Beth Dooley and Mette Nielsen on ‘Savory Sweet’

nielsen-dooley-tea-savory
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Is there anything sexier than preserves?

The correct answer, of course, is “no.” Preserves capture the bounty of the north’s brief but glorious growing season in a format that stores indefinitely, plays well with other foods, and creates flavors brasher than just about anything else on the plate.

That so many preserves are over-sweet, muted in flavor, and / or deadly dull isn’t a fault of the format — it’s an outgrowth of techniques that fail to capitalize on their potential. Food writer Beth Dooley and photographer Mette Nielsen’s lively new book Savory Sweet: Simple Preserves from a Northern Kitchen (University of Minnesota Press, $24.95) has the potential to seriously level up the preserves game in the Upper Midwest. It’s quietly revolutionary.

University of Minnesota Press
University of Minnesota Press

The book turns on a few clever ideas that play out in its pages. First, most books focused on preserves hearken back to the farm and call for the production of giant quantities, which presupposes large quantities of produce, huge pots, and lots of climate-controlled storage space. Second, many traditional preserves cookbooks create shelf-stable (as opposed to freezer) preserves, which require extensive processing that dulls flavor and mushes up texture. Finally, old-school preserves tend to be simple combinations of sugar with fruit, or salt with herbs and vegetables. The recipes of Savory Sweet are small-batch freezer preserves that combine subtle and novel ingredients, everything from Hot and Sweet Carrot Relish to Pickled Fennel with Lemongrass to Earl Grey Crab Apple Jelly.

We interviewed the authors at Nielsen’s studio / test kitchen in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis, and they put out a spread of coulis, chutneys, relishes, and syrups that made the book’s thesis tangible. The flavors popped like wildfire — tart, sweet, and acidic notes intense but in balance.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

HEAVY TABLE: How does the message of Savory Sweet tie into the conversation about local food in the Upper Midwest?

METTE NIELSEN: I feel that preserving is the next step if you’re going to talk about a local food economy. We need to do it on a much larger scale than even this book. We need local preserving companies and local canning companies. This is a step, and we hope it inspires somebody. We have a very short growing season, but we grow an abundance. In my little yard, I had a spot that was maybe 10 feet by 4 feet and I got 300 pounds of tomatoes out of that.

BETH DOOLEY: It’s crazy what you can actually grow. Everything [in the book] is done in really small batches. Most other preserving books are based on the notion you have access to really huge amounts. And everything is done in a 10-inch skillet.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

NIELSEN: There’s a great new book out of California, but it’s based on this enormous copper pan that’s $500. And then you get 40 jars of jam. Why not make this amount and you get four? The scale of it makes more sense. And a lot of other books are based on the notion that you have a cool, dark place to store things. Even in my house, my basement is way too warm. Things start to fade. You store that same thing in the freezer, and it looks bright and crisp and like something you want to eat.

DOOLEY: You’re cooking the fruit or vegetables for a shorter period of time, so they’ll look more colorful and taste brighter. A lot of the work that Mette did was to say, “we don’t need that much sugar!” That’s why these things taste good.

HEAVY TABLE: They’re very sharp and bright – everything’s really bold.

Urban Forage Winery & Cider House on East Lake Street

Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table
Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

“People want sparkling. And they want sweet,” says Jeff Zeitler.

Naturally, therefore, Zeitler’s signature bottle is a very dry, very flat apple cider.

In fact, Zeitler’s business model at Urban Forage Winery & Cider House is all about zigging not zagging, or vice versa. While commercial food and drink production is a battle against the forces of nature for absolute consistency, Zeitler welcomes nature’s curveballs with open arms, whether they arrive in the form of wild yeasts or as the unpredictability of fruits foraged at various stages of ripeness and from different varieties of trees.

He seems to delight in the little surprises, the funky notes, the flavor profile that may not be exactly as he imagined, and may in fact be even tastier.

Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table
Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

Zeitler has been searching for those wild flavor surprises since he was a student at the University of Minnesota, when he foraged throughout the cities and fermented cider in his dorm room. He’s honed both skills in the couple of decades since then, and he and his wife, Gita, turned his hobbies into a full-time commercial venture after finding and renovating a foreclosed building on Lake Street in 2013. Last year the pair foraged in 30 or 40 yards (at the request of grateful owners), picking apples, pears, dandelions, rhubarb, cherries, and more. Right now Zeitler has three products on the market, with more in casks waiting for release.

