After a several-years absence, Olivier Vrambout is back in front of an oven, and all suddenly feels right with the world.
It took two years and a near-bottomless amount of sweat equity for Vrambout — a familiar face to fans of the former Bikery in Stillwater — to convert a consignment shop in Bayport into L’Etoile du Nord Cafe, but it’s a scenario that pretty much defines worth the wait.
Rather than concentrating on the dreamy croissants, éclairs, galettes and breads for which he was previously associated, Vrambout is using his wood- and gas-fired oven to create other, equally spectacular pursuits.
First, waffles. Glorious waffles, done in the style of his native Belgium, a two-day yeasted and sugared dough prepared in high-heat cast iron press and then reheated in the oven.
A deep golden brown, they’re firm and chewy and substantial yet surprisingly light. When it comes to finishing touches, Vrambout treats them with the respect they deserve, whether he’s piling on a veritable mountain of life-altering whipped cream and a house-made Nutella that will forever leave you off the commercially prepared version, or going with a tender pear poached in pinot noir and whispers of allspice, anise and vanilla bean. So delicious.
Vrambout has had plenty of time to perfect his waffle formula with his Waffle Van food truck. Turns out he’s also a skilled pizza maker, pulling thick, sturdy crusts out of that showplace oven, utilizing a recipe that he worked out over several years (“playing with dough and fire is really fun,” he said) with the brick oven he built in his back yard.
When it comes to toppings, Vrambout displays an innate sense of what works and what doesn’t. There are a handful of variations on the menu, and each one is a winner: beer-braised pheasant with sweet caramelized onions and cherries, fresh mozzarella and leeks topped with a runny egg, earthy mushrooms and a smear of fresh creamy white cheese. Even better, the results are ideally suited for the full-bodied Belgian beers Vrambout favors.
I love the quick-baking flatbreads he calls upon as a foundation for a fantastic breakfast sandwich, one of a half-dozen egg dishes that will undoubtedly make Bayport an a.m. destination, including a pair of Benedicts, a skillfully rendered quiche, dreamy shirred eggs and an airy frittata bolstered by delicate smoked trout from nearby Star Prairie, Wis.
Lunch is a handful of sandwiches (the rustic croque monsieur is not to be missed), a few lovely salads and a daily soup that reflects both a high level of stovetop prowess and whatever just-picked produce has been delivered to the kitchen door direct from Hungry Turtle Farm in Amery, Wis.
Drop in on Friday for Vrambout’s take on steamed mussels with fries, and follow him on Twitter (@LDNcafe) for his occasional pop-up specials.
Truly, what’s not to love? The 35-seat storefront (built with all kinds of recycled materials, including refinished telephone poles) is as stylish as all get-out and peppered with visual references to Vrambout’s passion for cycling. Coffee beans are roasted on-site. Service is small-town sweet. A charming patio just made its debut with last weekend’s warm weather. Oh, and prices hover in the $8 to $14 range.
Vrambout, very nearly a one-man show in his kitchen, somehow finds the time to pull together a tiny bakery counter, turning out wonderfully crumbly scones and a gotta-have cookie version of those waffles, among other goodies. Bayport, here’s hoping you appreciate the sparkling sapphire that just landed in your midst.
L’Etoile du Nord Cafe, 320 5th Av. N., Bayport, 651-439-7507, www.letoiledunordcafe.com. Open 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat.-Sun. No reservations.
Meanwhile, on E. Franklin Avenue
Emily Rheingans is sparking a revival — a joyous, much-appreciated renaissance — of what she calls “the quintessential breakfast pastry,” the sweet roll.
“I think rolls are just really fun,” she said. Agreed.
At her six-week-old Mon Petit Chéri Bakery & Kitchen, Rheingans is turning out a small but ever-increasing assortment of spiraled treats fashioned from moist, rich, yeasted dough.
There are cinnamon rolls, prodigiously slathered in a thick cream cheese icing, and brioche-style rolls finished with vanilla pastry cream and pops of semisweet chocolate.
My favorites are the ones pocked with blueberries and glazed with a thin, orange-flecked icing, a handmade shout-out to the Pillsbury cinnamon rolls that Rheingans’ mother baked for her family.
A close second are the sticky, chewy and pecan-packed caramel rolls, an affectionate nod to all of the hours Rheingans logged in her grandmother’s kitchen (“she taught me all about yeasted breads,” she said).
Like so much of this kitchen’s handiwork, they’re not aggressively sweet. Rather than piling on the sugars, granulated and brown, Rheingans relies primarily upon honey and maple syrup, to great effect.
On the savory side, Minneapolis’ roll connoisseur funnels the findings of a recent croque monsieur tour of Paris — what a way to visit that city, right? — into a portable meal, rolling a barely sweet dough around ham, Gruyère, bechemal and copious amounts of black pepper. If there’s any justice, it’s going to consign the Egg McMuffin to history’s breakfast-food dustbin.
The Blaine native started her career in coffeehouses, then baked at Birchwood Cafe, Honey and Rye and La Patisserie as she formulated plans to become her own boss. She had plans for a food truck — the relatively low start-up costs were a major draw — but when a partnership fell through she went the farmers market route.
She found a commercial kitchen and landed at the Minneapolis Farmers Market, where her breakfast pastries won friends and influenced people all last spring, summer and fall.
When the Himalayan Restaurant moved to larger quarters, Rheingans snapped up the cafe’s shoebox home in the Seward neighborhood, gave it a quick once-over (sweetest touch: tabletops covered in pages ripped from vintage cookbooks) and launched her cozy brick-and-mortar funhouse.
She puts her stove to work and turns out a modest breakfast and lunch roster, a model of basic, scratch-made affordability: hearty grilled sandwiches on hefty slices of house-baked sourdough or tangy Swedish limpa, well-prepared soups served with buttery baguette and fresh and generously portioned salads.
A handful of a.m. options (available all day) start with a pair of changes-daily quiches, a stick-to-your-ribs oatmeal, toast with fruity jam and a few daily specials; if there are pancakes, order them. Top price: $9, and the counter staff is Wal-Mart store greeter-friendly.
The bakery case also boasts a small, nothing-fancy assortment of buttery cookies, bars, muffins, scones and layer cakes. Like those rolls, most exude a homey, after-school-snack aura, and they’re nearly as habit-forming.
Mon Petit Chéri Bakery & Kitchen, 2401 E. Franklin Av., Mpls., 612-236-4831, www.mpcbakery.com. Open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun. No reservations.
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