We love gluten, just to let you know where we stand. But we felt that if we turned this review over to the gluten-free beat, such as it is, that we’d be giving Sift (4557 Bloomington Ave S, Minneapolis) short shrift.
We will however give short shrift to the controversy, such as it is, surrounding the steady rise (get it?) of gluten free. Yes, celiac disease is real, and it is miserable. Yes, there are charlatans who will tell you that everything can be cured by eliminating gluten from your diet. Enough said about that.
On to the baked treats that we picked up just as the sun was rising this past Saturday morning. Sift is a delightful and welcoming space, with a display case filled with an astonishing variety of muffins, bars, brownies, cookies, doughnuts, cakes, scones, and little tiny quiches. The beaming, smiling face that greeted us turned out to be that of Molly Miller, owner of Sift. She was visibly thrilled to be there and was more than happy to share with us her journey from longtime hobbyist baker to semi-pro farmers market vendor to professional baker with her own brand-new shop.
Her enthusiasm is well warranted. Our favorite item was the Ham and Cheese Quiche Bite ($2.50). The crust was chewy and buttery, and perhaps a little corny. The egg filling was creamy and shot through with pockets of melted cheese and bits of smoky ham. Our only gripe was the silver-dollar size. We could have eaten an entire full-sized quiche. On the other hand, if it were bigger, we’d have missed out on the lovely crust in each bite. I guess they know what they’re doing: These things are seriously craveable.
The Spiced Pear Coffee Cake ($3.50) was delightful. Airy, and rich with cinnamon and cardamom, it had a moist, fluffy crumb and a lovely aroma. For lack of wheat flour, it was missing nothing. We’ve had sweeter coffee cakes, but this one, with its spiced pear, had a sophisticated element that we’ll definitely return for.
Typically, if you walk into a bowling alley hungry, you’re probably not expecting to eat something too amazing. But what if the bowling alley has a magnificent chandelier hanging in the middle of its bustling dining room, along with handsome high-back booths, an absolutely stunning refurbished 19th-century bar, exposed timbers, a pressed tin ceiling, and warm wood everywhere you look? And what if the bowling alley already has a reputation for being one of the finest brewpubs in the entire state? What then? These lofty credentials and stylish signifiers tend to give a hungry bowler the idea they’re in for something a little more refined than greasy burger baskets and freezer fries.
Unfortunately, the glittery, eyeball-grabbing light fixture at Town Hall Lanes does not portend a dining experience that goes too far beyond the bar food status quo. There is, however, some good stuff here: comforting bar food, unfussy, deep-fried, and grilled, meant to pair with a cold beer and a game of bowling. It’s not without flaws, though, as multiple visits revealed a kitchen that can be inconsistent and a few ideas that look better on paper than on the plate. But for the most part, this place is lovable, especially if you don’t expect too much or read too deeply into that glitzy chandelier.
Two weeks ago visitors to the shores of Lake Nokomis were welcomed by a new food concession stand, Sandcastle. Sandcastle’s co-owners — Chef Doug Flicker of Piccolo, Amy Greeley, and Chele Payer — began the journey to grand opening over a year ago, responding to a call for proposals from The Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board for a new venue at Lake Nokomis. Of the many proposals submitted, Sandcastle’s eventually arose victorious.
When we visited Sandcastle on the weekend following its grand opening, the shores of Lake Nokomis were busy and the aromas of Sandcastle’s kitchen were wafting about the area. Directly adjacent from Sandcastle’s order window, three wooden benches line the beachfront, while behind the building there is a grassy, shaded area with additional seating. Future plans include infrastructure upgrades to the seating area and high-top bar seating looking out toward the lake.
Sandcastle’s menu is divided into several categories including starters, mains, sweets, and refreshments; beer and wine are also available. Keeping true to the style of a beachfront concession stand, Flicker offers mostly finger foods for hungry patrons to dive into — his interpretations of hot dogs, sandwiches, wings, and tacos.
In addition to the ginger and horchata water options, a seasonal agua is always available. Currently the seasonal option is watermelon (above left, $3), a mild and refreshing flavor, with natural sweetness thanks to the fruit.
