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Published August 12, 2012, 12:00 AM

Sophisticated folk food

Harbor View Cafe - Pepin, Wis., eatery serves up regional fare with refined flare
PEPIN, Wis. – Nothing is quite what you expect at Harbor View Cafe. Consider what would be mashed potatoes in most other restaurants.

PEPIN, Wis. – Nothing is quite what you expect at Harbor View Cafe.

Consider what would be mashed potatoes in most other restaurants. At this charming 32-year-old Mississippi River spot in Wisconsin’s thickly green bluff country, they come as mashed roots: a mixture of russet and Yukon gold potatoes, parsnips, carrots, turnips, rutabagas, garlic and cream. And guess what? They’re richer, more complex and heartier than most mashed potatoes.

Then there’s the Alaskan halibut, which arrives not only beneath a blanket of nearly pitch-black sauce (on tender white fish?), but that black sauce is a black butter caper sauce (black butter?).

The surprise reaches even the restaurant’s interior, which is so disarmingly folksy – blue and white checkered tablecloths and bookshelves stuffed high along the wood walls – that the $33 price tag for that Alaskan halibut comes as a light shock.

Almost any time that Harbor View Cafe can take the simple or obvious route, it doesn’t. The result is deliberate, inventive food made with care.

Perched above a wide swath of the Mississippi, on a strip that includes an ice cream store and antique shop, Harbor View draws river tourists, boaters and bigger-city folks from Rochester (an hour away) and the Twin Cities (about 90 minutes away) looking for a gourmet experience in a town of fewer than 1,000. It’s a dedicated customer base.

“In a word, it’s a mainstay,” said Bob Varga, 71, who lives across the river, in Lake City, Minn. “It’s hands down where we take out-of-towners.”

Harbor View’s culinary philosophy is clear the moment you walk in: a magnet on the cash register reads, “When in doubt, add more garlic.” It was reinforced by a waitress who told me, “If you order something here without garlic in it, someone probably made a mistake in the kitchen.”

While the average entree costs about $25, the library-meets-backwoods-lodge vibe adds up to a “light elegant” dining experience, perfect for the banks of the Mississippi River in summer.

The chalkboard menu hangs on the wall behind the bar, and it changes twice daily (except on Sundays). There also is little guarantee of what will be on the menu at any given time. The Alaskan halibut, the restaurant’s most popular dish, is there often. So is the sauteed chicken breast. But Harbor View clings hard to freshness and availability, which means plenty of turnover, whether with the entree, the sauce or the preparation.

When I arrived on a sparkling June afternoon, the menu included seven meat and chicken dishes, six fish dishes and three vegetarian. They spanned the world and the kitchen’s imagination, relying on fresh, bold flavors for the “Father’s Day Cassoulet” (made from homemade lamb sausage, pork tenderloin, white beans and roasted vegetables), Norwegian meatballs (with sour cream cardamom sauce) and the garlic-and-herb-crusted lamb topped with bourbon glaze. It is all fresh, complex comfort food.

Everything sounded like a belly-filling culinary investment; there wasn’t much on the lighter side beyond the herbaceous, dill-heavy chilled borscht, a point I made to my waitress.

“Well, this is Wisconsin,” she said.

But the dishes weren’t weighty; they were rich, complex and tasty without being overtly belly-busting. That black butter sauce, for instance, might include plenty of butter, but it also features balsamic vinegar, fish sauce and Tabasco. It is complexly flavorful rather than heavy.

Like any restaurant worth your time, Harbor View does the little things right: bread arrives fresh and crusty, the service is friendly and attentive (though charmingly laid back) and the booze selection boasts 16 pages of wines and a handful of local beers on tap.

Harbor View was opened in 1980 by four people from the Twin Cities looking to open a small-town restaurant. Ruth Stoyke, who had just moved to the Pepin area from Minneapolis, started working for the restaurant in 1990 as a waitress and cook. She and her husband bought the place in 2005 and have largely kept the restaurant’s vision intact.

“We try to create new menu items, but we wanted the heart and soul to stay the same: authentic food made from scratch,” Stoyke said.

Harbor View clings to its small-town ways. Many of its employees have worked there for more than 20 years. It accepts only cash and checks, and, if a customer doesn’t have cash, Stoyke will not hesitate to send them on their way if they promise to send a check.

“We tell them to mail a check tomorrow,” Stoyke said. “They always come through.”


If You Go

WHAT: Harbor View Cafe

WHEN: Open mid-March to Thanksgiving weekend; closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays, hours of operation vary.

where: 314 First St., Pepin, Wis.

Information: The restaurant does not accept credit cards. For more information and hours of operation, call (715) 442-3893 or visit harborviewpepin.com

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