To reach L'Etoile du Nord by bike from the cities, take the Gateway State Trail east. It takes about two hours if you keep a good clip — three if you perambulate and ogle the changing leaves against the river blue.
The tiny town of Bayport is storybook idyllic: the little post office, the general store with a peeling antique facade, the short-order breakfast cafe. But this storybook also has an outlier in a little European cafe, straight out of Belgium. Or so it seems.
Belgian-born restaurateur, chef, and bike racer Olivier Vrambout was horrified to find himself moving to Minnesota. Since childhood, he led a life of grand adventure, traveling the world with his civil engineer parents, learning from his grandmother to make waffles in cast iron presses and cook them in the fireplace.
He also trained for the Tour de France, became a renowned pastry chef, and fell in love. Like many of our imported chefs, Vrambout fell for a Minnesota girl.
The circumstances of their relationship eventually brought them here. Before he knew it, Vrambout was no longer horrified. He had moved to the most bikeable metropolis in America, with an enthusiastic audience for French pastries and great beer from the perch of two wheels.
Just as he's never been able to stay off of a cycle, the chef has never been able to keep his hands out of the dough. As a result, L'Etoile du Nord puts out best-in-class wood-fired pizzas — fermented and complex — French toast made of brioche, and knee-weakening pastries.
Many of the dishes at L'Etoile du Nord are specialty items. The moules frites are a Friday lunch special only, when the mussels are still as alive as the sea. The waffles Benedict are for Saturday and Sunday only, when a close eye can be kept on the quality of the hollandaise. The pastries are on rotation, depending upon Vrambout's inspiration that day. The phrase "best ever" will drift to the front of your mind.
Just like in Europe, the cuisine at L'Etoile is stealthily understated. A three-green salad is plain-looking, but take a bite and every peppery pop of arugula, every lush spinach leaf, every stringent bite of kale is decipherable beneath the levity of the vinaigrette.
Family-recipe Liege waffles are can't-miss. Vrambout carried his grandmother's cast iron presses all the way back from the motherland. These waffles are sturdy, complicated, and special. Beneath bananas fanned out like a hand of cards with house-made Nutella, they're a treat. Underneath ham, tomato relish, kale, arugula, potatoes, and hollandaise, they're a meal fit for a racer.
Pizzas are bulky and robust and served in a handful of permutations — with Red Table Meat pork Lonza draped lushly over the top and a soft egg to pierce to make things more luminous. Try one with pheasant, because if the farmer brought pheasant, you'll be seeing it on many things, just as you might see plums, because they've just taken delivery of an entire tree's worth. L'Etoile du Nord is devoted to seasonal bounties.
The menu is a tight compendium — only a dozen or so items, plus those handful of pizzas, plus perhaps a special or two. That's because very few products are allowed in the door if they come from further afield than, say, Wisconsin. So as you dine, keep a close watch on the minimalism of it all. It might seem simple, but it isn't. It's complicated.
Vrambout will have baked the bread that comes alongside the soup du jour. He will have personally roasted the beans that go into the best cup of restaurant coffee in the state. Mike Kempenich of the Gentleman Forager, local mushroom savant, has brought the shrooms that go on the champignon pizza. The flatbread on the list of sandwiches is also house-made — light as a sponge, yet rustic. There will only be a burger if the grass-fed beef is fresh, never frozen, and just arrived from a few miles away.
These exacting efforts take a lot of time, and when Jon Beyreuther, veteran chef de cuisine of beloved brasserie institution Meritage in St. Paul, read about them, he thought: "I want to work there. I want to help." So he called up Vrambout and asked: "Can I work there? Can I help?" Vrambout had been waiting for just such a call.
Now the Belgian and one of the most accomplished French chefs in the state are co-manning this cunning, enigmatic storefront in Bayport, along with Vrambout's business and life partner, Julia Kaemmer, who runs the front-of-house operations. The sunny slip of a place with its open kitchen has the welcoming warmth of true hospitality — the kind where people look you in the eye, taking genuine pleasure from your own. When this much effort goes into a slow-food experience, you want to know it's being happily received. And it is.
But the best way to enjoy this (mostly) daytime-only cafe is on the patio, along with the teams of cyclists, lean and hungry. Lunch with them over the best chocolate brownies in the world, chalices of Stella and Duvel, and fragrant pots of moules frites.
In the blanched yet dazzling autumn sun, the bees are restless and relentless, the patio tables no longer need shade-giving umbrellas, and the cyclists rest their clips on the patio tiles. It's all so pitch-perfect European it challenges your internal compass to believe you've only traveled, preferably by bike, to the St. Croix River Valley.
Pro tip: L'Etoile du Nord is now serving Wednesday night dinners from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. It's a rotating menu of — you guessed it — whatever the farmers are bringing in.
L'Etoile du Nord
320 5th Ave N, Bayport, MN