Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Oliphant Brewing’s no-frills, laid-back taproom
As I write this, everyone who’s anyone is de-cluttering in the style of the Japanese organizing guru Marie Kondo. We are reconsidering all our possessions while asking Kondo’s one essential question: Does this spark joy? And so into the trash go our antihistamines, our snow shovels, and our instruction booklets on how to assemble the robot hasmster’s exercise wheel. So, this is freedom! I’ll admit, at first it’s very nerve-wracking, this whole jump into the serenity of compassion for our stuff, when compassion so often means putting socks in the garbage. However, I’m confident that this will end well, because Kondo’s book is called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and when has magic ever gone wrong? In the history of literature, I can’t think of one time. I will confess, once I got rid of the stairs to the upstairs bedrooms (needing vacuuming, always! sparking joy, never!), friends began to worry. And when I tossed out all those joyless switches in the electric fuse box I was forced to leave the house for basic sustenance, but then that, too, was a joy-sparking blessing because: Have you been to our little towns of the St. Croix Valley lately? Things changed during the winter, and there are more than a dozen lovely little destinations to build a whole life-affirming, joy-sparking, fun-filled day around. So get in your car! Head east! Just, one thing: Leave all those cluttery things under the hood in place. They might not seem like they’re sparking joy in you, but you might be sad if they are gone.
You’ll be equally sad if you let the summer of 2015 go by without getting to our river towns, which have never been tastier.
Oliphant Brewing • Somerset
If you’re a beer-lover and like road trips, promise me that you’ll make the drive to Somerset, Wisconsin, this summer to seek out this taproom. It’s just 10 minutes from downtown Stillwater, across the old lift bridge. Keep your eyes peeled as it’s a bit hard to find in an old warehouse that’s both right on and yet totally invisible to the main drag—but well worth the effort! Owners and brewers Trevor Wirtanen and Matt Wallace are making intense, interesting, weird, good, crazy beers, and the whole experience feels exactly like the passionate, over-the-top crazy thing you want to spend a summer afternoon exploring. Wallace worked at Northeast’s Dangerous Man brewery for two years, and the kissing-cousin relationship of Dangerous Man beers to the Oliphant beers is obvious on first taste. But there’s more here than that: The Swamp Thing peated Scottish ale has a sinuous smoke to it and an inexplicable finish that tastes uncannily like Lagavulin. The Ennui pale ale is beautifully scouring. And the environs, hand-built from scrap wood and cool stuff scavenged by the two friends, has that heart-quickening X-factor of the place you want to be before it goes big. Insider’s tip: Get a bag of cheese curds. Now you know you’re in Wisconsin!
350 Main St., Ste. #2, Somerset, Wis., 651-705-6070, oliphantbrewing.com
Pitchfork Brewing • Hudson
Nowhere glamorous, because it’s up the hill and off I-94 in the non-picturesque part of Hudson, Wisconsin, Pitchfork Brewing is nonetheless absolutely worth any brew-hunter’s time. Co-owner and lead brewer Mike Fredricksen makes tiny three-barrel batches, many using wild yeasts and locally grown hops that yield rich and balanced flavors rarely achieved in small American breweries. You know the fantasy we all carry around about Belgian farmhouse breweries? Sometimes they’re getting there at Pitchfork. Look for the Thistle Scottish Ale, which is strangely and appealingly bacony, and the Double IPA with Stillwater-grown hops that has a beautifully strident richness.
709 Rodeo Circle, Hudson, Wis., 715-245-3675, pitchforkbrewing.com
Stone Tap • Hudson
Are you a rich Minnesota tech person short on time but dying to bring beers available only in Wisconsin to Minneapolis parties? Ducky, are you lucky. Stone Tap, which has a double cheeseburger to rival the Lion’s Tap (Don’t stab me! It’s true!), also has a prestige list of prestige Wisco beers and national brews not available in Minnesota, all of which they will pack unopened into a box, off-sale style, for you to drive back home. Do a double-blind tasting of New Glarus Raspberry Tart versus Stone Tap Strawberry Rhubarb. The $5 kids’ meals are pretty fantastic, too, especially the grilled cheese.
517 2nd St., Hudson, Wis., 715-808-8343, stonetaphudson.com
Knoke’s Chocolates • Hudson
Old-fashioned penny-candy jars, handmade chocolates, a small-town fantasy of an ice cream counter—if you don’t know about Knoke’s, it’s time to know. Ideal for Mother’s or Father’s Day gifts, outings with the kids, or just to get that bona fide small-town, Memorial Day feeling.
