It's a question that keeps me awake at night: Why didn't we order the black bottom butterscotch pie? My friend and I had just finished gorging ourselves on the extraordinary strawberry-rhubarb pie at the Homemade Cafe in Pepin, Wis., and the prospect of consuming a whirl of chocolate, butterscotch cream, whipped cream and candied pecans didn't seem prudent. "I just pulled one out of the oven, and I'm waiting for it to cool," said owner Julie Elwell, tempting us further. We passed. Big mistake. After all, what's another piece of pie? Turns out, developing regrets of dishes not eaten was one souvenir during a recent food-focused getaway. From Rochester to Winona to points up and down Lake Pepin, the eating is as memorable as the scenery, and that's saying something. Our journey begins now.
What's cooking in Red Wing? Plenty, at least at Sarah's, where chef/owner Sarah Norton presides over a wide-open space (formerly a Ben Franklin five-and-dime) and serves her guests an appealing around-the-world flavor tour. There's Cuban-style pork roasted with garlic and oregano, shrimp and sausage jambalaya, gnocchi with butter and Parmesan and tasty grilled pork meatballs with a zesty peanut sauce. For taste buds that prefer to stay closer to home, Norton grills up a good burger, and dessert means a rapturous rhubarb crisp.
Some deity surely took one look at the awe-inspiring Lake Pepin view from the meadows high atop the bluffs in what is now Frontenac State Park and decreed, "Thou shalt picnic." If not, it's a good thing that a group of forward-thinking locals made the 2,300-acre park a reality in the late 1950s. Let's all hope for a fast resolution to the state government shutdown, because scenery this picnic-friendly is a terrible thing to waste.
MAIDEN ROCKOne-woman baking machine
There's almost always a line swelling in front of the counter at the Smiling Pelican Bakeshop, and with good reason: Baker/co-owner Sandra Thielman creates a drool-inducing selection of cookies, muffins, scones and breads, plus cakes, pies and tarts sold whole or by the slice. This remarkable enterprise, which fills the first floor of a storybook Victorian farmhouse -- complete with the squeak and slam of the porch's screened door and surrounded by a colorful and lovingly tended garden -- is a two-person show: Thielman, who toils in her spotless kitchen in a focused blaze of energy, and counter man Dave Meixner, who is no slouch in the work ethic department, either. Consider it a lucky day if Thielman has pulled together her mile-high banana cream pies, and make a meal from her quiches, the custard lavishly filled and the crust a lesson in golden flakiness. At the House of Thielman, seasonal fruits are treated like the treasure they are, prices are shockingly affordable and, if you leave without a bag of lavender- and ginger-packed sugar cookies, you need to have your head examined. Arrive early, or risk being confronted by a chalkboard bearing the travelogue's two most demoralizing words: "Sold out."Scene(ry) stealer
Anyone who places a high priority on fresh-picked blueberries - and camera-ready scenery - needs to know about Rush River Produce. There are U-pick farms, and then there's the Cuddy family spread, where 14 blueberry varieties, plus gooseberries and red and black currants, vie for center stage against a breathtaking landscape and envy-inducing flower gardens. Take the whole family.
