Earlier this month, Heavy Table editor James Norton drove around Lake Superior with his wife, photographer Becca Dilley. The trip was an initial scouting mission for an upcoming book on Lake Superior food culture to be published by the University of Minnesota Press. (If you’ve got Lake Superior restaurant, farm, brewery, or other food purveyor tips for Dilley and Norton, please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Eating well was never a challenge during a recent trip around Lake Superior, greatest of the Great Lakes. Although many of the 1,200+ miles were empty of civilization, the constant availability of smoked fish, pie, good beer, and real doughnuts made starvation an unlikely prospect.
Our goal for this journey was to eat locally as much as we could, picking up on food folkways and ethnic traditions whenever possible. We found Finnish and Italian influences nearly everywhere we traveled, and our fall journey meant that fresh fruit (particularly apples) was a constant companion. In Michigan, not hit by the late-spring freeze that damaged much of Minnesota and Wisconsin’s apple crop, we were able to buy two 20-pound sacks of apples at a BP gas station… for $4 apiece. Apple butter, here we come.
The quality and diversity of food around the lake is remarkable, particularly when you stop to consider that the Lake Superior basin region has only about 600,000 inhabitants — a far-flung population that’s about ⅙th that of the greater Twin Cities metro area. In reporting on this first trip around the lake, we kept our list down to 10 of the most interesting items, but we could have stretched it to 20; 15 would’ve been a piece of (apple crisp cheese) cake.
1) Mezze at Northern Waters Smokehaus in Duluth
Northern Waters Smokehaus proprietor Eric Goerdt (below) made us a mixed plate of tastes for us before we hit the road. As illustrated above, Salumini, featuring great fennel flavor, a perfect (mild) level of salt, and a bit of sharpness and earthiness; Lonzino, with the meaty flavor and real delicacy of texture — not sinewy; Chorizo, with a spicy bump at the end of the flavor profile; and smoked King Salmon, rich with the essential flavor of salmon, a bit of smoke, and a mildly sweet lacquered exterior.
Visiting Goerdt’s “micro-smokery” was a great kickoff to the trip, and a nice counterpoint to interviewing the guys at Fitger’s, a lakeside brewery whose story is intertwined with that of Duluth’s.
(Northern Waters Smokehaus; Dewitt-Seitz Marketplace, 394 Lake Ave S, Duluth, MN; 218.724.7307)
2) Cinnamon Cake Doughnut at World’s Best Donuts in Grand Marais
Are the the World’s Best Donuts the world’s best doughnuts? Debatable, particularly if you’ve tried my grandmother’s homemade doughnuts. That said: This is a wonderful little doughnut shop located lakeside in Grand Marais, and the two items we tried (a glazed and a cinnamon cake doughnut) were both excellent. The cinnamon, in particular, is worth talking about — it was tender and relatively light, not overly sweet, and packed a real spice kick.
(World’s Best Donuts; 10 E Wisconsin St, Grand Marais, MN; 218.387.1345)
3) Kropsu at The Hoito in Thunder Bay, Ontario
Kropsu (oven pancakes) are just one of the more unusual Finnish delicacies served at The Hoito, the Thunder Bay restaurant that’s located in the city’s Finnish Labour Temple building. Dense and eggy and lightly browned from the oven, Kropsu are almost polenta-like, and they’re delicious when covered with jam or syrup. They probably taste pretty good with a glass of viili (clabbered milk), but we didn’t try it this time around the lake.
(The Hoito; 314 Bay St, Thunder Bay, Ontario; 807.344.7081)
4) Pumpkin Pie at Serendipity Gardens Cafe in Rossport, Ontario
A slice of pumpkin pie was just one of the many, many pieces of pie we ate during our trip — Lake Country is Pie Country, owing to the plentitude of apples and berries, and a small-town / country-influenced baking tradition that believes in doing it right.
This particular piece of pie had tons of fresh pumpkin flavor, was very light, and was topped with cinnamon sugar on real whipped cream. Simple and excellent.
