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Restaurants & Bars 2

Crane Lake - Northwoods chow done with style - long

Mike | Aug 2, 200211:47 AM

Previously in these posts I’ve been a bit scathing about a remote hotel that I love, but let down (a little) by its dining room and food (& particularly service) style. [BROKEN LINK REMOVED]
However I am happy to give a big vote of confidence to a Minnesota resort that currently I think is worth a Hound visit, just on the strength of its food---particularly at dinner.

Just spent three days at Nelson’s Crane Lake Resort. It’s located 25 miles NE of Orr, Minnesota and is an old fashioned northwoods resort. No frills (but charming) private cabins and a “stonking” dining room. (“Stonking” is a British accolade.)

Okay the food: first the room though. Comfortable varnished pine and picture windows where you can look out at humming birds, squirrels, and Crane Lake itself, which is also a seaplane landing “airport” . . . so it’s fun to see the floatplanes maneuvering while you dine. But it’s generally airy (westerly breezes through the mosquito-netted open windows) and peaceful. The nature of seasonal resorts is that the staff change, and the current chef is apparently from Tennessee. There is a separate chef for breakfast here, more on that below.

First dinner: we started with the obligatory “Nelson’s fresh garden vegetable tray”. Nelson’s has a large vegetable plot and you can see them harvesting stuff between meals. Can’t get better. Just baby carrots, pea pods, radishes, scallions, cherry tomatoes. All home-grown and served with a light ranch-style dip. Perfect & refreshing after a day outside. We also had the “onion flakes” appetizer. Very nicely done, with a chipotle sauce. A sort of variation on the infamous “bloomin onion” so much touted everywhere but much superior in the execution. For main course my wife had a wonderful free range chicken with tarragon cream sauce. I had the fried walleye---the northwoods staple. This came with garden fresh side salads, bread (good, likely home-baked rough-textured slices ), butter (real butter!!!!) The walleye was extremely well cooked and flavourful. Not too much breading to spoil the flaky texture. Dessert was a shared pecan pie.

They feature a lot of steaks, as you’d expect. But I have to say this is some of the best steak I have tasted in many a moon. Dry aged. The real thing. I had a superb top sirloin the next evening. I was going to order rare (expecting medium rare) but I ordered medium rare and it came totally cooked to that state. And very very juicy and flavourful. An absolute standout the steaks here, especially with a rub (nothing at all like the horrible “blackening”) of great & quite subtle flavor to enhance it. Not shy of salt in that rub which is often something missing in steaks cooked these days. (A steak needs salt while in the cooking, not after, in my opinion.)

That second night my wife went lighter and had spinach linguine which was very good, she said. Lunch here tends towards the burger and Philly sandwich ilk. The walleye (sandwich) is there too. All were good. Especially a good Philly---which might have been even better if dipped in au jus (should have asked them to). And the nice thing is that if you opt for the American Plan here (which is about $140 per person per day for a cabin + three meals) you can pretty much order what you fancy, even if NOT on the menu. Although I am not a fisherman I think they will cook your catch too.
We did not have any bad service. The wait staff were attentive and very pleasant indeed. At times the gap between appetizer & main course was just a little bit annoying to the overall pace of a meal, but this was likely to do with big tables of 10 – 20 people causing something of a bottleneck in the back. My favorite was that top sirloin. However, since the chef is a Tennessean the baby back ribs (which looked very good) might be worth a try. My wife also tried the shrimp which were choice and large specimens but obviously not local(!). I am not sure if this review will pertain beyond this season as I guess sometimes chefs at these places move around. But at the moment it is WELL WORTH a dinner there. (The most expensive dinner entree, if you are not staying at the resort, is about $18-19 . . . for the biggest steak.)

Oh, and wine & booze was available and the wine list a good one. Well-priced and the sort of light fruity wines (Australian featured a good deal, and some very drinkable CA Cab's $18-28 range) that nicely accompany food in those surroundings---nothing too tannic or "serious."

It’s well off the beaten path to get to but I think that’s part of the reason to check it out. This sort of meal would not be a disgrace at a restaurant in the big city and is therefore all the more welcome & commodious in a backwoods setting where you might expect something considerably less cosmopolitan & varied.

The only not-so-happy story was breakfast. On three attempts I never did get eggs other than cooked hard as rocks, even though ordered over easy. And even when the only diners the short orders took a long long time to come. But the service was still good then, and the portions hearty and the coffee strong, although I think there’s a great deal of minerals (iron?) in the water which definitely flavors the water a good deal. The java definitely has overtones of iron filings.

Anyway, simple pleasures of the outdoors, with good to great food at the end of it is a great way to go. Kudos to these folks for doing it right. It was a very enjoyable visit.

Thanks for reading. Mike


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