102 N. Second St. (at Myrtle Street), Stillwater; (612) 439-1100.
On the night I set out to find romance, clouds were piled up like last week's lusterless powdered doughnuts. One-Eyed Vera from Brainerd had told me the Lowell Inn in Stillwater was one of the most popular honeymoon destinations in the state, its rooms guaranteed to start any marriage off right, its restaurant a great place for proposals, anniversaries, and other meals à deux. Best of all was the Matterhorn Room, Vera told me, where you can get a prix fixe dinner accompanied by three bottles of wine matched to three of the four courses.
Me, I look for romance the way a golden retriever noses around for table scraps. My friends are always trying to break me of that habit; they say it can only end in heartbreak. And of course they're right--romance and tears go together like mint and julep. Still, mention chandeliers, or doilies, or the signature ceramic cats the Lowell staff famously perch on the bedspreads, and I'm hot on the trail in no time.
The first thing that struck me as I turned off I-94 onto Highway 95 just shy of the Wisconsin border was the St. Croix, thawed and rushing in some parts, mysteriously rock-solid in others. This time last year that river was wreaking havoc on this quaint little village and its antiques-and-collectibles-besotted citizenry, threatening them within an inch of their gewgaw-strewn lives. A bric-a-brac town on a sneaky river: That dangerous reputation should have been my first clue.
The second thing I noticed was that the Lowell Inn--fronted by 13 white columns representing the original 13 colonies--was built several blocks back from the waterfront. Savvy. The Lowell Inn has no truck with rising rivers. Inside, diners were gathered in the front room, home to a Chippendale fireplace, soaring pale blue walls, and a host of gilt-framed portraits--the sort of place that makes you feel as if your finger oils will wreck history for the generations. The guests couldn't wait for seatings to begin and stood around mooning into each other's eyes, holding hands, or both. Ah, romance!
I made a beeline for the bar, which looked as though it hadn't been updated since 1802--no small feat for a state that wasn't settled 'til the 1850s. The chairs were low. Real low. The murals were gray and Mediterranean-ish. The shelves were full of things like collectible liquor bottles. I sat down next to a brass table that hung from the ceiling on squeaky chains and ordered a bourbon sour from a man who wasn't at all surprised. It was a good bourbon sour, too--not too sweet, not too sour, served light and bubbly in a gilded highball glass.
I was to dine in the Matterhorn Room, the most famous of the Lowell's three dining rooms, with dark wooden walls carved by Swiss artisans to resemble something in the Alps. But when I got there, I didn't feel like I was in the Alps. It was more like being inside a Swiss cuckoo clock.
The meal started off with some sherry in a little green-stemmed glass. Next up were five snails on five mushroom caps in a deep bath of garlic butter, accompanied by a hot, damp miniloaf of pumpernickel. The escargot was the kind of dish that's super-dry up top and super-wet down under, either from having been broiled or from being left under a heat lamp, or both. But that didn't really matter: This was a dish that was all about eating butter, eating it hot, and eating it soaked into steamed pumpernickel. The management's choice of wine--a sweet and juicy 1997 Walnut Creek chardonnay--did its best to stand up to the garlic and butter, but it was a losing battle.
Then came a bowl of salad with a quartet of dressings as sweet, salty, and sassy as chorus girls on vacation: Thousand Island full of fresh hard-boiled eggs, a creamy Roquefort lumpy as Joe Louis's head, and two kinds of burgundy-colored French--one with blue cheese, one with goat cheese. A 1996 Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Riesling from Josef Friederich tasted like Fruitopia when matched with the rich salad dressings, but like One-Eyed Vera always says, "If you think life is fair, I'll show you how to make money off the Internet fast for a low-low-low initial investment."
Meanwhile, in the center of the table, a pot of boiling oil roiled. My waitress--a doll in a sensible dress--brought out a plate of wild rice as soft as a morning smile and loaded with tender pecans. Then came the peculiar part: a big platter of banana chips and deep-fried garlic melba toasts surrounded by piles of pickled string beans and pickled baby corn. I had my dining companion slap my face a few times. It was still there.