We stopped in to Urban Forage one Saturday afternoon to taste the Dry Apple Cider and the Sparkling Pear Cider, settling in at a homey table in a large room with the comfy, we’re-all-family-here feel of a church basement.

“If I could make just one product, I would make dry cider,” Zeitler declares. He makes it entirely with apples foraged from yards around the Twin Cities. (In some other products he uses a blend of purchased and foraged fruits.) And he ferments it until it is entirely sugar-free. “It’s really made in the style of a white wine,” he explains. “All you taste is pure apples.”

And that’s true. You can debate with yourself and your tablemates over whether it’s more Honeycrisp or more Haralson (there is almost certainly some of each in the mix), but there’s no debating the fresh-off-the-tree flavor or that pleasant layer of unplaceable and intriguing funk that overlays it. Since this cider is completely uncarbonated, there are no bubbles getting in between you and the apple bite — or encouraging you to drink it faster than you might want to.

Courtesy of Urban Forage
Courtesy of Urban Forage

With the Dry Apple Cider as a baseline, Zeitler next poured a little of his Sparkling Pear Cider. It tasted like the bottled essence of a pear you’ve sliced open just moments before it slides over to the wrong side of ripe. The carbonation gives it just a tiny lift on your palate. And, even though Zeitler has back-sweetened this batch (“because people love sweet,” he concedes) it still would anchor down the dry end of any honest lineup of commercial hard ciders.

And like the apple cider, it’s made from fruit picked from dozens of yards all over the metro area. “The trick,” says Zeitler, “is finding pears at just the right stage of ripeness. So you get the wild yeast funk and the overripe pear funk.”

For now, the only place you can get this level of funk is at the cider house itself. The only product Urban Forage is currently distributing to liquor stores is its Semisweet Sparkling Cider. Keep in mind that both “semisweet” and “sparkling” here are relative. On a shelf lined with sweet apple ciders — some of them, quite frankly, labeled “dry” — Urban Forage isn’t going to stand out as either of those things.

Instead, it stands out as a brave little zag from our predictable, hypercontrolled, easy-on-the-palate drinking culture — like the bottled flavor of wild nature itself.

Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table
Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

Urban Forage Winery & Cider House
On- and off-sale hard cider

3016 E Lake St, Minneapolis
651.235.2726
HOURS:
Fri 4-8 p.m.
Sat noon-4 p.m.
PARKING: Street

Landon Schoenefeld of Birdie

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

The chef-owner of three highly regarded restaurants, Landon Schoenefeld is stretched thinner than ever. But he seems happy. And he has good reason to be: At almost six years old, Haute Dish maintains a devoted following downtown (and will soon begin lunch service), and Nighthawks, his take on a classic diner, gathers glowing reviews and clamoring crowds in Kingfield. And now, he has Birdie, an intimate room that creates a constantly evolving tasting menu of a dozen or so dishes for a dozen or so diners at a time. Tickets cost $100 each and include gratuity and tax (beverages are not included); tickets are available via Tempo Tickets and must be purchased in advance.

Schoenefeld is clearly in his element here. He’s having a blast collaborating with his tight crew (Jesse Peine, Brittany St. Claire, and Tlanezi Guzman), each person cooking, prepping, hosting, and serving, with no separation or hierarchy between the front and back of the house. We recently spent the better part of an afternoon at Birdie, eating, taking pictures, and talking with Schoenefeld about everything from meaty beets and Richard Simmons to aged squab and peyote.

HEAVY TABLE: So, how do you see the three restaurants tied together?

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

LANDON SCHOENEFELD: Haute Dish is what I’d call “meat-centric,” and big, hearty plates of food. And Nighthawks, it’s pretty straightforward; we might use a few luxury ingredients but it’s kind of like my vision of what the perfect version of a particular dish is supposed to be, within the diner mold. Birdie is produce-centric with a simplistic approach to a lot of the dishes. We kind of eschew red meat — we haven’t served any beef or lamb. We’ve had some ham and some pork as elements within dishes. We cook a lot of little birds, which I’d never be able to do at Nighthawks [because of cost] — squab, poussin, things like that — and more fish, more seafood.

HEAVY TABLE: What do you mean by produce-centered?

