Stillwater Runs Deep

Harvest Restaurant & Inn
114 Chestnut Street, Stillwater; (651) 430-8111
Hours: lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:00 p.m.; dinner nightly 5:30 p.m. to close (usually 8:00 p.m. weekdays, 9:00 p.m. weekends)

If you're a typical urban sophisticate with decent restaurant radar, you take one look at the cutesy purple-and-green Victorian façade of the Harvest Restaurant & Inn and conclude: Raisin toast, hazelnut coffee, apple butter. Best-case scenario? Maybe some good waffles.

And, as so often happens when you rely on restaurant radar in the Twin Cities, you are wrong. This 152-year-old Greek revival mansion, with its ancient, creaking floors, elaborate gas-conversion light fixtures, and fussy, gilt-trimmed Empire wallpaper, offers hot chiles, sweet mangoes, smoky curries, and the best upscale Caribbean cooking in the region. Who knew?

Michael Dvorak

My first clue that this gorgeous little jewel box of a restaurant had more to offer than a cozy fireplace and a few decorating tips was the polenta topped with mussels and shrimp in a curried cumin-green-chile broth ($8.95). The oval platter groaned under a good pound of fresh mussels drenched in delightfully elaborate curry--hot with chiles, pungent with garlic, earthy with toasted cumin, fruity with snips of red bell pepper, snappy with fresh ginger, green with shredded cilantro, all of which perfectly combined with the sweet shrimp and creamy polenta.

Further sampling revealed a scrupulously clean and crisp green salad ($5.95) and an unforgettably rich and delectable presentation of pork medallions with a brandy, nutmeg, and cream sauce ($17.95). This creation was so lush and buttery it was like eating some high-protein rendition of rum-raisin ice cream--and I mean that in the nicest possible way. I was also impressed by a combination of rare seared yellowfin tuna adorned with mellow, tender chunks of lobster and peppery accents of watercress ($18.95): The ingredients were so fresh, the lobster so tender, and the dish assembled with such deft confidence, I sensed an intimacy with bodies of water far from the nearby St. Croix.

Turns out that in this case, my radar wasn't too far off. Mark Hanson is the Culinary Institute of America-trained owner/chef behind the scenes of this little restaurant--or perhaps I should say under the scenes, since his one-man kitchen is in the Inn's basement--and he has, in fact, spent most of his career in proximity to large bodies of water. He cut his teeth as a chef at Maurice, a onetime Manhattan nouvelle-cuisine powerhouse, and spent four years running upscale hotel kitchens in the Virgin Islands.

After learning about Hanson's island background, I returned to try more of his Caribbean dishes, which proved delightful. Shrimp and oyster tempura with mango and scallion salsa ($9) featured ethereally light seafood with a salsa that was kicky with onions and zingy with fresh ginger. Crab cakes ($8) were fresh, eggy, and light as little soufflés; a giant, seared filet of mahi-mahi ($18) was accompanied by a delicious blood-orange-and-ginger reduction which proved the perfect tart and spicy counterpoint to the sweet fish and the rich, melt-in-your-mouth mashed potatoes on the side.

It could be argued that that buttery quality is the restaurant's one Achilles' heel: For some reason or other, Hanson also offers a couple of notably tasty but distinctly dumb hotel dishes including beef tenderloin topped with the French cheese spread Boursin ($19.95); chicken breasts stuffed with Cambozola, a silly cheese that combines the creaminess of Camembert with the salt and tang of Gorgonzola; and an appetizer tartlet topped with smoked salmon, asparagus, and melted Brie ($8) that was deliciously addictive, but also so salty, fatty, and one-dimensional that I'd be lying if I claimed it was anything more complicated than Frito pie for the upper classes.

Speaking of pie, Hanson also is quite a talent in the pastry kitchen. The molten-center chocolate cake was a stellar version of that trendy sweet, and the banana-blueberry cheesecake (each $5.50 for lunch, $7 for dinner) was so light it had the texture of a cloud.

Or was that merely the effect of the restaurant's quirky and engaging wine list? Composed of two dozen often changing wines from all over the globe, priced from $13 to $69 with a dozen varieties available by the glass ($4.50 to $9), the list is worth special attention not only as a model selection of nicely priced, well-balanced bottles, but as an effort to expose customers to new wines through nonthreatening outreach devices like table tents and friendly explanatory wine cards. I tried a Central California "Cal-Ital" advertised at my table, and the 1997 Martin & Weyrich Nebbiolo ($25) was ripe, juicy, and particularly likable because it somehow managed not to die a thousand deaths when faced with both green salad and green curry.

If you want to sip those wines amid a charming pile of Victoriana, though, you'd best act soon. For while Hanson has built something of a following for his B&B--a fact he attributes to the deluxe breakfasts he delivers to the suites--he says he's frustrated with life in a basement and feels that his style of cooking would be better received in a more contemporary setting, so he is looking for a different site in Stillwater.

But will this antiques, arts, and crafts (and antique arts- and crafts-, and Arts and Crafts antiques-) saturated town tolerate an unabashedly contemporary restaurant, one that (gasp!) confidently juggles Hawaiian fish and Caribbean curry? Your well-honed restaurant instincts might say no. And once again, I believe, your instincts would be wrong. As I unloaded the car after my latest Stillwater visit, hauling out a breathtaking collection of evocative, unusual, and only slightly damaged objects I have absolutely no room for, I mused that if there is a town in town that's willing to risk purchase of the unknown, Stillwater has got to be it.

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