Harbor View Cafe, Norton's, and Nosh are great road-trip restaurants
It was 11 o'clock in the morning of our daylong movable feast, and we'd already blown it. Our route, a loop between the Twin Cities and Wabasha, hugging the Mississippi River's banks, had been carefully calibrated to keep our meals evenly spaced. But there we were, just a few hours past breakfast, stuffing ourselves with plates of whipped-cream-topped desserts. We hadn't even reached the first restaurant on our list and we were already full.
I blame my map reader's bladder. We were only an hour from home when he requested a pit stop, which is how we found ourselves in Stockholm, Wisconsin, a tiny hamlet settled by Swedish immigrants in the 1850s. (It's also home to the farm that hosts legendary Tuesday pizza nights, where locals gather to picnic on wood-burning-oven-baked pies topped with homegrown ingredients.) As we approached Stockholm's postcard-cute downtown—a block of shops selling gifts, antiques, and art, alongside an old post office turned museum—I couldn't help but make mental note of a red "For Sale" sign on a cute clapboard house. And when I saw the image of an iconic 1950s housewife promising "a little slice of happiness," I screeched the car to a halt.
We smelled the Stockholm Pie Company's sweet, cinnamon-scented wares before we saw them. Entering the shop was like stepping into a Little House on the Prairie dream sequence: a line of red barstools led us to two smiling women in front of a case containing 14 varieties of scratch-made, freshly baked pies. These weren't the pies of a "centralized production facility" (to quote Bakers Square) or the mushy, decaying, plastic-wrapped slices that some small-town cafes let sit in their refrigerated case for days. These were old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness, handmade pies. And for those of us without a rolling-pin-wielding, live-in grandmother, they weren't going to be taken for granted.
The shop's owner and head baker, Janet Garretson, came to town to visit her brother, who owns the adjacent Abode art gallery, and decided to stay. (Of Stockholm, apparently, the saying goes, "Come for a weekend, go home with a house.") Since opening the shop last May, Garretson has created a repertoire of about 35 types of pies, which means that when rhubarb is in season she'll have rhubarb pies, strawberry-rhubarb pies, and rhubarb-custard pies in the rotation. The pies are available by the half-slice, which is a boon to samplers for whom choosing a pie is like picking out a favorite child.
Garretson makes all the customary crowd-pleasers, including a lovely whipped-cream-topped butterscotch pie, which tastes as familiar as the Jell-O version but lacks unpronounceable ingredients. She also doesn't neglect old-time classics on the brink of extinction, and her sour cream raisin is the best version I've ever tried. Based on my sampling, Garretson's triple-ingredient pies are grand-slam home runs. Triple berry, made with fresh raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, is a sweet, jammy delight, with a light, tender crust that nearly floats on top. Triple chocolate, chock-full of almonds, pecans, and coconut, tastes as decadent as a seven-layer bar.
The proof, it seems, is in how quickly Garretson's customers clean their plates. She says one customer ate four slices of pie in one sitting after having just been rescued from a fall through a frozen lake. Another customer, she says, teared up as he ate a slice, and remarked, "I didn't expect to taste pie like this ever again after my mom died."
The Stockholm Pie Company isn't yet set up for mail order, but on days the shop is closed, Abode will sell frozen pies if they're available. Twin Cities-based devotees of the North Shore's pie shops and Wisconsin's Norske Nooks should be happy to know they can now have their fix and get back home with the gas tank still nearly full.
Before we'd fully digested our pie, we pulled up to the Harbor View Cafe in Pepin, Wisconsin. This spring marked the 30th time that the beloved cafe opened its doors for the season after its founders, Paul and Carol Hinderlie, converted the town's local tavern into a gastronomic destination. (Jordan's King Hussein, Iraqi President Talabani, and the Reverend Billy Graham have all graced the Harbor View while receiving treatment at the Mayo Clinic.)
Over the years, things have hardly changed at the Harbor View, even after two longtime staffers, Chuck Morrow and his wife, Ruth Stoyke, bought the place in 2005. The cozy, wood-lined shoebox still has the same wide bank of windows overlooking the harbor, the big, comfortable booths, and the bookshelves hanging from the ceiling, lined with rows of classic tomes on permanent loan from the Hinderlies (including Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Studs Turkel's Working, and A Pictorial History of London). Most of the staff has worked at the Harbor View for years—one of the cooks has been there since the beginning—and the warm hospitality is as reliable as the trains that rumble past. This year, when two of the restaurant's longtime customers, a Winona couple in their 90s, didn't show up in the first few weeks, the staff called to check on them.
The Harbor View's tables are set with prim blue-and-white checkered tablecloths, and a chalkboard menu lists the day's selections, largely scratch-made, family recipes that make the food of bygone days feel contemporary. Many are longtime classics, like coq au vin, lasagna, and the heartiest entrée I think I've ever been served—two softball-size braised pork shanks with mashed potatoes and lemon-kissed kale. (Most of which was toted back to Minneapolis in a compostable takeout box.)
The Harbor View also specializes in fresh fish, and during my visit I hit upon a tasty menu newcomer: Icelandic haddock coated in a rich, sassy sauce of tomatoes, bacon, and mustard, and served with a side of French lentils. But the kitchen also likes to use locally raised food. In season, some of the produce comes right from staffers' home gardens.