SCHOENEFELD: It means that we get our inspiration from the vegetables that are in season. This time of year, it’s getting a little more difficult. We had been able to use local produce basically up until now: rutabaga, potatoes, beets — storage crops, things of that nature. I always view March as a dead time, especially in Minnesota, and hopefully next year we’ll do even more preservation and fermenting to make that stuff last. So we think about what vegetables are in season first, and that’s how the menu comes together. It’s the glue.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

HEAVY TABLE: Is it a challenge to be vegetable rather than meat-centric?

SCHOENEFELD: Absolutely. I think it’s part of the fun. It’s sort of cool to have the limitations sometimes. Like, we have all this fucking kohlrabi downstairs! We need to ——

HEAVY TABLE: Like getting a CSA box.

SCHOENEFELD: Yeah. Exactly. Though with the CSA box, you just need to come up with something tasty for your family to eat. We feel like we have to elevate that vegetable; we’re really trying to cook special food that people aren’t going to be able to cook at home. Taking a mundane vegetable like rutabaga, and turning that into something cool? That wows people, and that’s sort of our mission.

HEAVY TABLE: Tell me about your team concept, how you work together.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

SCHOENEFELD: I really give everyone their own space. Jesse has a lot of experience, great ideas. She’s worked for me at Haute Dish for a long time, so she’s like my ace in the hole. And then Britt, who’s a great cook — she would cook circles all summer long around the guys at Nighthawks. She was an obvious choice to move over. I tell her, “do this course. Do this course.” I help her develop the ideas, mixing the experience of the old with the enthusiasm of the young. And then T [Tlanezi, above], she just constantly amazes me with the stuff she comes up with. She has a sort of irreverence to her approach, where she’ll throw avocados and weird things you wouldn’t expect in a dessert, and it’ll surprise and delight. And that’s sort of what I’m into.

HEAVY TABLE: Does the menu change every week?

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

SCHOENEFELD: Typically, we change the menu about 50 percent week by week. So if you ate here every two weeks, you’d probably have a completely different menu. We’ve actually saved all of the originals [of the menus], or most of them. We like to do a handwritten menu; it gives a little special touch. Everyone gets one.

HEAVY TABLE: Why did you decide to do tickets?

Three Tastes With Sameh Wadi and The New Mediterranean Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

“The idea of eating in the Middle East, it’s like a sport, really,” says Chef Sameh Wadi. He’s out of his element cooking in my cramped South Minneapolis kitchen — not at Saffron or World Street Kitchen, or the WSK truck — but you’d never know it. He’s talking a mile a minute, and chopping, slicing, searing, and straining as he goes.

“We wake up — and the first thing my mom would say was ‘What do you guys want for breakfast?’” Here he paints an appealing picture: “Breakfast was a table filled with little mezzes, different cheeses, olives, pickles, hummus, sometimes chicken livers. … There’s got to be 10 items on the table, at least. …”

The context resonates right now, as our kitchen fills up with bright, deeply spiced food, and the chef flips through his newly released cookbook, The New Mediterranean Table. Food is everywhere: on the counters, on the stovetop, on the plates, in the air, and soon — in our mouths.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Wadi continues his story: “And then: ‘What do you guys want for lunch?’ And lunch was the biggest meal of the day. And then: ‘What do you guys want for dinner?’ Around 3 o’clock, people are done working. They don’t want to have a heavy meal right when they get home, so they start out with something lighter. But dinner was the late-night one, at 8 o’clock or so — basically all mezzes, is how we ate. At lunch there was always one or two big stews that go with rice.”

He pauses for effect: “And throughout the day there was snacking.”

The interweaving of eating and family life is at the core of The New Mediterranean Table, which is overstuffed with recipes that represent and reflect the flavors and textures of their region. The range of recipes is admirably broad, from short, simple dishes that any observant cook could pull off to potentially life-changing challenges, including formidable spice blends (the ras el hanout has 21 components, including saffron threads and something called orris root) and a glorious-looking chicken bastela that I intend to attempt sometime between now and the day I die, although the complexity of the dish will no doubt result in one or two postponements.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The New Mediterranean Table is a book as elegant as any dish that has emerged from the kitchen at Saffron. It’s clean, crisp, and clear, the recipes easy to read and swimming in white space, the photos bold and colorful without feeling forced or styled. Best of all is Wadi’s voice, which rings out from the pages as he introduces each dish — it’s warm, informative, and conversational without being wordy or feeling forced.

The book’s sections run from small plates through to dessert, drinks, and an unusual section entitled “The Larder.” 

Sean Sherman, The Sioux Chef

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Local food. What does that mean to you?