220 Locust St., Hudson, Wis., 715-381-9866, knokeschocolatesandnuts.com
L’Etoile du Nord • Bayport
Best new restaurant of the St. Croix Valley this year—or best new restaurant in Bayport since the dearly departed Bayport Cookery shut down? Both! This is an absolute must-visit for anyone who likes Europe and has a free afternoon this summer. Olivier Vrambout—formerly of The Bikery and Bikery du Nord—is a native Belgian with a gift for Liège waffles (imagine a waffle with a micron of glass-crisp melted sugar on every surface), an unrivaled delicacy with salads, a passion for Belgian beers (the glasses and bottles are so pretty), and a dozen special pots for moules frites, one of which has your name on it. He also has coffee he roasts himself, the best hot chocolate in the state, and an outdoor patio. Go.
320 5th Ave. N., Bayport, 651-439-7507, letoiledunordcafe.com
Gasthaus Bavarian Hunter • Stillwater
Did you forget about Gasthaus? Don’t! Because you and a friend can score a pretty picnic table among the whispering pines (and possibly in amusing distance of an accordion-fueled bier garden band) and get the best-named pork shank ever: Schweinsaxe. It is well roasted and served with piles of sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. Then order every authentic German beer they have on tap, and they’ll bring them in a sort of swinging toolbox for a mere $19. A real ace-in-the-hole for those with toddlers and new babies: They can crawl around under picnic tables safely in complete happiness, and when the band is playing, no one can hear the unhappiness of a small child eating a pinecone.
8390 Lofton Ave. N., Stillwater, 651-439-7128, gasthausbavarianhunter.com
The Mad Capper Saloon and Eatery • Stillwater
This is crazy, but do it: Go to this eternal Stillwater townie bar and order the two Joseph Wolf Brewing Co. beers—bombers the size of wine bottles that run $14 a pop. The Belgian Ale is the most fragrant (think lemons, pie crust, and orange flowers), while the Berliner Weisse is sour and vanilla- and copper-edged in an unforgettable way. By this time next year, the Stillwater heritage brewery should have a Stillwater taproom, but until they do, there are few places to try this native gem in a native setting—and the bar here is living history, the cheese curds are the real deal.
224 S. Main St., Stillwater, 651-430-3710, madcapper.biz
Domacin Restaurant & Wine Bar • Stillwater
The best restaurant with the best wine list in Stillwater remains Domacin. Never been? What are you waiting for? Go. They offer the white-wine list by which all others should be judged, as well as a cheese plate I would be proud to show a visiting French chef.
102 S. 2nd St., Stillwater, 651-439-1352, domacinwinebar.com
Maple Island Brewing • Stillwater
The newest taproom in Stillwater opened last fall and has beautiful river views and is worth a stop. Grab a table near the garage doors to the east with a gorgeous view of passing steamboats. Get the $10 flight, and find your favorite.
225 N. Main St., Stillwater, 651-430-0044, mapleislandbrewing.com
LoLo American Kitchen • Stillwater
Hands down, LoLo American Kitchen has the best cocktails in Stillwater. For food, be sure to get every one of the $2 starters; they’re terrifically creative little bites that show what the ambitious kitchen is capable of: crispy, crackling chicken skin with pickled vegetables, and the frisée is a one-bite essay in rich and perky.
233 S. Main St., Stillwater, 651-342-2461, loloamericankitchen.com
Mara-Mi • Stillwater
Don’t walk blindly past this super-cute store thinking it’s only got super-cute stationery and gifts. It also has super-cute cupcakes! They are delicious! And they have the best coffee in town! If you’re an aesthetically driven style-meister and you don’t pop in, you’ll be kicking yourself all year.
201 S. Main St., Stillwater, 651-689-1730, mara-mi.com
The Wedge & Wheel • Stillwater
Ever notice how local MPR is all about the British Broadcasting Company these days? Former MPR executive Chris Kohtz, who fell in love with British cheese shops while he was negotiating deals across the pond, is behind this new cheese bar, where you can snack on beautiful cheese plates and pair them with beers, ciders, and wines from the local food shed, or from across the Atlantic.
308 E. Chestnut St., Stillwater, 651-342-1687, wedgeandwheel.com
Smalley’s Caribbean BBQ • Stillwater
You are aware that every local Jamaican food fan’s favorite barbecue spot, Smalley’s (of the imported pimento wood grilling), starred in all sorts of Food Network “best barbecue” spots this year, right? Well, don’t hold that against them. Insider’s tip: Eat in the bar; get the wings and the curried goat. If you drink too many Dark and Stormy’s, book a room at the Water Street Inn nearby, and sort it out in the morning.
423 S. Main St., Stillwater, 651-439-5375, smalleyscaribbeanbbq.com