It was a sad day for local food enthusiasts and hungry Twin Cities day-trippers when the Native Bay restaurant near Chippewa Falls closed its doors last year. In three memorable years, chef Nathan Berg and his staff had turned a former supper club on the shores of Lake Wissota (a wide spot in the Chippewa River) into one of western Wisconsin's few destination restaurants, and a shrine to local, seasonal foods, at that. When Native Bay went dark, we felt pretty certain that we wouldn't be crossing the Saint Croix for locally inspired fine dining anytime soon.
But then, we hadn't been to the New Creamery in Downsville, just a few miles south of Menomonie.
Which we did happen upon last summer, shortly after it reopened under new owners Terry and Paula Vajgrt, with chef Brian Griep in charge of the kitchen.
We stopped in for brunch one weekend on the way out to the Bide-A-Wee. Brunch, in spite of the sun-drenched, summer-breezy, flowery-terrace connotations it carries, is often a dismal affair of over-cooked eggs and hung-over service. Brunch at the Creamery wasn't like that, not at all.
A delightful bread basket started it off, including walnut scones that we have to try to get the recipe for. Then perfectly poached eggs pertly perched upon more than palatable smoked trout cakes, and a crustless quiche cleverly constructed (okay, I'm done now) of local cheese and--hey! what's going on here?--actual wild mushrooms! By which I mean, mushrooms clearly gathered from the wild woods--hen-of-the-woods most prominent.
In the left-hand menu margin there was a list of the restaurant's local suppliers, and we realized we knew about half of them (including Midtown's Sylvan Hills Organic Farm ) and knew of most of the rest.
And the service was cheerful, professional, and we ate looking out at the Creamery's lovely gardens. This sort of thing could give brunch a good name again. In every way, the Creamery kitchen under chef Griep makes Wisconsin country dining look more than promising once more. As we were leaving the Creamery we picked up a flyer for a game and wine dinner being held a few weeks hence, and we signed up straight-away.
The only negative comment I can make about the evening was that it was a shame that only one other couple got to enjoy this feast. Well, that and the literalist quibble that, since it's strictly illegal to sell truly wild game or fish in Wisconsin (and most everywhere in this country), the "wild game" designation was a bit of a poetic stretch.
Which is not to say that these farm-raised meats weren't delicious: A delicate salad of smoked trout, fabulous grilled pheasant--the best I've ever eaten--wonderfully flavorful duck breast, two excellent bison preparations (I never used to expect much from bison; now I do). The meats were all expertly cooked; the sauces were wonders of elegant simplicity; the accompaniments just right and just enough.
A palate-cleansing sorbet of Sylvan Hills late-season strawberries was the best I've had outside of France. Chef Griep came out to describe each course in his low-key, self-effacing manner.
The wine service was extraordinary, too, directed with obvious passion and care by Clay Vajgrt. It started with champagne and went through several superb and superbly matched wines from the U.S. and France.
Simply put, this was the best restaurant meal we ate this year.
The Creamery is just a little more than an hour's drive from the Twin Cities--east on I-94 to Menomonie, south on Wisconsin 25 a few more miles to Downsville, a charmingly sleep little town on the Red Cedar River. There are bike trails and ski trails in the area. Orchards, cheese factories, antiques, hiking, fishing, hunting--something for everyone, and some of the most beautiful countryside in our area.
And you needn't come home hungry.
Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw