In the land of 10,000 apples, the relative lack of local cider is confounding. Until recently, the cider market has seen only modest growth when compared to the meteoric growth of breweries (and now, distilleries.) Local cider drinkers can now choose between multiple local ciders and can even visit a production facility. But even so, few Minnesota ciders in distribution have demonstrated real staying power on shelves or converted any superfans.
Leidel’s, an excellent dry craft cider out of LaCrescent, was popular about a year ago but faded from shelves quickly. With a tart and refreshing new product, Number 12 Ciderhouse also promises to be successful with dry cider lovers, but availability has been spotty at best. Those who appreciate something sweeter have perhaps the best luck: Loon Juice, made by Four Daughters Winery in Spring Valley, seems to be the most consistently available new cider, in both bars and liquor stores.
Fans of bottle-conditioned farmhouse ciders, like those made by Wisconsin’s Maiden Rock, will find solace in Keepsake cider. Earlier this summer, GYST Fermentation Bar in the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis offered a sneak peek at three Keepsake products. Jim Bovino is GYST’s head fermenter and kitchen manager as well as a founder of Keepsake. He gained his cider-making expertise at Finnriver Farm and Cidery in Chimacum, Washington. Along with co-founders Tracy Jonkman and Nate Watters, Bovino sources apples from Keepsake’s own Woodskeep Farm in Dundas, Minnesota.
Bovino blames the lack of local cider in part on a deficit of appropriate apple varieties. “Many people think that they don’t like cider because they’ve never really had a good one,” he says. “Much of what’s available is made from concentrates or apple essence, sweetened using refined sugars, pH corrected using malic acid, and generally adulterated to resemble soda more than a fine beverage.”
Keepsake ciders smell, taste, and appear authentic with their murky haze and brilliant but natural colors. Very little residual sweetness is left in the glass, and each of the three choices, available in bottles and on draft starting next week, has some funk as a fermentation byproduct of the natural yeast on the skin of the fruit.
Bovino is hopeful that consumers will take to local ciders and embrace them in the way they have artisan cheese or craft gin. “While it will take some time for cider-apple production to keep up with the increasing demand, the trend seems to be toward more authentic products rather than simply the same old ‘alco-pop,’” he says.
Keepsake Cider is available at South Lyndale Liquors for $15 per 750ml bottle. It is also available on draft at GYST Fermentation Bar, Restaurant Alma, and The Bachelor Farmer.
Underpromise. Overdeliver. Until you’re Thomas Keller or David Chang, take for granted that no matter what your concept, decor, and prices may suggest to the customer, you’ll meet or exceed those expectations with your food and service.
With that introduction you can probably guess that it’s not a good thing when I say that Valhalla Nordic Smoke and Ale House of Willernie is one of the most intriguing-looking restaurants to open around here in quite some time.
Its Nordic-inspired menu looks promising. The place pledges house-made beer. The classic Norse theme is aggressive to the level of exciting: Shields on the wall! Massive portrait of Odin the All-Father! Manly dark wood covering everything!
And yet on both our visits the food was an uneven mess. The highly touted house-made beer wasn’t yet available nearly a month after opening day. And it turns out that the only things louder than the Norse kitsch decor are the Goodyear-blimp-scale television screens that dominate the diner’s field of view, no matter where he or she might turn.
The central challenge of Valhalla is that it feels like two restaurants built atop one another: a high-quality, fun-loving sports bar, and a seriously confused, fine-dining New Nordic eatery. If Valhalla were merely offering burgers, fish and chips, wings, and massive television sets, it would be a solid success. All the variants of the fancy, third-of-a-pound house-ground beef burgers ($12) we tried were tasty: crowned with bakery buns, juicy, and nicely accented with various fixings and sauces.
The order of fish and chips we tried was big, tender, artfully fried, and a fine value ($15 for a double order). Our ale-battered onion rings ($6) were similarly good, and while our “Dragon” Wings ($7) were a bit swamped by their mysterious, Fieri-esque “jagermeister-bull sauce,” they were skillfully cooked. The beer list was long and interesting, and ultimately satisfying.
It is during the attempt to deliver high-end New Nordic fare that the Valhalla’s longship founders and sinks.
