No Minnesotan’s summer is complete without a trip to Grand Marais. Compact and cool, perched at the edge of the endless blue expanse that is Lake Superior, Grand Marais offers respite from the scorching heat and sprawling busyness of Minneapolis-St. Paul. But as the days grow short and the trees reluctantly surrender their leaves, Grand Marais fades from memory, shrinking to a mere speck in the rear view mirror.
But don’t count Grand Marais out for fall and winter. North House Folk School is going strong, including with classes on sausage making and baking bread (register early, classes fill quickly). And while it’s true that you’ll need to cram in a visit to Angry Trout Cafe (go for their fried herring during the season) and Dockside Fish Market before they shutter their doors for the season in October and December, respectively, there is still leaf-peeping, and, eventually snowshoeing, and skiing, and mushing to be done. And many of your favorite restaurants keep their doors open, too, and we’re not just talking pizza and burgers.
The pretty good donuts at World’s Best Donuts aren’t available after mid-October, but if you’re looking for a rib-sticking breakfast to get you through a chilly morning, cozy The Pie Place on the Southern fringe of town offers hearty fare year-round (except Mondays). The menu changes weekly, but from-scratch offerings typically include buckwheat, pecan, or fruit pancakes with locally-made maple syrup ($6.50-$9) or a Continental with a sampling of muffins, scones, toast, jam — all housemade — and juice or coffee ($8). We liked the Caribou Eyes ($10), which is “egg in a hole,” huevos rancheros-style: a pair of eggs fried into the center of hollowed-out toast, then dolloped with cheese, sour cream, and salsa. It comes with a choice of Hash Brown Pie, which is less like pie and more like baked shredded potatoes, or, like many of their breakfasts, a patty of homemade maple sausage.
The Pie Place’s lunch menu is packed with sandwiches, housemade soups, and salads. And, oh, they have pie.
For lunch, dinner, afternoon tea, or Sunday brunch, Chez Jude “caters to your every whim.” If your business in Grand Marais is autumnal in nature, you’ll need to zip over there before they take their two-month fall break starting after the last weekend in October. But, don’t despair: Chez Jude re-opens on December 26 for winter season, which stretches out until the end of February. Chez Jude’s primary season begins in May.
If you’ve heard rumblings about Chez Jude’s future, again, don’t despair. Chef Judi Barsness says: “Chez Jude is here to stay in Grand Marais.” Over the course of the next three years, though, Chez Jude will be undergoing a transition, says Barsness, “Similar to what they did at Harbor View Cafe in Pepin, WI, where the restaurant will be sold to an employee group.” Barsness says she will continue to be very involved, including “with menu development, special culinary events, and teaching classes. But, my husband and I are at the retiring age, and we’d like to start spending more time with our children and grandchildren,” hence the need to ease slowly out of the restaurant business. Barsness said that she had been in discussions with another young chef and his wife, but they decided they couldn’t take it on. “My staff has pulled together, and they want to keep it Chez Jude. But, over the next three years, I will be backing away. My staff and sous chefs, who are a key part of my team, will be taking over.”
Barsness says she’s “jazzed” about what she and her team have achieved with Chez Jude during the six years they’ve been open. Says Barsness: “We are blessed and lucky to have a great following. Our customer base is largely Twin Cities and Wisconsin, but we have a large local following along the North Shore and from Thunder Bay in Canada. We’ve been proud of the recognition from Twin Cities press and tourists about what we do.” Among Chez Jude’s accomplishments, Barsness lists: being invited to participate in the Twin Cities Food and Wine Experience; in the Minnesota Homegrown Cookbook: Local Food, Local Restaurants, Local Recipes (Chez Jude contributed four recipes to the book, including one for Yukon Gold and Root Vegetable Mousse that is a great way for the home cook to take advantage of fall’s bounty); and, for three years running, in Minnesota Cooks at the State Fair.
