When Valentine’s Day rolls around, my wife Jen and I like to pack up our things and disappear, find a little cabin in the woods and gaze into each other’s eyes over drinks by the bonfire. It’s been our tradition to either ignore this holiday or run from it. Maybe we’re getting more romantic as the big Five-O approaches, maybe the cabin is getting old, but this year was different. We turned it around completely, jumped right into it and mingled with the public while exploring wintery things to do in Brainerd, Minnesota.
Friday night we headed straight to the Side Track Restaurant and Bar for the Prime Rib Special. The large, open space was packed to the brim with people and we snagged the last table. From our perch in the far corner, we observed the crowd while Elvira by the Oak Ridge Boys played on the juke box. There were families with kids, couples on dates and waitresses doing their best to shuttle around huge trays loaded with meat while dodging the crowd. A handful of guys wearing cowboy hats were warming up at the bar. Eventually, they put down their drinks and started bringing in instruments and equipment through a side door. They were the musical act for the night. The shield logo for the Side Track resembles an antique Interstate road sign, a fitting emblem for a place that was buzzing with excitement on a Friday night, like an old-fashioned road house.
At Woodlore Cider, the atmosphere was a little more subdued. The place was gently lit, soft music was playing in the background and the only two patrons were lounging on a sofa in front of the cozy fireplace. We went to work on a flight of Ciders. When we had tasted our way through the array of red, yellow and pink sparkling glasses, two favorites emerged: Jen’s choice was the Pineapple and I especially liked the one that was aged with Cascade hops. I didn’t pick up a distinct hop aroma, but it was different from the other ciders. I’m not a cider expert (yet) and I can’t put in words what made it stand out for me, but I liked it. That one would be a great refresher after a long, hot bike ride. Before we went back out into the cold, we tried the hot, mulled cider with cinnamon and orange which was delicious and would make a wonderful après ski drink.
The Skillet Café was our destination on Saturday morning. It’s a small, inviting place with a handful of booths, a couple of tables and a lunch counter. From our booth we watched the sun make an appearance and melt the frost off the large street-facing windows. Valentine’s Day decorations and colorful drawings adorned the walls and gave the place a homey feel. While the cooks remained invisible in their tiny kitchen, we could hear the sizzle of the griddle and the clank of their spatulas as they were rocking out to Van Halen on the radio. Our breakfast arrived quickly, two versions of eggs benedict, and for an extra 65 cents, Jen’s skillet came with pancakes. The Skillet Café has been around since the 1940s. “This place is family run,” our waitress told us. That’s not just words, because her sister-in-law owns it and her mother-in-law was the one clanking the spatula in the kitchen.
At Loco Espress we let things settle with a fresh cup. This coffee shop and boutique occupies one of the renovated spaces inside the historic clock tower building at the Northern Pacific Center. What used to be the industrial complex of the Northern Pacific Railroad’s repair yard is being repurposed and, in this case, the steam of the locomotives has given way to the steam of the espresso machine. While we sipped our coffee we went over plans for the day. We knew we were going to ski at the Northland Arboretum, then decorate Valentine’s Day Cookies and check out open curling night at the Brainerd Lakes Curling Club. In between, we planned to sprinkle in some shopping, lunch, dinner and whatever else caught our fancy. With the help of our good friend caffeine, we came up with a viable itinerary and went to work.
The 400-acre grounds of the Northland Arboretum are home to 12km of classic and skate ski trails (groomed by the Brainerd Nordic Ski Club) and several miles of snowshoe and hiking trails. The visitor center provides restrooms and a place to warm up between ski rounds. The Paul Bunyan Trail makes up the western border of this preserve. We fashioned a nice loop out of the Ojibwe and Acorn trails, both of which make up the Arboretum’s lighted trail system for night skiing. It was a crisp five degrees when we started, but it didn’t feel cold. There was no wind, the sun was strong and the skiing was wonderful. We glided along through the oaks and pines end enjoyed every minute of it.
Back in downtown Brainerd, the next stop was Knotty Pine Bakery. We had breakfast here at our last visit and remembered the place very well. This time we came to do the most valentine-y thing we’ve ever done together, which is decorate cookies for each other. During Valentines season, Knotty Pine hosts a Saturday cookie decorating workshop. They provide cookies, icing and sprinkles and you provide the imagination. Armed with the knowledge of several hours of YouTube videos, we started decorating. It turns out our hands weren’t as steady as we thought, but it’s the thought that counts. If you don’t think crooked letters and drippy icing really convey the depth of your love, you can always buy their professionally decorated cookies.
