Editor’s Note: QUARTER/Quarter is now closed.
Editor’s note: the next edition of The Tap will appear on Dec. 17.
We were intrigued by the emails. Dispatches from a place called QUARTER/quarter have been coming our way since its founding in 2010, telling the story of a fine dining outpost in bluff country, where smart, intriguing, appetizing-sounding food is being served amidst the hills and streams near Lanesboro, MN.
So late this autumn, we made the 130-mile trip to Harmony, wisely also visiting the Aroma Pie Company on what turned out to be their last weekend of operation until spring.
When we found QUARTER/quarter, we found a place neither rustic nor urban, but rather a bright, airy, minimalist haven incorporating the simple warmth of the rural along with the spare sense of openness of the city. Its unusual name comes from a confluence of two different ideas. The first: “In 1832 the smallest area of land that could be purchased by settlers was reduced to 40 acres or, a quarter-quarter section, making it possible for many more people to afford to start farming.” The second: its address, 25 Center Street.
Chef Stephen Larson greeted us upon arrival, and not long thereafter, plates of food began sailing out of the kitchen to our table. In the interim, he told us about how he got started.
“The story begins in Brandon, South Dakota,” says Larson, recounting his culinary beginnings. His older brother was a chef in St. Paul, and Larson left his small-town home to follow in his brother’s footsteps, moving to the Twin Cities at the age of 16 to spend a summer cooking at the 510 Restaurant (now La Belle Vie). Larson dug the experience.
“I fell in love with it right away — I thought it was the coolest,” he says. “Everybody singing Led Zeppelin — sex, drugs, and rock and roll, you know? For a kid from Brandon, South Dakota it was pretty cool. I knew right then I was going to be a chef — finish high school and go to chef school.”
That was the plan, and reality followed suit. Larson cooked his way up through a number of places (including Ristorante Luci and D’Amico Cucina) meeting his wife, Lisa Flicker, along the way. (And if you’re wondering: yep, Lisa is Doug Flicker’s sister. Coincidentally, QUARTER/quarter opened the same day that Piccolo did in Minneapolis.)
And then: in 1994, 10 years into his career, he was done. Sort of.
“Lisa and I hatched a plan to move to the country, buy a farmhouse, and open a bed and breakfast and cooking school,” he says. “That whole time in the city I was cooking I also taught classes — I was kind of dared to do a class at Cooks of Crocus Hill. I absolutely loved it.”
“I thought, ‘Well, I could probably do this in the country.’ So we did that. We spent three years renovating our farm, about three miles out of town.”
In 2001, Larson and Flicker opened Gourmets’ Garden B&B Cooking School. The plan worked well for about nine years. And then, Larson recalls: “…2008 happened and a lot of businesses took a really strong hit. The economy tanked … especially high-end bed and breakfasts and cooking schools.”
Arguably, it was a terrible time to get into one of the few businesses riskier than the gourmet B&B racket. But at what Larson describes as a “Chamber of Commerce after hours meeting — over a couple of beers” someone asked him if he was interested in opening his own restaurant in a space soon to be for sale in downtown Harmony. The community would back him up on it, and do what they could to make it succeed.
“I never wanted to open my own restaurant,” says Larson. “I know how much work it is — everything that goes into it — and I found myself saying: ‘In a heartbeat!’ So here we are.”
When asked about the downside of operating in Harmony, Larson says: “At the top of the list is just not having a huge demographic to choose from. Restaurants like Piccolo can easily exist — if they’re good — in the Twin Cities. You’d never be able to do that here. Not only that, but getting the ingredients… .”
Larson does his own shopping. “I don’t have a food service purveyor,” he says. “They’re mostly about manufactured stuff. I do a once a week shopping trip,” he says, to (among other things) co-ops in Rochester and La Crosse. “I do some specialty buying, like Coastal Seafoods,” he adds, supplementing at grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Sam’s Club (for its unbleached flour).
On Larson’s list of advantages for living in Harmony is the restaurant’s proximity to home. “I only live four minutes away [from the restaurant], so running back and forth is no big deal. We have 16,000 square feet of gardens that we put in. So we try to take advantage of that as much as possible.”
“We use so many fresh herbs here,” he says. “And we have ducks, laying hens, so we predominantly use our own eggs. Just in herbs and eggs, it’s a few thousand bucks a year. Not only do you get screamingly fresh herbs and eggs, they’re duck eggs, which are hard to find… and I get ’em free, and I use them with reckless abandon.”