Alongside the watermelon agua, we ordered the Fried Castle Rock Cheese Curds (above right, $6), whose salty bite paired well with the sriracha dipping sauce.
The watermelon salad (above left, $8) combined the sweet, refreshing fruit with the peppery quality of arugula and the vinegar zing of pickled radish. Although the flavors worked, the watermelon came off as more of an afterthought than an integrated part of the dish.
One of our favorite dishes of the day, the bowl of shrimp and octopus ceviche (above, right, $8) packed a myriad of flavors into each bite. Corn tortilla chips acted as the utensil, and scooping a portion of the ceviche onto each chip combined the saltiness of the tortilla with the citrus, spice, and sweetness of the ceviche. Thanks to proper treatment, shrimp and octopus chunks retained their natural tenderness.
Sandcastle’s molasses butter stole the show as a condiment for the hush puppies (above left, $5). The butter had a velvety texture as well as a delightful yet subdued sweetness. The hush puppies themselves had a dense texture and crisp exterior, but would be even better with a more prominent flavor.
The whimsical name of the Dog Flicker (above right, $5) is an obvious reference to the culinary mind behind Sandcastle. The Flicker includes a hearty beef frank in a bun garnished with kimchi and cilantro and topped with a fried egg. The kimchi’s mild heat and pickled bite balanced the beefiness of the hot dog, while the egg provided an additional layer of decadence. It’s an intriguing and delicious take on the classic hot dog.
The BBQ Pork Sandwich showcases a deft preparation of pulled pork (above left, $8) reminiscent of South Carolina-style barbecue. The pork combined a sweet edge with a vinegary bite and a mild smokiness, while the savory onion bun served as not only a vehicle for the pork, but also as a sponge to absorb all the delectable juices.
The American Indian Fry Bread (above right, $7) comprises a large round of fry bread filled with a mixture of ground bison, lettuce, and white cheddar. The naturally lean ground bison had a strong, meaty flavor and a punch of spice, while the oils from the fry bread provided some fattiness. In certain bites, the fry bread seemed too thick, but overall the dish was hearty and delicious.
Food concession stand at Lake Nokomis Rating: (Good)
It’s hard to imagine Russell Fay raising his voice much past library-acceptable levels. He’s a laid-back and accommodating figure, the antithesis of a nose-in-the-air sommelier, and this demeanor is reflected in his refreshingly unpretentious, personal, and intimate Nokomis area wine store. The Cork Dork Wine Company is a 400-square-foot room sandwiched between an alteration shop and Carbone’s off Cedar Avenue. Outside the signage is sparse, inside the decorations are minimal. His counter is plain and his wines are still in their boxes. The flooring is cork (appropriately) that Fay happily admits has prevented the demise of a few bottles.
It’s a bare-bones aesthetic that mirrors his wine selection– straightforward and honest, nothing fancy, nothing gimmicky. Operating in such a small space naturally helps to preclude indiscriminate selection of his inventory. The store offers 70 to 80 “Cork Dork Approved” bottles touching nearly every major grape and style. Fay believes that it’s his job as a wine professional to weed through the seemingly endless choices to bring his customers wines that really deliver. “I taste everything that comes in here,” he says. “I guess I’m a savvy shopper. I look for the right tasting wine but it also has to be priced right.”
Open for just over a year, the store is almost entirely stocked with wines between $10 and $18 with just a few bottles reaching into the $30-40 range. Fay is a veteran of the Minneapolis restaurant circuit with a knack for customer service. The level of personal touch each bottle on his floor receives is evident in the small pieces of poster board located behind each case. They are smattered with thorough information on the wine, often hand written, including everything from Wine Advocate ratings and tasting notes to local news media and blog write-ups. The prices are rounded to the nearest dollar and displayed prominently, a nice aid to those strictly shopping on price. No customers are likely to leave confused.
Dregni’s stay in the northern Italian city of Modena (known as the birthplace of balsamic vinegar) was a fruitful one from a professional perspective — his collected columns, published in Italian in one of the local papers, became Never Trust a Thin Cook. Gastronomically, too, it left a permanent mark on the author’s imagination.