Meals are pricey for the area—several entrées cost upward of $25, but they come with a soup or house salad—and the Harbor View doesn't take credit cards, so be sure to pack cash or a checkbook. Note, too, that the restaurant is closed between lunch and dinner service and that they don't take reservations. After you put your name on the list, plan to hit the shops, watch the eagles, or simply stand on the sidewalk with a glass of wine and enjoy the harbor view.
We made our third stop at the most elegant restaurant along the route—Nosh's kitchen is the only one in the area that sends out amuse bouches. But the restaurant's flexible, snack-friendly menu ensures that elegant food doesn't have to be intense or expensive—fortunate for those of us who were tucking into our fourth meal of the day. Since 2007, Nosh's Twin Cities fans have been celebrating the restaurant's move from Wabasha to Lake City, as the new digs not only shorten the drive by 15 minutes but offer a waterfront view so close to the harbor that diners could almost jump aboard a vessel.
The long line of customers waiting outside the Harbor View encouraged chef-owner Greg Jaworski and his wife, Tiffany, to open their own riverfront restaurant five years ago. Jaworski's cooking is also seasonally driven, and the menu changes daily based on what he's found scouring the area farmers' markets. Nearly everything Nosh serves is made from scratch, from sausage to Dijon mustard. "We don't buy anything that's premade," Jaworski says. "Except for our butter, and I'm honestly working on how to do that."
Jaworski's style could be called Lake City locavore meets Mediterranean. That means the homemade sausage on the meat-and-cheese platter we tried was seasoned with zahtar, a Middle Eastern spice blend. The result was quite appealing, upstaged only by house-made headcheese, which tasted like a delicate version of Spam. We also loved the sautéed mushrooms (cultivated in St. Joseph, Minnesota), which were roasted with herbs and olive oil, then finished with garlic, heavy cream, butter, and sherry, and eaten with fried leeks on grilled bread slices. The deliciously musky, butter-glossed caps were among the most hedonistic meatless dishes I've ever eaten.
In the winter months, Jaworski features seasonal, tropical fruits, serving Minnesota's Au Bon Canard foie gras with heirloom beet greens and roasted pineapple slices, whose sweet acidity acted as a perfect foil to the rich liver. Since I visited during citrus season, Jaworski was also pairing grapefruit with salad mix from a Wisconsin greenhouse and cheese from a Minnesota dairy. Jaworski is fond of cooking seafood, too, and his saffron-heavy paella, stocked with plump mussels, shrimp, and scallops, is one that regulars demand stay on the menu. I'd bet the same sentiment will soon apply to a dessert menu newcomer, a phenomenal blueberry cobbler topped with a lemon-polenta crust and house-made white chocolate-ginger ice cream.
Our final stop, Norton's Downtown and Lucky Cat Lounge in Red Wing, helped acclimate us back to city life. The place is owned by former Hüsker Dü bassist Greg Norton, who has since launched a career in the restaurant business. Greg met his wife, Sarah, while cooking at the Staghead in Red Wing, and after several years the two started their own place just across the river in Bay City, Wisconsin. Now Greg is playing in a band again (the Gang Font, with Bad Plus drummer Dave King), and last year he and Sarah moved their restaurant to a large, two-story space in downtown Red Wing. The new location, right on Highway 61, has helped attract more customers, Greg says. "We get more traffic in one turn of the light than we used to in an entire day over in Bay City."
In contrast to the restaurant's quaint former home, the new Norton's is a large, airy space decorated in an eclectic style influenced by, so far as I can tell, Asia, Las Vegas, and the 1980s. The room's walls are electric blue, and decor includes one of those paw-waving Japanese Maneki Neko cats, a sculpture that reminded me of a Bill Cosby sweater, red velvet lounge seating, globe-shaped paper lanterns, and an illustration of an old-fashioned steamboat. Surprisingly, the mismatched collection works. Even on nights when the Nortons host bands and the musicians play on an old raised window display, you'd never guess the place once housed a 1950s-era JC Penney.
The restaurant's striking visual mashup seems to reflect Sarah Norton's bold cooking style (Greg has transitioned from the kitchen to the front of the house). We tried Sarah's seared duck breast with a cassoulet-like side of giant white beans with roasted red peppers and chorizo, fresh goat cheese, and candied carrots, whose sweet-salty interplay was as crazy as it was comforting. The menu does offer several straightforward American items, such as steaks and BLT sandwiches, but the majority have global inspiration, such as Mexican roast pork, Alsatian choucroute garni, and several Asian dishes. Among the Vietnamese meatballs, kimchi-topped burgers, and scallops with shitake mushrooms and fermented black beans, we tried an unctuous Japanese pork belly with a mirin-tamari glaze that could have fit right in at one of New York City's famed Momofuku kitchens. We also liked the Saigon Sub, a tasty báhn mì-Jimmy John's hybrid in which thin-sliced ham and smoked pâté were stuffed into a crusty baguette with carrots, cilantro, jalapeño, and mayonnaise and served with a side of fish sauce.
Many dishes may be ordered in half-portions (lucky for those of us on meal number five), so diners are encouraged to pair a few small plates with a glass of wine or one of the boundary-pushing taps, including a funky, limited-edition beet beer made by Wisconsin craft brewer Furthermore. Those who like what they're drinking can buy take-home bottles from Norton's off-sale shop in the back of the building. Its boutique offerings were just one more reminder that outstate Minnesota isn't lacking culinary gems.
Most restaurants' hours change seasonally. Call ahead for more information.
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