Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Grand ol' Time

I've got a fever and the only prescription is... a road trip!! Obviously, I'm dying to take advantage of the convertible weather if I'm willing to travel to Wisconsin in a rain storm for a burger. Lucky for me, I had a friend, I had a reason and I had some extra vacation time to take. J.Lo and I knew that we were going to go somewhere this weekend, but where? There were so many options? That's when I remembered about this. The Judy Garland festival happened to be the same weekend in my lovely hometown of Grand Rapids Minnesota!
I almost never traveled back there - our house burned down, the family business went under and a whole slew of other country song fodder events have kept me - mostly away. But this seemed like the perfect opportunity to go back. Plus, I could show Laura (J.Lo) that underneath this impossibly hip frame (ha!!) beat the heart of a country girl. (Oh, yeah, I dated a guy with a junky pick up truck that occasionally took me muddin'.)
But where to stop along the way and what to EAT?! We decided our first stop would be the Diamond City Bakery in scenic downtown Elk River. It was nearly impossible to find and we had to call the folks for directions. Only us: downtown Elk River consists of about four store fronts and we couldn't figure out where we were going. The kind folks at the bakery directed us to a nearby parking lot and said they were under the green awning. I saw a black awning for a crazy Christian store (lady outside smoking in a Virgin Mary T-shirt- like she went to the show and was a big fan.... maybe she did, but I digress.) Finally, we found it.

We walked through this door and into the kitchen of the bakery. We were both a little embarrassed and mostly confused. "Is... is it okay that we're... here?" Laura asked. Everyone working there was so friendly. They just ushered us down a hall and into the front of the bakery. I was hoping that they would have this bread that I've been missing terribly. At the Virgina Coop near where my Grandma lives they would get bread from these guys that was blue cheese, wild rice bread and it is incredible. The blue cheese gives it this sourdough tang and the wild rice adds a nice woody flavor, but it isn't overly grainy or sour. It's delicious and I was sad to learn it's only made on Thursdays. Dammit! What they were running on special was a tomato Parmesan bread and a rhubarb fritter bread that looked tempting, covered in white icing. The tomato bread was riddling with tomatoes and glossy with gobs of cheese. I purchased one of each. The girl behind the counter recommended wiping the icing off and using the rhubarb bread for French toast. She said it makes the absolute best French toast. Hmmm, I'd have to try that. After tasting the tomato bread I wanted to make a soup to dunk it in. This stuff was outstanding, herby and comforting. Man, I wish this bakery was closer. Elk River is not someplace that I really want to spend a lot of time.

We were both famished and decided to try a place called Daddio's. It was overly kitchy and the food was... meh, it was okay. Nothing all that great. I have a feeling that we should have ordered the shakes, but I couldn't bring myself to say "shake" after staring at this Elvis thing the whole time. I get where they're going, but this just wasn't working for me. As we left I saw a bar/grill right next door, dim and smokey. THAT'S where we should have gone for lunch! No more eating anywhere without a full bar!

It was a gorgeous drive up and the perfect day for it. We were rockin' to Madonna and reliving glory days, bitching about work and laughing in the wind. Good times. J.Lo's a good road tripper.

We arrived at the Sawmill and quickly unpacked. I was so anxious to get out and show her around town - which took all of five minutes. We went to the mall, which is just sad. There's a book store, a Vanity and the jewelry store that my childhood's friend's dad owns. That took all of 10 minutes. We walked across the street to see if Janicky's Bakery was still there. They make the best donuts that I've ever had, but they were already closed. Apparently, G.R. closes at exactly 5:30 p.m. Pretty much the whole town is just done at that point. We drove around more until Laura shouted "Wine Bar!"


"There's a wine bar back there."

"In the parking lot?" Still, this is me we're talking about, so I whipped around and we were able to find it. In the parking lot, across from what used to be Ogle's IGA is now the Rivers Wine Bar. I was surprised to see a couple of other people in there. We went in and bellied up to the bar. The guy who owns the place bought it with his wife, son (sitting there in a Tasmanian Devil T-shirt - how classy) and a couple of other investors. He said they had a lake house up there and had wanted to make a permanent move and loved going to Cesare's in Stillwater. I said I knew of the place - okay, lied and said I'd been there (almost went there, until I looked at the prices - yikes! I have to budget for those kinds of experiences.) He kept going on and on and ON about SAYsharAY! SAYsharAY!!!! Shut up already! Against our better judgement we ordered an Italian wine flight that was mostly undrinkable. The wine list was really inconsistent, too. They had Jacob Creek's Shriaz under something else that was priced at $12 a glass. That's an insane amount of money for a town of blue collar workers. That's for the tourists, which I guess I was.