“This grandmother, this nonna, took us under her wing and taught us how to make fresh pasta,” he recalls. “She taught us for 8 hours straight. She had this special board that she used and this rolling pin that was this long,” he says, putting his hands a few feet apart.
“And at the end she gave us one of those little metal pasta rollers, and she says: ‘I’m going to give this to you. It was given to me in 1973, and I’ve never used it — and I never want you to use it either.’ And I say: ‘Well, why are you giving it to us?’ And she says: ‘To keep you honest.’ So we had to lug this very heavy thing home with us,” he laughs.
Dregni is making a special appearance at a dinner at Nokomis Restaurant in Duluth later this month, where he’ll tell stories, answer questions, and sign books. The event is the restaurant’s Italian Festival, which takes place on April 23 at 6pm. It features a multi-course dinner of regional Italian specialties from north to south, each course teamed with a wine from the same region.
Italian Festival Menu| Restaurant Nokomis
Amuse Bouche: White anchovy, roasted potato, salsa verde. Wine: Gavi from Salvano
Tuscan Bean Soup with spelt and crispy flatbread. Wine: Roero Arneis (also from Salvano)
Golden Scallop Salad with arugula, olive oil cured tomato, and sweet onion. Wine: Roero Arneis
Pesto Gnocchi with goat cheese foam and crescenza cheese. Wine: Dolcetto from Tenuta Rocca
Dover Sole with fava beans, porcini mushrooms, and cippolini onions. Wine: Pecorino from Ciavalich
Join Eric Dregni at Nokomis in Duluth on April 23. $49 per person for food and wine, $39 per person for food only. Wines also available for retail purchase at a 20 percent discount. Reservations required by Sunday, April 18 to allow proper ordering of ingredients; reserve using OpenTable or by calling 218.525.2286.
If you enjoy reading the Heavy Table, you should know two things about the magazine. First, this whole operation isn’t free — we pay our writers, copy editor, and photographers, and have been known to run up expenses here and there. Second, we’re lucky enough to have the support of some great local businesses who keep us up and running.
If you read and enjoy the Heavy Table, please consider checking out what our sponsors have to offer. Your patronage means the world to these businesses.
Before we introduce two of our newly committed sponsors, we’d like to thank Crispin Hard Cider. Crispin has supported the Heavy Table throughout 2009, and they’ve stepped up to work with us throughout 2010, as well.
We’d like to welcome France 44 as a sponsor of the Heavy Table. They write: “France 44 Wines & Spirits has been a family owned business for 50 years. With over 4,500 wines, 1,300 beers, an extensive collection of spirits, and two award-winning cheese shops, there is something to delight every customer that walks through the door. Free wine tastings every Friday and Saturday allow customers to taste a variety of wines and find something they really enjoy. Our staff is extremely knowledgeable and willing to assist with any question including cheese and wine or beer pairing as well as good wines under $10. If we don’t know the answer, we will find someone who does.”
[The Heavy Table visited France 44 and interviewed beer and spirits buyer Matt Fisher; we also sampled a couple fascinating beers.]
We’d also like to welcome Nokomis Restaurant & Bar in Duluth, MN. With an emphasis on seasonal, fresh, and (whenever possible) local ingredients, Nokomis has been bringing fine dining experiences to the shore of Lake Superior since 2005. With a menu ranging from the subtle but perfectly balanced Whitefish Cake with mustard remoulade and brioche crouton to the adventurous Five Spice Duck with braised cabbage, spaetzle, caramelized peach, and orange sauce to desserts such as Pecan Pie with sweet curry crust, caramel sauce, and candied pecans, Nokomis serves up fare reflective of the best the Upper Midwest has to offer.
As is expected from a place named 3 Tiers Cakes, the small pastry shop near Lake Nokomis in South Minneapolis has an extensive menu items of sweets. Cookies in delectable varieties like ginger molasses, peanut butter, and toffee; petit fours in chocolate, lemon, and raspberry; and a plethora of tortes, cakes, and tarts round out what is sure to be a sugar lover’s dream menu. Quite unexpected amidst these sugary offerings, however, is their savory stromboli.
