After our unusually wet June, blueberry season is finally here, with a vengeance. At least that's the case at Rush River Produce in Maiden Rock, Wis., the absurdly scenic destination for blueberry (and currant and gooseberry) lovers.
Unpredictable weather kept me away from my original Friday morning blueberry picking plans. When I called the farm on Saturday to inquire about the day's conditions, I got the one-word response that every U-pick-er wants to hear: "Awesome."
That was an understatement. When we arrived an hour later, the parking lot was jammed, and the farm's nine miles of blueberry bushes were lined with pickers of all ages. My good side was happy to see so many fellow blueberry enthusiasts patronizing the farm, my not-so-generous side could think of only one thing: Competition. When we were instructed to head to the far end of the farm, I became slightly discouraged. Were we too late? Were the best berries already in someone else's hands?
Hardly. I've been visiting the farm for a decade, and I've never seen such abundance. Not all of the farm's 14 varieties of blueberries are having a banner year, but many "are as good as we've seen," said co-owner John Cuddy. No kidding. Up and down the row I was working, the bushes were heavy with berries, and the task was so easy that it became the U-pick version of shooting fish in a barrel. In less than an hour we picked more than we know what to do with.
The farm's landscape, tucked into the wooded curves of the Rush River valley, couldn't have a more breathtaking setting, and John and his wife Terry -- who treat their customers like long-lost friends -- do everything in their power to make the setting even more beautiful. Horticulturalists specializing in hollyhocks, clematis and coneflowers could make a study of the couple's lushly planted gardens. Pack a picnic and spread it out on one of the garden's tables.
A few housekeeping details: The farm is open 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Because the season is so unpredictable, always -- always -- call before setting out. This year's blueberry price is $4.75 per pound. There's a limited supply of pre-picked berries, priced at $9 per pound; best to call ahead and pre-order.
Post-picking, we zipped into nearby Maiden Rock, a tiny town that hugs the dramatic bluffs ringing Lake Pepin. It's probably five minutes south from Blueberry Valhalla, and so worth the quick diversion. For two reasons.
First, I can't imagine being in the neighborhood and not stopping in to survey the counter at the Smiling Pelican Bakeshop. Baker/owner Sandra Thielman's handicraft sells fast -- another motivation for making an early start to the farm -- and whatever you purchase (if there's quiche, or a berry pie, buy it, by the slice or the whole pie), it's best enjoyed on the bakery's welcoming front porch, which overlooks Thielman's well-tended flower garden. We arrived mid-afternoon and found a fairly picked-over inventory.
The shop's signature lavender-ginger sugar cookies were already gone, but we did luck into a handful of the chewy, raisin-filled oatmeal cookies (a steal at $1) and a few of the cardamom rolls (pictured, above), a new addition to the Smiling Pelican but familiar to old-timers who remember them from the Jenny Lind Cafe in Stockholm, Wis., the next town down the river. Jenny Lind owner Ruth Raich is now giving Thielman a much-needed hand, and one of her contributions is the revival of these tender, not-too-sweet and better-than-cinnamon-pull-apart rolls, with their bracing cardamom bite. I can't believe they're only $2.50. By the time we returned home, I was consumed with regret: Why didn't we buy more cardamom rolls? And that last (and gorgeous) quiche that was sitting on the counter and calling our names?
The other reason: A leisurely browse through the gallery-like Cultural Cloth, a wowser of a store that showcases hand-crafted textiles, all imported by women artists from around the world. To say that there is no other place like it is an understatement. (Note to Thursday blueberry harvesters: both the Smiling Pelican and Cultural Cloth are open Friday through Sunday).
Back to blueberries. Because I've been an annual visitor for more than a decade, my brain habitually associates "U-pick blueberries" with "Rush River Produce." But there are of course many pick-them-yourself blueberry farms in Minnesota and western Wisconsin. Here's a list, offered with unsolicited advice: Don't make the journey without calling first.
