DINING OUT: Seize the adventure at the Crooked Spoon
Lake herring roe isn’t particularly well-known in the United States, which makes its appearance on the Crooked Spoon Cafe menu all the more special.
The poor man’s caviar is sold by Grand Marais’ Dockside Fish Market at $3 an ounce. Called “Lake Superior gold” by many who harvest it, Dockside works with a Thunder Bay company to pull in 600,000 to 800,000 pounds of lake herring, also known as cisco, from both Grand Marais and Canadian waters for several weeks each fall. Workers empty the silvery fish of its roe before sending it out to be processed into anywhere from 60,000 to 70,000 pounds of finished product. Dockside co-owner Shele Toftey said that’s when it gets its salty flavor.
“All the restaurants do great jobs with how they serve it,” she said, noting there’s not much of a market stateside for the eggs. About 95 percent of the roe is shipped by another company to Sweden, where it’s called lojrom, and considered a delicacy.
“I’ve been telling them for years to sell them domestically,” Toftey said.
The remaining herring roe stays with Dockside, which sells it to Coastal Seafoods in the Twin Cities, and Grand Marais’ Crooked Spoon Cafe and Angry Trout, for example. In the hands of the Crooked Spoon, it became one of the most delightful local food experiences I’ve had.
The rosy-orange orbs burst with salty brine. Crooked Spoon puts the herring roe ($10.25) in a ramekin and gives you some options for experimentation: a dish of marinated olives hailing from the Mediterranean, a pair of deviled eggs and a vinegary chickpea salad. There is grilled flatbread for topping. It’s all very fun.
The Crooked Spoon is yards from Lake Superior. There is always local fish on the menu. The sense of place here, even from owners who claimed the town as their own, is palpable. Artwork from area artists is hung on the wall and regional products are used throughout the menu. I’ve listened to a musician strum a guitar from a stool in the corner of the intimate dining room.
Nathan and Sara Hingos opened the restaurant in 2006. Nathan is from upstate New York and Sara from Spring Grove, Minn. The two met at Northland College and decided to raise a family on the lake. He worked at nearby Gunflint Tavern and Lutsen Resort as a chef before starting his own kitchen.
While his food has a Mediterranean bent, Hingos tries to find things grown and raised in Minnesota, he said.
“Whatever I would like to eat is what’s on the menu,” he said.
Menus change about twice a year, and new discoveries are part of the enjoyment. A fall menu, this year, will come before the winter change-up. The restaurant — like some others in Grand Marais — closes for a few weeks during the year when things slow down. Dishes that always remain include the has-a-following French onion soup with puff pastry ($6.95) and the Crooked BLT, ($9.75) which comes with rosemary-flavored popcorn.
Let’s talk about that BLT. The bacon is lacquered with honey, and there’s a touch of black pepper. Here you’ve got a chef who knows that a pile of tomatoes should be ripe when you put them on a sandwich that showcases them. It sounds simple, right? There’s a light cucumber curry mayo and some toasted rye with caraway seeds. Take a bite, swig a Kayak Kolsch. Picture it: dock, shimmering lake, hot sun on your face, Otis Redding in your ears. Yes, I did get all of this from a sandwich.We also had the lamb meatballs ($10.25,) sprinkled with feta cheese in a bowl with pureed yellow tomatoes and grilled bread. I loved the Greek flavors, an elegant take on a Top 10 comfort food. They were tender, well-seasoned and would be hard not to order again.
There was a basil pesto and sweet corn risotto ($10.25) with oven-dried tomatoes and Kalamata puree. A strong summer garden theme, but it could have been creamier.
We tottered between the famous fruit pies and the banana brulee ($7.95.) The candy lovers in us won. A banana is sliced, sugared and hit with a kitchen torch. There is vanilla ice cream, cashew brittle, sea salt and rum caramel sauce. It is a thing of whimsy.
The only regret in the most recent visit was not trying the steamed mussels that seemed to be on every other table.
The wine list is long and has great picks from France, Italy, California and Oregon. A string of local beer favorites is available, along with coffee from Grand Marais’ artisan Fika Coffee. There is a thoughtful and pretty enticing menu for kids, too.
Service was casual and rushed at one lunch, where the meal came out while starters were still being eaten. It has been more refined at dinners.
On past visits, Hingos has shown creativity and a deft hand for matching food to outdoor temperature with ale and cheddar fondue with chorizo and pork tenderloin with pork belly.
Since my last visit, things have changed. The herring roe dish was a new plate for the warmer months, and it’s already disappeared from the menu. Fear not: you can find roe mixed into butter for a smoked salmon rillettes starter. Seize the adventure. Here, the joy is often in the new.
Crooked Spoon Cafe
17. W. Wisconsin St., Grand Marais
Summer hours: lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, 4:30-8 p.m.
Last day of the fall season is Oct. 18, but the restaurant re-opens post Christmas.