On to the main course. The doll in the sensible dress outlined my options: steak, shrimp, or steak and shrimp. Guess which I picked. Two salad plates arrived, full of raw cubes of unseasoned steak and raw curls of flour-dipped shrimp. The waitress brought out dinner plates ringed by little pockets for sauce--anchovy butter, barbecue sauce, béchamel sauce, a brownish sauce, and two more, which she called "caper sauce" and "Spanish sauce," but which answer to "tartar sauce" and "cocktail sauce" back where I come from.
The doll explained the racket: Spear your choice of protein chunk and fry it in the oil. Don't crowd the pot, because that would lower the temperature and make for a greasy meal. Plan on two minutes for shrimp, slightly longer for beef, she advised. Mix and match with the sauces. Do whatever you want with the banana chips. She filled a glass with a light Italian Sangiovese from Citra that did its frail best. I felt bad for that Sangiovese--it was like the guy in the circus who's supposed to catch any falling acrobats, when suddenly there's an earthquake.
Then it hit me, like the 8 a.m. Amtrak out of Winona. I saw how their grift operated. No one wolfs her food around an oil fondue. You gotta be patient, stretch the meal out, wait for your partner to finish frying. Add in the dim lighting, the bric-a-brac perfume of Stillwater, a glass of sherry, and three entire bottles of wine, and you're looking at a three-hour meal that's given both parties plenty of time to prime themselves for the lovey-dovey. No wonder that honeymoon dough came rolling in. A genius plan, complete with unsuspecting lovebirds drunkenly swabbing wads of deep-fried beef in tartar sauce, just for variety.
Now that I knew what was going on, it was clear that unlike so many other evenings, this one wouldn't end in heartbreak. It would end in raw green grapes tossed in sour cream and sprinkled with brown sugar, sitting there in a dull silver cup like so many broken dreams. So many broken dreams rolled into squishy pellets and coated with white goo. The kind of dessert, in other words, that makes you yearn for last week's powdered doughnuts. But it wasn't over yet. Not by a long shot. When the doll in the sensible dress dropped the check, it was like a mule-kick to the solar plexus: $60 per person, tax and tip included. I gasped. I wheezed. I staggered into the pretty Stillwater night, fat snowflakes falling like the powdered sugar I knew was adorning the tops of doughnuts statewide. I caught sight of myself in the passing windshield of a Honda. Older, tipsier, fuller, deeper in debt, but--if I know anything about myself--not one degree wiser.
That's what happens when you set out looking for romance.
ALL HAIL PRINCE: Loveless? Bald? Broke? Or just searching for some good banana pancakes? Then it's time to head to the Mighty Fine Dining Cafe (1304 University Ave. N.E., Minneapolis, 623-4211), the site of breakfast and a church-sized shrine by artist Gil Carmichael, who was instructed to build the shrine after receiving a vision last June. An altar of wood holding candles, wax drippings, dice, dolls, Powerball tickets, and other spiritual detritus around an oil painting of the "sacred apparition" (an iconic figure in white surrounded by chubby cherubs), the shrine is changing people's lives. "There have been so many miracles," Carmichael said in a recent phone interview. He says the shrine has grown hair on bald heads, significantly advanced careers, cured arthritic knees, given people a general feeling of enlightenment and spiritual peace, and even won one lucky lady a trip to Florida.
One of the biggest mysteries of the sacred apparition is that it appears as different folk to different people, Carmichael says. He's heard the figure looks like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Anwar Sadat, and others. When I told him that I thought the apparition looked like the Artist Formerly Known as Prince--and that one of the waitresses at the cafe agreed with me, and said she's even dreamed of Prince since it went up--Carmichael cried, "That's another miracle!!!" Spiritual enlightenment, celebrity cipher, and a bottomless cup of joe--who says we don't live in an age of miracles?
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