Food blogger, cookbook author, and Food Network host of Girl Meets Farm Molly Yeh recently opened a restaurant called Bernie’s in East Grand Forks on the Red River, right across the border from North Dakota. The name comes from Molly’s daughter, Bernadette, but it also allowed her to thriftily repurpose the exterior signage from the former tenant: Whitey’s Wonderbar. Waste not, want not.
Bernie’s celebrates the cuisine of its hometown, with Yeh drawing from Scandinavian food and church cookbooks to create her menu. East Grand Forks is a bit of a haul for this Twin Cities-based writer, but no way was I going to turn down the chance to see what happens when someone decides to spotlight northern Minnesota foods.
It was clear when I arrived on a Friday morning that the community embraces the three-meals-a-day eatery. Bernie’s was nonstop busy during my entire visit. The somewhat bare-bones space is loud and echoey and could use more rugs or other soft finishes to soak up some of that extra sound.
The menu offers updated takes on standard Upper Midwestern fare, including a bean salad and elevated diner sandwiches. An in-house bakery turns out a wide variety of breads and sweets, including baked items with potatoes from the Red River Valley.
I decided to try both a couple of Scandinavian standards and the kind of good old baloney sandwich my grandmother used to make for me. The Smorgasbord ($14) arrived beautifully plated, served on Danish rye bread (rugbrød), with a soft-boiled egg, Swiss cheese, butter, jam, smoked salmon, pickled onions, cornichons, and a sizable heap of salt shards. Pretty as it was, it didn’t quite come together. The pickled onions were mild, to the point of vanishing. The smoked salmon had a delicate flavor that couldn’t hold up against the strongly nutty-flavored rugbrød (which was delicious on its own or with a bit of the butter and salt). The cheese felt like nothing special and didn’t add anything to the plate.
Accompanying the Smorgasbord was Knoephla soup ($6.50), a creamy soup with hearty chunks of carrots and celery with the tender little dumplings that are the soup’s namesake. This was mostly a lovely soup and would be a top choice on a cold blustery day, or just a day when someone needs some cheering up. I wished the soup were a little creamier, as a few spoonfuls felt watery. It also lacked salt, but I had plenty left over from the Smorgasbord to add in.
I had a notion that the Baloney Sandwich ($7) would be fried baloney. I was wrong. This was a straightforward rendition of the childhood classic: white bread, baloney, mayo, and lettuce. But–and no offense, Grandma, I love you–this was very much a grownup version of the classic, with soft, pillowy bread, gobs of better-than-average mayo, thin-sliced baloney that was tangy and just a little smoky in flavor, and impeccably crisp lettuce to offset all the other soft ingredients. The server said that Bernie’s gets its baloney from a local purveyor, although she didn’t know who, but said it’s exclusively made for Bernie’s.
Sadly, my visit didn’t coincide with a day when things like potato donuts, halva walnut scones, cardamom buns, kuchen, or babka had been baked. So I went with the Potato-Chocolate Chip Cookie which, at $6.50, seemed expensive–until it arrived. It was almost as large as a sandwich plate and impressively thick. The potatoes came in the form of potato chips, which still offered some crunch in contrast to the chewier cookie. I fall in the camp of preferring chewy chocolate chip cookies, but between the chewy cookie and potato chips, this could please both sides. It wasn’t obnoxiously sweet, but somehow just tasted warm. It was big enough for multiple servings and held up well over a couple of days.
The final food item was almost an afterthought when I noticed the Strawberry Halva Smoothie ($8) on my way out the door. I turned back and asked about it. The staffer said it was made of strawberries, sesame paste–and cauliflower. “I know, it sounds weird!” she said, laughing at the look on my face. She confessed she hadn’t tried it, but said people seemed to like it.
I certainly did. Even knowing that there was cauliflower in it, I could not pick up any cauliflower flavor anywhere. Nor were there any chunks; the cauliflower had to be thoroughly pureed and possibly strained. Instead of cauliflower, the smoothie’s flavors had a tart sweetness from the strawberries and nutty, earthy undertones from the sesame paste. Frankly? It wasn’t weird, it was fantastic.
There’s a side of the eatery where people can buy copies of Yeh’s books, Bernie’s-branded merchandise, Faribault blankets, and a range of spices and herbs possibly not often seen in Grand Forks grocery stores. If you’re in the area, Bernie’s is worth a visit.
Bernie’s, 121 Demers Ave, East Grand Forks, Minn., 218.230.2960 WED-SAT 8am-6pm, SUN 8am-3pm, MON-TUE CLOSED