To Sean Sherman, a Minneapolis-based Native American chef who is busily planning the rollout of a cookbook and restaurant called The Sioux Chef, it means the food his ancestors ate: the traditions and flavors of an indigenous people who cultivated what the land around them naturally produced, a food culture that has been decimated over the centuries, along with most other markers of Native American people and their culture. The resurrection of this lost cuisine is long past due; we’re starting to see trends in pre-colonial diets taking shape, and Sherman is a chef in pursuit of this important vision.

In any major American city, we expect to find representations of dozens of food cultures. Here in Minneapolis and St. Paul, we celebrate the availability of excellent, authentic food brought to us by way of Vietnam, Somalia, Mexico, Ecuador, and almost every other region and culture you can think of. But what about those who were here first? There is no restaurant in Minnesota that focuses exclusively on Native American food.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Sherman is setting out to change that. An experienced chef who grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, he plans to shine a spotlight on the indigenous foods of the Native Americans who called Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and the Dakotas their home. Using Brasa as a template, Sherman expects The Sioux Chef to have an accessible menu featuring ingredients that speak of this land; he also plans to curate monthly tasting menus that will offer a more daring, experimental dining experience. Since January of 2013, Sherman has helmed the growing cafe and catering businesses at Common Roots Cafe in Minneapolis, working with dozens of local food producers, and planning his transition to The Sioux Chef. We had the chance to speak with Sherman about his vision, and we tasted two dishes that shed light on what he intends to serve when he has a brick-and-mortar establishment up and running.

HEAVY TABLE: Tell us about the concept for The Sioux Chef.

SEAN SHERMAN: I came across the idea quite a few years back. I had been a chef in Minneapolis for a while, had worked at some fun jobs in Uptown, downtown. But it got to the point where I needed a break, so I went down to Mexico for five months, and came up with the idea of doing a cookbook on Native American foods. I realized this subject hadn’t been worked on much. So I started looking into it — I grew up on Pine Ridge Reservation as a kid, and my grandfather and family knew quite a bit about the traditional foods, but I also realized that a lot of the foods I grew up with that I thought were traditional obviously had been heavily influenced, you know … so when I started looking for resources on the subject, I realized there wasn’t a lot of information out there. And I also realized I had a lot more work to do, personally, to get to the point … so I just started working on, you know, foraged foods, and training myself on all the wild-food flavors, what was indigenous to which region … I originally just started off with the area that my family came from — Pine Ridge is in south-central South Dakota, the Black Hills.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

HEAVY TABLE: Tell us more about your background as a professional chef. Are you classically trained?

SHERMAN: Not really, I didn’t go to school for it … I was working at Broder’s Pasta Bar in the late ’90s, and got the chance to be a sous chef. I really thought about going to cooking school then. But you know, everyone I talked to told me to read, travel — I was young. You know, you’re already working hard, you’ve got all the tools in front of you to do it yourself. So I decided to spend my summers traveling, going to Europe, constantly reading, digging into books, and learning about cultures and their food backgrounds. The history of everything. Food history has always been important to me. So when I started getting into the Native American food systems — I already grew up on the reservation; I already had a background in it; a lot of my path just kind of led me to it.

Eva Duckler of Tree Fort Soda

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Heavy Table’s 12th North Coast Nosh takes place next Friday night at Open Arms of Minnesota. To help preview the event, we did a deep dive interview with one of our new purveyors, Eva Duckler of Tree Fort Soda.

That Verdant Tea in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis is one of the foremost flavor laboratories in the Twin Cities is now an open secret. From the shop’s remarkable teas to the ice creams of the co-located Sweet Science to Verdant’s killer chai, elegant kombucha, and remarkable noodle dishes, the collective continues to bang out tastes that keep us on the edge of our seats.

Now the team has moved into the realm of summer Americana: the root beer and ginger ale of the newly founded Tree Fort Soda company. Helmed by 17-year-old Eva Duckler (the younger sister of Verdant proprietor David Duckler), Tree Fort is a high school project turned bona fide business that Eva hopes to keep alive and kicking even after heading off to Wellesley College this fall.

HEAVY TABLE: For how long have you been working on Tree Fort Soda?

EVA DUCKLER: This is super recent. I’ve been working at Verdant for a couple months now, and I’ve started helping out with the specialty drinks here, so I was making the syrups to mix in with soda water or steam up with milk. So I started making root beer just for fun. It was a pretty big hit, and it’s something that I’ve always loved. And David and I have always shared a passion for trying all the weird brands of soda that we can find, so it was just this weird fantasy that started coming true as we went along.