BLUEBERRIES -- MINNESOTA
Meeker County: Leafblad Produce, 67784 330 St., Watkins, 320-693-2486
BLUEBERRIES -- WESTERN WISCONSIN
As for what we plan to do with our bounty, that's easy: Bake. I'm sure that this impressive blueberry-lemon-sour cream coffee cake is part of our not-so-distant future, along with this uncomplicated blueberry-pecan coffee cake. My colleague Kim Ode's formula for blueberry pierogi has caught my attention. Oh, I'll definitely spend a few mornings with these blueberry-cornmeal pancakes, an oldie-but-goodie recipe that always comes to mind when I see a box of Rush River Produce berries in our refrigerator.
CORNMEAL BLUEBERRY PANCAKES
Note: I've always loved this pancakes recipe, and pull out my batter-spattered copy when blueberry season rolls around. They're from a 2007 Taste story featuring Scott Rosenbaum, who was then the chef at Wilde Roast Cafe in Minneapolis. "When I was growing up in Nebraska, my granddad would make these when we would spend the weekend with him," said Rosenbaum. "They're so good we would eat them plain off the griddle, with lots of butter and maybe a little sorghum molasses." Rosenbaum suggests preparing the batter the night before and refrigerating it in a tightly sealed container. "That way the cornmeal softens a bit more," he said. "Although they're just fine if you use the batter right away, they'll have a nice little crunch. That's why the recipe calls for boiling water, because it begins that softening process." To use frozen berries, place them in a strainer and rinse until water runs clear. Spread on a paper towel to dry.
1/2 c. flour
3 tsp. baking powder
1/2 c. cornmeal
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. sugar
1/2 c. boiling water
1/4 c. whole milk
4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 egg, beaten
1 c. fresh blueberries, or thawed frozen berries
Preheat griddle over medium-high heat (350 degrees if using an electric griddle). In a small bowl, whisk together flour and baking powder and reserve. In a large bowl, stir together cornmeal, salt and sugar. Add boiling water, stir and let stand 5 minutes. Stir in milk, butter and egg. Add flour mixture and stir until smooth. Pour batter onto a hot griddle. Sprinkle pancakes with blueberries and cook until pancake is bubbly all over and edges are crisp. Turn pancakes and cook an additional 2 minutes, until pancake is golden brown. Serve with butter and pure maple syrup.
In a world where third-pound burgers are rapidly becoming the norm, chefs/co-owners Mike Brown, James Winberg and Bob Gerken go the other direction and embrace modesty, serving a burger that can be politely consumed in four or five dainty bites. It's slightly larger than a typical slider, but smaller (albeit much taller) than a standard-issue McDonald's burger.
"If you get this burger it's not like, 'game over,'" said Brown. "You get a giant burger at other places, and that's it, man, you're done. If you're interested in another part of the menu, forget it, that's not possible. And we used to do that. At the old Travail, with the Broadway Butter Burger, if you had that, and some duck fat fries, and a few beers, that was it, that was the whole experience."
No longer. The cramped storefront that was the original Travail is now the partnership's Pig Ate My Pizza, and the new Travail -- a few doors south of the old one -- is split in half, format-wise; go to the left and you're in tasting menu-only territory, and if you take a seat to the right, you'll select from a list of 20 or so small plate (or "micro plates," in Travail-speak) that include this boffo burger.
"At Travail, it's two hours long, and you're going to sit back and get blasted with food," said Brown. "But the Rookery side is different. You can sit down and punch holes in that menu, and an hour later, you can leave."
The burger is equipped with a bare minimum of bells and whistles. Well, for Travail, anyway, where if the staff doesn't have more-is-more tattooed somewhere on their forearms, they should. The intensely flavorful patty is a luxurious blend of brisket and scraps of aged rib-eye, a rich blend that's seasoned with fresh thyme and salt and pepper, plus onions and garlic that have been sweated on the stove. The mix is loosely formed by hand until it just holds the shape of a roulade, then it's sliced into thick-ish patties. A hot flattop grill takes the exteriors to a lightly caramelized char but keep the interior a velvety medium-rare. It's wonderfully juicy and deeply aromatic, the kind of beef bonanza that taunts your nostils long before it ever approaches your taste buds.