We decided to order a couple of the amuses listed on the menu. And the menu did sound delightful, I just wasn't feeling up to spending that much money on what was supposed to be a low budget weekend. We ordered the crab cake and the zucchini rolls.

The crab cake was huge and stuffed with tons of crab. I'm not always a fan, but this was one of the better crab cakes I've ever had. This was NOT an amuse bouche, though. The thing was almost the size of one of these plates. It came with three little sauces, one was overly sweet, one was the sweet and sour sauce that comes with Sweet and Sour Chicken number 4 at the take out place by my house and the third was divine. I'm the Goldy Locks of dipping sauces. It was a pale, creamy green with just a teeny hint of wasabi on the back note. It was really good and I was still marveling at the fact that I'm sitting in a gorgeous little wine bar in Grand Rapids, MN. This is the town that I fled at 18, content to live in a camper with two of the filthiest dudes I've ever known and a busted, crusty, smelly septic tank. That was more appealing to me than stifling in this little burg and now I'm experiencing fine dining in that same spot? WHAT! I mean, I was about a block down from where my friend Jeremy got busted selling acid to some hair metal space case and I'm sipping a gorgeous little Sangiovese?! It was blowing my mind more than those four tabs of acid put that stoner kid over the edge. Wacky. I was jolted out of my reverie by the taste of the zucchini roll. These were wretched! They were seasoned with dried oregano and fennel seeds - ruining the creamy, mellow flavor of the goat cheese wrapped within them. Blech. It was beautiful, but it was getting to me and if this codger mentioned Cesare's one more time I was going to upend this carafe of old wine over his head.

Time to get real. We left and thanked the family for everything, and went to the Voo. The Rendezvous II is the most popular bar in Rapids for my age group. I thought it would be funny to go in there and see if we ran into anybody I knew. Unfortunately, it was still light outside and there was almost no one in there. Five dudes at the bar and an old couple dining in the back. We walked up to the bar and I asked the guy clutching a mug in one hand and a pitcher of beer in the other if anyone was sitting next to him - I was just being polite. I didn't ever think that he was sharing that pitcher with anybody. "You are." He answered. Just after I'd perched myself next to him he let out this terrific, "Blllllluuuuuuuaaaarrrrrrkkkkkkkkkkkkkk." Nice. I've met the Rapids answer to Springfield's Barney! It was obvious we weren't really welcome there. We just had one and left. I left shouting, "You haven't seen the last of us!!" But I'm all talk.

We went back to the Sawmill and planning on just having a couple then heading back to the room to order some pizza. As we were just sipping our first cocktail, two guys at the bar sent us over drinks. First a wine bar and now I'm getting hit on!? What? Where was all of this when I was working over my morbid poetry and crying to Counting Crows songs? (Because the Cure would be too obvious.) Turns out that they were a couple of farmers in for... something. I stopped listening after that. The one was drinking what I think was Reunitie out of a carafe (it was bubbly red wine, whatever that could possibly be) and the other guy was sporting an enormous silver belt buckle. Once Belt Buckle noticed my ring, he was done talking to me. I hung with the Mr. Reunitie for a bit, but he was pretty hammered. J.Lo and I were a little disappointed that there was no piano in the bar or anything. We'd read online that there was to be a Judy Garland song sing along. Up until now, there was very little evidence of this so called "festival." The bartender told us that there was a 40th birthday party going on and that was just about all Laura needed to hear. When she has a couple she loves to dance.

While she and Belt Buckle were cutting a rug in Trina's honor (the only reason I remember the birthday girl's name is that they were giving out chocolates with her picture and name on them. About a dozen of those ended up in our room.) I met this guy!

No not the front blurry guy, the back image that looks like a scene from one of those Haunted House shows on the Discovery channel. (Drunk Picture Taking is added to the list of don't do after Drunk Dialing and Drunk texting.)

