At the end of a long, tiresome, hot, and rather itchy work week, one might balk at spending nine or so hours slaving over a pot of beans, no matter how rarefied the bean and how great the craving. In fact, the thought is so miserable, it makes driving nearly two hours and paying $21 for said beans seem not only sane but damn pleasant.
Especially if the destination is The Harbor View Cafe and Restaurant in Pepin, and the beans are tucked into a summer cassoulet.
Cassoulet is a white bean — or haricot — stew layered with meat. It originated in the Languedoc region of France and is named for the cassole, an earthenware dish whose inverted-cone shape encourages a crust to form around the beans as they simmer interminably in stock, fat, and herbs. This crust, which is cracked and folded into the beans throughout the cooking process, is a critical aspect of the dish’s rich flavor.
On these few facts, everyone seems to agree. Otherwise, it either first appeared in the 17th century with the introduction of white beans from the New World or it was there all along, being made with fresh fava beans until the 19th century when the Spanish brought haricots to France or it was invented by embattled French peasants during Napoleon’s Hundred Days. It’s made with pork sausage and duck confit or it’s made with mutton and goose or it’s made with salt cold — or all of the above and a little lard for good measure.
You say partridge, I say pork rind… the French say, let’s make it official: According to Larusse Gastronomique, in 1966, Etats Generaux de la Gastronomie Francaise “decreed” that a proper cassoulet is 30 percent pork, mutton, or goose and 70 percent beans.
It’s possible the Etats Generaux might take umbrage with the Harbor View’s meat-to-bean ratio and only the chef knows if the restaurant cracked the haricots’ crust twenty times or never.
What we can say that the restaurant’s beans were downright delicious: abundantly herbed, salty, and a wonderful kind of creamy that, we imagine, can only come from an indecent amount of fat. Layered on top of the beans, two very juicy, very tender house-made mildly spicy lamb sausages and slices of rosemary-infused pork tenderloin cooked perfectly pink. Surrounding the big meat, roasted vegetables brought out the summer in what could (and hopefully will) be a fine fall meal — including a lemony dino kale that almost stole the plate from the beans.
There are no reservations at Harbor View and it can get crowded, but there’s a full bar inside and the sidewalk out front is lined with deck chairs, every one with a view of the harbor and Lake Pepin beyond.
One last note: If this story weren’t about beans, it would be about lemon cake with ginger, tart-sweet, and crumbly; if you go there, get it ($6).
And this mild warning: The books lining Harbor View’s dining room are there for ambiance only. We fell in love with a set of Little Brown first edition Hornblowers, which were priced at $7 — such a deal! — only to find out they were not for sale.
Non-negotiable, the man said.
The Harbor View Cafe and Restaurant
314 1st St
Pepin, WI 54759
OWNERS: Chuck Morrow and Ruth Stoyke
Thursday 11am-2:30pm 5-9pm (April 23 until mid-October)
Friday 11am-2:30pm 5-9pm
Saturday 11am-2-30pm 4:45-9pm
Monday 11am-2:30pm 5-8pm (Memorial day through Labor Day)