The house-baked bun, tender from plenty of milk yet capable of holding up to that juicy patty, gets the buttered-and-toasted treatment, then both top and bottom are swiped with a Dijon mustard emulsion. Instead of lettuce there's nicely bitter mustard greens, then a few thin-sliced slabs of house-cured bacon, chased by a layer of seductively melty Gruyere. The finishing touch is a palate-cleansing cornichon pickle.
Turns out, Brown is right. I knocked mine back in four bites ("I can take it down in one or two," he said with a laugh), my admiration for the kitchen's burger-making prowess increasing with each progressive chomp.
My initial temptation was to immediately order a second one. But then I remembered the over-the-top scrambled egg, served in its lovely terra cotta-colored shell ($4, pictured, above), and the beyond-tender octopus ($5, surrounded by a pool of yellow bell pepper broth) and a half-dozen other goodies that I wanted to revisit, and I was grateful that my post-burger appetite allowed me to do just that.
Price: $5. Order two and you'll hit, portions-wise, what you'd probably encounter elsewhere, although finding a burger this good for $10 won't be easy. As for the rest of the Rookery menu, it currently features 25 savories, all in the $3-to-$8 range, along with a half-dozen sweets that land in between $1 and $3. The Rookery also offers its own tasting menu, a greatest-hits compilation that runs $40. I highly recommend it.
Fries: Not included. And not available. Well, not really. Right now the kitchen is doing what it does best, namely a dolled-up version of fries, by puffing up finger-shaped potatoes, souffle-style, until they're golden brown, then serving them with creme fraiche and caviar. "It's sick, dude," said Brown with a laugh. "I'm telling you, it's such a cool little dish." The caviar is served in an amusing sleight-of-hand manner: the kitchen empties 1-ounce caviar jars, refilling them almost to the top with creme fraiche that has been dyed (with squid ink) to match the caviar's black color. That's topped off with a single trompe l'oeil-like layer of fish eggs. The result? It looks as if guests are getting an entire ounce of caviar for $6 (although I imagine that the disappointment that they're not is alleviated by the masterful caviar-creme fraiche combination). "It's the most perfect little snack, ever, just awesome bar food," said Brown. Yeah, that just soared to the top of my to-taste list.
Floor show: The hard-working Travail-Rookery crew is back on the job after taking a much-deserved mid-summer vacation, and here's hoping that one of my favorite evening rituals has survived the hiatus. At some point during service, Brown steps away from the kitchen to don a chicken suit while chef Nelson Cabrera slips into a kind of robot-meets-Tin Man getup. Cabrera steps up onto a cart, and as Brown pushes him around the dining room and bar -- while simultaneously (and inexplicably) fake-types on a desktop computer keyboard -- they pantomime god-knows-what while tossing popcorn at one another.
I know. I'm what-the-heck-ing as I type that. But trust me: It's peculiar, and utterly, wonderfully Travail.
Address book: 4124 W. Broadway Av., Robbinsdale, 763-535-1131. Open 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday. through Saturday.
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The burger: Because the place invariably makes me a little bit nuts, I view visits to the Mall of America as a chore rather than a treat. There, I said it. Still, I found myself there earlier this week, taking a seat at the highly animated counter at Johnny Rockets.
I can’t recall the last time I’d visited the sole Minnesota outlet of this California-based company, but the word “decade” probably applies. The nostalgia-dipped chain dates to 1986 in Los Angeles; its MoA outpost debuted when the mall opened in 1992. Today, the company (its name is a mash-up of two Americana bedrocks: Johnny Appleseed, and the classic Oldsmobile Rocket 88) operates more than 300 locations, which fry up a collective 17 million burgers each year.
I stuck with the basics and ordered “the Original.” As fast-food burgers go (it arrived in six minutes), it’s not bad. Not bad at all. It reminded me of the countless drive-in burgers that I inhaled as a kid, only slightly larger, a move befitting our supersized culture. The third-pound, thicker-than-Burger King’s beef patty was clearly fresh rather than frozen, a good start. Although it left the flattop grill both under-seasoned and well into medium-well, the patty still managed to muster some meaty sizzle, if not a lot of juice.