I had a project at the end of my senior year at Blake high school — it was a mini thesis. We had two weeks off, but we had to do something. So I wrote a business plan and filed for an LLC, just kind of for fun and to see where that led…

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

DAVID DUCKLER: Remember when I asked you what you’d do with a million dollars when you were like four or something…

EVA: We’d ask each other, “If you had a million dollars, what would you do? I’d always say I’d start my own root beer brewery.

DAVID: Don’t need to wait for the million dollars.

Russell Klein of Brasserie Zentral

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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?

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

Tin Whiskers Brewing Co. of St. Paul

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table
Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Although it’s been operating for about a month, the Tin Whiskers St. Paul tap room is now officially open for business as of Thursday last week. It started out strong with a packed night of beer tasting and a visit from St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. We had the opportunity recently to sit down with the three electrical engineers behind Tin Whiskers the day after the grand opening: Jake Johnson (above, left), Jeff Moriarty (center), and George Kellerman (right).

The post-work crowd was pouring in, spring rolls in hand, and the conversation was flowing. A mix of weekend night suburbanites, destination tap room dwellers, and local loft livers, the room was sparkling as the late afternoon light seeped in through the floor-to-ceiling windows and reflected off — well — absolutely everything. Every element of the tap room is shiny and new, calculated, and pun-laden with primary colors and metal.

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table
Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Google “Tin Whiskers” and your first hit will be the brewery, the second hit will be the definition of the term. When a NASA astronaut heard about the brewery (via said Google search), he was inspired to bring the brewers a piece of the actual Space Shuttle Endeavour with tin whiskers, in a shadow box, to put on display.

So what is a Tin Whisker? According to the brewery’s website:

“A Tin Whisker is an electrical engineering term for a soldering failure that results in a short circuit on a printed circuit board (PCB). It is caused by a tin ‘hair’ (or whisker) that unintentionally forms between adjacent pins of integrated circuits (ICs) which are the little black parts you’ll see on a circuit board.”

Greg Hoyt and Sam Kanson-Benanav Talk Parka 2.0

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Say what you want about Longfellow’s Parka, but it’s never been boring. Located in funky space shared with the Minnesota chic boutique Forage, Parka launched in early 2013 promising a bleeding edge haute cuisine spin on Midwestern comfort food. It was a concept that started strong but eventually wavered as staff changes took their toll, a trend that reached its climax early this year with the departure of Erick Harcey from the Stock and Badge collective formed to combine the powers of Dogwood Coffee, Rustica Bakery, and Harcey’s Victory 44 restaurant.

In short: Parka has presented diners with a roller coaster of innovation, inconsistency, ambition, and a value prospect that has ranged from fair to frustrating.

We sat down with Dogwood’s Greg Hoyt (above left) and new Stock & Badge food director Sam Kanson-Benanav (above right) to talk about “Parka 2.0,” a rebooted menu and philosophy that promises to anchor the spot in local food and the Longfellow neighborhood that surrounds it.

HEAVY TABLE: When Parka got rolling, it seemed like a complicated concept that started strong but wandered. What ground have you guys covered, and where are you today, with this new menu?

GREG HOYT: We lost our way, in that our gut was to do a neighborhood place that was casual, fun, and kind of quirky and not taking itself so seriously… but we started out with three meal periods, dinner being the most prominent — with servers, and pretty prep-heavy, extensive dishes that maybe were a little more provocative than what we wanted.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

SAM KANSON-BENANAV: I think you hit the nail on the head when you said ‘it seemed like a complicated concept’ — it wasn’t a complicated concept, but it just complicated itself in the process. When well-executed, it [top down, molecular gastronomy influenced food] can be as good as anything, but that’s not my approach to food. I care just as much about the process and the ingredients and the sourcing of food, but I like to present it as accessibly and as relatably as possible.

That’s not just what I want to see on a plate of food, it’s what the neighborhood wants to see on a plate of food. I don’t think the over-complication of Midwestern comfort food was really doing it for the space.

Chris Kohtz of The Wedge & Wheel in Stillwater

Wedge & Wheel menu
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Despite the fact that Chris Kohtz recently gave up a decades-long media career to open The Wedge & Wheel, a cheese shop and bar in downtown Stillwater, his radio roots remain strong. He may be serving up slices of Stilton instead of selections of classical music, but storytelling remains the center of his game as he brings a cut-to-order cheese counter to the St. Croix Valley.

