Cranberry jam toaster pastry from Hark! Cafe

Gluten-free baking is one thing. Vegan baking is another. Doing both at the same time? "There are a lot of scientific reasons why it's hard," said Lisa Neumann, a baker who co-owns Hark! Cafe with friend and roommate Katherine Pardue. But that hasn't stopped the pair from meticulous recipe testing, doing repeat trial-and-error experiments until they nail the flavors and textures of traditional baked goods.

While working on her pie crust recipe, Neumann wound up with way too much leftover dough. To use it up, she started making toaster pastries, which she fills with rotating housemade jams. And they look — and taste — an awful lot like Pop Tarts.

Everything is housemade, better to control the variables in vegan and gluten-free ingredients found on the market. They blend their own flour mix, make their own vegan butter, even make the soy milk that goes into the butter.

There are other recognizable treats in the pastry case. A faux Oreo cookie is crisp and ultra-chocolatey. A Rice Krispies-style treat nails that melted marshmallow pull, even without gelatin.

"Since we opened, we have been doing our best to feel out what really works for people," Neumann said about the childhood-memory treats on the menu. "And where we're at right now in this cultural moment makes things that are familiar and comforting appealing to a lot of people."

The cafe, which was slated to open at the start of the pandemic, launched in December. It's named for Harkness, the housing and dining cooperative Neumann and Pardue joined as students at Oberlin College. And it's gluten-free by circumstance: Pardue has celiac disease.

"It's not that we think gluten-free is healthier or anything like that," Pardue said. "It's just that that's my life." (Sharyn Jackson)

430 1st Av. N., Mpls., 612-354-7098, Open for takeout 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Fri., 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

Deep-fried pickle roll-ups from Bourbon Butcher

It's about this point in the winter, after a two-week deep-freeze, that I start dreaming about August. Specifically the Minnesota State Fair. So I couldn't resist this appetizer, which sounded like something I'd surely had on a stick walking down Dan Patch Avenue.

Kitchen manager Travis Peterson got the idea from another place he worked that used to dunk the Midwest picnic staple in beer batter. At this Southern-and-barbecue spot in Farmington, he rolls dill pickle spears and two slices of havarti cheese in an egg roll wrapper like a burrito. "It just gives it a different sort of crunch," he said.

The roll-up goes into the fryer and voilà — a next-level spin on 'Minnesota sushi' that hits all the crispy, creamy, salty and puckery notes.

Peterson is the first to admit it doesn't exactly fit the upscale smokehouse scene. That's because it's a pilot item for the menu at Farm Town Brew Hall, which opened next door last fall (just in time to close), and shares a kitchen. Now that Farm Town — which pairs microbrews from around Minnesota with comfort food — is up and running, the roll-ups will migrate to that menu by mid-March.

In the meantime, they are Bourbon Butcher's most popular menu item.

"Basically anything you can throw in a deep fryer is going to go with Southern-style food," he said. (S.J.)

20700 Chippendale Av. W., Farmington, 651-344-7600, Open for dine-in and takeout, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.

Marilyn Monroe latte at Gray Fox Coffee

This may be obvious, but it's not a good time for coffee shops downtown. Gray Fox, which occupies the stylish atrium of the former TCF Tower, pulls in about 5% of its pre-pandemic business these days. It has cut its hours in half, nixing after-work happy hour and essentially dropping the lunch and wine bar part of the business, for now. It trimmed back on staff, and is getting by on grants.

But it's steadfastly remaining open, "just because we wanted to try to create some sort of normalcy for people who work downtown and are still there," said owner Chris Bjorling.

Despite the "sad state of affairs," Bjorling said, Gray Fox is doubling down on its sense of whimsy, thanks to one brilliant little machine behind the coffee bar. It's essentially a robotic latte artist that can produce almost any picture in coffee and foam. And this month, it's gone all out with an intricate portrait of Marilyn Monroe.

"The details on her are pretty incredible," Bjorling said.