(Serendipity Gardens Cafe; 222 Main St, Rossport, Ontario; 807.824.2890)
5) Thanksgiving Dinner at Gran Festa Ristorante in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
Thanks to a classic dose of American ignorance, we made our way across Canada during Thankgiving weekend. The day itself was Oct. 11, and we were able to celebrate with a Thankgiving dinner at Gran Festa, an Italian-inspired restaurant located in a hotel in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
So, it turns out that Canadian Thanksgiving is a lot like its American counterpart, only about 45 days earlier and featuring turnips. We enjoyed our meal at Gran Festa, which tasted like a home-style Thanksgiving — tasty stuffing, gravy, fantastic real mashed potatoes, slices of decent turkey, oddly lousy carrots, and little squares of roasted turnips. And, of course, pumpkin pie.
(Gran Festa Ristorante; 180 Bay St, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario; 705.945.9322)
6) Bluegill Basket at The Antlers in Sault Ste. Marie, MI
The Antlers in Sault Ste. Marie is one of those places that tourists get herded into (pun unavoidable). It’s decorated, if that’s the right word, with the taxidermed remains of everything from moose to raccoons to a giant green sea turtle, which appears as an alien-looking skull mounted on the wall. Regardless of your feelings about the decor, the food’s good — the burgers have local bakery buns and the meat comes from a local meat shop, the beer is craft and local, and the menu reflects the bounty of the lake. In addition to a decent bison cheeseburger, we tried a basket of fried bluegill. The fish themselves were highly tasty — a bit lemony, lightly battered, and not oily or fishy. They were also bone free.
(The Antlers Restaurant; 804 E Portage Ave, Sault Ste. Marie, MI; 906.253.1728)
7) Cranberry Cream Cheese Bread at the North Star Brick Oven Bakery near Newberry, MI
A little wood-fired sourdough bread shop isn’t necessarily what you’re expecting when you’re hauling ass from Paradise to Ashland, but when it pops up on your radar, you’ve got to stop. The simple, pleasing breads from the North Star Brick Oven Bakery are produced by a married couple (Joanne and Paul Behm) who sell their bread at the Sault Ste. Marie, MI farmers market as well as from their shop. We tried an olive oil-rosemary foccaccia that I had to be physically restrained from finishing while we drove, and a tasty (and not particularly sweet) cream cheese cranberry loaf made from locally picked berries.
(North Star Brick Oven Bakery; 19639 M-123, Newberry, MI; 906.658.3537)
8) Whitefish “Beer Blanc” at Deep Water Grille / South Shore Brewery in Ashland, WI
The whitefish at the Deep Water Grille in Ashland, WI was one of three or four different whitefish meals we ate as we toured the lake — and was by far the tastiest, even beating out a very respectable cedar planked version with piped Yukon Gold potatoes at Elizabeth’s Chophouse in Marquette, MI. The light-but-rich beer-butter sauce played up buttery notes in the fish, which Chef Kevin Cousins (above) compared to Lake Superior lobster. Generally, a whitefish filet does not a lobster dinner make, but in this particular preparation, yeah, OK — it was plausible. And scrumptious.
9) Cranberry Apple Pie at Judy’s Gourmet Garage in Bayfield, WI
Judy’s Gourmet Garage is the best not-kept non-secret on the lake, a garage that’s turned into a full-on pie shop. The cranberry apple pie we tried was killer — the flakey and tender crust could’ve won a contest, and the filling was pleasingly firm and a great balance between sweet and tart, and cranberry versus apple. A cinnamon-spiked crust was an added bonus. This pie does not simply triumph over a Betty’s pie, it buries a Betty’s pie.
The turnovers may be even better than the pies; a blueberry turnover we tried had a great sweetly spiced kick, delicate pastry, cream cheese frosting, and filling that walked the line between too austere and plain and too sweet and artificial.
(Judy’s Gourmet Garage; 85130 Hwy 13, Bayfield, WI; 715.779.5365)
10) The Derailed Pizza at Thirsty Pagan Brewing in Superior, WI
Thirsty Pagan is just one of those places — located in an old creamery building, it’s a business that feels simultaneously rough around the edges and extremely welcoming. And there’s nothing rough about the food or beer at this place — the pizza is done in a style all its own, with heavily cooked cheese that is browned almost to the point of blackening on the edge. This gives each slice a wonderful depth of flavor and a chewy texture that stands up to and contrasts the crunch and pull of the many ingredients featured on the establishment’s “Derailed”-style pie.
(Thirsty Pagan Brewing; 1623 Broadway, Superior, WI; 715.394.2500)
Got tips for us for our next trip around the lake? Please drop us an email: email@example.com.