Should you visit the new Minneapolis Holiday Market?

I’ll answer that with a qualified yes, because there are a number of payoffs, food-and-drink-wise, when braving the chill at this new Holidazzle replacement, on Peavey Plaza in downtown Minneapolis.

First things first: The potato pancakes are outstanding. Kartpffelhaus Potato Pancakes partners Christine and Nick Burbach and Steven and Karin Vanzyl are first-time food vendors, although you’d never know it, given their prowess with potatoes and griddles, cranking out a rustic delicacy that hits all the right winter street-fare grace notes: hot, crispy, carb-ey.

Every morning, the crew finely shreds untold amounts of waxy Yukon Gold spuds, fortifying them with chopped onions. The mixture (bound by a bit of egg and semolina flour) is formed into thick-ish cakes and fried on a flattop grill in a thin layer of oil they achieve a deep brown outer shell – the outer edges are wonderfully crunchy -- that gives way to an almost creamy interior. The recipe even boasts a bit of street cred, hailing from a stand at a Weinachtsmarkt in Thune, Germany, that sells potato pancakes as a fundraiser supporting a youth training program for the town’s fire department.

After one bite of this fried delicacy (pictured, above), my overactive brain was consumed with two words: state fair. Even in the heat of August, these things would be a fairgrounds hit. Somehow get them on a stick, and they’d be a runaway sensation.

Unlike most other market prices -- which tend to feel 15 to 20 percent too much -- the stand's $6-for-two and $8-for-three seems about right. Oh, I almost forgot: When asked if you’d prefer sour cream, applesauce, “or a little bit of both,” definitely go with the last option.

Steven Vanzyl, a former chef at the Lexington, offered an invaluable piece of advice for market visitors: Pick up a pair of alpaca socks from the Winterbourne Alpaca stand. Oh, and his German-born spouse was destined for a life in latkes: her maiden name is Pfannkuch. That’s German for pancake. What are the odds?

The Black Forest Inn is on the premises -- hurrah -- and the Eat Street landmark is flexing its fluency in the sausage-making arts with a trio of house-made lovelies.

There’s the superb pork-veal bratwurst (pictured, right, $6), a recipe that co-owner Erich Christ has been making -- and perfecting -- for more than a half-century. Germans standing on ceremony might object to the consumption of Christ’s exceptional weisswurst (pictured, left, $6) for lunch and dinner, because its traditional place is at the breakfast table. But this is the New World, and we make our own rules, right?   Besides, it’s delicious, heavier on the veal than the bratwurst (and ground twice, yielding a more refined bite), and flecked with plenty of parsley.

For the pork-averse, Christ cranks out a tasty chicken sausage ($5), funneling the restaurant kitchen’s abundant chicken scraps (seasoned with a sweet-hot curry blend) into a lamb casing.

All three deserve high praise, particularly since they're served in excellent house-baked, sesame-studded buns, made tender with butter from Hope Creamery in tiny Hope, Minn. Even the condiments are spot on: a grainy, teasingly sweet honey mustard, and Christ’s feisty curry ketchup. Such goodness begs the question: When will we see the Black Forest Inn name on a food truck?

A second sausage vendor, Deutschland Meats in Lindstrom, Minn., also turns out a brat ($6, pictured, above), and it's fine. But the real attention grabber is what they’ve dubbed their Christmas sausage ($8), a rustic pork monster – it’s nearly a foot long – seasonally seasoned with cranberries and red wine. An offbeat combination, sure, but it works. If only the rest of the package were as well-executed; the forgettable bun could have come from a convenience store, and I suspect that the cranberry sauce condiment came right out of a can.

Naturally, there’s a pretzel stand, and its output is just what a German pretzel should be: chewy, salty, filling. But the total talker is the pretzel bread bowl filled with beer-cheese soup ($8, pictured, above). The "bowl" cleverly revitalizes one of Chainrestaurantland’s dreariest inventions, and fills it with a rich and silky homage to the Midwest that’s occasionally peppered with snips of carrot and onion. I love it.

Another must-have is another soup. Maybe it's because it was my preferred post-sledding childhood lunch -- and it certainly helps that owner Leslie Vadnais knows what she’s doing -- but either way, I flipped for the tomato soup-grilled cheese combo (pictured, above) at Venus Spaetzle Haus.