“When I tell people about the stories behind the cheese, that just resonates with the small, locally owned vibe [of Stillwater],” he notes as he cuts a wheel of Wisconsin-made clothbound cheddar that costs close to $30 / lb. “That is superseding any concerns about cost in the case. I just try to find the best cheese.”

Wedge & Wheel Kohtz portrait
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Stephen Larson of QUARTER/Quarter

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Editor’s Note: QUARTER/Quarter is now closed.

Editor’s note: the next edition of The Tap will appear on Dec. 17.

We were intrigued by the emails. Dispatches from a place called QUARTER/quarter have been coming our way since its founding in 2010, telling the story of a fine dining outpost in bluff country, where smart, intriguing, appetizing-sounding food is being served amidst the hills and streams near Lanesboro, MN.

So late this autumn, we made the 130-mile trip to Harmony, wisely also visiting the Aroma Pie Company on what turned out to be their last weekend of operation until spring.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

When we found QUARTER/quarter, we found a place neither rustic nor urban, but rather a bright, airy, minimalist haven incorporating the simple warmth of the rural along with the spare sense of openness of the city. Its unusual name comes from a confluence of two different ideas. The first: “In 1832 the smallest area of land that could be purchased by settlers was reduced to 40 acres or, a quarter-quarter section, making it possible for many more people to afford to start farming.” The second: its address, 25 Center Street.

So: QUARTER/quarter.

Chef Stephen Larson greeted us upon arrival, and not long thereafter, plates of food began sailing out of the kitchen to our table. In the interim, he told us about how he got started.

Teo Ramirez of La Poblana in Rochester

Sara Hobbs Kohrt / Studio Seven Photography / Heavy Table

Editor’s note: Due to a minor illness, today’s regularly scheduled Louie the Loon will appear on Monday.

La Poblana in Rochester, MN, is easy to overlook. A café in the back of a small Mexican grocery store, many customers have discovered it while they were doing laundry next door. The food is authentic and tasty, but it is the welcoming atmosphere that owners and operators Teo Ramirez and his wife Orkiria have created that makes customers become return customers.

Born in Puebla, Mexico Teo Ramirez moved to Pasadena, California at the age of 6 with only his brother, just 13 years older. By age 18 Ramirez had been living on his own for three years, and was looking for a big change. “Not my style.” Ramirez said, describing his rough neighborhood. He had dreams of going to college and of colder weather, so he bought a bus ticket to Chicago.

As his bus traveled across southeast Minnesota, he was intrigued as it pulled into Rochester. First nicknamed “The Clinic in the Cornfield” by a doctor visiting the Mayo Clinic over a century ago, Rochester spoke to Ramirez; he found the combination of big city and small town appealing. Though the driver would not refund him any money, he decided to get off the bus early.

Teo soon met his wife Orkiria, also Mexican, also raised in Pasadena, and also living in Rochester, MN. Over the next decade they had four children, and, between the two of them, managed to work in most of the chain restaurants across the city. They opened La Poblana as just a Mexican grocery store six years ago, and the cafe followed four years later. “It took a year for people to notice” said Ramirez, but now many locals describe it as the most authentic Mexican food in the city.

Sara Hobbs Kohrt / Studio Seven Photography / Heavy Table

Stepping inside is an escape from the Midwest. With cheerful orange walls and decorated with piñatas, La Poblana has a large flat screen TV that is always playing soccer or a telenovela. Bags of unusual candies made of tamarind (or chicken flavored lollypops!) line the shelves next to dried beans and spices. Serve yourself a Mexican Coke made with real cane sugar, a cerveza, or an exotic fruit soda in glass bottles out of the cooler. Teo runs the kitchen and charms the customers with his personality and sincere smile. Orkiria is quiet by comparison, handling the business and bookkeeping behind the scenes. However, you will frequently see her slipping from behind the register to waitress when thing get busy. The pair seems to be a good balance for each other, both devoted to their family business.

“I play with the food,” Ramirez confessed about his cooking style. He is self taught and experimental with his Mexican food, letting the flavors lead. Their guacamole is unusually light and aerated, and is delicious with their homemade tortillas and tomatillo salsa. The salsa’s secret is puya pepper; a dried chili powder that adds what Ramirez describes as, “just a little spicy and sour flavor.”