A Walleye's Eyes
Tavern on Grand
656 Grand Ave., St. Paul; (651) 228-9030
Hours: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Thursday, food served until 11 p.m.; 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday, food served until midnight; 10 a.m.-1 a.m. Saturday, food until midnight; 10 a.m.-1 a.m. Sunday, food until 11 p.m.
After a million walleyes on a million plates in a million joints, after walleye in baskets, walleye on sticks, walleye in sandwiches, and walleye in black bean sauce, there comes a time in every non-angler's life when she must take a good look around and ask: What the heck is walleye, anyway?
Well, let me tell you: Walleye is no dumb bunny. It's a top predator, a sneaky hunter that feasts on little fishes; it's practically a freshwater shark. It has glassy eyes with reflective membranes behind the retina that allow it to see in the dark; if you shine a light at them, a walleye's eyes will glow like a cat's. Because of this, some call the walleye "old nobble eye." British slang for drugged was, once, "nobbled." Old schnockered-eye. Lucy in the Sky With Walleye Eyes.
Walleyes are big, bug-eyed fish. The record is 25 pounds, and I've seen pictures--even a 20-pound walleye is bigger than your average toddler. Some call them walleyed pike, even though they're technically perch. According to the North American Fishing Club's Walleye Tactics, Tips, and Tales, they're also called, in different parts of the country, jack salmon, dore, pike-perch, yellowpike, jack glasseye, gum pike, Susquehanna salmon, bugeye, pickerel, yellow pickerel, and marble eye. (Appropriately enough for Minnesota, the best-known name comes from the Icelandic vagleygr, which means "film eyes.")
Walleyes are smart: They like to drive a school of small prey fish, like smelt or shad, against a ledge and eat them as they bounce off the wall. They like to get under a group of little fish being attacked by another predator, like a pike, and catch the wounded as they drop down like falling leaves.
Interestingly, they are very particular when it comes to their marital duties. They particularly like to spawn near gravelly, windswept shores--though they'll do it in the weeds if they must, like some people who will remain nameless. Why rocky shores? There, the eggs can drop into crevices between the gravel, where they are protected from predators; wind keeps sediment in the water from suffocating the eggs. Moreover, walleyes thrive in places with long winters, where shore ice forces them to delay spawning until late spring: By the time the baby fish are hatched, other creatures have begun to develop, and the newborns, known as fry, can eat.
Long winters. Rocky, windswept lake and river shores. Ring any bells?
With walleye comes walleye culture. Log cabins. Loons. Plaid flannels. Pine and birch. Tavern on Grand pays them all their due: Trompe-l'oeil painting makes the walls look as if they were made of logs. Slats frame north-woods scenes--a crane flying into a gold-and-periwinkle sunset, a full moon over a pine-ringed lake, a mossy, frothy waterfall--are they meant as windows or paintings? I prefer windows. And what's that on that dimly lit shore? Are they...no. Couldn't be.
But these are walleye in front of you. Walleye nuggets in appetizer baskets ($6.95). Walleye in sandwiches ($7.95). Walleye in shore lunches ($8.50). Walleye in one-fillet ($12.95) and two-fillet ($16.95) dinners. Walleye in "Lakeshore Specials," with sirloin steak ($16.95). Flaky, ivory-fleshed walleye. Maybe it's their cold-water, sushi-fed life that makes walleye so sweet and tender, but I'm betting it's just luck that makes them so easily boned. (The closest North American relative of the walleye, the sauger, is full of tiny needle bones, which are a devil to get out.)
The Tavern's culinary style is classic, understated north woods. In all dishes but the appetizer, you can choose to have your fish fried or broiled. Fried fillets, breaded with a simple seasoned flour, emerge sand-colored, crisp as sticks, delicate as cake in the centers. Grilled ones are cooked modestly with lemon pepper and a bit of paprika. The boneless, bite-sized walleye chunks in the appetizer basket are addictive--sweet, tender tokens of the chilly Canadian lake that supplies all of the Tavern's walleye.
Freshly steamed vegetables in an oil-based dressing and your choice of potato come with all the walleye dishes except the appetizer and sandwich. Fries are those pre-seasoned, breaded ones; steamed new potatoes are just that, unadorned, perfect with salt, pepper, a little butter. Big, fluffy, church-basement rolls and foil-wrapped butter pats come with the dinners and shore lunch. Next time I have to entertain some out-of-towner looking for proof of Lake Wobegon, I'll bring them here.
