THURSDAY 2 P.M. Lucky me: Despite a steady stream of customers, I scored one of the four tables inside the snug confines of Rabbit's Bakery. First the crackle of burning pine popped over Bob Dylan mumbling "Tangled Up in Blue" on the stereo, then its woodsy scent began tickling my nostrils. Turns out co-owner Dan Patterson uses pine kindling -- remnants of a few sacrificed shrubs -- to spark fire in his red brick wood-burning bread oven. "It seemed like a cost-effective use for them" he said with a laugh.
Slow-burning oak supplies the heat to transform Patterson's carefully crafted doughs into breads of exceptional flavor and texture. The baguettes alone should put Lake City, Minn., on the culinary map, with deeply browned, jaw-aerobicizing crusts covering enviably pliant interiors. For the best darned lunch I've had in weeks, Patterson piled shaved ham, long sheets of parchment-thin Swiss and mellow pickled jalapeños on that singular baguette. The finished product was so tall it took a firm two-handed grip to wrestle it into submission. I wish I hadn't been dining solo, because all I wanted to say to someone was, "Now that was a sandwich."
There was a hearty soup and a simple garden-fresh salad, both excellent. Unfortunately I missed out on the roast beef/ roasted peppers/ pepperoni-salami-basil sammies; both had sold out. Ditto the menu's other two entrees, biscuits buried under sausage gravy and fried chicken with bacon-flecked corn bread. Get this: The top price is just $7.
Like Patterson, co-owner Hallie Abbott's résumé lists next-door neighbor Nosh Restaurant & Bar as well as Lucia's Restaurant in Minneapolis. Abbott is responsible for the sweets, and hers is a Long John-free bakery case, boasting well-made muffins, onion- and poppyseed-topped bialys, walnut-crusted brownies and dainty vanilla cupcakes crowned with just-picked strawberries. On my way out I greedily grabbed the last of the rectangular cinnamon-swirled loaves. After savoring each slice, my morning Puffed Wheat ritual now feels like a punishment.
Friday, 8 p.m.
When Nosh decamped to Lake City last summer, it left a hole on Wabasha's main commercial thoroughfare. In May, chef Michael Murray-John and his spouse, Debbie, filled that void when they opened Vinifera. "I run the spatulas, she runs everything else," said Michael, whose last kitchen gig was running the Seven Pines Lodge in Lewis, Wis.
Since the restaurant takes its name from the Latin designation for all wine-producing grapes, this is obviously a wine-obsessed operation. Every dish has a pairing suggestion, and every wine on the list is available for retail sale at the same moderate price. A well-appointed patio seems designed for wine enthusiasts, and those hanging at the bar might notice that it's built from flattened wine barrel staves.
The cooking is bold and well-crafted. I loved a plate of swooningly tender slow-braised pork shoulder and its nicely fiery roasted pepper-paprika sauce. Ditto a trio of sizzling lamb chops, crusted in herbs, hot off the grill and sharing the plate with a mellow braised spinach-orzo combination. House-cured bacon added a brawny touch to a frisée-fig salad, and a ginger-laced crème brûlée was just right. (Other menu items include mussels steamed in white wine and shallots, cedar-plank salmon, coq au vin and lunchtime paninis). With entrees averaging $14, this was a meal well worth the drive, even at $4 a gallon.
Saturday, 6 p.m.
"Why didn't I bring my camera?" That was my thought as I admired one scenic vista after another as we sped down a narrow, winding country road toward the Stone Barn in Nelson, Wis.. Once we arrived, I was really kicking my absent-minded self, because the place is a stunner, the remains of a 112-year-old barn now graced with flowers, herbs, a bubbling fountain and plenty of tables. Step indoors and order wood-fired pizzas ($18 to $23), inexpensive beer and wine and ice cream. Ours were more flatbreads than pizzas, sauceless but liberally topped with pleasing combos such as smoked salmon-cream cheese-dill or balsamic glazed chicken-asparagus-spinach-feta. Nice.
Sunday, 11 a.m.
The Old Ways gets its unorthodox name because chef/owner Chad Rielander, a former Nosh sous chef, has a penchant for time-honored cooking methods. "I'm very into comfort foods, done well," he said. "Just because you can do science-project things to food doesn't mean that you should."
Call it nostalgic, call it tender-loving-cooking, call it Aunt Bee Revisited, it doesn't matter, because my brunch in Rielander's sunny blue-and-yellow Wabasha, Minn., storefront couldn't have been any more delicious. Yogurt gave nutty brown oat-cornmeal-whole wheat pancakes an unexpected delicacy, and a warm peach-berry compote made them completely irresistible. A perfectly poached egg, pert Hollandaise and a thick slab of house-cured and slow-braised pork belly was a swell riff on the Benedict model. Hash browns? Marvelously crisp. House-baked muffins? Jammed full of fruit. A cheese plate? Lovely.
Our server was a sweetie, and when the bill arrived, my friend and I both did a double-take at the low figure. Yeah, I'll be back. I mean, just take a gander at the weekend dinner menu: roast chicken with pan gravy, pot roast with horseradish mashed potatoes, bacon-onion-goat cheese tarts, grilled pork loin with baked beans. "Just like Grandma used to make," Rielander said. "Only better."
Sunday, 2 p.m.
Set aside any preconceived notions of what a cookware store in rural Wisconsin should look like, because the Palate, in Stockholm, Wis., will shatter them. Nancy Fitzsimons and Shana Finnegan, the mother-daughter ownership team, have a sharp eye for the beautiful, the useful and the unique. Case in point: Fitzsimons' made-to-order table linens, sewn on her Singer in the back of the shop, or the dozen kooky patterns of picnic-table-ready oilcloth, sold by the yard.
Bakers will appreciate the selection of stone-ground organic flours from Great River Organic Milling in nearby Fountain City, Wis. (Fitzsimons likes the cornmeal for shortcakes), and anyone cursed with a sweet tooth will jump at the store's exceptional baked goods, which come out of the oven all day long. Maybe it's some kind of glazed scone -- blueberry-lemon or cranberry-orange -- or a coffee cake, or a pan of seven-layer bars. But Fitzsimons is really known for her totally awesome chocolate chip cookies. They're a dollar a pop, and regulars are in the habit of walking in, grabbing as many cookies as their addiction dictates and leaving an appropriate amount of cash in the flower pot on the counter. Try seeing that at Williams-Sonoma.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757