I’ve always been lukewarm about solstice celebrations. While the winter solstice almost seems like a cruel joke – “welcoming” sunshine and longer days as we brace ourselves for four more months of blizzards and frigid temperatures – summer solstice is more joyful, but still is accompanied by that nagging thought in the back of my head. Wait! Summer has barely started – already we’re celebrating its peak? What about all my big plans of farmers market trips, bountiful garden harvests, dinner parties…
Luckily, I had the pleasure of ringing in this year’s longest day at the Chowgirls Killer Catering Summer Solstice Supper. The leisurely 5-course meal that included local meats and cheeses and the fresh tastes of early summer produce; the light, airy atmosphere of the dining room-cum-art gallery; even the crisp bottle of white wine I picked up on my way over, all joined forces to remind me that while the daylight may begin to dwindle, there is more fresh produce to come, more dinners to be had, that summer IS here (despite what early June weather suggested) and there is plenty of time left to savor it.
Chowgirls, tucked among the art studios and funky vintage shops of Northeast Minneapolis, was started in 2004 by owners Heidi Andermack and Amy Brown. The two began by doing it all – from menu planning to cooking to event managing – and today manage a team of about 85, including kitchen staff, event planners, operations managers and servers. Their meals focus on fresh, local, organic food, and they’re up for working events of all sizes, from intimate dinner parties to huge corporate conferences. The ‘Girls have an affinity for the arts, have fed folks at gallery openings and photo shoots, and have sponsored local events including their neighborhood’s own Art-A-Whirl and the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Film Festival.
They’ve brought their creative connections back to their home base by opening the Chowgirls Parlor, an “occasional restaurant,” next door to their kitchen. Rosalux Gallery equips the parlor with a rotating art exhibit, and June’s installation featured abstract paintings by James Wrayge. The pale blues and yellows and bold oranges of Wrayge’s work provided the perfect backdrop to the Solstice Supper, evoking lazy lakes and hot summer sun.
Dinner began with a minty pea puree on crisp baguette that previewed what’s to come in my own garden, where my young pea shoots are just nearing plump perfection upon this writing. Tasty and tangy local cheeses from Holland’s Family Farm and Shepherd’s Way were paired with a gingery rhubarb compote from the local neighborhood farmers market – and having baked my way through endless recipes for rhubarb bread, muffins and crisps over the previous weeks, the compote was a nice, simple way to say “so long til next year.”
Sunshine was the obvious theme of the next two courses, which featured a shot glass of warm creamy sunchoke bisque and a bright, crisp “sunburst salad” of local greens, sunflower seeds and a vivid organge-yolked Larry Schultz hardboiled egg.
My dinner date chose the fresh pea risotto as an entree, while I, a vegetarian-when-convenient but meat lover at heart, couldn’t resist the smoked brisket barbeque. (Hey, I needed more blog material right?) The pea risotto was creamy and light, but I couldn’t stop raving about the brisket – featuring tender, flaky grass-fed Thousand Hills beef with West Kentucky BBQ sauce and creamy cheese grits made from Shepherd’s Way Hidden Falls Brie. I brought a few bites home with intentions of lunch the next day, but after arriving home and continuing to rave to my roommates, the leftovers were gone in minutes.
The uniquely Minnesotan dessert was what I found myself describing in detail for the next few days. Two slender and airy slices of pound cake, one light buttermilk and one deep and richly-flavored Summit Porter chocolate, were topped with creamy frosting made of Equal Exchange chocolate and Ames Farm honey, and perfectly tiny, sweet local strawberries.
My only disappointment of the evening was completely self-imposed – having not read many details other then where and when to show up, I was expecting an evening of family-style dining like other similar dinners I’ve attended, rubbing shoulders and reveling in the extended daylight with fellow food-lovers, perhaps hearing from Chef Truman Olson himself. The Solstice Supper experience was much more “restaurant style” – small tables for each reservation and a server that was certainly attentive, but not able to linger and discuss the food at length. Luckily it sounds like I may soon have the opportunity to attend such a dinner. Chowgirl Amy tells me once they’ve acquired their liquor license – any day now – the Chowgirls Parlor will host monthly “farm-to-table” dinners, sometimes family-style, and will also be available to rent for private events. These dinners, as Amy says, will allow she and her partners to “try new recipes and develop stronger relations with our farmers…[and] offer foodies and Chowgirls fans the chance to have an intimate Chowgirls dining experience without the effort of planning a catered event.”
After my Solstice Supper experience, I certainly would consider myself a Chowgirls fan. Not only did my dinner make me look forward to more dining experiences in the Chowgirls Parlor, the perfect combination of sights, smells, easy dinner conversation, and of course fresh, early-summer flavors offered an inspiring introduction to a summer full of local, seasonal eating.
Georgia Rubenstein works at an environmental non-profit in Minneapolis, and loves food in all of its forms -- growing it, cooking it, eating it, feeding it to her worms, and then starting the cycle all over. She can be found philosophizing about food, considering food policy issues, and working to harness the incredible power of food to save the world.