In a region of Minnesota where fresh produce can be tricky to find, a Brainerd-area restaurant is sourcing as much as three-quarters of its ingredients locally. Prairie Bay, in Baxter, serves up what it calls “high definition” dishes that are replete with local ingredients.
The Brainerd Lakes area of Minnesota, where Prairie Bay is located, is a place where 90 percent of the restaurants could be renamed “Burgers (or Pizza) Surrounded by Taxidermy and Old Signs.” Breaking the mold of the highly clichéd “up north” motif, Prairie Bay provides a sigh of relief from the norm — even though it does serve pizza.
Inside the restaurant, which has warmly colored walls and a ceiling painted blue with clouds, Prairie Bay’s kitchen uses local ingredients year round. It does so through a partnership with Sprout, a central Minnesota business that aggregates local food producers for restaurants and school districts.
Sprout provided greens for Prairie Bay’s strawberry and Brie salad ($13). Though the strawberries weren’t local, the taste was fresh, and the Brie added a creamy balance to the tart berries and spicy greens.
Beyond Sprout, the restaurant staff frequents local farmers markets and grows herbs out the back door. A local man forages for the mushrooms in the tarragon mushroom fusilli ($13). The old-school barter system comes into play, too: A few locals bring in garden bounties and exchange them for cooked meals.
Even in winter Prairie Bay uses stored local root vegetables and greens produced by local farmers who have established hoop houses with solar-powered heat to warm the soil.
The Gorgonzola-stuffed breast of chicken ($18), which rests on a bed of fingerling potato “fries,” is delicious. The chicken is crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, and the potatoes’ natural flavor is balanced with that of herbs. This dish is of a smaller portion size than many others at Prairie Bay, a size more typical of high-end restaurants.
Prairie Bay has reputation among some locals as one of the area’s few “fancy” restaurants, but its sandwiches and salads cost $9-$15, so couples aren’t guaranteed a $50 tab.
On our visits, wood-fired pizza appeared to be a popular item, and some offerings featured non-traditional toppings. The German Uber-Za ($16), for example, is topped with kraut, sausage, pretzels and whole-grain mustard.
For dessert, creme brulee ($3), in varying flavors, such as key lime with a graham cracker crust, is excellent. The dish is garnished with edible nasturtiums and mint grown at the restaurant.
Chef Matt Annand sources locally for much the same reasons as other chefs in the eat-local movement: a fresh taste, better nutrition and support of the local economy. He tops it off with a healthy respect for the hard work of local farmers.
“It just feels right. If you’ve got people around you working their tails off to produce something, why wouldn’t you use it?” Annand says.
The practice of sourcing locally requires balance, though. Annand explained that while 75 to 80 percent of his ingredients are locally sourced at the height of summer, there are still some things that he can’t get — or can’t justify buying — locally. If eggs are $3 a dozen locally and $1 a dozen through a distributor, he has to weigh whether he wants to stay afloat or have his business become a martyr to the local food movement. He keeps with the former.
Restaurant in Baxter, MN
15115 Edgewood Dr.
Baxter, MN 56401
OWNERS / CHEF: Matt Annand and Nick Miller
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / Yes in summer
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes on request
ENTREE RANGE: $10-$30