On a tip from a local, we went to Christmas Point Wild Rice Co. What started out as a small family wild rice growing business in the late 1970 has morphed into a Brainerd destination offering home décor, clothes, gifts and furniture. And they still have wild rice. At the coffee shop and bistro, we ordered the bacon havarti and ham and swiss sandwiches and settled down at a table in their four-season porch. It was fun to watch the frozen world outside while the porch heaters kept us warm on the inside. The sandwiches hit the spot and we were ready to wander the three-storied building in search of treasures. This is a PG-13 story so I can’t mention the name of the seasoning blend I found. You’ll have to visit their spice aisle and see for yourself.
Back in downtown Brainerd we bounced from shop to shop and found some very interesting places.
The Olde Open Window has an array of clothing, gifts and locally handmade things. Stairs and corridors lead us around the shop and every time we turned a corner there was another nook with more displays and it was fun to explore.
We found the perfect item at Cat Tale’s Books and Gifts where they sell used books, puzzles, games, and other gift items, including a special “Bad Movie Night” gift package. For a Dollar you get a DVD wrapped in plain, brown paper and the only hint at the feature inside is the rating. “I recommend you pop your popcorn and pour your drinks and unwrap it just before you’re ready to start, so you don’t chicken out,” owner Theresa Woodward told us. Some might buy this for a fun surprise night with their sweetheart, but we bought it out of revenge. The Bad Movie Night package will go straight to Jen’s father for making us watch atrocities like Hercules vs. the Moon Men over the years.
Just a short walk away, The Gallery plays a different tune, literally. They have funky gifts and clothing, and their record collection brought on feelings of nostalgia. A young man was spinning vinyl in the tiki bar turned DJ booth in the back of the store, and we perused the wares while Mick Jagger serenaded his Angie. We spent a while examining the wall of novelty socks, some PG, some not.
Across the street at Olson’s Corner Keepsakes, the racks brimmed with clever shirts and hoodies under a bright tin ceiling. “Beer is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy” said one. The author? “Ben Franklin, probably”.
We stopped into the Purple Fern Bath Company to take a look at their soaps, candles, lotions and bath bombs. Owner Brenda Billman-Arndt was in the back of the store stirring a pot of wax, ready to pour some of their house-made candles. “Would you like to make one?” she asked. Did we ever. Clipboard in hand we perused the candle display and noted our favorite scents. Back in the lab we mixed fragrances of our choosing and poured them into a jar of hot wax with a wick inside. Brenda then added a few drops of a color we chose. After stirring this for a while we designed our own stickers to go on the candle. Jen’s mix of white tea and orange smelled very good. Not to be outdone, my arugula and lemon concoction had hints of lilac. Fresh candles need about 90 minutes to set up before you can take them home. That was just enough time to go around the corner and check out Ya Sure Kombucha.
Kombucha is a non-alcoholic beverage made from fermented tea and if that has you on edge, you’re not alone. My only experience with it was a commercially produced, bottled version and that left something to be desired. While we waited for our sampler flight to arrive, we struck up a conversation with owner Shawn Hopman. He said most people think Kombucha always tastes harsh, like vinegar, because they’ve only had mass-produced versions. We worked through our flight and found the different varieties to be quite tasty. Much like cider, Kombucha comes in a variety of flavors, some tart and some sweet. My favorite was the Blueberry Ginger and Jen liked the Lavender Orange. We liked it so much we signed up for one of Shawn’s classes at Brainerd Community Ed.
Before we went to open curling, we picked up our candles, then stopped at Merciful Market, a small grocery store carrying Filipino and other international foods. We had nothing particular to look for here, but we always walk the aisles of non-traditional grocery stores for ideas to up our game in the kitchen. Inspiration came in the form of a bag of freeze-dried shiitake mushrooms and we left happy. We’ve since made tagliatelle which we simply tossed in butter and sprinkled with parmesan cheese and the finely grated mushrooms.
At the Brainerd Lakes Curling Club, we met Toni Czeczok, Ginny McDonald and Dusty Nelson, volunteers with the organization. Every Saturday evening members of the club take turns introducing newbies to the sport during open curling. After a brief primer, we hit the ice. One hundred percent of my knowledge of curling comes from watching the Olympics so my learning curve was steep. It began the moment I realized that the ice sheet is heavily textured and not really that slippery until you put a shoe slider on one foot. Toni, Ginny and Dusty were wonderful, patient teachers with a passion for their sport and they worked hard on us for about an hour and a half. Jen and I learned that curling looks easy on TV, but the real thing is a different story.