It was the Scarecrow!! And the guy was HILARIOUS!! Totally in character. I chased the poor guy all over the hotel trying to get a decent picture and he didn't call security on me or anything! After that little escapade I had a warm, fuzzy feeling and started to theorize what it meant for me to be there at this time in my life. Embarrassingly enough, I wrote all this stuff down and NO I'm not gonna tell you what it says because it's more embarrassing than my 8th Grade diary. It does remind me that I parted ways with Mr. Reunitie by telling him we'd meet him in the hot tub. And the telling last line, "But the real question of the night is, where's Laura?" Laura had danced the party out and I was wandering back to our room when I found her under Belt Buckle's tender care. He was helping her back, but she couldn't remember what room we were in. I got her back to our room and left her in the bathroom for what I swear was just a second. She must have sat down and pitched forward in that time, because she was laying face down when I checked on her. I tried to pick her up but she looked at me and said, "Joy? No." I tugged on her again. "No.... Joy? No." Like she knew something that I didn't - like I was the one being unreasonable here! So, there I left her. I gave her a pillow, though, which shows I'm not a total witch (Wait? Am I the Wicked Witch of the East? Cool!) And this was only the beginning.

I was surprised when Laura joined me for breakfast the next day. She looked a little pale, but other than that, ready and rarin'. She ordered what's gotta be the greatest hangover breakfast ever, the "Farmer's Breakfast" of hash browns, scrambled eggs and shaved ham doused in "cheese sauce" which you know is just Cheese Whiz. But, wow did that look like it was gonna cure what ailed her. Then it was back in the car to show her some of the sights. For the first time, I was able to drive all the way to where my house used to live. I felt like I'd finally been able to let go of some invisible burden I'd been carrying with me for years. It felt good to be home. Or at least near to home. I saw a feather on the ground and picked it up. I don't know why, but it felt significant.

"Ew!! Is that bird feather?" Laura said from the car.


"Put it down! Rabies!"


"Rabies! Birds can get rabies."

I looked at the feather and looked at her. "What?"

So, safe from rabies, Lyme's disease, poison ivy and dutch elm, I put the feather in the trunk.

On our way back to town, after driving out to see my best friend Aisha's parent's farm house, my mom and sister called to tell me that they'd just arrived at the hotel. Sweet! We picked them up and headed for Sammy's pizza. This is my favorite pizza - and our favorite mozzarella sticks. They make them there. Everything here is wonderful and it's just my favorite ever. The Italian sausage is made from scratch, there and peppery, fennelly perfection. The crust is thin, crispy and light with just gossamer layer of cheese. Oh, how I'd missed this place.

Oh, that's right! And the frosty root beer was just incredible. That's Julie up there, my sister. She has a couple tattoos, but is very sweet, really. Great fingernails.

After we were done eating Laura's mild pallor had faded to a light chartreuse and Julie was crashing. She's an insomniac and is only good from 7a.m. - 11 and then 5:00 p.m. -4 a.m. Mom and I dropped them back and the hotel and did some more driving around. Once again, the entire round trip took all of 10 minutes.
Well, now what? The weather was insanely gorgeous, but I gotta tell you that I was getting a little sick of driving around and of course, no one else can handle a manual transmission (rarw!) So, we decided to head out to the golf course to have a nice little cocktail in the shade. Unfortunately, when we got there, there was no service out on the deck! It's only 70-something and sunny about four days the entire year, what was wrong with these people!? Get outside!! The absolutely only place that we had seen with outdoor seating was a Ground Round that just went in next to what used to be the Piggly Wiggly. Note to the people than own the Grandma's chain - this town is perfect for one! Get on that! GINO!!! Hey! GINO!! Get Grand Rapids a Grandma's!
Until then, there we were at the Ground Round, in the parking lot, sipping on surprisingly good margaritas.
It was almost all about killing time until dinner. We were all anticipating the steak and popovers at the Cedar Room for dinner. Mom, Julie and I played in the pool and stewed in the hot tub while Laura continued to pray for death and rehydrate.

The Cedar room is where we always went for our special event dining, birthdays, anniversaries and I even spent a prom here. The popovers are perfect. Julie's a little fiend about cooking and food, where I'm more about the art, she's all science. On some nights that she can't sleep, she stays up trying to come up with the perfect popover, which is basically an attempt to recreate the ones at the Cedar room. She's like Alton Brown with less props and an audience of one, our cat Kobe Jones.