Each Friday, this list will track five of the best things Heavy Table’s writers, editors, and photographers have recently bitten or sipped. Have a suggestion for the Hot Five? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Make it So ESB from Summit Brewing
This ESB (extra special bitter ale) from brewer Nick Hempfer is a lovely, malt-forward, floral-nosed beer that packs a wallop of honeyed refreshment. The Earl Gray tea it’s brewed with gives it a mildly astringent character and a seriously complex body. It may be our favorite new beer of the summer. It’s also a Jean-Luc Picard tribute.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | From last night’s taping of The Weekend Starts Now at the Du Nord Cocktail Room by James Norton]
St. Vincent Pizza from Big River Pizza
Packing a major flavor punch, this concoction stars thick bacon, fresh garlic, provolone, and a bright, slightly sweet red sauce made from organic crushed tomatoes. This pizza could have been overwhelming, given the combination of high-powered ingredients, but the components complemented one another, producing a well-balanced, unique pizza.
[Last Week on the Hot Five: #1 | From a review by Joshua Page]
Dilly Beans from Saint Dinette
Sometimes the simplest dishes are the most impressive (see above). While there’s no shortage of things to rave about vis-a-vis the newly opened Saint Dinette, we were truly wowed by the simple pickled dilly beans served as a snack. They had a lovely, tangy, garlicky depth of flavor that made them absurdly addictive.
[Last Week on the Hot Five: #3 | Submitted by James Norton]
Cardamom Latte from Anelace Coffee
So, here’s a mistake, and it’s 100 percent on us: we tripped upon the perfect late autumn beverage in the middle of summer. The lattes at Anelace are gorgeously smooth and rich without feeling overloaded. Add a whisper of cardamom syrup and you’re left with a comforting hug of a beverage, not at all too sweet and – all in all – unreservedly lovely. Even on a warm summer evening, this ranked among the tastiest coffees we’ve had around here. Once the the temperature drops we’ll back again and again for it.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted from an upcoming Central Avenue Checklist by James Norton]
Hazelnuts from Hazelnut Valley Farm at Mill City
Norm and Mary Erickson started growing hazelnuts on their farm in Lake City when they retired, and now they are selling them at the Mill City Farmers Market every other Saturday (they’ll be there tomorrow, July 25). The dry-roasted nuts are fresh, crunchy, and properly hazelnutty, and their skins aren’t bitter. Norm says the majority of people who taste them buy them. The price is $5 for 4 ounces, or $18 a pound.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Jane Rosemarin]
This time out we visited a vintage store and a golf course, a butcher shop and a co-op … And oh, yes! a restaurant, too. This is the kind of eccentricity we’ve come to expect from Central Avenue. But even after so many visits, Central still managed to throw us few surprises, thus proving the theory behind the checklist: Forcing yourself to go to businesses you may otherwise never have tried — or even known about — just might lead to an amazing discovery. Like the one we found in a foil-covered stockpot on the counter of Valerie’s. But more on that later.
Read the other installments of the Central Avenue Checklist here: Paradise Biryani Pointe to Flameburger, Dong Yang to Big Marina, New York Gyro to Jimmy’s Pro Billiards, El Tequila to The Heights Theater, The Chilean Corner to El Taco Riendo, and the Bakery Edition.
Hill Valley Cafe
3301 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | 2.5 miles to Broadway Street
There’s a rack of vintage mugs for sale by the register. Buy one, and they’ll fill it with a free cup of joe. On our visit the choices included an original Disney Pinocchio mug, a old Norwest Bank mug, and a retro mug with the word Motel printed in 1960s type.
While we waited for our food, we wandered through the store and found a couple of additional tables where patrons can enjoy their coffee among the knickknacks and novelties. There is even a rustic outdoor patio with touches such as rusty iron garden ornaments and bull horns hanging over a garage door.
As we ate, we noticed a small sign offering homemade pesto by the jar. When a restaurant sells jars of something it serves, you expect it to be good. The pesto was beyond good.