Owner Sarah Herr left her pastry chef position at The Saint Paul Hotel to follow her dream of owning her own shop. In searching for a quick lunch sandwich option, she found an ideal combination of bread dough and savory fillings in stromboli. Herr’s husband Bryan takes the reins in making the stromboli each morning, rolling out and layering the bread dough with his choice of filling. Herr then proofs and bakes it in time for lunch.
The result is a crusty Italian bread casing that envelops the melted, steaming filling. Sauce may sometimes be used, like pesto or a sun-dried tomato version, but the most popular varieties are simpler versions of meat and cheese fillings, says Herr, such as bacon and gorgonzola or roast beef and spicy pepper jack cheese.
A single variety of stromboli is featured daily and comes in two portion sizes (2 inches for $5.25 or 4 inches for $7.50). Also available is a lunch combo, soup and a 1-inch piece for $6.95. For upcoming holiday parties or other gatherings, stromboli can be ordered for catering. With your choice of filling, you can purchase a 1-foot sandwich for $16 or a 1 ½-foot sandwich for $22.
Editor’s Note: Lighthouse on Homestead is now closed.
Old Highway 61 has been nicknamed the “culinary highway” for more than the New Scenic Cafe and Nokomis. Although both are destination restaurants that can rival fine dining in Minneapolis / St. Paul, there are other culinary stops along the scenic drive that runs from Duluth to Two Harbors. The Great!Lakes Candy Kitchen, Emily’s Eatery, and Russ Kendall’s Smoke House make Knife River a needed stop and now the Lighthouse on Homestead is beginning to forge its way as a contributor to the “culinary highway.”
Three sisters and a daughter made a dream come alive in June 2007 when they opened a restaurant that looks like a lighthouse on the outside and feels like one inside. The walls are covered with pictures of Split Rock Lighthouse, the shores of Lake Superior, and rescue buoys. Everything on the walls was donated, along with the agates and fishing tackle that decorate the top of the bar — most of which they say came from their husbands’ tackle boxes. The decor is clean: themed and organized like a newer and less dusty version of the Anchor Bar in Superior.
The property where the Lighthouse on Homestead now stands used to be owned by the Stromberg family. The Lighthouse features a Stromberg family favorite called the Stromberg-er ($8.50), a “hand packed, flame broiled hamburger topped with zesty sauerkrauts and mild Swiss on a toasted bun.” Similar to a Reuben, the Stromberg-er comes with Thousand Island dressing; the overall package tastes sweet with a tangy kick and subtle spice. The burger earned 3rd place in 2008 and 1st place in 2009 at Fitger’s Grill Wars, making it this year’s Best Burger in the Northland.
The menu also features salads, sandwiches and fresh local fish. When in season, herring ($12), whitefish ($13) and trout ($14) are available. All hot sandwiches like the French Dip come with a side of homemade potato chips. The chips are thick and moist, and taste more like French fries than potato chips.
Claire Pierson, Lynne Compton, Brita Aug and Andrea Darsow (Lynne’s daughter) work in the restaurant daily, showing that it is not only family owned, but also family run. The food cannot compete with the artistic creations at the New Scenic Cafe or Nokomis, but for the Best Burger in Northland or homemade potato chips you have to go to one of the newest spots on the “culinary highway,” the Lighthouse on Homestead.
I have no trouble admitting that I’m a chocoholic. I think a dessert menu is not worth considering if it doesn’t have at least one chocolately option, and at age 3 I threw a fit when my mother only presented coffee cake as the ending to a neighborhood meal. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that not all chocolate treats are created equal. Some taste like chocolate, but oftentimes, these desserts taste more like sugar or high-fructose corn syrup than the tropical bean from which chocolate is made. Therefore, when I stopped for the first time at A Baker’s Wife pastry shop in Minneapolis’ Nokomis neighborhood recently, I was pleased to find a cookie that actually tasted like chocolate — pure, deep cocoa, without the cloying sweetness for which many American-made chocolates are derided.
