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If the dining-out deities decreed that I could consume just one breakfast dish for the rest of my mornings, I just might choose the biscuits and gravy from Sun Street Breads.
Those expert buttermilk biscuits, which taste as if they have dual advanced degrees in Tender and Golden, are perfectly in tune with the peppery pork sausage gravy, which miraculously achieves a lightness without sacrificing a scintilla of flavor. That's a tall order for a truck-stop staple that invariably reverts into gluey cardiologist cautionary tales. I'll even go a step further and state that the pillowy fried chicken version, topped with a slice of smoky bacon, is even better, and that's saying something.
Breakfast -- and you've got to try the exceptional sourdough pancakes, honest -- is just one of many entry points into the business that spouses Solveig Tofte and Martin Ouimet incubated from a stand at the nearby Kingfield Farmers Market into a bricks-and-mortar gathering place.
Tofte is more than a Biscuit Whisperer. Before launching her own bread- centric business last spring, she spent nearly a decade at the helm of Turtle Bread Co. The Sun Street crew alternates five or six breads daily, and the sourdough- obsessed Tofte seems to go out of her way to differentiate that selection from that of her former employer.
A decent baguette is always available, but my appetite yearns for the hearty loaf where whole-wheat flour blossoms under a pale ale produced by Harriet Brewing in south Minneapolis. Another celebrates the Red River Valley's agricultural prowess, merging semolina, flax meal and roasted potatoes; each bite offers up flavor traces of supremely buttery mashed potatoes, an ingenious bread-baking sleight of hand.
A loaf to remember
The bronzed, dimpled challah tastes even better than it looks, a rarity. My favorite? It's a slightly embarrassing admission, because Tofte intended it as a kids' lunch bread, a springy, oatmeal- enhanced basic that's a nuanced alternative to those insipid supermarket white sandwich breads that most brown-bagging Americans of my generation grew up consuming.
It's the backbone of a winning sandwich that, like so much of Tofte's work, is simplicity itself. It starts with turkey that has been rubbed with butter and herbs, roasted and pulled off the bone. The meat is kept warm and juicy in a fanatically reduced turkey stock, waiting until it can be piled high, straight up, between a few slices of that oatmeal bread. It's just five bucks -- at that price, it's like Groupon without logging on -- and I'm getting hungry just thinking about it.
The other nothing-fancy sandwiches are superb, from Iron Range-inspired pulled porketta dressed with a crunchy fennel slaw to a meatloaf that serves as comfort food that beats all comfort foods. But a craving for animal proteins seems superfluous when the vegetarian options are as compelling as mashed sweet potatoes, bitter mustard greens and more of that fennel slaw, all stuffed into a nutty cracked-wheat roll.
Tofte encourages a much-needed re-appraisal for the morning pastries that we've all learned to take for granted or, through sheer boredom, ignore outright. Rather than going the gooey, toothache-sweet route of the all too frequently vapid cinnamon roll, Sun Street's version relies upon a more complex spice profile (cloves, cardamom and a powerhouse cinnamon), a dense dough, a twinkling sugar garnish, and nothing more. They are extraordinary. Ditto the over-the-top pretzel-style croissants, and the fruit-packed turnovers, their delicate pastry part pie crust, part croissant and 100 percent irresistible.
Naturally, Tofte whips up first-rate cookies, their everyday looks hiding their big, memorable flavors, including an offbeat one she's dubbed the "Crusher," a crunchy salty/sweet thing fortified with bits of pretzels and sugar cones. It reminds me of a recipe in my grandmother Hedvig's baking arsenal, which means that I can't imagine life without it.
Norway may be suffering through a freaky yuletide butter shortage, but Norwegian-American Solveig Tofte clearly is not, particularly when it comes to her Christmas cookies, starting with crisp, teasingly spicy and blessedly frosting-free gingerbread cutouts. She has Russian Tea Cakes that boast a swoon-inducing toffee bite, and melt-in-your-mouth sugar cookies sandwiched with a tantalizing dolce de leche filling, their edges rolled in toasted coconut. One unintended consequence of such inspired holiday goodies is that their inevitable post-holiday disappearance will underscore the sometimes too-small selection.
When evening falls
There's a personnel shift in the evenings. That's when chef Annette Colon and sous chef Mateo Mackbee step up to the stove and the casual, counter-service cafe morphs into a full-service restaurant. What's most admirable about their delicious, forthright cooking is that rather than forgetting that they're working in a bakery they celebrate it, incorporating imaginative, well conceived starches all across their menu.
Spongy, baking powder-based fry bread becomes a foundation for tacos filled with that perfumed porketta and a vibrant sweet corn relish. Balls of challah are filled with seasoned pumpkin butter and fried, a hypnotically addictive taste treat. Crisp, long rye crackers pair nicely with a fantastic Iowa farmstead Cheddar.
A savory bread pudding is the highlight of a roast chicken plate, and the flaky, beef-filled pastie really hits the spot. The summit is Tofte's tightly crumbed pretzel rolls, which kick off the kitchen's version of a charcuterie plate that's headlined by a snappy-skinned beef/pork knackwurst, crafted by Peter Botcher of the soon-to-open Butcher & the Boar.
Colon, who spent nearly a decade at Lucia's before a brief stint at the Turtle, really shines when her attention turns to savory one-pot stews and slow braises. My winter nourishment plans are pretty much centered on Sun Street's glorious pot roast, made with boneless short ribs and lovingly braised in copious amounts of red wine, garlic and root vegetables. Colon ably demonstrates the joys of meat-free stew-making with a harmonious blend of squash, kale and hominy, and a fragrant Portuguese-style shellfish stew, enriched with chorizo and tomatoes and an homage to a mentor of hers, is a similar showstopper.
Desserts are lovely -- no surprise -- and include a free-form apple tart with a dream of a crust, a towering devil's food layer cake that I want to order on my next birthday and a hot fudge sundae (Tofte is a stealth ice cream maker) that is everything it should be, and more.
The cheery, vibrant space, with its watch-them-knead kitchen, offers hope to dreary strip malls everywhere. It's modest and ingenious, enhanced by quirky artwork and, befitting the name, plenty of sunlight (the Norwegian words for sun and street are rooted in the name Solveig). There's a warmth that seems to radiate not just from Ouimet's intrinsic hospitality but also from the counters and ceiling that Orton Tofte, Tofte's carpenter father, fashioned with Douglas fir bleachers salvaged from the University of Minnesota's demolished Memorial Stadium.
One hitch, at least at night: ventilation malfunction. I invariably exited the restaurant with my clothes reeking of eau de Sun Street and my brain tabulating my future dry cleaning bill. Although from this diner's perspective, that's money well spent.