Up and down the Mississippi River, from tiny Bay City to lovely La Crosse and beyond, discover three of the Dairyland State’s top-performing restaurants.
Chef Shack Bay City
Many Twin Citians spend their summer free time at their lake cabins in rural Minnesota and Wisconsin.
But Lisa Carlson and Carrie Summer of Chef Shack Bay City (6379 Main St., Bay City, 1-715-594-3060, chefshackbaycity.com) hear a slightly different drummer in their heads.
The two chefs devote their weekends to cooking at their captivating restaurant in Bay City, Wis., which focuses solely on Friday and Saturday dinner and Sunday brunch, and their efforts are magical.
Their small-town labor of love bears little resemblance to the other properties in the couple’s growing Twin Cities culinary portfolio: the Chef Shack food trucks and Chef Shack Ranch, their down-home restaurant in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood.
“I knew we’d made the right decision to buy the place when we learned that the woman who was selling it had spent something like 17 years in Paris,” said Carlson. “I get a good feeling when I’m standing behind that stove, using her French cast-iron pans. She was a small person, and she designed the kitchen for someone her size. Carrie and I feel like Amazons when we’re elbow-to-elbow in there.”
The countrified, rustic chic setting reflects Summer’s collector’s eye, and the bloom-filled patio obviously bears the attention of someone with a well practiced green thumb. The warm hospitality is a natural outgrowth of their years of accumulated experience in the restaurant business in New York City, San Francisco, London and the Twin Cities.
There’s a whimsical sense of improvision in the brief, changes-weekly menus, their format dictated by whatever the duo’s always-expanding local supply chain has in store. (“I just got connected with a great guy near Red Wing. He’s going to be raising quail and squab, just for me,” said Carlson.)
The meal could start with a “Queen’s Platter,” an array of build-your-own toasts using smoked ham and capicola (“We have friends who raise hogs for us,” said Summer), a runny Brie and punchy mustard, or tender lettuces harvested at a farm just up the road and dressed with chèvre and a bright vinaigrette boosted by rhubarb cut from the kitchen garden.
The main event might be more of that heritage Berkshire pork — this time, in the form of a sizzling steak — or crisply seared sea bass, or a boldly beefy grass-fed grilled rib-eye steak, served with a handful of the dreamiest fries imaginable.
Or, for those not interested in dropping $25 to $30 for an entree, there might be a hearty pulled pork sandwich — and a beer — for 10 bucks. Summer’s pastry chef skill set means that dessert — a luscious lavender pot de crème, a wickedly rich chocolate torte finished with caramel — is a total treat.
To say that they operate the restaurant with a skeleton staff is an understatement. It’s very nearly a two-woman show, with assists from a small crew. Not that diners sense any stress in this utterly relaxing weekend getaway.
“We don’t need to watch reality TV,” said Carlson with a laugh. “We’re living our own reality TV show, and I love it.”
About 90 miles downriver in La Crosse, another Twin Cities couple are making an outsized impression on the local culinary landscape.
After long and distinguished careers with D’Amico & Partners — where their skills and good sense guided a generation of Twin Cities chefs, restaurateurs and diners — Jay Sparks and Joan Ferris made a slight adjustment to their business plan.
Their long-dreamed-of restaurant wouldn’t be located in Minneapolis. Instead, they’d plant roots in Joan’s hometown.
Lucky La Crosse. They christened their “baby” Lovechild (300 3rd St. S., La Crosse, 1-608-433-2234, lovechildrestaurant.com), wiping away any and all traces of the former tenant (yes, a Hooters franchise), burnishing the late-19th-century building’s innate brick-and-timber beauty with plush velvets and dramatic mirrors.
The wide-open space is anchored at one end by Sparks’ gleaming, showy kitchen, with a long, inviting bar (complete with love seats, of course) running for much of the room’s length. Sophisticated, yes. Haughty, not a chance.
They’re an extraordinary team. Ferris’ watchful eye and gregarious nature have surely made her the city’s hostess with the mostest, and Sparks’ cooking is a revelation. It’s spare but not austere, uncomplicated but not dumbed-down. Nothing is overworked or overwrought. Dining here is a distinct pleasure.
Start with skewered leg of lamb, the meat charred but fork-tender, with harissa’s heat cooled by yogurt. Or the season’s first strawberries dressed in a yin-yang combination of black pepper and a husky, honey-sparked balsamic vinegar, a reminder that good cooking is about balance.
