There is something deliciously wrong about driving north to Ely in January. Roads become emptier, trees sport increasingly thick jackets of snow and ice, and the feeling of leaving the comfort — and warmth — of civilization is palpable. But you’re making a good trade: you exchange the gray pallor of winter in the city for the evergreen-and-white crown of January in the woods.
Presuming you’re the type of person who has driven north in January, you’re probably also ready to tackle a winter sport or two – -dog sledding, snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing or, perhaps, sauna-sitting. And equal to the joy of winter sports for the student of human character is to see Ely almost entirely free of tourists, stripped down to its spine and rib cage, a collection of idealistic newcomers and flinty locals, of wilderness wanderers and merchants on the make. It’s a town where ancient red sauce Italian-American food rubs up against organic crepes and local craft beer sits cheek to jowl with packets of powdered non-dairy creamer.
Should you make the decision to visit Ely midwinter, you’ll eat well — quite well, if you watch your step (see below). But keep in mind that hours for many businesses are irregular during the winter, with many closed for the season or only open for part of the week (Thursday through Sunday is one typical schedule). Although we were pleasantly surprised by the options available, it’s good policy to call ahead before you set your heart on a particular morsel.
The fastest route to Ely (highways 53 and 169) takes you through Virginia, and then Tower. On the way up, you may be tempted to stop at Eveleth’s K&B Drive-In for lunch, an understandable impulse based on its charmingly old-school sign, its 50+ year history, and its apparent dedication to classic diner fare.
Proceed with caution. A serendipitous pasty-and-porketta visit to the K&B in 2007 was the inspiration for the Heavy Table’s first book (Minnesota Lunch: From Pasties to Banh Mi), but much has changed since those halcyon days. First and foremost: Our pasty ($5 or $6 with a heaping tablespoon of mediocre coleslaw) consisted of a pile of flavorless root vegetables crammed into a floppy and insubstantial crust. Worse still, the pasty’s meager scraps of mystery meat were just barely this side of microscopic.
Cheap, watery coffee and a flavorless, low-dairy hot fudge “malt” ($2.60) compounded the sense that standards have slipped at the K&B, but the house barbecue (Texas style, as the diner’s website and menus will tell you) partially redeemed it: our pork shoulder sandwich ($10) was tender and blessed with the subtle taste of mesquite smoke, the roll offered some pleasant chew, and the barbecue sauce was tangy and not over-sweet.
(K&B Drive-In, 7946 Pine Dr, Eveleth, MN, 218.744.2772)
SuLu’s Espresso Cafe in Tower was another story entirely. The staff proudly (and competently) brews Alakef coffee from Duluth, making SuLu’s a good pitstop (quite likely the perfect pitstop) for the java-addicted pilgrim headed from the Cities to Ely.
The cafe also touts homemade goodies. We bought a frozen homemade walnut potica ($23 for a small one, $28 for a large) from the proprietress and sampled it at a brunch in Minneapolis later in the week — the reviews of the tender, multi-layered, subtle pastry were raves, including a positive critique from a guest whose Slovenian family members practice the art of potica quite competently indeed.
And if you’re searching for what is almost certainly a unique-to-Minnesota experience, try SuLu’s “Lutheran Coffee.” At just $1.60 (discounted a nickel from regular coffee), it’s a cup of regular coffee watered down to suit the palates of the old Lutheran guys who liked what SuLu’s was pouring but wanted it just a little bit more mellow and moderate.
(SuLu’s Espresso Cafe, 509 Main St., Tower, MN, 218.753.5610)
While in Ely, we stayed at the Blue Heron Bed & Breakfast, owned by Jo Kovach and Bill Quinn. Several miles out of town on Farm Lake, off of Kawishiwi Trail, the Blue Heron has exactly what you want from an Ely B&B: low-key and charming hosts, a consistently stoked wood stove fireplace, and wolf-howling-range access to the BWCA via a frozen waterway. There’s also a charming house dog named Sam, who will run circles around you as you hike or snow-shoe through the hibernal woodland kingdom that surrounds the inn.
Breakfast at the Blue Heron was fortifying but sophisticated — day one featured substantial, properly crisped bacon, scrambled eggs with a mild chevre-powered tang, and a profoundly tender cream scone served with pleasingly tart lemon curd. Day two was even better — moist, flavorful gingerbread pancakes with maple syrup and / or lemon curd and / or chopped pecans were a dynamite start to the day.