And the dinner was totally worth the wait. It was fantastic. The prime rib that I ordered was cooked to perfection, seasoned expertly and tender as the night. The wild rice side was buttery and tossed with diced onion, carrot and celery. The Cesar salad was the real kind, the dressing tasting of garlicky anchovies.

I didn't think to take a picture until I'd already horked most of it down. Mom got this insane side dish of potato au gratin, which was hash browns in a cup with about 5 lbs. of cheese.
I ate the whole thing. After savoring for a while and digesting, wow, did I eat a lot of food, we adjourned back to the scene of the crime. Just after I'd vowed never to go back, we were in the bar in the hotel.

It was Julie's turn for glory days stories. The poor kid used to be a little on the chunky side, so my parents avidly encouraged her to join the basketball team. I think this was when she was in the 7th Grade (prime chunk years. Remember in Stand by Me when the whole crowd yelled, "Boom Babba! Boom Babba!" and called that poor Davey kid Lard ass? Well, it wasn't that bad. She was more of a Chunk in the Goonies chubby. Every so often I can still get her to do the truffle shuffle.)
Her shining moment in her basketball career - she'd just broken away from the crowd, dribbling furiously down the court. The moment slowed, the Chariots of Fire them song started playing in the background. The poor little kid with the Lyle Lovett hair (Mom! How could you!?) reached up and SWISH!! Nothing, but net! She'd made it! She did it! YES!!! Turning to see the expected adulation from her teammates, Julie instead was faced with grim faces and a couple of pitying glances. She'd just made a basket for the other team. She cried, I laughed and we all agreed that no one in our family should be involved in sports.
Ah, the good ol' days.
The next morning was the breakfast buffet (BOOFAY!) They make these fresh Belgian waffles that are just perfectly heaven for a Sunday morning. They're just faintly sweet with powdered sugar, light as air and crispy on the outside. There's real maple syrup thankyouverymuch (my tastebuds were spoiled from years of lugging buckets of sap to boil down. There would be NO Mrs. Butterworth's at our table.) There was also thick, crispy bacon, piles of fresh, ripe fruit and this rather odd Only Up North dish of a thin layer of pie crust topped with crumbled sausage, sliced tomatoes and smothered in a tangy cream sauce (that tasted of mayonaise and djon mustard) and topped with melted cheese. I still have no idea what you would call that. I drank about fifteen cups of coffee and was ready to GO!!! Plus, we'd still seen barely anything Judy Garland. There was the Scarecrow, that I would bet has a restraining order out on me and we saw a guy dressed up as the Tin Man, but that really was about it. Oh, and the Friends of Dorothy sashaying at the hotel with us. There were a couple of queeny dudes, but no real drag queens, which kind of bummed me out.
We went next door to the Judy Garland museum, where they'd trucked in the house that she'd lived in from downtown and done it up in the period style. The coolest thing about the museum were her costumes. They were stunning, if in a bit of disrepair. There's also a garden outside, but sadly, the peonies hadn't bloomed yet. It was just this side of exciting from the World's Biggest Ball of Twine.
It was time to go. I was exhausted, full, dehydrated and happy. There were still a few more country roads to explore before it was back to the city. I told Laura to click her heels together three times. We've always had the power to come home.

(Cue Huey Lewis and the News: Power of Love.)


At 3:19 PM , Anonymous Andy said...

Lice! You don't pick up bird feathers because if they're freshly lost they could have LICE.

Rabies is new to me.

At 7:21 PM , Anonymous J.lo, honorary high priestess of Grand Rapids said...

Bra-frickin'-vo, Joy! You so deserve top billing at blogs.twincities.com/blog_roll.

Most memorable quote of the weekend was Joy re our lame lunch at Daddy O's: "No more dining in restaurants without a full bar." That's sage advice, people. Though I still think me and Belt Buckle could've made a go of it in Indiana. I picture a first dance to the strains of Mellencamp:
"I was born in a small town/
and I live in a small town..."

And PS to Andy: Quit reading Birdchick!

At 12:25 PM , Blogger justacoolcat said...

Joy, I've been reading the blog for a bit now. I am doing some food reviews in the next week and would like to link to your Margaux review.

Keep up the good eating.


At 1:38 PM , Blogger Joy Estelle said...

Sweet, please link away! Loved that Oompa Loompa post on your blog.
I'll keep a look out for your reviews.


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