By Adam Estrem
As I drove south on Interstate 35, as the early winter sun set with vibrant orange-yellow light, I was reminded of the beauty of this state. Not 15 minutes into the drive, the dirty black and white cityscapes melt into snow-kissed farm fields, dotted with country farm houses of the past — once painted in vivid red, now just a reminder of what used to be.
This winter has been unseasonably warm, allowing me to step outside at exit 69 and take a deep breath of the clean crisp air, leaching into my mind as I prepare for a small town restaurant to feed my soul. I am a sap for small town eateries. Nothing brings me closer to where I am from than sitting down in a one-restaurant town, because more often than not you will be fed food that mom made. It may not be my mom cooking, but the food of small town Minnesota nourishes my conscience and dissolves any city ego I was carrying with me.
If you think about it, most of Minnesota is this way. We are lucky to have our densely populated areas, studded with world-class chefs and restaurants, but if you look at, the rest of the state relies on their small town to feed them. Northfield, Minn., only 45 minutes from the cities, may be on the bigger side of small towns, but for me, it still holds onto that feel, that nostalgia, that essence of a small town. Being a college town, Northfield feeds me not only in the physical sense, but in an intellectual way, as well.
The town is full of artists, craftsman, manufacturers, creators and innovators. People fall in love with Northfield, and hold it in their hearts forever. One of these innovators is Chuck Pryor. Pryor, a simple restaurateur, breathes Northfield, and when one of the city’s landmarks, The Ole Store, fell on hard times he decided to take it over.
In talking with Pryor, I never got the sense that buying The Ole Store was an investment, rather his duty to keep alive the tradition and honor of this town. Ask anyone who went to St. Olaf College, or lived close to the town, the Ole Store has been the place to gather for good food since 1889.
Walking into the Ole Store instantly gave me a feeling of walking into someone’s home. Hardwood floors that creaked and screamed with every step, almost guided me along a tour of who has been here before me, and the warm colors throughout various dining rooms gives one a sense of belonging, like the building and everyone inside has been expecting me to come for a long time.
It is obvious to me that everyone is family here, from the bus boys to the General Manager Deanna Sharp. Sharp and Pryor sat down with me in a little nook of the dining room, laying down the history of this extraordinary oasis tucked away next to farm land. Sharp is an instigator, joking and laughing, instantly making me and everyone around her feel comfortable. She obviously is proud of the new Chef Chris Basina, talking about his background like she has raised him as her own.
Basina, not new to Pryor and Sharp, grew up with a family of chefs and cooks. Food runs deep through his veins, always on his mind, eating away at him day by day. Basina cooks food, like many chefs, with the same love given to his children. With wine open and fork in hand, I left my meal up to Chef Basina. As he excitedly scurried away, I took a look at the menu. Almond-crusted brie, Asian chicken lettuce wraps, crab cakes, ahi tuna tartare, flatbreads, steaks, nicoise salad. Where was I? This was not the chip beef on toast or pot pie-serving small town restaurant I had imagined. This was something more, something … beautiful.
Admittedly the menu covers a lot of ground, catering to everyone’s tastes and preferences, but it’s more homage to the small town eatery, adding dishes that excite and enlighten the older and younger generations alike. Everything I tasted was well executed, from the wild rice soup with sherry and toasted almonds or the chevre and roasted shallot flatbread to the roasted beet salad or the filet mignon with St. Pete’s select bleu cheese. But, for the people who were here 50 years ago, one thing has not changed — the Ole Roll.
A gigantic sweeter, more buttery version of the cinnamon roll, the Ole Roll still holds kingship here. Everyone who has ever eaten in, gone to college in or passed by Northfield knows that nothing comes close to the beloved Ole Roll. Selling out of the Ole Roll on a daily basis may be a telltale sign that the sophisticated breakfast pastry has a passionate following, but that doesn’t satisfy Chef Basina. He wants more. Basina has a new dessert debuting on the menu — the Ole Roll bread pudding. Now, I am not a dessert guy, nor would bread pudding be the first dessert item I would order, but this bread pudding is beyond anything I have tasted.
Looking at it in front of me, it looks like an ordinary cinnamon roll, but once I dip my spoon inside, the Ole Roll pudding opens its doors and shows me its innermost secrets. The creamy velvet-like texture coats my mouth with a magniloquent flavor combining cinnamon with sugar and butter, leaving a sanctimonious harmony of luscious sweet flavors. This may have been the best dessert I have ever put in my mouth.
As the evening comes to an end, my stomach overly full, my eyes glazed over in a food-coma state, I felt happy. I walked in a stranger from the city, and left a part of the family. Is this what Minnesota Nice is? Is this what our parents and grandparents are lusting for, evangelizing about the good old days? Or is this a fading memory, the Ole Store being one of the last outposts of small-town cooking still doing everything right?
I believe when I’m old and look back on this experience, the Ole Store will be a part of the story I tell my grandkids about the good old days. But don’t take my word for it, go and visit — the place is only 45 minutes away. The family is waiting and excited to have you apart of it.
Adam Estrem is a writer, photographer, foodie and cook. After traveling the world and tasting the cuisines and wines of Mexico, Spain, France and much of Europe and the middle east, he has gone local and focused on restaurants and food producers of Minnesota. When he isn’t working you can find him in his kitchen, creating recipes and entertaining friends. You can follow him on Twitter (@mspfoodie) or email him (firstname.lastname@example.org).