I’ve always loved Stillwater: the beautiful river views, the cool bars, the charming ice cream shops. Something about the area has always lent itself to bursts of culinary excellence, too: La Belle Vie, our state’s finest restaurant (RIP), was born in the St. Croix River Valley. Smalley’s Caribbean Barbeque (RIP) was home to explosive flavors and truly excellent barbecue (and my favorite rum shot ever, the Kill Devil).
You’ve noticed the RIPs.
Well, mourn no more, friends, because Stillwater is back, and in a big way. Two top-notch restaurants—with great food, service, and cocktails—have opened on Main Street. And one is in a hotel!
Lora Hotel is a knockout. We spent an overnight in a premium king room overlooking Main Street. The hotel has just 40 rooms, but the exposed concrete brick evokes the old Joseph Wolf Brewery that used to stand on this land since the 1880s. It’s not cheap: Weekend rooms start close to $300, but on a weeknight you can get a room below $200.
In the hotel, you’ll find a truly fantastic restaurant. Feller has a tight menu, a talented chef, and an absolutely beautiful 100-seat room. We loved the smoked trout fritters: the creamy, smoky trout rillette surrounded in a super crispy, almost corn cereal-like batter. Wow. “Pot on the fire” is a really cool way to do seasonal vegetables—we had lots of mushrooms and asparagus cooked in a mushroom broth for $9.
The wild nettle speatzle in a mushroom butter sauce also impressed—earthy, fatty, creamy—showing the chef’s skill with wild and foraged ingredients. We enjoyed a beer-brined quail too, its gamey flavor balanced by a honey-rosemary lacquer and apricots on the plate.
And, in the bar, The Long Goodbye, we found legendary Twin Cities bartender Johnny Michaels. He’s still got it. The clever drink names, like “The blonde locks of Lorelei” (a gin martini with hints of elderflower, chrysanthemum, and lemon), the Bronko Nagurski (a Rye Old Fashioned with root beer-sarsaparilla bitters), and the “Don’t Mind If I Do” (a black-cherry lemon bourbon smash). All the cocktails are between $10-$12, and I highly recommend this spot.
But you can’t come to town for just one great meal. Up the street, you’ll find Pearl and the Thief, which bills itself as a whiskey-and-oyster bar. At lunch, it should bill itself as a crispy chicken thigh emporium. Truly, that buttermilk fried chicken thigh, doused in Duke’s Mayo, a hint of bacon jam, and an apple-celery slaw is a showstopper. One of the best fried-chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had ($14).
We enjoyed a side of collard greens, which, in a rare delight, didn’t use the cheap flavor boost that comes from bacon. Don’t get me wrong, I love bacon, but I adored the smoky flavor that came from the smoked mushrooms. These greens were more vinegary than creamy, and I was there for it ($6). Also, the bib salad is a work of art: stacked butter lettuce leaves with blue cheese, thick-cut bacon, and a smoked egg, punctuated by what at first appeared to be the dreaded, cliché drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Instead, it was a blackstrap molasses reduction! A rich, sweet, delightful addition to the salad. Believe me, I’ll be back for dinner soon.
And there’s even more coming: Shawn Smalley is heading the kitchen at Portside in Stillwater. I can’t wait to taste what he’s doing there. Another new hotel is coming soon, too. All this joins a really nice wine bar, the truly excellent LoLo, and the growing and fun Brick & Bourbon. Is Stillwater 2018’s Wayzata?