STOCKHOLMBreakfast all day
At the Bogus Creek Cafe & Bakery, the roomy patio has all the requisite get-away-from-it-all attributes, and the carefully prepared breakfast-all-day menu treads a similar forget-your-troubles path: thick salmon cakes topped with poached eggs, fresh-squeezed orange juice, a basket brimming with slices of breads baked that morning, buttery cinnamon coffee cake and hazelnut-brown crepes dressed with tart lingonberries and sinfully thick whipped cream. Be sure and say hi to Bogus, chef/owner Colleen Flynn's friendly curly-tailed black dog.Some enchanted Tuesday evening
Only the uninitiated refer to Robbi Bannen's and Ted Fisher's A to Z Produce and Bakery by its official name; locals and insiders shorthand the Tuesday night ritual to "the pizza farm," and with good reason: Nearly every ingredient (save the cheeses, olives and spices) that hits the two scheduled-to-capacity wood-burning ovens is raised on the utterly enchanting Bannen/Fisher property, right down to the wheat in the sourdough crust. It's an extraordinary achievement, one that leaps, flavor-wise, off each rustic (and, it must be said, not inexpensive) pizza. It doesn't get more farm-to-table than this, although customers provide their own tables, as well as chairs, beverages, dishes and everything else -- the only items for sale are pizza and bread -- and there's a strict rule: Whatever comes to the farm has to leave the farm, including the cardboard pizza boxes. A tip: Crowds descend in droves, so arrive early to stake a claim on the couple's shady front lawn, be prepared to wait, and think of your fellow pizza-farm lovers as participants at the world's best family reunion, where everyone is blissfully happy but mingling is not required.One-stop shopping
Within the first few minutes of strolling into the Palate, I found myself engrossed in a discussion with co-owner Nancy Fitzsimons over the merits of a heat-resistant plastic cheese knife, fell for the flavor of lemon-infused Sicilian olive oil, pondered the purchase of organic bread flour milled in nearby Fountain City, Wis., wondered if I dared sneak another glass of the thirst-quenching rhubarb lemonade out of the kitchen's fancy Subzero refrigerator and marveled at the homey baked goods that filled a line of gigantic glass jars, including the irresistibly retro coconut-oatmeal-corn flake concoction known as the "Ranger" cookie. Yep, this well-stocked shop would fit right in at the Galleria, with two big differences: Fitzsimons' well-used Brother sewing machine, enlisted in the production of all manner of beautiful custom-made table linens, and the small-town hospitality that she and co-owner (and daughter) Shana Finnegan, pictured above, heap upon their customers.
PEPINPizza under the stars
As if Judith Hanks weren't busy enough, what with cooking jumbo breakfasts and lunches at her Third Street Deli along with running an adjacent consignment shop and day spa. No, Hanks recently dove headlong into the outdoor pizza business, and it's a gas. Server Kate Kraujalis kept us happy with a few deliciously hoppy Ambergeddon ales, and from our counter perch we watched as pizzamaker Michael Kolkind deftly coaxed one cornmeal-crusted beauty after another into the red brick oven's intense oak-fueled heat. Toppings are plentifully applied, and while we scarfed a blistered spinach/blue cheese/Braeburn apple/lemon zest pizza, Kolkind and Kraujalis, recent Twin Cities transplants, filled us in on their plans for their CSA farm. Definitely a good night.Still going strong
A change in ownership from a few years back hasn't fundamentally altered the landmark daytripping destination that is the Harbor View Cafe. An eclectic chalkboard menu and scratch cooking continue as the restaurant's core principles, just as they have for 31 years. Proprietors -- and longtime Harbor View-ers -- Chuck Morrow and Ruth Stoyke also maintain its tradition of convivial hospitality. Now if only they could be persuaded to accept reservations. And credit cards.Just like Mom made
"What'll you have, hon?" asked my server, and my response was a no-brainer: Who wouldn't take a crack at the magnificent strawberry-rhubarb pie? For owner Julie Elwell, the Homemade Cafe isn't just a business name, it's a sacred way of doing things. Along with rolling out a belt-busting variety of pies ("I always make at least two a week that I've never made before, just to see if I like them," she said), Elwell also turns out an astonishingly good Reuben, a buttermilk-marinated pork tenderloin sandwich that would be the pride of any self-respecting Iowa farm woman, thoughtfully topped burgers (ask for extras of the tangy pickles), a refreshing house-made (naturally) ginger ale, excellent hash browns and pie tin-size buttermilk pancakes. There's also an $11 Friday night fish fry and a Saturday broasted chicken dinner, complete with popovers. If Elwell took in boarders, I'd be first in line.Shotgun marriage
Yes, it's an unorthodox commercial union -- an auditory clinic and house-made ice cream -- but Hear It Melt is for real. Well, at least I can vouch for the dessert side of the business. There are just a half-dozen basic flavors, but they're lusciously good, scooped into freshly made malted waffle cones. Prices are absurdly inexpensive -- just $2.50 for a heaping cone -- and the root beer floats are a buck. Another notable made-on-the-premises ice cream newcomer: The aggressively cute but highly kid-friendly Flapdoodle's in Rochester, which looks like a chain (the walls are papered with sayings along the lines of, "What if the hokey pokey really is what it's all about?") but doesn't taste like one. Three words: coffee chocolate chip.