Vadnais knows her soups, having launched a line of them for Kowalski’s Markets. At the market, she’s showing everyone how chunky tomato is done; it's perfectly seasoned, and the pieces of tomato really retain the stove’s heat, warming you from the inside out. I wish I’d grown up consuming Vadnais’ version of the grilled cheese sandwich. She piles mozzarella and Cheddar between slices of mustard-dill bread, frying them in scandalous amounts of butter until the cheese hits just the right level of meltiness and the bread arrives at a delicate toastiness ($10 for both, $6 for bisque alone, $6 for sandwich alone). Comfort-food bliss, in a nutshell.

Vadnais is also doctoring German-imported spaetzle with plenty Parmesan and Swiss cheeses, serving the tender noodles straight up with butter and parsley ($9) or dousing it in a robust mushroom stroganoff ($10). Either way, both have a marvelous stick-to-your-ribs hotdish quality that feels simultaneously Midwestern and German, in a really lovely way.

Sweets? Yes. Solomon's Bakery is hawking an ever-changing array of well-prepared pastries, including their popular chocolate croissants (pictured, above). Knoke’s -- my favorite excuse to jump in the Jetta and head to Hudson, Wis. -- is selling all manner of chocolate and nut goodies, but the treat to beat is the paper cone filled with warm, sugar- and cinnamon-coated almonds or pecans ($6 and $10). Candy Meister fills a counter with colorful imported German hard candies.

But for those looking to hurl headlong into the holiday spirit, then it's all about the lebkuchen ($5.25), a skillfully and lovingly prepared cookie-cake hybrid produced by New York City-based Leckerlee. It's impressively complicated, a crisp oblatan wafer that's topped with a low dome of ground almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts. That tender mix bears a slight gingerbready cast, one that is accented by pops of candied citron and orange peel. One version is finished with a light sugar glaze, the other is blanketed in dark chocolate; both are superb, and easily big enough to share.

On the beverage side, there’s a trio of mainstream Bavarian beers ($7, 16-oz. pours), imported for the occasion from Paulaner, and they’re fine. But did it occur to anyone to tap the skilled brewmasters behind the two dozen or so craft breweries that have popped up in the metro area in the past few years? A few Minnesota-brewed Christmas beers would really hit the spot.  

Fortunately, there's an impressive Minnesota connection at the booths pouring the terrific gluehwein (mulled wine), a robust custom blend of Marechal Foch and Fredonia grapes produced specifically for the market by Millner Heritage Vineyard & Winery in Kimball, Minn.

It’s a don’t-miss libation for anyone of legal drinking age (you’ll need a wristband – which requires a photo ID – in order to purchase; trust me, if this old coot was asked to produce a drivers license, they're clearly screening everyone), and a near-necessity as the temperature dips. Each steaming mug is bursting with alluring nose appeal, thanks to a fragrant blend of cinnamon, allspice, cloves and orange, a kind of Proustian trigger that will launch a thousand Christmas carols in your brain as you sip.

Kudos also should be heaped upon the sweeter and more potent variation that’s steeped with rum-infused caramelized sugar. There’s a hard cider version, too. It’s also produced by Millner, using Honeycrisp, Haralson and Zestar apples harvested from a Faribault, Minn., orchard, and it possesses antifreeze properties similar to that of the gluehwein, but with sweet-floral apple notes.

The mulled wine (pictured, above) is not an inexpensive repast: $10.15, with refills running $6.83. A big chunk of that cost is surely caught up in my one quibble: the mug. Yes, drinking from a mug is preferable to sipping from a paper cup; it certainly retains the wine’s heat better than any throwaway vessel (and bonus points for keeping the market Styrofoam-free). But once you’ve finished, another issue arises, and that’s what the heck do you do with the mug? Schlepping the empty around the market wasn’t my idea of a good time, and really, does my kitchen need another semi-tacky keepsake mug? Um, no. (And don't get me started on the raging controversy that is Muggate).

There’s a non-alcoholic hot apple cider version as well, overpriced at $7.87 (again with the upcharge for the keepsake mug), with $4.55 refills. Still, hearing the staffs’ heavily German-accented English is worth some of that upcharge, amirite?

