Along this stretch of Payne Avenue the pavement hums with activity. Families saunter down the street, calling out greetings to neighbors. At a nearby market a crew of dudes smokes cigarettes and gives each other some good-natured verbal abuse. Music spills from passing cars while the bass vibrates down to your toes. There are a few souls requesting the odd bit of spare change or bus fare. There’s a faint perfume of grilled meats and hot asphalt. The doors at the Tongue in Cheek swing open every few minutes, welcoming diners to settle themselves inside the newest eatery along this street.
The team members behind the restaurant are Chef Leonard Anderson, his wife Ashleigh Newman, and business partner Ryan Huseby. Anderson previously worked at W.A. Frost and The Hanger Room. Huseby was once the manager at The Happy Gnome. Newman brings her graphic artist aesthetics to the party, and it shows in the casual modern room. She’s also the driving force behind their commitment to using only locally sourced, sustainably raised meats. However, with a name like theirs, you’d expect there to be some tongue, cheek, or otherwise lesser-used cuts on the menu. What we found were familiar dishes served with just a pinch of chef-y tweaks.
The restaurant space has been beautifully redone. There are sleek little black corner booths for gathering with a couple of friends. There’s a stone-topped bar, the best perch for observing all the activity inside and out. There is also a dining room around the back that seemed to surprise a few people who came wandering in. The host stand would be better if it were closer to the front, where folks could be welcomed, rather than near the back by the kitchen. On more than one occasion I heard someone remark, “Oh, there’s a whole other room in here!” There is, and it’s adorable.
Back at the bar, they’ve got an irresistible happy hour menu that runs 4-7pm Tuesday through Sunday with many of their cocktails available in mini sizes for just $2. The Tickle My Tiny Pickle was the most adorable brine-spiked gin martini we ever did see. The clear-as-day Cross Eyed Mary had all the zest of a bloody mary without ever overwhelming with spice. The gin they use is steeped with blood mary spices and is garnished with a slice of hot, pickled pepper like the button on a happy brunch belly.
One part boreal forest, one part roaring Twenties, and two parts Twin Peaks, the Naniboujou Lodge cuts a folkloric figure on the north shore of Lake Superior. The economic crash of 1929 transformed it from a private club for the likes of Babe Ruth and Ring Lardner into something that any given American with a bit of time and determination can enjoy.
That Naniboujou evolved from private club to public resort is to our collective advantage, and that the brass and glass chandeliers never arrived and exist only as functional cardboard and tissue paper mockups only adds to its charm. The place is strange and beguiling, with its massive native rock fireplace (accurately described as “a 200-ton work of art” by the lodge’s website), its starkly beautiful beach of polished lakestones and pine trees, and its Cree-inspired dining room ceiling that must surely rank among the 10 most beautiful in the nation.
It is entirely appropriate to the Lake Superior setting that the menu at Naniboujou is clean and simple, classic and straightforward. We skipped the pork tenderloin and the Amish chicken to explore the fish side of things, no doubt subliminally encouraged by the lake whispering in our ears.
The Canadian walleye in the buttery Dream Catch ciabatta sandwich ($14) might not have come from the greatest of the great lakes, but the fish was skillfully fried and possessed a delicately crunchy exterior and almost creamy interior. Elegant and soulful, and topped with bright, clean-tasting tartar sauce, this dish did the often tired concept of the walleye sandwich a good deal of credit.
Better still was the special of the evening, two Lake Superior herring tacos ($15). Proportion is everything in a taco, and the breading and tortillas were in balance with the fresh salsa and moist, flavorful fish. No one element overwhelmed the whole package, making for tacos that were balanced and beautifully savory. It’s also worth noting that the sweet corn that accompanied the dish was as good as we’ve had.
And the French onion soup ($6 a cup, $8 a bowl) was one for the textbook, with a thick cap of browned Swiss cheese and a profound caramelized-onion kick.
We had to do breakfast on the run. Despite being on the way to a doughnut shop to do a book signing, we sprung for one of the lodge’s locally legendary Nancy’s Cinnamon Rolls ($7). Elephantine in size (think of a flattened softball), blessed with a profound cinnamon kick and accompanied by only slightly sweetened cream cheese frosting, this is the cinnamon roll that a Cinnabon could become if it ever grew up and went to a good college.
There is nothing about the menu at Naniboujou that will change the way you think about food. There are no foams or gels, no exotic ingredients, and no techniques that overwhelm the taste of what sits upon the plate. And that’s probably just how it should be at a place like this, resting comfortably somewhere just outside the reach of time.