Ok, I'll admit it: The dustibles -- sorry, collectibles -- stacked floor-to-ceiling inside J&J Barbecue and Catering didn't exactly telegraph a vote of confidence, at least to this BBQ hound. But don't allow the antiques to make an unfavorable impression, because the smoked and richly glazed pork and chicken, served in Flintstone-esque portions at highly reasonable prices, is surprisingly good. A tip: Order lunch or dinner to go, hop in the car, drive nine miles south to Alma, Wis., and picnic in breezy, beautiful Buena Vista Park.
Daniel Kordiak isn't the mayor of Alma, Wis., but, as the town's biggest booster, maybe he should be. Dilapidated is too generous a word for the buildings Kordiak buys along Alma's curving main street, which he injects with significant investments in sweat equity-fueled funkiness and converts them into B&Bs, boutiques and a coffeehouse he calls Fire and Ice. Go for the swank antiques, stay for the beverages, ice cream and homey pastries, baked at Kordiak's Alma Bakery, just up the street. Oh, and don't forget to explore the shop's remarkable hidden grotto of a garden.From city to country
Here's what's what with Kate & Gracie's: The tavern-style restaurant and pub, housed in a meticulously restored red-brick beauty, is the work of Ed Nagle and Laurie Farley. They're the husband-and-wife restaurateurs who originated Eli's Bar & Grill in downtown Minneapolis, and they know what they're doing. The patio is particularly pleasant.
LAKE CITYGreat baked goods
It's tough to imagine improving upon the hefty hunks of smoked, meltingly tender and slightly vinegar-ey pork, its edges crusted with caramelized goodness, that was heaped into a long spear of crusty baguette (burnished by a busy wood-burning oven) and topped with tangy, garden-fresh slaw that I found myself inhaling at Rabbit's Bakery. "Maybe a second one?" asked my friend, who was equally entranced by an asparagus-studded egg salad, generously spooned between slices of hearty toasted bread. Driven by necessity -- their place is roughly the size of a cramped two-car garage -- owners Dan and Hallie Patterson keep their menu brief (four sandwiches, a few sides, a handful of breakfast items), but the uncomplicated results are truly exceptional in every way, including the modest prices. We grabbed an obscenely fudgy brownie for the road. We should have bought two. Better yet, a dozen.Nuts about Nosh
It had been a few years since my last visit to Nosh Restaurant & Bar, and I'm a more enthusiastic fan than ever. Chef/owner Greg Jaworski scours local farms for ingredients and inspiration, channels that bounty through a wide-focused Mediterranean lens and then capitalizes on bold flavors, whether he's searing foie gras and balancing its richness with traces of strawberry jam and bee pollen, coaxing maximum tenderness out of a pan-seared duck breast or acknowledging a winning late-spring triumvirate -- asparagus, fiddlehead ferns and young onions -- with scallops. Loved the quirky strawberry-chile pepper soup, the scrappy house-made lamb sausages and the desserts, including off-the-beaten path ice creams (ras el hanout, anyone?) and an expertly rendered strawberry shortcake, my first of the season and a joy to behold. Jaworski's skill set would fit right into any big-city kitchen, and while the restaurant's address is semi-rural, its drab decor is, unfortunately, suburban tract home, circa 1999. But who cares when the lakeside view is so spectacular?
WINONACruise on Inn
For a city of 26,000 residents, Winona boasts an impressive array of cultural attractions, including swaggering architecture, fascinating museums and first-rate theater. But after a day of highbrow pursuits, how about going a little lowbrow and retreating to this river town's oldest restaurant, the Lakeview Drive Inn? The carhops define perky and the quintessential burgers-dogs-fries fare stretches far beyond McDonald's drive-thru window: There are burgers from locally raised bison and elk meat, the BLT utilizes bread from another Winona institution, Bloedow's (the bakery's doughnuts are a tourist attraction all their own), and the house-made root beer is served in heavy frosted mugs.
WHALANHigh time for pie time
Summer is pie season, which is why a visit to the accurately named Aroma Pie Shop should be on every Minnesotan's warm-weather itinerary. Lard is the secret behind baker/owner Maggie Gergen's impossibly flaky crusts, and she fills her great-looking pies -- there usually are a dozen to choose from -- with everything from rhubarb culled from her siblings' farm gardens to tart Key lime-flavored custard. Another bonus is that the shop, and its respite of a screened porch, is just steps from the ultra-scenic Root River State Bike Trail.
