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).
From Monday through Friday, there is no real place on the Heavy Table for autobiography. That said, it’s Saturday and I am suffering from a summer cold that may end my life. So this review of the bike-delivered Miso Ramen from the United Noodles UniDeli may wander a bit.
I think by now we’re all tired of hearing about Proust’s madeleine. But there’s a great deal going on with that metaphor, the cookie that conjures up a rich sensory world of both formalized and half-processed memories, using molecules of flavor to create something like an edible time machine.
For me, the totality of United Noodles is that madeleine. The first pan-Asian grocery store that I ever visited (in Chicago, Illinois) was physically and metaphorically my gateway from a childhood of brats, pizza, and luncheon meat to the realization that there’s a wide, wild, complicated, and wonderful world of food out there.
So when I take my son down the aisles of United Noodles, I’m also walking with my 17-year-old self, goggling at the squishy cubes floating in brightly colored liquids, the mysterious pastes, and the chips flavored like shrimp or seaweed or vegetables that I’ve heard of but likely never really tasted fresh.
And when its ramen shows up at my doorstep, it’s a chance to reflect on how and why we eat the food that we do, and how we put together the language we use to explain it.
I. YAOHAN MALL
I have been asked how I got into writing about food, and the answer is I got into journalism, and then shortly thereafter I got into food, and then after years of pursuing them on completely parallel tracks, I finally crossed them over and created a hybrid.
I caught the food bug in high school when we took a Japanese class trip from Madison, Wisconsin, to the pan-Asian (largely Japanese) Yaohan Mall in Chicago. My friend Kathy and I made sushi for class once, but we made it the night before and refrigerated it. Suffice it to say that it didn’t really do the art form any justice. “Gummy” is probably the kindest word that we can use to describe that situation.
But other than that well-intentioned atrocity, I’d never had sushi before. Had heard of it. Was intrigued by it. Had no concept of what to expect. So when we got to Yaohan, at the top of my list was getting to the food court and buying sushi. It came in a little plastic clamshell package with the squirt-it-from-the-packet soy sauce and the squirt-it-from-the-packet wasabi and a bit of slightly chewy pickled ginger in the corner.
For maximum exoticism, I made sure to try maki containing raw fish, so that when I had my first sushi I was tasting raw tuna, vinegared rice, seaweed, and wasabi. These were four things I had never tasted before, tasted in concert. This was not merely a new flavor, or a new combination of flavors, it was the entryway to an entirely different spectrum of flavor, akin to hearing rock-n-roll for the first time after a childhood of nothing but classical music.
At the time, I was nonplussed. It wasn’t a matter of disliking the stuff; I finished it, and then sort of put it out of my mind. But after returning to Madison, the flavors — all of them separately, but most of all, all of them together — wormed their way from my unconscious mind to my subconscious to my conscious stream of thought. I needed to try sushi again. I needed to try anything and everything Japanese again. I needed to try anything from anywhere that was new. The universe had been revealed to me, and it was a very big place.
2. THE DEMOCRACY OF FOOD
When you start dining out, you start to orient yourself up and down the spectrum of price, and around the world in terms of geography and ethnicity. You learn what places are cooking for other recently immigrated first generation people and which have been completely sanitized for Midwestern palates, and which are a hybrid of both. And the way you eat starts to define who you are. Not the totality, of course, but an aspect: How far will you drive for a good meal? What will make you drive further? For what, if anything, will you wait in line, will you try a Russian roulette game’s worth of potentially terrible versions, will you drive to Champlin or Stillwater or Northfield? It’s your time, it’s your money, it’s your friends, your wallet, your waistline.
Look at where you’re dining: downtown Minneapolis or Eat Street (the 20s? or the 30s and 40s?), or Highland Park, or Uptown, or Bloomington, or Lowertown. Look at what you’re eating: corporate lunches, or diner breakfasts, or Hmong soul food, or burgers, or bratwurst, or imported cheese. It all reflects a pile of choices.
Sitting at home in South Minneapolis with a horrible cold waiting for a bike messenger carrying ramen and wearing a Hamm’s cap under his bike helmet is another choice.