The Naniboujou Lodge Restaurant
Supper club near Grand Marais
20 Naniboujou Trail, Grand Marais, MN
HOURS (Check website to confirm):
DAILY MAY 24-OCTOBER 19
Sunday Brunch 8am-2pm
Afternoon Tea 3-5pm
WINTER SEASON — OUTSIDE GUESTS WELCOME, RESERVATIONS REQUIRED
Breakfast 8:30am on Saturday and Sunday
Lunch — by the box to go
Dinner at 6:30pm on Friday and Saturday nights
Jan. 10-11, 24-25, 31-Feb. 1
Feb. 7-8, 14-17, 21-22, 28-Mar. 1
Mar. 7-8 and 14-15
OWNERS: Tim and Nancy Ramey
ENTREE RANGE: $11-24 (dinner), $11-14 (lunch)
BAR: No alcohol
VEGETARIAN/VEGAN: Yes/Not really
Since opening St. Paul’s Meritage restaurant with his wife Desta in 2007, Chef Russell Klein has been a fixture of the Minnesota food scene. From absinthe to oysters to cassoulet, Meritage is known for its thoughtful refractions of Continental cuisine, with a few homey touches (matzo ball soup, anyone?) giving the menu a warm, comforting glow.
But if you ask him why the restaurant has connected with diners, he’ll steer away from pomp and circumstance and point to two things: soulful food that satisfies and a dedication to hospitality.
We recently talked with Klein at his newly opened Minneapolis restaurant Brasserie Zentral. In a conversation that flowed over the course of hours, Klein talked about kitchen discipline, the pitfalls of modernist cuisine, his Foreign Legion wine and cheese bar, and his love of Mancini’s.
We also ate a whole roasted chicken stuffed with foie gras and brioche, served with kasha varnishkas, seasonal vegetables, and a gravy of the gods known as “sauce suprême.” The chicken’s skin was improbably crackly, the meat incomprehensibly rich and moist, and the whole effect was transcendent: you wouldn’t think, and in fact couldn’t imagine that something as prosaic and comfortable as a roast chicken could kick your pleasure center out into deep space. And yet, there you have it.
HEAVY TABLE: How did you get started in this business?
RUSSELL KLEIN: I started in the front of the house. My first restaurant job was at 16. I was a busboy at a high-end steakhouse like Manny’s. I made more money at 16 — that’s 25 years ago — than I made probably until I was a head chef at [W.A.] Frost. It’s like the late ’80s, and I was taking home $700 a week in cash. I bought a car… so I fell in love with the restaurant business!
Now as an owner, I’m like, “there’s no money in this business!” There are probably weeks when the busboys make more.
So I started at the front of the house, and I’ve pretty much done every job there is. I’ve never held the title of host, and I’ve never held the title of dishwasher, although I’ve done both for periods of time. More dishwasher than host.
HEAVY TABLE: It seems like there are two main facets to being a chef — being good at cooking food, and being skillful at running a kitchen. How did you learn how to do those things in tandem?
KLEIN: You can go to culinary school and learn how to cook, but they can’t teach you how to be a chef. That you kind of have to learn on your own. And a lot from other people, from the people you work under.
You know, Cyril Renaud was the first guy I worked for when I came back from France, he was at La Caravelle [in New York City]. And he more than anybody had a huge impact on me. It was not just him, it was where I was at. I was sponge. I was so ready to soak up anything anyone would show me.
What does it take for a town to declare itself “Restaurant Capital of the World”? Apparently, having four restaurants for a total of 22 residents. Fitting the bill is Dorset, MN, located just east of Park Rapids. Oh — and the mayor of Dorset was elected by popular vote at the tender age of 4 (and has his own cookbook: Cooking With Bobby).
There’s a great deal of gentle self-send-up in Dorset’s cheerful marketing materials, but in reality, the survival of a little town through its restaurants is something to be appreciated. Rick Kempnich opened the Mexican restaurant Compañeros with his father 29 years ago in a former pizza parlor that had closed years earlier. He didn’t have a food background, having started his adult working life as a high school counselor. Budget cuts led to job loss at a time when Kempnich was looking for a way to help his father recover from his mother’s death. Dorset had a restaurant at the time — the Dorset Cafe — but Kempnich and his father decided to add Mexican to the menu. Not that he had much knowledge of Mexican food either. “I did not know what a burrito was,” he says. “At the time, the nearest Mexican restaurant was too far away for an easy trip.”
Our own Tricia Cornell finds inspiration at the farmers market with Minnesota Farmers Market Cookbook: A Guide to Selecting and Preparing the Best Local Produce (we’ve also written about the book). And our own Paige Latham has some thoughts about “everyday” beers and why macros don’t cut it. The Permaculture Research Institute is raising money on Kickstarter. A new olive oil store called Olive You is open on Selby Ave. in St. Paul. And Hans’ Bakery will open an Orono location (here’s our profile of them).