For Larson, too, a small town means a clientele that he knows on a level not possible for the typical high-end eatery in a major metro area like the Twin Cities. “It’s not just rooms full of nameless faces coming through,” he says. “It’s a lot easier down here to build a rapport with your customer base. It’s a lot easier to personally know about them and know about their lives, and likes and dislikes.”
The pluses and minuses of Harmony profoundly informed the sort of restaurant Larson and Flicker opened in 2010. “I knew we couldn’t really open a super high-end restaurant,” he says. “You have to keep local business during the winter. During the summer you have all sorts of tourists, but during the winter you have to have a strong local following. I decided it was going to be an eclectic mix — I called it ‘globally inspired comfort food.'”
The result is a restaurant that serves food that walks on both sides of the line that separates haute cuisine from old-school, approachable Midwestern comfort.
“We hear many of the locals say: ‘Oh, it’s the fancy place,'” Larson says. “The fanciest restaurant in Fillmore County! But then we hear from Twin Cities tourists: ‘You know you’re really cheap, don’t you?’ And I say: ‘Yes. It’s a very conscious decision to be that way.”
Price aside: From a diner’s perspective, the nice thing about a chef-driven restaurant is that your food is, well, actually cooked by a chef. Larson’s efforts brought us dishes with proper seasoning, deft searing and sauteeing, and a talented use of disparate but harmonious flavor and texture elements to make dishes that felt complete without feeling overcomplicated. We found ourselves saying, “Oh, this was cooked correctly,” over and over again, as much a revelation about the hit-or-miss quality of food at many workaday restaurants as it was about strong and consistent technical quality of the food hitting our plates.
QUARTER/Quarter’s menu starts out solidly with appetizers (many of which are Asian-inspired) that are arguably edited to the point of being blunt — we thought the chicken yakitori ($4.50, bottom left) both classic (with little beyond soy and and sesame evident, flavorwise) and underspoken, but enjoyed the pork satay (also $4.50, top) simplicity, boasting a peanut sauce that was committedly nutty without being sugary, kicked firmly with a pleasantly lingering spicy heat.
Representing the “Classics” section of the menu was Not MY Mother’s Meatloaf ($14.25), described by Larson as follows: “[It’s] bacon-wrapped, with hand-ground beef and pork. And it’s a traditional gravy but we make all our own stocks, and it’s got a parsnip mash instead of straight potatoes.”
Caramelized onion sweet corn contributed a gentle note of sweetness to this sausage-like savory dish, which boasted a char-kissed texture and a light, surprisingly elegant texture. The contrast between the gritty down-home image of meatloaf and the delicacy of the finished dish conjured up the image of Fred Flintstone turning a perfect pirouette on ice skates.
Moving into the “Contemporary” part of the menu’s entree section: “We have a dish on the menu right now called Catalan Shrimp and Rice which is basically our version of paella,” Larson told us. “So that’s almost the Spanish national dish, so that to them is kind of a comfort food.”
To us, too, it was comfort food. Texturewise, few things get screwed up more frequently — and with less comment — than shrimp and rice, typically overcooked to the point of boasting a distinctly Goodyear tire texture and of being grimy, demoralizing mush, respectively. QUARTER/quarter’s spin on paella was one of the best we’ve had, and we ate a lot of paella while living among the Portuguese and Brazilian folk of East Cambridge, Massachusetts.
A serving of Pistachio Salmon ($19) was the meal’s apex, and one of the most harmonious intersections of fish and breading imaginable. The nutty warmth of the pistachio butter and crushed pistachios expertly cradled the flavor of the fish, and the supporting raft of root vegetables were still bright in flavor and robust in texture without being raw or jarring. This was a gorgeous dish.
We don’t have any complete photos of the pumpkin panna cotta we were served, because our photographer — a documented pumpkin fiend — bolted most of it before anyone at the table realized what was going on. The thing was amazing — ethereal in texture, light in flavor but with a committed pumpkin kick, and none of the cloying, spice-driven sugary fake pumpkin schmaltz that brings down so many so-called “pumpkin” desserts. Along with the fish, this was a dish that would have shone in the Cities, or in any given city in the world for that matter.
After eating his food, you understand that Larson is no exile — he’s very much at home.
(QUARTER/quarter, 25 Center St E, Harmony, MN, reservations available at 507.886.5500)