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.

TABLEHOPPING

WINE BRATS: Do you drink wine with your pizza? With your omelettes? Your Cheetos and Twinkies? The Wine Brats--a national group devoted to demystifying, descarifying, and otherwise democratizing the wine experience--wish you would. They've published a book, The Wine Brats' Guide to Living, With Wine, in which they cover all the wine basics and undertake amusing digressions on such topics as what to drink with Jack in the Box hamburgers (yes, they're West Coast-oriented--the organization was founded by three sons of prominent Napa wine families); which varietal goes best with Pepperidge Farm Sausalito cookies (zinfandel); and what to drink with delivery pizza. The local chapter--Twin Cities Wine Brats--has met only sporadically over the past few years, but a change in leadership has brought new energy: Chapter head Jamie Miller says a recent event at St. Paul's Zander Café went swimmingly. "We had 50 people or so--we thought it was really good since it was basically the first one in a really long time. We're calling it the rebirth of the Wine Brats. The marketing goal of the group is to attract the Gen X crowd, but it's more of a young-at-heart kind of group. We're looking for anyone who doesn't have a wine-snob 'I know everything' attitude."

The Brats would have liked to invite you to an event at the Local tomorrow; unfortunately it sold out by press time--Wine Bastards! But there is another promising local gathering in the offing: The "All-Spice Fusion Tour 2000" is scheduled for Tuesday, June 13, from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at Warehouse District Caribbean favorite Chez Bananas. National sponsors Korbel Champagne Cellars, Heck Estates, and others will provide wine, Chez Bananas will offer appetizers, and you'll learn how to match wines with boldly flavored foods--all for $17.95. Register online (www.acteva.com/go/tcwinebrats) or, if you can't make this event but would
like to attend others, e-mail Miller at thymedine@cs.com. Further general info can be found at www.winebrats.org, but don't try to sign up for the local chapter at that site--Miller notes that there have been communication troubles between the national site and the local mailing list. (Very Gen X: Where are the Data Management Brats?) So dust off your cocktail-party chit-chat--the time's never been riper to change yourself from oenophobe to oenophile.

VEGAN JELL-O: Cruising through the aisles of Fishman's Kosher Market & Deli the other day--the very best pickle store in town, thank you very much--I was reminded how many kosher products are also vegan. Why? Kosher rules prohibit eating foods containing dairy at the same time as foods containing meat, so a special effort is made to create foods with neither dairy nor meat that may be eaten with either dairy or meat--and as we all know, foods with neither dairy nor meat are frequently vegan! I was particularly impressed with the selection of vegan gelatins and puddings. If you're a vegan with a hankering for deluxe Jell-O molds, beat a path to Fishman's door--4000 Minnetonka Blvd., Minnetonka, (612) 926-5611--posthaste. And if you want to amaze a vegan with a deluxe Jell-O recipe, I suggest you seek ideas at the brilliant Chef Andy's Jell-O Pages
(cascade.mit.edu/cookbook/jello/)--where all of us carnivores are also reminded of what's in those jewel-toned desserts made with genuine Jell-O: Hides, bones, and inedible connecting tissue! Expect to pay from 59 cents to $1.25 for your box of vegan Jell-O, depending on the brand.

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