Barsness is proud of her “great team of people” and mentions them often. “No chef does it alone,” she says, “no matter how great their talent, their creative spirit, their passion. At Chez Jude, every person who works in the kitchen and dining room is responsible for our success, and for the food, for the presentation, for the service. They deserve the accolades bestowed upon us. I never think ‘Yay, Judi Barsness;’ I think ‘Yay, Chez Jude.'”
Barsness says she’s had a passion for food her entire life, starting from what she learned from her mother, a “great chef in her own right.” “I love what I do. I put passion forward in my food and in the artfulness of presentation on the plate.” Barsness’ “Minnsine” philosophy of serving contemporary cuisine utilizing the freshest and organic ingredients harvested and wild-caught locally developed as a result of having been raised in a European home and from being a child of the ’60’s, “the boomer generation and their new respect for the environment.”
A few months before she was born, Barsness’ family moved from France to Milwaukee, WI, where “I grew up in my mom’s French restaurant. I remember when the Italian fishmongers from the East side of Milwaukee would come into the restaurant with their wares. Growing up, I ate differently than other kids. There was no Campbell’s Soup, no macaroni and cheese. The produce and meats and poultry we ate were from the same suppliers and butchers that supplied my mom’s restaurant. Other kids didn’t want to come over. While their refrigerators were stocked with fruit, ours was packed with things my friends didn’t get into. My favorite was bowls of artichokes and wonderful aiolis my mother kept in the fridge. I’d grab an artichoke for a snack.”
Chez Jude’s three most popular menu items, according to Barsness, are the fresh fish (either Lake Superior trout or white fish or Canadian Walleye) en papillote with lobster lemon dill butter; the Herbs de Provence Crusted Rack of Lamb served with a red currant and port wine glace reduction ($28); and wood oven-roasted Duck Breast with Sun Dried Cranberry Duck Glace ($24). Barsness says each of these menu items was originally part of a specific autumn or spring seasonal menu but that customers asked for them year-round. “I have learned that I always have to have a little of certain things on the menu.” Her own favorites are the classic recipes that she learned from her mother, MarieLouise, that she then “puts on her own twist.” Chez Jude’s Breast of Chicken Coq au Vin ala MarieLouise ($22) is her mother’s recipe, prepared in a classic way, then finished over maple-wood in the restaurant’s Mugnaini woodburning oven, “which gives it another flavor layer.” Other Chez Jude dishes that are adaptations of MarieLouise’s recipes are (one of my favorites) the Ancho Maple BBQ Glazed St Louis Pork Ribs ($22) and the French onion soup.
In terms of sourcing, “local” for Chez Jude includes the entire state of Minnesota and Northern Wisconsin. Barsness thinks focusing on local cuisine is “more of a challenge” in Grand Marais than it is in Minneapolis-St. Paul because of “the limited growing season.” You have to have an expanded understanding that “harvest” doesn’t just mean “from the earth,” but that it also means “from Lake Superior and inland waters.”
Barsness uses her “off” months of November and December to re-tool her menu, travel, read, and relax. Though Chez Jude will be closed, Friday and Saturday evening three-course tasting menus at Bearskin Lodge on the Gunflint trail will continue uninterrupted. Reservations are strongly recommended.
Barsness is also looking forward to teaching her new six-week class called “Mastering the Art of Julia, MarieLouise, and Chez Jude.”
For lunch or dinner, to warm yourself to the bones, you can’t go wrong with Crooked Spoon Cafe‘s French Onion Soup en Croute ($7), which is smothered with gooey gruyere cheese and topped with a puffy, crisp crouton the size of Isle Royale. A painting of the soup adorns the wall at the back of the restaurant. Other menu items can be hit or miss; my advice for finding the hits is that you gravitate towards dishes with simple preparations. Whatever you chose, don’t forget to try the spiced butter (fourteen spices including clove and cinnamon!) that accompanies the complimentary bread basket. It’s so delicious that it practically begs to be eaten by the crooked spoonful.
As for my favorite secret indulgence in Grand Marais, Sydney’s Frozen Custard — for that, you really will have to wait until spring.