Trying to sum up what curling is, I came up with this: You balance on the handle of the stone (the thing you slide across the ice) and your broom, and with your rear in the air, push off the back stop, aka hack, with one foot while wearing an incredibly slippery piece of plastic on the other. If you manage this step, you will propel yourself forward and go into a very deep lunge, deeper than you ever thought possible or medically advisable. During travel, you shift your weight off the stone, while still holding its handle. You’re now balancing on your big toe, a slippery foot and a broom. Before you reach the hog line, you need to let go of the stone, giving it a gentle twist in the direction the skip (captain) on the other end of the ice sheet indicates by raising their left or right arm. If all goes well, the stone will reach its target, the inside of the red circle (house) on the other end and not go beyond it. If it’s not your turn to slide the stone, you use your broom to scrub the ice and melt it ahead of the stone, thus guiding it and making it go farther. That’s less complicated, but it compresses about a week’s worth of cardio into thirty seconds. That’s Curling 101 and it was a blast. There’s also a button on the wall of the arena and when you push it, someone will come and take your drink order.
After all of that hard work, dinner at Baia Della Italian Kitchen was the ticket. Even though it was a Saturday night at prime dinner time, our food came quickly. Jen’s Wild Mushroom and Shrimp Tortelloni with goat cheese cream and truffle oil was met with rave reviews and my Don Vito sandwich was an offer I couldn’t refuse. The lemony dressing was a hit.
At the end of this very eventful day, a nightcap at Five Rocks Distillery was in order. The cocktail lounge housed a good crowd and bartenders in black shirts and aprons mixed drinks and moved between the tables with loaded trays. Five Rocks makes ten different kinds of spirits, including gin, vodka, straight bourbon and variants of each. I knew they had my number when I saw a smoked Old Fashioned made with maple bourbon, the Smoked Sugarbush. Jen’s choice was the Winter Solstice, a cranberry-lime-raspberry-vodka cocktail.
My drink arrived in a small bottle filled with smoke and a lowball glass with one giant ice cube. Smoke and liquid flowed into the glass as I poured it and that was as much fun to watch as it was delicious to drink Curious about just how the smoke got into the bottle, I consulted the bartender and learned they have a smoking station with a special gun that can be loaded with a variety of different wood pellets. My drink was smoked with cherry and it was awesome. Maybe Santa will bring a cocktail smoker this year so I can step up my Old Fashioned game.
After a good night’s rest, we drove out to Merrifield to have breakfast at B Merri Gastro Pub. The first thing we noticed when we walked in the door was the awesome bar. It was not just made from logs, but entire trees that grew from the floor and stretched all the way to the ceiling. The meal was equally impressive. We had their scramblers, the loaded one for Jen and the brisket version for me, and when they arrived, we both said “Oh, boy.” They were two inches thick and a foot across. We tapped out about halfway through and took the rest to go.
We were able to work all of this off on the ski trails at Forestview Middle School. The Brainerd Nordic Ski Club grooms about 4km of trails for classic and skate skiing in the Dean Makey School Forest adjacent to the school. There’s also a maze of snowshoe trails to explore. It was one of those perfect ski days when it’s cold from the snow below, warm from the sun above and there’s no wind. The coats were unzipped and eventually the hat and gloves came off and life was good. We made a large loop around the whole system. There are a couple of hills with turns on the bottom, but even with our medium-duty ski skills they were no problem. Back at the car, we peeled off the steamy layers and threw everything in the back seat. Good thing we had scented candles aboard, because the Trailsmobile was starting to look like a rolling locker room.
We had some unfinished business at the Barn Restaurant. During our last visit we learned of their special dish, the Beef Sundae, but didn’t have time to try it. It’s a scoop of mashed potatoes with a scoop of their Maid-Rite meat, topped with gravy, tomato and cheese “sprinkles”. It was a heaping bowl of comfort food that went well with a blissful ski outing. “Are these real mashed potatoes?” I asked. “You bet,” our waitress replied.
There was one last stop to make before going home. Ever since I tried a sample of Salmiakki liqueur at Five Rocks I had a hankering for some licorice and Goody’s Gourmet Treats was the place. It’s a magical place full of Goobers, Whoppers, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Big Hunks, Zagnuts and Abba Zabbas. They also have ice cream, popcorn, freeze-dried ice cream sandwiches, Game of Thrones-themed Pez dispensers and, for the adventurous, The Toe of Satan. It looks like you think it would and it’s extremely spicy. I found a bag of Gustaf’s Dutch Licorice Coins, but before we took off, I put a wish in the Wishing Wall, just like all the other kids in the candy store.