The latte contains strawberry purée and white chocolate sauce, and tastes a little like a fruit-filled truffle in a box of Valentine's chocolates. It's been one of Gray Fox's more popular drinks among those downtown stalwarts.

Fortunately, Gray Fox will soon have a chance to snag more customers. Come March, look for a second shop in Uptown, at 1477 W. Lake St. (S.J.)

801 Marquette Av. S., Mpls., 612-886-3770, Open 7:30 a.m.-11 a.m. Tues.-Fri.

WildTwist apple at Hy-Vee

There's a new apple in town, and it's got a stellar pedigree.

The WildTwist is a cross between Honeycrisp — which was developed by the University of Minnesota and is one of the great apple success stories of all time — and Cripps Pink (aka Pink Lady), and it's a keeper.

This freckled, rose-red beauty radiates crowd-pleasing apple attributes, hitting top marks in the crispy and juicy departments and bearing a well-balanced sweet-tart bite. It's also an ideal winter apple, by design.

"It's a late harvest — late October, early November — and when it sits in storage, it develops flavor, it mellows out a bit," said Chris Sandwick of Hess Brothers Fruit Co., the Pennsylvania-based company that is cultivating a million Wild Twist trees in Pennsylvania and Washington state. "Spring and summer aren't a very exciting time for apples, but this is an apple that can give a superior eating experience at a time when we traditionally don't see that."

The introduction of the WildTwist (yes, that's a trademarked name) comes at a time when the number of apple varieties vying for supermarket space has never been greater. The nation's top-selling apple is the Gala. The Red Delicious lands in second place, but the popularity of that mainstreamer, once the undisputed apple of America's eye, is in rapid descent and is on its way to being overshadowed by the Honeycrisp's rapid trajectory.

"What's fun about the WildTwist is that it can be a niche," said Sandwick. "It can complement Gala, not supplant it."

There's a reason why the Twin Cities market is an early part of the WildTwist's nationwide rollout.

"People in Minnesota absolutely love apples," said Sandwick. "People in Minnesota know a good apple when they find one, which is why it was important to get this apple to the Twin Cities as soon as possible." (Rick Nelson)

Find the WildTwist at Hy-Vee stores (where they're currently $2.49 per pound), and coming soon to Cub stores.

Hot fish sandwich at Nolo's Kitchen & Bar

"We were looking for something that's basically a big hug," said chef Peter Hoff, describing why he's just made this fantastic addition to his menu. "And who in Minnesota doesn't like deep-fried walleye?"

So many walleye sandwiches are yawn-inducingly dull. Not this one, because Hoff seems to have engineered every detail, and then some.

"Overthinking?" he said with a laugh. "That's what I'm here for."

Generously portioned and wonderfully sloppy, this knockout hits all the right sensory buttons. There are lots of highly appealing variations across texture, from the cabbage salad's cool crunch to the soft bite of the bun (a beauty from Turtle Bread Co.) to the crispiness of the fish's breadcrumb coating.

Instead of a one-note wallop, Hoff deftly sneaks in three welcome sources of heat: a chile-garlic paste for the walleye's beer-enriched batter, cayenne pepper and vinegar powder for seasoning and a thick swipe of a chile-fueled aioli.

The subtle celery accents are another reason for admiration. Hoff turns to stalks for crunch, leaves for color and seeds for flavor. Turns out, celery is his favorite vegetable.

"It's not appreciated the way it should be, but you can easily manipulate it, and you can shoehorn it into places where you wouldn't think it belonged," said Hoff. "Plus, it's cheap."

The sandwich's $17 price tag (worth it) includes fries, salad or soup. Hoff said it's going to stay on the menu for a while.

"People dig a crispy fish sandwich," he said. "And I'd like to think that we can do a better job than McDonald's."

Trust me, they can. By the way, those in search of a fast-food fish sandwich can find my best-to-worst survey of nine options here. It's from 2019, so the prices may have changed but the sentiments remain timely. (R.N.)

515 N. Washington Av., Mpls., 612-800-6033, Open for dine-in and takeout 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Hot fish sandwich available at lunch and dinner.