Laura Haack has stood for hours in the kitchen of her mother-in-law in Puebla, Mexico, walking step-by-step with her through the beloved traditional dishes of the region.

A co-owner of Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar, Haack is married to a native of Puebla, an eastern city south of Mexico City where she lived for four years.

The food of Puebla has made a home in her heart, and on a frigid Tuesday night this month, its bright and layered flavors were offered to a packed dining room. The six-course meal kicked off the ninth year of the restaurant's off-season specialty dinners.

"This is one of my favorite nights of my life," Haack said. "That it was so well-received means a lot to me."

Lake Avenue is planning one specialty dinner a month from January to June as a way to lure and treat ambitious local diners during those slow, cold winter and spring months. The restaurant has hosted eight-course Champagne dinners, and those that focus on local craft beer and wine from Oregon's Willamette Valley. They've spent nights serving just a handful of people to feeding more than 60.

"We're not a giveaway restaurant," said co-owner Derek Snyder, explaining the concept. "No one-dollar-off cocktails. We just don't have that ability at our restaurant."

Recalling past special dinners at New Scenic Cafe, Snyder said, the idea of a place shut down to the public for the night, serving one focused menu to one group of diners for three to four hours was the answer. And it has worked, with customers who return again and again.

"There is a small audience for this," Snyder said. "We're never going to be the million dollar owners or open eight restaurants. Our thing is one chef, one restaurant."


A shared experience

The $90 January "Sazon de Puebla" dinner included a Baja-sourced wine pairing with each course on the tasting menu.

Diners were seated by companions and strangers, some at long communal tables. On this night, a shared trio of salsas - including a hot terra cotta-hued habanero mango - led to quick friendships. Diners took notes, asked questions, discussed flavor profiles.

"It's an education," said Mae Gackstetter, who has been to at least a dozen dinners since they began.

The night was long, with considerable paced time between courses. But the anticipation of what would come next tempered the wait.

"We like the camaraderie, meeting new people and getting out of your comfort zone," said Duluth resident Meaghan Morrell-Huot. "Something like this is hard to find," outside the Twin Cities metro area.

The January menu was a little tamer in comparison to past dinners, she said, mentioning a tripe taco.

Courses included a braised chicken thigh with a rich, classic mole sauce, a carne asada chalupa worthy of a Pacific Coast Highway roadside taco stand, barbacoa ribs and chiles en nogada. The nogada was the dish most unfamiliar to the crowd. Made traditionally in late summer and September to celebrate Mexico's Independence Day, its star is a creamy white sauce made from peeled walnuts, dotted with pomegranate seeds.

This version tasted true, honoring the dish Haack made with her husband's family. A poblano pepper was roasted and stuffed with apricot and red rice and covered in the luscious sauce. Prickly pear ice cream with an addictive fried cornflake tuile was the finale.

Executive chef Jeff Zervas said he heavily researched Pueblan food, presenting Haack with more than a dozen ideas for the night. She whittled them down to what was ultimately made after consulting with her family.

"It's fun to push boundaries," Zervas said, noting the restaurant's entire staff contributes to the night.

'A big deal'

Taking farm to table a step beyond most, Lake Avenue will again hold dinners out in the fields of three area farms this summer and fall, including Yker Acres in Carlton and Hammarlund Nursery in Esko.

Creating dishes using local produce and meat and cocktails from local spirits has become more important to the restaurant over time.

According to Snyder, who, with Mark Swenson bought Lake Avenue Cafe from Patrick Cross and Mary Ann Immerfall a decade ago, the restaurant is finally coming into its own following some unsuccessful years figuring out what it wanted to be and struggling with change.

Today, "we are focused on the quality of the food and the quality of the customer," he said, challenging and treating diners well.

Eating out with his family as a youth at local institutions like the Chinese Lantern and the Jolly Fisher, Snyder would watch his father pass tables, shaking the hands of people he knew.

Dining out "was such a privilege ... it was a big deal. That gets lost in society," he said.

The celebration of dining out wasn't lost at the January dinner, as staff came out from the kitchen to applause, answering questions and visiting tables, and friends new and old talked well after the last bites.

If you go

Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar specialty dinners

394 S. Lake Ave.

Feb. 12: "One night in California" with Napa and Sonoma valley wines

March 19: "Cocktail dinner," featuring a distillery yet to be announced

April 16: "Let's go to Portugal," with wines from the region

May 14: North Shore Scenic Railroad dinner train

June 11: "Oceans and rose," with rose wine and ocean-based seafood

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To reserve, call (218) 722-2355