Norway Ridge and Cru Restaurants Offer Classic and Contemporary Tastes of “Up North”
By Rachel Hutton
Beneath the antique game traps hanging on Norway Ridge Supper Club’s knotty pine walls, a framed piece of marketing material recalls an era where letters were addressed, “Dear Folks,” and signed off with “Mr. and Mrs. [insert husband’s first and last name].” The mid-century correspondence, printed on Norway Ridge Resort letterhead, tells prospective guests what to expect. “We have four, two-bedroom, ultra-modern cottages with hot and cold running water, inside flush toilets, and showers,” it reads. “Our beds are all good.” “A variety of walleyes, northern pike, bass, and pan fish are to be had.” Sound appealing? Renting that ultra-modern crib ran $50 a week.
Decades later, the resort has closed, but its restaurant continues to operate just outside Pequot Lakes, near the tiny “downtown” of the Keillor-ishly-named Ideal Corners. Norway Ridge is perched on the edge of Kimble Lake, though a thick stand of conifers obscures the water view. (The restaurant’s property doesn’t include the lakefront parcel, and co-owner Jackie Clark stopped trimming the trees after her neighbors threatened to call the authorities.) Not that diners lack for things to look at indoors, between the collection of vintage shotguns and snowshoes, the monkey carved from a coconut, and the lace-curtained booth known as the “honeymoon suite.” The merchandise in the adjacent gift shop—geared toward Red Hat Society members with granddaughters—is to be expected from a place with such kitschy charm. But the surf and turf, and the $325 bottle of Dom Pérignon? Not so much.
Clark and her sister, Alicia Elson, bought the restaurant 30 years ago—an “impulsive” decision, Clark admits, considering they had scant restaurant experience outside of her two summers spent waitressing. But the sisters knew they could rely on the business and customer-service skills they’d learned selling Tupperware, as well as the help of their family members. When I dined in the restaurant recently, my party was waited on by Clark’s grandson, who was young enough to ask me, “How do you want your Kinky?”—the sweet, peachy Kinky Norway Splash cocktail I’d ordered was available up or on the rocks—without sounding salacious. And good thing: his mother was attending to the couple seated next to us.
Norway Ridge’s menu focuses on steak-house fare, with portions fit for Brainerd’s best-loved lumberjack. The sight of half ducks, whole chickens, and whopping steaks being ferried past my table brought to mind the children’s book in which Paul Bunyan fuels himself for a day of tree-felling with pancakes so large that the cooks grease the griddle by skating across it on outsize butter pats.
Norway Ridge’s menu rarely, if ever, changes, and you won’t find anything fusion or fussy. The kitchen makes all the dressings and sauces from scratch and smokes its famous pork ribs till the meat practically peels off the bone. The appetizer list includes such throwbacks as shrimp cocktails, baked Brie, pickled herring, and a cheesy wild-rice soup that beats the one at Byerly’s. And if you’re in the mood to splurge on a plate of Alaskan king crab, $40 or so will get you a feast of speckled pink legs stacked up like cordwood, plump with sweet, briny meat.
Fried vegetables dipped in the restaurant’s signature sourdough batter come out of the hot grease crisp as a starched shirt, with a robust, fermented tang. That’s probably because, as the menu claims, the sourdough starter “may well be as old as you are.” Each October, at the end of Norway Ridge’s dining season, Clark and her chef each take half the sourdough home over the winter to feed and care for it, much the way school children do with a classroom pet. When the restaurant reopens in April, the bubbling batter returns, along with the sisters’ welcoming hospitality and enthusiasm for serving the next generation of guests.
Since 1919, when Grand View Lodge’s sprawling Norway pine timbers were erected on the shores of Gull Lake, the resort has been a part of Minnesota’s “up north” iconography. The lodge’s exterior has hardly changed in nearly a century, and it won’t likely any time soon, due to its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
But other aspects of the resort have evolved such that today it includes an upscale spa, two event centers, four golf courses, and eight restaurants. The newest addition, the year-old bistro, Cru, was built into the basement of the Gull Lake event center. On the recent Saturday evening that I visited, wedding-dance classics blared from the main-floor ballroom and a passel of bridesmaids huddled in the bathroom, mascara starting to smear, updos coming undone.
Fortunately, Cru is well insulated from the festivities above it. To compensate for the space’s lack of lake view, the cozy, windowless dining room instead offers an attractive floor-to-ceiling glass wine cellar. It contains one of the area’s best bottle collections, arranged in columns that ascend in price toward the reserve room, which holds several Opus One vintages, among other special wines. Many familiar brand-name West Coast wineries are represented—Robert Mondavi, Stag’s Leap, Chateau Ste. Michelle—as well as those from less-known regions and producers. During my visit, our knowledgeable server gave us a tour of the cellar and poured samples of a Croatian Pošip—think unoaked chardonnay—produced by a winery owned by a Minnesota couple.
The restaurant’s contemporary menu wouldn’t feel out of place in a more urban setting. The term “small plates” has been calibrated for Bunyan country, however, with generous portions to match the heavy wine pours—even though the day’s exertion of the sockless, boat-shoe-clad clientele more than likely revolved around docking the pontoon.
Several Cru dishes have the purposefully casual approach that rock stars take to their tousled coifs. A trio of sliders presents juicy lamb patties garnished with microgreens; flatbread is scattered with duck confit, grapes, and Brie; pasta carbonara is trendily topped with a soft-cooked egg. Even when an adaptation isn’t as good as the classic—the gnocchi served with crawfish and curry, for example—it’s still worth an order.
Naturally, the two restaurants showcase the state fish: Norway offers walleye with a classic almond crust, while Cru cloaks the fish in crushed pistachios and lays it on a bed of roasted red-pepper couscous. You can’t go wrong—both are fitting tributes to Lake Country cuisine.