Though the authentic cocoa taste was what originally made me a fan of the double chocolate cookie, further review (aka numerous taste tests) revealed the cookie’s other assets. The cookie’s generous size may fool the nibbler into thinking this is just another oversized treat for oversized Americans, but oddly, the cookie’s heft makes it easier for one to eat smaller portions. It is so meaty, for lack of a better term, that a few bites leave one perfectly satisfied — and plenty of cookie left to share (yeah, right) or save for the next day. The chocolate chips are sprinkled judiciously throughout the cookie, providing an extra chocolately boost to each bite without overwhelming the balance of flavor. And while I’m sure it would pair nicely with a cup of coffee, this is a milk kind of cookie. Fill up your glass with some local moo juice and dunk away.
I’ve heard that the teacakes at A Baker’s Wife are amazing, the doughnuts are divine, and the croissants are all buttery goodness. Fantastic. I’m still getting this cookie, though, and I may buy yours, too, if you don’t try one for yourself.
The double chocolate cookie costs $1.19 at A Baker’s Wife, 4200 28th Ave S, Minneapolis.
By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.
When H.W. Longfellow wrote the epic “Song of Hiawatha” in 1855, he took inspiration from the legends of the Ojibway tribe. Fusing European poetic styling and distinctly Native American images, the poem has become a foundational work of art for the Upper Midwest, celebrated in the maps we navigate daily. It’s a kind of poetic theme song for the land itself, singing its contours.
Never mind that Longfellow was born in Portland, ME, or wrote Hiawatha while living in Cambridge, MA — the “big water” of Gitche Gumee, also known as Lake Superior, gives Minnesota its scenic North Shore. And the North Shore, parked as it is on a gorgeously temperamental body of water, gives us a number of great places to eat and gather.
One of the newest and already best regarded is Nokomis, and if Longfellow’s poem is a cunning hybrid of local and cosmopolitan, so is the restaurant. Rachel Hutton praised it for “the best views and fanciest food” on the North Shore; The Wall Street Journal talked up its “perfectly broiled” walleye. The restaurant’s founder, co-owner, and chef, Sean Lewis, is more modest about the place, which he regards as a sort of common ground between “Meat-and-Potatoes Land” and gastro-tourists who roll through the North Shore from Minneapolis-St. Paul and beyond.
“I still have some of the same problems that chefs in the [Twin] Cities face,” says Lewis, alluding to demand for traditional fare at the expense of culinary innovation, “although there’s been a lot of evolution down there in the last five years.”
Countering local demand for old classic dishes are travelers who make Nokomis a prominent gastronomic stop. “You get a lot of the same clientele who eat at Alma or Corner Table coming up here as tourists, and they appreciate food,” he says. “So they gravitate to myself or the [New] Scenic [Cafe].”
Lewis himself represents a meeting of two worlds — he grew up in Eau Claire, WI, but has an extensive and well-traveled cooking pedigree that includes both big-volume hotel restaurants and prestige eateries such as the Beard Award-winning Everest in Chicago. Unsurprisingly, the food of Nokomis echoes his life experience.
A whitefish cake appetizer ($9) is a beautiful little bundle containing all the contradictions that Nokomis and Chef Lewis embody. It’s a local fish, taken from the lake. Its ingredients are simple: fish, bread, roasted peppers, a mustard remoulade. And yet, it looks and tastes like haute cuisine. The texture and mild buttery taste of the soft, toasted crouton support the fish without overwhelming it. The slightly smoked fish has a touch of mustard and seasoning to it, accentuating the clean, natural flavor without shouting it down. Everything is in balance, and the result is a locally sourced fish cake of remarkable sophistication.
A lake trout served with fingerling potatoes, butter sauce, and wild mushrooms is equally well balanced. The urge to drown a mild fish in warm, strongly flavored fat is resisted — the sauce accentuates the dish without crushing the fish in its blubbery embrace. The sweet, mellow, almost nutty taste of the local fish shines through.
Serving light fish dishes like these is key to the restaurant’s mission.
“We’re very seasonal, so I use a lot of different cooking techniques depending upon the season,” says Lewis. “There’ll be more fish prevalent and lighter foods, for example, in the summer.”