Try climbing Chilkoot Hill in Stillwater, MN, and you’ll start to feel the burn around step number four or five. The hill has a 24 percent grade (rising 100 feet over a distance of 700 feet), which makes it treacherous enough to be closed off during the winter. It’s far too steep for cars. Cyclists, on the other hand, love the vertical challenge, and so do the owners of the hill’s namesake, the newly opened Chilkoot Cafe & Cyclery, located a few blocks away from the epic climb.
Tucked inside one of Stillwater’s South Hill residential pockets, the Chilkoot Cafe offers counter service dining (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), coffee, and pastry, as well as bike repairs and maintenance in its adjoining bike shop. The cafe held its grand opening mid-June, in tandem with the Stillwater Nature Valley Grand Prix bike race, whose director, Lee Stylos, is also the owner of Chilkoot Cafe & Cyclery.
According to Stylos, there are three ingredients that make for a great local cafe: a unique, inviting space; a welcoming, informed staff; and a menu that leaves customers with lingering “food memories.” Stylos started working with Chef Michael Moore in December to create that ideal neighborhood cafe. Having purchased a building that had once been a grocery store in the 1920s called Kearney’s Korner Market, Stylos and Moore set to work gutting the joint, reclaiming old windows and floorboards, building a kitchen, and, meanwhile, discussing the menu.
“We shared the same basic vision,” says Stylos. “Source as local as possible. It’s all about flavor.”
Stylos makes his living as a consultant for medical device companies, but has always had a passion for food, coffee, and cycling. While he’s famous at home for his “Italian peasant”-style pot roast with porcini mushrooms over polenta, the restaurant industry is still entirely new to him. It’s a good thing he’s taken on Moore, who has experience working in a number of cafes and upscale restaurants including The Lowry Cafe, the Loring Cafe, and Auriga.
“I’ve always had a good aptitude for working with food,” says Moore. “I started at the bottom washing dishes when I was 14, and I’ve done a lot since then, working as a server, as a cook, and as a kitchen manager.”
He’s done even more in the creation of Chilkoot Cafe — everything from reupholstering the chairs to designing his kitchen’s layout and researching which local farms from which he wants to source his meat, produce, and eggs. The work from Stylos’s and Moore’s 15-hour days has finally amounted to a place where locals can relax over chicken sandwiches and craft beers, where cyclists can find quality espresso and a good bike mechanic.
Looking forward, Stylos and Moore will also be brewing three craft beers in-house. They’re working with Steve Streitz (who has the working title of their “Beer Geek”) to create their beers under the name “Velo Brewing.” Once they’ve got their license, Chilkoot Cafe will start developing an IPA, a porter, and a stout. They also plan to organize beer tastings and bicycle events to bring the community together.
“I wanted to create a shop that the locals could come to,” says Stylos. “We create it, throw it out there, and if people respond — great. They’ve found a home.”
We stopped in on a Friday afternoon to try some of the lunch items. Chef Moore was busy on the line, prepping sandwiches and plating salads. We sat down and took in the view of the neighborhood. Families pushing strollers and walking dogs are ubiquitous here, as are the cyclists who sail past the windows — a blur of spokes and spandex. Kitty-corner from the Chilkoot Cafe is Meister’s, a local bar famous for its burgers. Across the street from Meister’s is The Bikery, another quaint bakery / bike shop.
The proximity of the Chilkoot Cafe to The Bikery has raised a lot of eyebrows.
Both cafes are based on the same essential concept: bike service alongside casual dining, pastry, and coffee, although The Bikery has gone through multiple bakers over the past year as founding baker Olivier Vrambout has made the move to the bakery’s second location, The Bikery Du Nord, in Marine on St. Croix. The Bikery still offers bike maintenance, European-style baked goods, and sweet and savory crêpes. This fall, it plans to add a vintage clothing boutique to the mix.
It raises the question, how many cute coffee shop-cum-bike shops does one street corner really need?
Moore shrugs and says, “I hope they do well. Right now we’re coexisting peacefully. If they’re a great bakery, which I know they can be, they’ll put out a great product and be just fine. Same goes for us.”
With that, we prepare to taste Chilkoot Cafe’s products to find out if they’re great. Moore brings out a few plates of salads, sandwiches, desserts, and a latte. He tells us that the ingredients in these dishes have been sourced as locally as possible.