Another shocker is the mystifying lack of decent hot chocolate. I suspect that the savvy folks behind the Kartpffelhaus Potato Pancakes booth would offer something better than a Nestle’s instant product if they had leased a roomier booth. But as I sipped on that $3 cup of watered-down nothing, all I could think of was how much I missed the spectacularly creamy, caradamom- and nutmeg-kissed hot chocolate that the Chef Shack once served at Holidazzle parades.

Yes, there are freebies. Don’t miss the samples at Brunkow Cheese, hot off the griddle and wonderfully gooey. Think of it as one of those supermarket grazing stations, where free sampling encourages sales; in this case, eight flavored varieties of baked cheese (bacon, cranberry, jalapeno, garlic and more) from Darlington, Wis. I also loved the tiny shots of maple syrup, both pure and flavored (ginger, vanilla, cranberry, habanero), from Three Rivers Farm in Elko, Minn.

And now, complaints. The entrance fee (seriously?) is going to be a justifiable dealbreaker for many. Anyone age 13 and older has to fork over six bucks to walk through the gate (it’s $3 weekdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.), and $3 for kids ages 7 to 12; kids ages 6 and under are free. And no, there’s no senior discount. Do the math: Two parents with two teenagers? You’re out $24 right off the bat.

True, it’s a one-time only fee; after that, your ticket becomes a season pass. But that’s little comfort for one-time-only visitors. Besides, if you’re like me (and I’m sorry if that’s the case), hanging on to a maybe-I’ll-use-this-again-sometime receipt is next to impossible.

Here’s a tip: Visit on Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., when admission is free.

Sure, there are a few perks, including live music (although during my visit we were treated to canned Christmas music – I swear I heard a cut from a New Christy Minstrels album that was part of my parents' holiday album collection), access to port-a-potties (which, in sub-freezing weather, have an entirely different ick factor from their summer counterparts) and entry into a tented dining hall that was a welcome shelter from the cold.

It’s not exactly toasty – I could see my breath – but it’s a heckuva lot warmer than the outdoors (think skating-rink warming house), and a smattering of picnic-style tables and benches (pictured, above) are a welcome alternative to the handy stand-up perches out on the plaza. Another warm-up idea is spending a few minutes browsing through the mammoth – and blessedly heated – Kathe Wohlfarht tent, chock full of every Germanic Christmas decoration imaginable.

The carousel isn't exactly impressive. In my mind I was picturing a more modest, winter-sturdy version of the glorious Cafesjian’s Carousel, but in reality it’s just a few steps up from the pint-size merry-go-rounds I used to see outside Kmart stores, waiting for someone to drop a quarter in the slot to bring it to life. And three dollars for a ride? Come on.

On the day I visited, the live reindeer weren’t in residence (they make their camp across the mall, in front of the YWCA). No one could tell me when they would return, which depressed me to no end because, well, think about it: live reindeer in downtown Minneapolis. How great is that?

Following my noon-hour visit, I returned a few hours later after dusk and my feelings were confirmed: the market is far more enchanting after sunset, when the zillions of holiday lights -- and live music -- crank up the festivity factor.

Finally, much as I love Peavey Plaza, I can't help but wonder if its nooked-and-crannied terrain is ideal for this particular enterprise. A truly blank slate – a parking lot, perhaps? – might be a better solution.

It’s not as if there’s a shortage of paved open space in downtown Minneapolis. There are even two alternatives on Nicollet Mall: one is the block bounded by Nicollet Mall, Marquette Av. and 3rd and 4th streets, the other the block surrounded by Nicollet Mall, Hennepin Av., Washington Av. and 3rd St. A third option is a short walk from Peavey, the half-block on Marquette Av. between 9th and 10th streets.

All three are centrally located, with plenty of real estate spread out across a single, easy-to-navigate level. Something to think about, anyway. In the meantime, go enjoy a potato pancake. Or two.

Ok, one more tip: Carry lots of cash. With a few rare exceptions (Black Forest Inn, for example), cash is king among the market's food vendors.

The Minneapolis Holiday Market is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily through Dec. 23, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Dec. 24.

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