It's more team player than attention-grabber, and somewhat overshadowed by the burger's remaining elements, all classics. The soft, gently yeasty bun gets a just-right toasting. A spread of tangy, semi-crunchy dill pickle chips acts as a barrier between lower bun and patty (not that the toasted bread had to worry about being soaked by running juices, as there weren't any), and it’s topped with a dash of raw chopped white onions, a generous handful of shredded iceberg lettuce, a standard-issue tomato slice, a squirt of yellow mustard and a thick swipe of mayonnaise.
No surprises, certainly, but It all adds up to an agreeably sloppy mess (I think I went through six paper napkins, which is always an encouraging sign), and the whole shebang is thoughtfully held together by an easy-to-handle wax paper wrapper. I repeat: Not bad.
Price: $5.39. Going the cheeseburger route is an extra $1.29, a somewhat outrageous mark-up for a humdrum slice of American.
Fries: Not included. There’s a $2.79 upcharge (the smiley-face plate of ketchup is presumably folded in the tab), and I can’t say that the thick-cut, pale, limp, under-salted effort is worth the extra dough.
On the soda fountain front: My chocolate malt ($4.49) was the honest-to-goodness real thing, not some tragic food-court soft-serve nightmare. The upside is that it sported the right thick-ish consistency, and the overflow arrived in a frost-covered stainless steel malt can, just as it should be. The downside? There was little more than the barest, faintest trace of chocolate flavor. And while complaining about authenticity is more than a little ridiculous in this highly artificial environment, but would it kill the corporate powers that be to ix-nay the tacky plastic soda fountain glasses?
Blast from the past: Don’t forget a few nickels fpr the juke box, which reminded me that I'd not heard the “American Graffiti” and “The Big Chill” soundtracks in forever. My budget allowed one selection on the tableside Seeburg Wall-O-Matic, a spin through the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel,” and it was easily my week’s best-spent five cents.
Take a seat: There are two ways to experience Johnny Rockets: Wait in line for takeout then schlep over to a smattering of nearby tables, or take a seat at the counter and place yourself in the capable hands of the serving staff. I highly recommend the latter because a large percentage of the red vinyl swivel chairs provide ringside seats to the action at the stove. It’s quite a show, a frenetic, highly choreographed production that made this diner appreciate, once again, the sweat required to keep even a basic burger joint up and running.
It’s also one of the few places at The Nation’s Largest Shopping Center where people are likely to rub elbows with complete strangers. The young girls seated next to me were clearly reveling in every aspect of their Johnny Rockets experience: reacting to the constant roar echoing across the Nickelodeon Universe amusement park, gazing in amazement at the fleet-footed crew as they went through their paces, ooh-ing and aah-ing over their burgers and malts. Living vicariously through their delight was a happy eye-opener for this not-so-occasionally jaded diner.
Real deal: And now for the True Confessions portion of today’s Burger Friday. My original intention for this megamall excursion was to partake in the (extraordinary) burger-and-beer deal at FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar. Here's the deal: choose from one of four iterations (turkey, bison, walleye or a white Cheddar cheeseburger, all paired with fries) and any one of the bar’s tap beers (including brews from Fulton, Summit, Surly, Schell’s, Big Wood and other locals), and fork over a shocking $10.
Yeah, ten dollars. The offer is available in the bar only, although being relegated to that handsome refuge of a space can hardly be labeled a hardship. There’s just one hitch. This Deal of Deals is a midday-only special, available 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily. My convoluted brain had somehow twisted it into a happy hour offer, which is why my 6 p.m. appetite ended up at Johnny Rockets. Next time I’ve got an MoA lunch on the calendar, I’m definitely heading to the Radisson Blu. It's easy: the hotel is accessible from the mall through the second floor of South Avenue; the restaurant is on the same level.
Address book: Johnny Rockets, 370 South Avenue (on the edge of the food court), Mall of America, Bloomington, 952-858-8158. Open 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday. FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar, second floor, Radisson Blu hotel, 2100 Killebrew Dr., Bloomington, 952-851-4040. Burger and beer special served 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
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Realistically, you could be serving mini-hot-dogs on a stick and they would still be a delight when served in the stunning gardens at the Minnesota Arboretum, which held its Toast and Tastes fundraiser last night under a sunny sky with balmy temperatures.