Say “comfort food” to a random Minnesotan, and you may hear just about anything: Steak. Pho. Hamburgers. Stewed goat. Pizza. Apple pie. Tacos al pastor. Pulled pork sandwiches. Thanksgiving turkey.
Anything is a valid response. Anything is comfort food, if it takes you home. Were I to eat a last meal, and were I given 5 seconds to blurt out what that meal would consist of, it would be four — no five! — orders of shrimp tempura rolls from Wasabi restaurant in Madison.
It’s not that there aren’t better foods out there. (The foie gras- and brioche-stuffed roast chicken at Brasserie Zentral… oh, man. My mom’s lemon meringue pie. Sushi from Sushi of Gari in Manhattan… and so forth.) But those shrimp tempura rolls somehow taste like home in a way that nothing else does. Maybe it’s because they were the first thing I really fell in love with after stepping through that door into the wider world of food.
Unlike most shrimp tempura rolls, the ones from Wasabi don’t have any cucumber to get in the way. They always hit the table warm. The tempura is soft but crispy, the shrimp retains a bit of fresh snap. Surely no customer is intended to eat more than two orders’ worth, but I’ll have three if the situation warrants.
Ramen like the stuff served at United Noodles taps into that same vein. It’s something that you inhale, and then afterwards, you sigh. It’s not complicated, or at least it doesn’t feel complicated, which is what matters most.
4. DISENTANGLING THE GOOD FROM THE BELOVED
That first sushi I tried wasn’t particularly good. The Rocky Rococo’s pizza that I still eat from time to time isn’t good. The Wuollet chocolate long john that I eat on particularly difficult mornings isn’t bad, but it’s no YoYo Donuts or Mojo Monkey. But just because these things aren’t, technically speaking, the finest of their spectrum doesn’t mean that they can’t live in my heart.
And just because they live in my heart doesn’t mean that I, as a food writer, should defend them as being brilliant when they’re not. If you’re going to write about food — or even talk about it seriously with other people who want to talk about it seriously — sort out the evidence you have from your suppositions from your personal tastes, and deal with each pile differently.
Any time I’m eating somewhere where the per-plate cost drifts north of $50, I try to remember Marcus Aurelius:
“Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood. Perceptions like that — latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time — all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust — to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.”
I try not to spend 100 percent of my time stripping away the legends that encrust stuff, but it’s a worthwhile pursuit when the tablecloth is white and the water is served “sparkling or still or tap.”
5. HEAVY TABLE’S MISSION
When we write about food at the Heavy Table, we do our best to keep our wires uncrossed. Which is to say: When we like something or dislike something, we try to figure out the why behind the what. Because it may be that the very thing that struck us as off, or “inauthentic” while for someone else is funky but perfect, or exactly how they do it in the little town that they happen to be from. One person’s “burnt” can be another’s “charmingly carbon-kissed.”
Our goal is always to start from the flavor and the texture of the food and spiral out from there. It’s great to know the story of the chef, and the restaurant, and the culture, and locality, and growing method, and the soil, but the place we try to start is the taste of what’s going to be in your mouth. And from there: We can go anywhere, but we’re armed with the basic and (as much as possible) the objective shared truth of the thing.
6. MISO RAMEN FROM THE UNITED NOODLES UNIDELI
$10 (plus $4 delivery charge, plus tax and tip) gets you a fairly generous bowl of chicken broth and a pile of stuff to put into it: noodles, one of those pink spiral fish cake things, some tender pork belly, bok choy, scallions, bean sprouts, half a hard-boiled shoyu egg. The broth arrives separately packaged from the rest of the ramen, which makes for a fresher tasting experience for the home user.
The broth is rich. Very rich. Whatever you may think of the noodles or other ramen-related helpers included in your purchase price (and an educated taster would find them decent to good, I think), the broth is liquid comfort, like drinking a roasted chicken. For me, the ramen was a trip overseas, but also a trip back home.
United Noodles bike-delivered ramen, 5-10pm Thursday-Sunday, 612.208.0123; limited delivery radius (Seward and Longfellow)