Hill Valley Cafe is kitschy and comfortable and still manages to deliver on the promise of good, old-fashioned, tasty food. It feels as if you stumbled into someone’s small-town home and were invited to stay for brunch. It’s the neighborhood cafe you wished was in your neighborhood. — M. C. Cronin
Nothing about the Hill Valley Cafe suggests that you’re walking into a full-service breakfast joint, but the menu is well-rounded and thoughtful, and the cooking backs up the promise of the text. Hill Valley’s Biscuits and Gravy ($7.50) had integrity — if they were in any way prefab, we were fooled. The biscuits were simple, drop-type rounds, but they had real flavor, and the gravy was bursting with peppery comfort.
Our Breakfast Burrito ($8.50) was a big ol’ bruiser, packed full sausage and ham and cheddar, but mostly potatoes, making it something of a giant, loaded potato stuffed within a tortilla. Unless you row crew or are on a swim team, you can safely plan to split this with a friend.
But the surprise star of our meal was the Breakfast Club Sandwich ($8.50), which looked as forgettable as they come — bacon, greens, an egg, pesto, ciabatta, etc. But the cafe’s house-made pesto was this sandwich’s not-so-secret weapon. A lot of pesto has an almost acrid burn — from too much garlic — or an unpleasant grittiness. This stuff was balanced, and profoundly light and herbal, making the whole sandwich taste bright and savory. This is a sandwich we won’t forget. — James Norton
2219 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | .8 miles to Broadway Street
On an initial scouting visit, we had almost scratched Valerie’s off our list because it appeared to offer nothing in the way of a deli or hot food. But just before walking out we spotted a giant, shiny stockpot, covered with aluminum foil, sitting on the counter next to the register. A sign underneath indicated it was filled with tamales. We immediately put Valerie’s on our list and couldn’t wait to come back.
But on our return for this installment, the stockpot was missing. Our hearts sank. We asked the Spanish-speaking woman behind the register about the tamales as best we could. After a few seconds she seemed to comprehend and yelled something in the direction of the butcher counter at the back of the store. Moments later a small man appeared hefting a shiny stockpot almost as big as he was. He heaved it up and dropped it with a thud onto a makeshift cardboard trivet on the front counter. Then he smiled at us, wiped his brow, and returned to the back of the store. We were in business.
Valerie’s offers pork, chicken, and cheese tamales. We ask for one of each. The woman behind the register peeled back the foil top, releasing a white plume of hot, spice-scented steam. She reached into the cavernous pot with a pair of long tongs and began pulling out tamales one by one. After picking through a few, she began to look confused, unsure which tamale was which. Eventually, she relinquished her tongs to another woman, who was clearly the tamale identification expert.
I remember the taste of Broadway Pizza from after little league games. When I see that cheesy, square-cut beauty, I can still feel the infield dirt trapped in the toes of my stirrups. I’d never argue that it’s objectively great pizza, but it will always be great to me.
As the most ubiquitous food in America, pizza gets weighed against personal history, and there’s just no accounting for taste. Even bad pizza, even frozen pizza, with the right point of view, can magically transcend the sum of its parts (see Rocky Rococo or Heggies, for example). The question is: Is Giordano’s your kind of bad pizza?
The first Minnesota outpost of the Chicago-based chain opened Wednesday in Uptown and has been flooded to the tune of three-hour waits at every dinner rush since. The staff predicts that things will settle down in a few weeks, and we’ve noticed that the restaurant is only sporadically populated during lunchtime. This is good, because waiting three hours for any pizza is slightly crazy. But for this pizza, it’s certifiable lunacy.
What usually dooms a deep-dish is the cheese — too much of it, or too low quality, usually both. With Giordano’s signature stuffed pizza ($22.25, small special), the cheese may in fact be the best part, sufficiently stringy and flavorful enough to pass. The problem is the crust — it’s as thick, structurally sound, and tasty as mortar. And it’s especially galling that a pizza that takes 45 minutes to cook arrives partly underdone. The crust transitions from rock solid, to pleasantly moist, to nearly raw inside.
The crust does a spectacular job as a presentation piece; the pies look wonderful as the servers hoist above you the first slice from the deep pie, like proof of cheesy concept. But with the texture of hardtack and roughly the same flavor, it has a strange, insulating effect. It renders the mushrooms and peppers on the inside slimy to the touch, not so much cooked as slightly warmed. The mushrooms have no choice but to leak into the filling, which is a one-way ticket on the L train to Glop City.