Drive south from St. Paul on Highway 52, and the city skyline and suburban strip malls are replaced with rolling cornfields and towering transmission lines. Most exit signs list the usual freeway dining options: McDonald’s, Subway, an occasional Chinese buffet. But exit 96, by Cannon Falls, touts a complex called Artisan Plaza.
Opened last year, Artisan Plaza pays homage to the rural highway creameries of northern Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota. Its old-fashioned focus on quality local food pairs with today’s tastes and sensibilities. A market stocks everything from stuffed pork chops and potato chips to gluten-free waffles and organic zucchini, and a pub serves up craft beers and brick-oven pizzas. But what truly sets Artisan Plaza apart from other highway dining is Falls Landing, a supper club helmed by J.D. Fratzke.
Fratzke is a familiar face to Twin Cities diners, due to his tenure at Muffuletta and role opening the Strip Club Meat and Fish, Saint Dinette, and Bar Brigade. After his brief hiatus from the professional kitchen, Artisan Plaza brought him on as culinary director.
He notes that Cannon Falls reminds him of the community in Winona where he grew up, and that it harkens back to America’s rural-nation roots.
“I was excited to take this job because it’s something I’ve never done before,” he says. “This is my eleventh restaurant opening. I’ve been doing this since I was 19. But this is the first non-urban [restaurant]. There’s a connection with the guests—you hear from them right away. You don’t need to read about it later on Yelp.”
When Fratzke started his new position, there wasn’t a concept for Artisan Plaza’s dining room. But there was a bar: a vintage fixture with Depression-era glass sconces and a carved lion’s head, originally built for a neighborhood bar in Chicago. Artisan Plaza’s owner, Dave Olson, purchased the bar from an antiques dealer.
Fratzke’s original idea was to create a speakeasy with Art Deco decor. “But the more I thought about it, the less it seemed to fit—it came off as too fancy,” he says. “What I love about the Minnesota dining community is that a sense of place is important to them, and everyone in Minnesota wants to run away to the woods.”
So instead of gangsters and flappers, Fratzke took his inspiration from other figures of the era: the fictional Nick Adams from Ernest Hemingway’s “The Northern Woods” stories and famed outdoorsman Theodore Roosevelt.
“[Falls Landing is] a throwback to the fish camps and hunting lodges of the early 20th century in the North Country,” he says. “I want it to feel like a cabin you wait all year to go to, or an end-of-the-road resort refuge.”
Stepping into the restaurant feels like a glimpse of a bygone era, with a rustic luxury that Fratzke describes as feeling like the outside is in. A canoe hangs from the ceiling, and snowshoes are mounted on the wall. Rough-hewn lumber beams contrast with elegant wallpaper and a Persian rug. Framed black-and-white photographs and watercolors mingle with antique mirrors and mounted antlers, giving the impression that the place has been a community fixture for decades instead of months.
Like the decor, the cuisine at Falls Landing evokes the north woods. Fratzke characterizes the menu as a “love letter to Minnesota.” It’s a celebration of Midwestern tastes and ingredients, from fish caught in the Great Lakes to locally sourced, pastured beef.
There are the key items that he says people in Minnesota want on a menu: a cheeseburger, fried fish, steak. The menu also offers duck breast and deviled eggs, potato puffs with beer cheese, and a couple of pastas for “people who don’t like life too complicated.”
“As a chef, I never stop thinking about how food could be better,” he says. “A chef’s job is to create desires people didn’t know they had.”
In lieu of a Ceasar salad, there’s a romaine-and-arugula salad with a garlic dressing. It taps into some of the same flavor notes but leaves out the elements that may turn people off, like eggs and anchovies.
If there is one dish that encapsulates Falls Landing, it’s the walleye roulade. “It’s a lot of ingredients people are familiar with: walleye, crayfish, wild rice, green beans,” Fratzke explains. “But it’s a new way of looking at things people in Minnesota have been eating for literally thousands of years.”
Instead of sticking with traditional preparation—a piece of fish on a plate, with green beans and wild rice on the side—the walleye is deboned and flattened, then rolled up, stuffed with rice, crayfish, and mushrooms, and served atop a bed of green beans. From a technical standpoint, it’s more challenging than something diners would attempt to cook at home. But Fratzke points out that it’s pretty straightforward flavor-wise, and there’s no fancy garnish.
That speaks to Falls Landing’s target demographic. While the restaurant’s convenient highway-side location will draw road-trippers, Fratzke emphasizes that the restaurant is for the local community first. That includes the area’s avid fishermen and bikers as well as friends catching up over dinner.
“There was a party of seven people that came in last night straight from a softball game, and at the next table there was a couple celebrating their anniversary. I love that.”
He continues, “If I can be part of people eating well and celebrating their lives—that’s all I’ve ever wanted a place like this to be.
1223 Fourth St. S., Cannon Falls
Tues.-Sat., 4-9 p.m.