The pastas are rustic in appearance, refined in temperament. Agnolotti, filled with ricotta and the pale color and quiet bite of green onions, are jazzed with sneaks of preserved lemon. Masterful gnocchi need nothing more than a lively tomato sauce. Broad, flat pappardelle, treated with sage, crunchy pistachios and pops of Gorgonzola, signal that you’re in the presence of pasta genius.
Entrees are similarly impressive. Dense, snowy-white halibut arrives as the centerpiece of a Spanish-inspired tomato-and-green olive stew. Chicken thighs, the crisped skin crackling with thyme and garlic, have a sneaky chile-fueled heat. Or there’s a North African spin on seared tuna, finished with chermoula and served with couscous.
Sparks is also a skilled baker. His focaccia is easily the city’s best bread, and his uncomplicated desserts — impossibly light pâté aux choux doughnuts, dusted with cinnamon and sugar, or a peach shortcake, or a rhubarb crumble — are a must.
The bar’s cocktail-making skills and the global wine list both impress. Prices? Starters run $8 to $12, pastas range from $8.50 to $9.75 for half-sizes, $17 to $19.50 for full, entrees $17.50 to $39 and desserts $7.50 to $8.50.
Move aside, Grandad Bluff, La Crosse’s gotta-visit park with vertigo-triggering views of the Mississippi River Valley. Lovechild is the city’s new summit.
A 40-minute drive from La Crosse to Viroqua yields priceless benefits. First, there’s the dramatically carved landscape, a breathtaking roller coaster of hills, valleys and vistas that locals probably learn to take for granted, but here’s hoping they don’t.
Then there’s the Driftless Cafe (118 W. Court St., Viroqua, 1-608-637-7778, driftlesscafe.com). After working in Madison for a decade, co-owners Luke and Ruthie Zahm returned to their hometown (technically, Luke is from nearby La Farge) four years ago, taking over and transforming this just-off-Main Street operation.
“It was a right-place, right-time situation,” said Luke.
They planned well. A steady stream of tourists — many drawn by the area’s plentiful fishing opportunities — come for Luke’s straightforward, hyperseasonal cooking, which places the kitchen’s fresher-than-fresh ingredients at the forefront. Locals come for the restaurant’s instantaneous sense of community, and for an immediate taste of southwestern Wisconsin.
That’s because 65 farmers (85 percent of them are within 30 miles of Viroqua) fill the restaurant’s larder. The Driftless is a living, breathing reminder that farm-to-table isn’t just about good food. It’s about fostering a strong economy. By buying local, the Zahms estimate that they invest somewhere around $260,000 a year in their immediate surroundings.
“The economic impact is easy to see, because that’s money that goes right into the local economy,” said Luke. “We can see those dollars at work, because they’re our friends and neighbors. We want to see them succeed. And that’s the impact of just one small-town cafe.”
The menus change daily, with the kitchen crew deftly responding to whatever shows up at the back door. After a long winter of lifelessly bland supermarket spinach, it was startling to encounter chewy, flavorful and slightly wrinkled Savoy spinach, harvested that morning from a nearby farm and topped with shreds of impossibly juicy chicken, snips of sharp Vidalia onion and juicy, barely sweet strawberries.
Or fat-laced, crisp-skinned roasted duck, the meat’s richness tempered by tart, honey-poached rhubarb and gently sweet roasted turnips. Or nutty, chewy wild rice tossed with earthy golden oyster mushrooms, local black walnuts and crispy fried leeks. Braunschweiger and liverwurst are evocations of Luke’s grandmother’s kitchen, but also have a practical side
“We’re doing whole-animal butchery, and so we’re using lots of cuts that are often otherwise discarded,” he said.
There’s also pizza — terrific pizza — which serves as callback to the restaurant’s former incarnation, but it’s also a way to keep the restaurant affordable.
“There has to be more accessibility,” said Luke. “That’s something that’s missing in the good food movement. I look to places like Spoon and Stable and the Bachelor Farmer as beacons, but they’re expensive places to eat. I work in a small-town framework. So let’s celebrate the fruits of my farmers’ bounty by making a big Sicilian pie.”
Take a seat at the concrete-topped bar — where Wisconsin-brewed craft beers reign supreme, alongside charcuterie from Madison’s vaunted Underground Meats — or in a pair of modest dining rooms. The sunnier of the two is adjacent to the busy kitchen, and it’s easy to catch glimpses of Luke and his crew hard at work through a pass-through window. It’s hard to miss a motto that’s written on the chalkboard above the window.
It reads, “Good energy = good food.” It’s certainly true of this rural gem, and it’s a mantra that every restaurant could, and should, adopt.