We start by tasting the latte. The milk has been steamed to create microfoam, which helps in the creation of “latte art.” The espresso, roasted and blended in-house, is full-bodied and balances well with the rich flavor of the milk (sourced from Crystal Ball Farms in the St. Croix Valley). Andy Kopplin, of Kopplin’s in St. Paul, came to the cafe to train the baristas in the art of espresso drinks. The extra effort is paying off; the latte tastes as it ought to, creamy and robust.
Next we try the salads. The “Local Lettuces” salad features greens sourced from Rising Sun Farm, shaved radish, fennel, goat cheese, sliced almonds, and a lemon vinaigrette. It’s light and simple, punctuated with the sweetness of goat cheese and almonds. This salad left me with “a food memory” — delicious. After the lettuces, we tried the quinoa tabouli, tossed with parsley, mint, halved grapes, and cucumber relish with a twist of lemon. The grapes and cucumber relish added an interesting spin, but overall it was an underwhelming salad. The house coleslaw (above) was tart and, thankfully, not at all dripping with mayonnaise. It’s made with shaved cabbage, carrots, scallions, and garnished with thinly sliced green apples. With all the salads we tasted, the spotlight was definitely on the freshness of the vegetables. No frills, just full-flavored local greens.
When it came to sampling sandwiches, we tasted the Meatloaf Melt: bacon-wrapped meatloaf with Sriracha glaze, grilled panini-style with red onions and cheddar, and served with a side of house- pickled vegetables (cucumbers, daikon radishes, carrots, red peppers, onions, celery, tomatoes, and zucchini). The spice from the glaze melted into the meatloaf, which was made with grass-fed beef (Thousand Hills Cattle Company) and pork (Hidden Stream Farm in Elgin, MN).
I don’t know which “food memory” is better: the Meatloaf Melt (above) or the next sandwich we tasted: the Rosemary Chicken Breast. The chicken (organic, from Wild Acres Game Farm) was brined beforehand to retain moisture, marinated in olive oil, garlic, and rosemary, then grilled and layered between two sliced of ciabatta bread spread with fig chutney, roasted fennel, and goat cheese. The sweetness of the figs and the goat cheese along with the juiciness of the chicken will keep me coming back.
Moore tells us that he and Stylos were looking for simple, fulfilling sandwiches for the menu, made with quality ingredients that speak for themselves.
“I don’t know; I’m kind of a purist,” says Moore. “I know people like turkey sandwiches, but I can’t just get some processed turkey.” Instead, for his turkey sandwiches, Moore calls Wild Acres Game Farm eight days in advance to order smoked turkey (it takes at least a week to smoke and deliver the meat). Like the rest of his ingredients, Moore takes flavor and freshness very seriously. He raises his own chickens at home and maintains a backyard garden, so, he reasons, why wouldn’t he want the same freshness on the menu at Chilkoot?
Lastly, we taste a couple desserts, prepared by Chilkoot’s pastry chef, Ciara Cooper, who hails from southern California. We try the vanilla bean cheesecake with blueberry compote and the shortcake with rosemary, peaches, and whipped cream. The cheesecake was well done (not too sugary) in order to elevate the very-sweet blueberry compote, and the shortcake’s hint of rosemary married nicely with the whipped cream and ripe, in-season peaches.
While the desserts were tasty, the rest of the pastries in the case need some TLC. The scones could be fluffier and the croissants could be flakier. No one wants to have to dunk their breakfast pastry in coffee to mask its density or soften it up. Stylos admits they’re still working out the kinks in the pastry department.
Next time, when we stop by for breakfast, we plan on ordering the brioche French toast with fresh berries, the sausage scramble, or the corned beef hash. Moore uses organic eggs from Larry Schultz’s farm in Owatanna to make these dishes, which are all served with a side of skillet potatoes. The recipe for those potatoes, by the way, involves a clarified butter that Moore has infused with shallots, herbs, and garlic. “You gotta have great potatoes for breakfast,” he says matter-of-factly, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world to use herb-infused butter to make a better side dish.
“You have to try the steel-cut oatmeal, too,” stresses Moore. “It’s made with wild rice, golden raisins, pecans, and maple cream. That maple cream is really good. We make a heavy cream reduction with real maple syrup, cinnamon sticks, and star anise. Very rich. You don’t need much of it.”
As for Chilkoot Cafe’s overall vision, Moore adds: “We’re about cooking really good food and developing a regular clientele. We’re trying to do a few things really well.”
Chilkoot Cafe & Cyclery
826 4th St S
Stillwater, MN 55082
OWNER: Lee Stylos
CHEF: Michael Moore
BAR: Limited beer and wine list
ENTREE RANGE: $8-10
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No