The Old Village Hall is blessed with assets. It's located in Lanesboro, a town so ridiculously charming that it almost feels like a soundstage from MGM's golden era. The restaurant's 125-year-old stone pile of a home, originally a jail and village hall, screams "quaint." A spacious deck is sheltered by a towering maple tree. Co-owner Jon Pieper has the host thing down pat, and then some. Chef James Sisler gets right to the point with five enticing entrees, and his spirited handiwork was encapsulated in a single dish: chicken thighs, the crispy skin glazed with a teasingly spicy paprika sauce, the meat juicy and deeply flavorful, paired with dainty spaetzle and rich, pan-roasted mushrooms. Each delicious bite heralded the merits of browning, and with it the pleasures inherent in cooking with simplicity and integrity.
ROCHESTERWhat a catch
Another reason to celebrate Rochester's blossoming food scene is seafood-focused Pescara. What a happy surprise. The menu is anchored, a la Oceanaire Seafood Room, by an ever-changing, mix-and-match selection of fresh fish (mahi mahi, snapper, halibut, grouper) prepared three ways (grilled, sautéed or broiled) and finished with a choice of nine sauces. Standards like meaty crab cakes and snappy shrimp cocktail are treated with respect, the setting is far more stylish than the cookie-cutter Doubletree Hotel address might otherwise suggest and lunch includes a half-dozen $10 options.Marvel in Mayotown
Söntés chef Bryce Lamb specializes in gleefully imaginative and expertly nuanced small plates, each one more stunning than the last: a riot of color in the form of a tagine of perfectly cooked vegetables and couscous, velvety cured tuna with tangy pickled watermelon rind, tender-as-can-be tortelloni filled with beets and Swiss chard, and the crowning glory, a hoisin-glazed pork belly, shimmering with glorious fattiness and hints of five-spice accents, resting on a pear-ginger waffle with a barely-holding-together poached egg, a clever exercise in sweet vs. savory. Lamb's global sensibilities are reflected in the extensive wine and beer lists, which exude an infectious sense of discovery; the sole locally brewed beer turned out to be one I'd never tasted, a wicked-good honey-infused ale from Olvalde Farm and Brewing Co. in tiny Rollingstone, Minn. Service is smoothly gracious, the setting manages to be both slick and come-as-you-are and Lamb's prices are surprisingly affordable. How nice to know that Rochester is dining so very well.Browse and dine
Part gourmet grocery, part well-stocked deli and part cafe, ZZest Culinary Market & Wine Cafe covers a lot of bases in its cramped strip-mall square footage, and does it well. "Do you like brisket?" asked the chef, and, with an enthusiastic nod of my head, a few slivers of mouth-melting beef dressed in freshly grated horseradish and salty blue cheese materialized in front of me. And people wonder why I prefer to sit at the counter. Lunch was excellent: a smartly composed salad, freshly pulled cow's milk mozzarella drizzled with a fruity olive oil and a fantastic panini filled with thinly shaved ham, Gruyère and a peach-apricot spread that I now regret not having grabbed in the market as I made my exit. The cheese and cured meats selections are first-rate, and it's a hugely encouraging sign when owner Leeann Zubay has the good sense to fill her ice cream scoop case with Jeni's, surely the nation's most Tweeted-about premium brand.Bragging rights
The Rochester Downtown Farmers Market is one of the state's best, period. Which only makes sense, as the city lies in the epicenter of Minnesota's peak-performance farming region. The Saturday morning get-together, which meanders through a parking lot on the Zumbro River, attracts an enviable collection of small organic farmers hawking their attention-grabbing heirloom crops, along with an equally fine array of meat and poultry purveyors. Hungry? Snack on vendor Monica Bressard's habit-forming lefse, or the market's most talked-about novelty food item, Vreeman Farms' own thick-cut bacon, dipped in chocolate and speared on a stick.
CANNON FALLSGobble gobble
There are nearly 15,000 turkeys free-ranging in the grass-covered fields that lie about 100 yards from Ferndale Market, which explains the freezer case filled with delectable whole smoked turkeys cured in brown sugar, the roasted red pepper-garlic-turkey sausage and the ground turkey waiting to be turned into burgers or meatloaf. The Peterson family, multigenerational turkey farmers, have converted a former hatchery into a cheery retail outlet that's much more than a showcase for turkey products. The Petersons also scour the region for other like-minded farmstead products, including krauts fermented in oak barrels, an exceptional Amish-made yogurt, uncured bacon and bratwurst from a nearby butcher.