Rolling on the River

No Wake Cafe

No Wake Cafe

Pier One, Harriet Island, St. Paul; 292-1411

In Paris you can toss croissant crumbs to birds from your cafe tables on the Seine; in Florence you can bump into the Arno a dozen times in a day; in New York the Circle Liner endlessly circles through the Hudson and the East rivers--yet in Minneapolis and St. Paul you'll be lucky to get within coin-tossing distance of the Mississippi twice in a year. You can blame it on poor civic planning--and I do--but to be perfectly truthful the Mississippi isn't helping. It's a river with a temper, and when it's in a bad mood you'd better get out of its way or suffer the consequences. This spring the Covington barge, home of the No Wake Cafe and Covington Inn, suffered the consequences.

"On April 6 our gas and electricity were shut down," says Ann Reeves, co-owner of the cafe, "and we were forced to close. We ran temporary water and sewage lines--until April 7, when the blizzard hit. That knocked out the power and the heat. Then our plumbing froze, then a lot of our inventory froze. By the next week it was 70 degrees, and whatever didn't freeze rotted."

The Mississippi had entirely flooded Harriet Island and the Covington wasn't securely anchored in 11 feet of water as it usually is, it was floating in 35 feet of gushing river water. Every day Ann and her partner Tom Wellna ferried out to the Covington, and, in Ann's words, "watched the river, and applied for flood relief. We had already lost one month of our seven-month season. It was very, very nerve-wracking--we really had no idea what would be coming downstream at us. We felt more than a little vulnerable." They watched as uprooted trees, furniture, garbage, and all the debris you'd expect floated by. Then came the three-car garage. "Or it might have been some kind of a farm out-building. But anyway it was a large metal building, and it came down at us. It knocked right into the side of the boat and rolled under us. I don't know what happened to it after that, but it ripped a couple of holes in the hull, and we had to start running some pumps in the bilge."

It's hard to imagine the anxiety they must have endured, their life's work floating free in the middle of the Mississippi, dependent on luck and a couple of gas generators. But now the flood is over, and Ann views it with equanimity: "We're very lucky we weren't in Grand Forks. And the grass on Harriet Island has never been greener."

Crossing that green grass today, you'd never know what perils the Covington endured. The holes in the hull are patched, the vases on the tables are full of tulips, the dining room is neat as a pin, the kitchen is humming, and, as ever, romance blossoms apace. If you've never been to the No Wake one thing you should know is that it's terrifically romantic--but not in the gooey tea-rose and lace-tchatchka tradition. It's romance for those who appreciate the delicacy and fragility in majesty, as seen from a fish's-eye view down on the Mississippi, gazing up at the towering city of St. Paul and those high far-off bluffs, the cathedral, and the gargantuan clouds; it's romance for the watchful and confident.

The kitchen is as dependable as ever. Chef Mary Cashman serves up a constantly changing menu of original and unpretentious dishes. Recent offerings included a bowl of very tasty asparagus and Parmesan-stuffed wontons served under a sauce of fresh shitakes and given texture by a handful of thinly sliced pea pods ($12.50); a delicious tuna steak grilled until translucent, accompanied by a tangy apple, raisin, and pine-nut chutney, and served with fresh, spicy collard greens and garlic mashed potatoes ($16); and a homey plate of tender pork medallions served with a mild fennel cream sauce ($15). Sandwiches--good sandwiches, like a grilled marlin with lemon-caper mayonnaise ($8), a sliced steak and gorgonzola ($8.50), or a white bean and garlic pâté ($6.50)--are also served at dinner.

The wine list, while short, is reasonably priced, nicely varied, and smartly takes into account the needs of its patrons--on a recent brunch I saw three couples sharing bottles of the Francois Montand Blanc de Blanc ($24), a light sparkling wine in a pretty green bottle.

The brunch itself is a joyful affair, tables bustling with families and couples enjoying steaming cups of coffee and fresh-baked treats like the buttery orange scones ($1.75). The wild-rice-baguette French toast ($5.25) is deliciously light and moist, and when paired with fresh strawberries, chicken-apple sausage, and organic maple syrup, becomes quite a fancy treat. The scrambled eggs with cream cheese are creamy, and served with sides of grilled potatoes and sausage ($7); the salmon quiche is rich with asparagus, leeks, and brie ($8); and the salad of thinly sliced wild mushrooms, apples, walnuts, and spinach in a champagne-walnut dressing served with brie and bread is a light and civilized way to start the day--especially as you contemplate the light bouncing off the Mississippi's ever-changing surface.

In fact, in the course of your meal you might see the river turn a dozen shades of brown, gray, and green, and the light spin from gray to gold. It's quite a sight, the enormity of light and sky and city seen from the rippling skin of the river, and I don't recommend it to the timid. But if you're willing to open your eyes to the grandeur and wildness of it, and brave the occasional battle with a renegade garage, dining on the heart of the river offers a view rarely seen.

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