Favorite

Missing Meatballs 

How I rediscovered a favorite dish at a rural Wisconsin restaurant

Several centuries ago, when I was in what is now called middle school, some of best things I remember eating were the meatballs that Candy Sorensen's grandmother made.

A few years after high school, my friend Linda Jensen labored over Swedish meatballs for dinner one night. Years later, Jefferson showed me how to make his beloved frikadaeller, the Danish meatballs that are a national staple, and one memorable winter week, we flew to Copenhagen and tried them at the source. The secret, Jefferson taught, is in whipping and whipping and whipping again the mixture until it becomes silken and almost airy. What results--offsetting the sore forearm and wrist from all this whipping and beating--is a melt-in-your-mouth meatball that is deceptively light and decidedly delish.

Frikadaeller and these friends became passed mileposts in my life, and the meatballs I learned to regularly make are spicy, big and coarse--more country than crafted. To tell the truth, I had all but forgotten about the comparatively delicate Danish model until this summer.

"You're gonna love this place," my friend Trudy promised as we drove along the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi. "It's the only five-star restaurant in Wisconsin." We had crossed the river at Red Wing, Minn., and were on our way through Bay City and Stockholm to recross at Wabasha and return to Red Wing by way of Lake City, where I was to spend three days on the river, writing, making a little art and regrouping after an amazing week of psychotherapy in the hills of Tennessee. Our specific destination was Pepin, Wis., and the Harbor View Café, an 85-seat, riverside restaurant filled with books, mouthwatering smells from the kitchen and very happy-looking people.

The Harbor View was started in 1980 as a collective enterprise by friends who chose as their motto "The Best From Scratch." It became a legendary back-of-the-beyond place (it's roughly 80 miles southeast of the Twin Cities) for its focus on fresh seafood (halibut in black butter/caper sauce, catfish pan fried with a black-bean sauce, swordfish with a maitre d'beurre of parsley and lemon on a bed of braised kale, etc.), locally grown pork, pheasant, lamb, beef and buffalo, meatless dishes like five-cheese lasagna with sun-dried tomatoes, basil and garlic and cheese-stuffed mushrooms on linguine in a creamy garlic sauce, fresh-baked pies (peach/raspberry, Georgia walnut, Lake Pepin lime and blueberry). All by itself, the vinaigrette with gorgonzola is good enough to dab behind your ears. No reservations are accepted, and there are no menus--just a very busy blackboard in each of the two rooms. The wine list is impressive, and they make a fine dirty martini, as I discovered the following night when I drove back around Lake Pepin and recrossed the Mississippi for a return visit.

And then, there's the frikadaeller chalked on the blackboard and boldly holding its own amidst its fancier cousins. In honor of her father, David, whose favorite dish it was, Trudy ordered it and generously shared tiny bites with the four of us at the table. We generously shared tiny bites of our own meals. The frikadaeller were amazingly rich and deceptively light, and I made a note to not forget about them again. I asked for the recipe, and my request was rebuffed in a firm but friendly manner.

Ah well, one tries. The recipe for frikadaeller here is courtesy of the Web and Martin James, principal with the Royal Danish Ballet. I made it last weekend, and it's dynamite.

Each year, the story goes, the Harbor View staff would gather for a meal during the Minnesota State Fair and decide whether or not to have another season of fine eatin'. In 2005, the original owners sold the place to longtime staffers Ruth Stoyke and Chuck Morrow, both of whom can be found seating, serving and busing tables and are willing to take a break to share the story. The largest percentage of the clientele are those dedicated folks who make the three-hour roundtrip drive from the Twin Cities, and the vacationers who have for years treasured the Harbor View.

I never discovered whether or not it is actually Wisconsin's only five-star restaurant, but who cares? It is, without question, one of the best places I have ever had the opportunity to enjoy. Trudy was right, as she often--but not always --is.


FRIKADAELLER

  • 1 pound veal
  • 1 pound pork
  • 2 grated onions
  • 4 cups milk
  • 2 cups of breadcrumbs
  • 2 eggs
  • salt/pepper to taste
Put veal and pork together through a grinder or food processor, or beat, beat, beat by hand. Add bread crumbs, milk, egg, onion, salt and pepper. Beat, beat, beat. Drop on a lightly oiled frying pan from a large tablespoon and fry thoroughly over low heat. Serve with browned butter, potatoes and stewed cabbage.

You can also make the frikadaeller with fish, and they're great over egg noodles, too.

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