavor, and a couple of crab cakes—though they were a little on the thin side, so their crispy exterior overpowered the flavor of the crab.
We also liked a salad composed of mâche lettuce, beets, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and haricots verts, which had a light, acidic dressing. And the fish special one evening—a mustard-crusted salmon with beurre blanc—proved an excellent preparation, as the horseradish-hot crust kicked up the softer flavors of the fish and saffron rice. The veal chop, a less common cut outside of steakhouses, was encircled with a strip of bacon and topped with toasted pistachios, then served on a balsamic reduction with a side of parsnips purée. Veal tends to have a tender texture and mild flavor, so the sour vinegar, sharp parsnips, and boisterously crunchy pistachios were a nice contrast. The only downside was that the chop was a little fatty around the edges, inciting a bit of squeamishness. “It’s a texture thing,” one diner commented as she pushed a few bites to the edge of her plate.
Regulars can sign up for Ursula’s Winenotes, a monthly newsletter that describes new varietals (“Ladera Merlot—which might just be the best Merlot I have ever had,” Hegland wrote) and special classes or meals. It often includes a few Keillor-esque anecdotes (regarding last year’s Mother’s Day power outage: with “a little candlelight and handwritten bills, everything was fine and dandy. The Cheesebrow family stayed until 10”) and staff updates (“Ali is running track…Jen had a cold”). It’s Hegland’s way of staying in touch. As if Ursula’s is a place you’d forget.