Nonetheless, those at the gathering had far better dining options -- in fact, the best in many years of the festivities. Here were some of the highlights:
Shrimp chorizo with fennel, from chef Hakan Lundberg of the Minneapolis Club, topped my best-of list. Unexpected (ground up shrimp, shaped), fun (on a stick) and really tasty (I had to grab a second one, just to be sure it was as good as the first!).
A close second: carrot-cured hamachi sashimi with apple and radish from The Rabbit Hole (Midtown Global Market). Served with sparkling lychee kombucha. Wow. Make that two wows.
Duck breast with farro, pickled rhubarb and kohlrabi puree, with a chocolate bouchon on the side filled with passion fruit panna cotta, from chef Scott Graden of the New Scenic Cafe in Duluth.
Housemade roasted andouille sausage with two sauerkrauts on brioche from chef J.D. Fratzke of the Strip Club (St. Paul).
Korean glazed pork belly on-a-stick from chef Scott Pampuch of the University of Minnesota (Arboretum Catering).
And the flowers and greenery, of course.
That’s what the guys behind Eagle Street Grille in downtown St. Paul are doing. Their effort to diversify brings them to the corner of Western and Selby avenues this fall with a steak-and-seafood spot that will play homage to classic tableside service. The Salt Cellar — a nod to the grand past of the Cathedral Hill neighborhood — is expected to open in late October.
“We decided a while ago that we wanted to step out and open up a different venue, a high-end steak-and-seafood restaurant. We want to stretch our wings and bring out classic service and do something different from we have been doing,” said Kevin Geisen, who with Joe Kasel, owns Eagle Street Grille. Both grew up in St. Paul.
They’ve gathered a team to help them that includes Lenny Russo, chef/owner of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market, as consultant, and Blake Watson, formerly assistant manager of Interlachen Country Club, as general manager. The restaurant will be located in a building that formerly housed the College of Visual Arts, at 173 Western Av. Interior design will be from Joe Kasel and Elements Design of Davenport, Iowa. Mohagen Hansen of Wayzata is the architectural firm behind the effort.
“Joe and I, when we started this concept, we were looking at bringing back a classical style of service that really isn’t practiced as much anymore. It’s service I performed in the past at restaurants when I was younger," said Geisen. "Joe and I want to bring it back with a twist, a feeling, if you will, that we remember when we were kids when we were out with our families. We may not have nailed down everything we’re going to do yet, but it’s the tableside service that we’re really focusing on."
That means a classic Caesar salad prepared tableside, chateaubriand dished up with flair, bananas foster flambéed, all presented with just enough drama to assure a sense of special occasion.
"It's kind of like bringing the kitchen out onto the floor, making it a little more interactive for the guests," said Geisen.
The dining room will seat 150 to 160, with more in the lounge; a private dining room will be available. Entrees are expected in the low $20s to low $40s. “Big picture is this is St. Paul. We’re a working class city so we’re keeping that in mind and pricing our stuff accordingly,” said Kasel. In other words, no $80 steaks on the menu.
The emphasis will be on updated classics, whether it’s cocktails or entrees (think martinis and veal Oscar). Grass-fed beef will be center-of-the-plate for many diners; seafood will definitely include walleye. Watson will curate the wine list. “There will be a small cellar in the restaurant and great wines by the glass in the bar area," he said. And no big markups — more retail than restaurant markup.
“I think it will be a pretty spectacular looking place, with lots of glass,” said Russo. “You can see into the prep area off the street. There will be lots of visual cues as to what’s going on. You’re going to pretty much see everything.”
That includes the butchering of meat. The space includes sufficient room for a large meat locker. “They will be bringing in whole animals, using the same methods and techniques that we use at Heartland. They will be making their own sausage. And they want to bake their own bread as well,” said Russo, who has a prospective chef and sous chef in mind.
“We’re excited for the opportunity,” said Geisen. “We’re definitely looking forward to moving into the neighborhood and working with the people around there and building that relationship. The team that we’ve assembled, with Blake Watson and Lenny Russo, is something we’re really proud of.”
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