(Blue Heron Bed & Breakfast, 827 Kawishiwi Trail, 218.365.4720)
The newly opened Organic Roots bistro in Ely is only open for lunch (and a few select dinners) in the winter, but it’s a must-visit — the interior is chic and welcoming, and the menu is both simple and elegant. We worried that we were going to blunder into a mish-mash of overpriced California cuisine, but the dishes we ordered were executed with restraint and elan. A flatbread with red bell peppers, Italian cheese, portabella mushrooms, and beef braciole ($12) was chewy and herbal, with a well-balanced mix of fresh-tasting toppings, and our savory crepe ($9) was a stunner. Filled with a carefully calibrated mix of cream cheese, mushrooms, and wild leeks, the interior was rich but not gooey and the crepe itself was delicate and tender without tearing or falling apart, and properly browned.
Across the street at the Evergreen Cottage, proprietor (and Organic Roots owner) Sonya Jewell offers up a nicely curated selection of north country tchotkes and a “Whole Foods Pantry” that is thoughtfully stocked with organic, local, gluten-free, world, and other specialty foods. It’s a pocket-sized co-op, and a worthwhile stop for chefs and shoppers with specialized needs.
(Organic Roots, 141 E. Chapman St., Ely, MN, 218.365.2799; Evergreen Cottage, 146 E. Chapman St., Ely, MN, 218.365.2288)
Should you happen to be in town on a Friday, the walleye fish fry at the Boathouse should be on your hit list. A hard, crispy, high-temp fry makes this a dish with substance and a strong perspective, and a properly tart tartar sauce plus generous wedges of juicy lemon provide ample acid to offset the carbs.
We’ll talk more about the Boathouse in a subsequent Q&A with its brewer and general manager, but the beers are an easy-going pleasure to drink, and most pair wonderfully with fried fish.
(The Boathouse Brewpub and Restaurant, 47 East Sheridan St. Ely MN, 218.365.4301)
The Plum Bun came highly recommended by locals, and no wonder — our breakfast pastries were subtle and tasty. An almond croissant ($1.50) was a particular highlight, offering crispy texture and a filling that was legitimately nutty without being overly sweet or gritty in texture. The croissant’s sweetness was supported by a pleasing note of spice.
(The Plum Bun, 402 E Sheridan St., Ely, MN, 218.365.2802)
We waffled between the Chocolate Moose and the Ely Steakhouse before settling on the Steakhouse. A 12 oz. New York Strip ($26) was properly done to medium rare as requested (if a bit rare, which is a nice change from the typical over-cooked hackery one tends to encounter) but chewier than ideal. The 1/3rd pound steakhouse burger ($8), by contrast, was right on the money — a chewy, properly toasted bakery bun, correctly caramelized onions, and a juicy (if somewhat under-seasoned) patty made this a burger worth coming back for.
One major knock against the steakhouse: a Saturday night dinner was over and done with in 30 minutes flat, from arrival (7pm) to paid check and departure (7:30pm). There’s something disconcerting about your steak arriving at the table before you’ve really started your (surprisingly good) salad. Giant TV screens are another possible knock against the place, but that’s a contentious subject, particularly when the Vikings are playing.
(Ely Steakhouse, 216 East Sheridan Street, Ely, MN, 218.365.7412)
Before leaving town, we stopped by Zup’s grocery store in search of local color and flavor, and left satisfied.
We passed on the Blood Ring (a bake-it-at-home dish containing, among other things, pork snouts, beef blood, and pork hearts) but picked up a package of Barstad’s “Loggers Special” organic pancake mix ($5) from Little Fork, MN. When combined 1:1 with water, the mix turns out a chewy, syrup-absorbant, full-grain breakfast experience.
We also grabbed a Zup’s pasty ($5), which turned out to be exactly the kind of rock-solid, meat-and-potatoes (emphasis on meat) north country feast for two that we’d be hoping for at the K&B. The spirit of the Range is apparently still alive; you just need to drive to the north and east to find it.
The Ely Chamber of Commerce provided two nights’ lodging for our writer and photographer at the Blue Heron Inn. All meals and other incidentals were paid for by the Heavy Table. Come back to the Heavy Table later this month for two other “Ely in winter” stories — a Q&A with the team at the Boathouse brewpub and the family behind Ely-based Crapola Granola.