The Tavern also sells burgers ($4.75 to $5.75), barbecue, soups, salads, jalapeño poppers ($4.95), and all the other things neighborhood bars sell, though I didn't find anything besides the walleye I'd endeavor to order again. What I like best about the place is the only-in-Minnesota atmosphere, the cheery, unself-conscious hubbub, and that instant north-woods-vacation feeling--every time I've been there, one of my party has, without prompting, brought up camping, park stickers, road trips, and such. Like a lake cabin, the Tavern has a rotating shelf of dog-eared paperbacks for communal enjoyment. Like a cabin, it's an all-age adventure: Once I saw a baby, in a snowsuit, in his car seat on the bar. Was he lulled to sleep by the Leinenkugel waterfall streaming from the taps? Or was he toothlessly dreaming of future walleye? Or was he just plain tired out with winter, like a fish whose lake's ice lid is about to thaw?
MICHAEL JACKSON'S MAIL CARRIER: I was leafing through Michael Jackson's latest book, Ultimate Beer (Dorling Kindersley, $29.95). This really is the ultimate beer drinker's lazy-afternoon picture book. It breaks down beers by styles--Golden Lager, Pilsner Lager, Porter, Dry Stout, Christmas Ale, Dortmunder Export, etc.--and shows them four to a page, in their bottles and poured, along with tasting notes and little nuggets of brewery or brew-style history. It's so perfect because it provides you with exactly as much reading as you'd ever want to do while sipping on the couch, and it's also got a very good index in case you care to geek out at the liquor store, which I've been known to do.
Anyhoo, leafing through the book and marveling at all the drinking yet to be done, it occurred to me that I have some sort of purchase on food-writing legitimacy, and I wonder if... And wouldn't you know, he picked up the phone. Michael Jackson, the world's foremost beer authority, author of beer encyclopedias, star of the television series The Beer Hunter, was but one costly call away.
Shocked as all get-out, I asked him about something that's puzzled me forever: How Budweiser, the Anheuser-Busch product, could allow another beer to use its name--Budweiser Budvar, a Czech brew found on page 153 of Ultimate Beer. He explained that the city of Budvar, or Budweis, in Bohemia, has been famous for its beer since the 1200s, and that when Adolphus Busch named his beer "Budweiser" he was taking advantage of an already well-known name that connoted quality, sort of like you would name your restaurant "Tuscany" or your wine "Champagne." The duplicate name didn't cause much trouble when the Czech and American Budweisers were separated by the Iron Curtain. But ever since Budvar's two breweries--Budweiser Bürgerbräu, founded in 1795, and Budweiser Budvar, founded in 1895--began competing in the modern world, Anheuser-Busch has been alternately trying to sue them and buy them out. Neither worked, so now the various Budweisers have to learn to coexist. Not that it matters, says Jackson: Bud will always be Bud, while the other two brews are known (by a lot fewer people) as Bürgerbräu and Budvar.
Speaking of Budweiser, I babbled on, how is it possible that the world could be gaining more and more microbrews, while at the same time Budweiser expands to the point of becoming omnipresent in places with fine native brews, like Ireland, Japan, and Italy? Jackson theorized that the world is developing into "parallel universes," and that one universe's beer is getting "ever smaller, ever more tasty, and ever more local," while the other's becomes "ever more the same."
Which is funny, because that that's what I think about agriculture: That the upper classes are eating ever more organic, closely supervised, naturally and ethically raised chickens, wheat, carrots, etc., while the rest of the people are left with ever less-regulated, chemical-laced, irradiated and fumigated and otherwise abused food.
But an awareness of parallel universes is probably about all Jackson and I have in common. No one, to my unending chagrin, sends me six-packs in the mail; Jackson says that while working on this book he had 1,500 separate beers around his London office--in six-packs, cases, gallon jugs and 40-ounce bottles. While researching his last whiskey book, he says he got more than 500 bottles over the transom. So I'm putting that in my little black book. Best job in the world: beer and whiskey authority. Worst job: beer and whiskey authority's letter carrier.
I was so awestruck after talking to Jackson--he's got this deep, rolling, British voice you could wade through--that I raced right over to www.beerhunter.com, his Web site, and read his recent diaries from beer-tasting trips. Minnesota-wise he has good things to say about Minnetonka's Sherlock's Home "which has, for my money, the best cask-conditioned ale in the United States." About St. Paul's Summit Brewing Company, whose India Pale Ale left him "dazzled by its balance of oily maltiness and earthy hoppiness," and the Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery on Seven Corners, whose Bitter "combined a smooth maltiness, orangey fruitiness and hoppy dryness; well-balanced but bitter enough to justify its stylistic description." Ah, the malty oiliness of it all--doesn't it just make you want to mail the guy a beer?
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