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Trying new things for the New Year

Blogger Jeff Ryan finds himself in gastronomic paradise when he comes across a small restaurant in a small town cooking bigcity dishes
<p>Blogger Jeff Ryan finds himself in gastronomic paradise when he comes across a small restaurant in a small town cooking big-city dishes.</p>

Looking ahead to a new year is usually a time when you can think about all of the possibilities that lie ahead. At the same time, it's not a bad idea to look back at what the past year has brought. What lies ahead is unknown. The past can't be changed; just remembered.

Sherill and I decided to seize an opportunity at the end of 2015. It all started a few months ago when Sherill was making a shrimp delivery to one of our more-distant customers. Just before she got there with the fresh shrimp, they called to let her know they wouldn't need as much as they had originally planned. Had this call come a little bit earlier, we could have changed things up and sent fewer shrimp. Once you yank those critters out of the tank and put them on ice, you have two options: Sell it or smell it! That's the way it works in the fresh food business.

Sherlock Shrimp started its relationship with Estelle's by chance, but it's turned into something delectable, like this blackened shrimp dish on the menu.

Always a quick thinker, Sherill had an idea. She had driven past a new restaurant on her way to the distant customer on the last couple of trips. The new place is in Harmony, Minnesota, about 20 miles and change from Sherlock Shrimp headquarters. Sherill decided it was probably a good time to stop by and introduce herself to the owners of the new restaurant.

The name of the place is Estelle's Eatery & Bar. Harmony is a town of about 1,020 people in the far southeast corner of Minnesota. Tourism is a big part of Harmony's existence. The scenic bluffs of southeastern Minnesota are just part of what draws a lot of people to the area year-round. The extensive Root River Trail system in the area is known far and wide as an example of how to create commerce from recreation and scenery in what many people on the coasts of this nation consider to be "fly-over country."

Harmony also has an extensive Amish population. You can take a bus tour of several Amish farms and related businesses and see how the Amish people go about their daily lives right next to neighbors with all the bells and whistles of modern life.

There is also Niagara Cave, just south of Harmony, near the border of Iowa. It is one of the top ten caves in the United States, drawing thousands of visitors each year who take guided tours on paved paths way, way down into the depths of the earth.

Last but not least, Harmony is also the home of my late friend, Ada Austin, known to many as The Old Goat Woman. Ada is the one who sold the mohair socks that became a favorite of mine more than 15 years ago. She was a first-rate character, and in my book, it's hard for you to rank much higher than that.

Making a connection

It didn't take long, once Sherill stepped into Estelle's, to find that the head chef, Matt, is the kind of guy you grow to love in no time flat. It was mid-afternoon, and the place wasn't bustling, but Matt was singing away like it was the final round of the karaoke championship . . . at the Olympics.

Heidi and Matt Brown are creating a culinary sensation in a small town in southeastern Minnesota.

Sherill introduced herself to Matt and his wife, Heidi, and asked them if they would be interested in handling Sherlock Shrimp. As it turned out, they had recently heard about us and were planning to call us that very week to see if it would be possible to get some shrimp for the restaurant. Their plan was to feature local products when they could, and when they found out that live, fresh shrimp could be had within minutes of Harmony, they were on board. The fact that those very shrimp were in their hands within moments of expressing an interest was probably what sold them on the idea. Call it fate.

Sherill got home that night and told me about her experience at Estelle's, "You've gotta go to Harmony and meet this guy. He's just a hoot!" she exclaimed.

A character from Harmony, eh? Well, I was coming up short in that department lately, so this was probably worth looking into, I figured. As the commercial says, "Sometimes, you feel like a nut!"

That's what made me decide it was time to try something new, and try it in Harmony.

The moment I walked in the door at Estelle's and saw Chef Matt in the kitchen, I knew Sherill hadn't been kidding me. Several things ran through my mind right away, nearly all of which were Google Images. Standing in front of me was a guy who looked awfully close to Avery Schreiber, from the old Dorito's commercials. If it wasn't him, maybe it was Chef Paul Prudhomme. Or, maybe it was one of the Super Mario Brothers.

Whichever image it was that came to my mind, I bet you have a pretty good mental picture of Chef Matt without seeing a picture of him. He's a stocky guy with a thick, black mustache, an infectious smile and a gregarious personality. Matt greeted Sherill the moment he saw her walk in the door. She introduced me to him as we sat down.

The menus were presented to us and my first thought was that famous Food Network chef and host of "Restaurant: Impossible," Robert Irvine would approve. The menu was a simple, one-page sheet without a lot of clutter and confusion. Focus on the food. Don't make the customers spend all of their time paging through a book's worth of options for 900 items you have to buy, store and be prepared to cook at any moment.

The first thing that caught my eye in the appetizer section was Pork Nuggets. That sounded innovative to me. A creative place like this probably wouldn't serve something that looked like it came from the frozen foods section of a convenience store.

These are the infamous pork nuggets, left, with bacon cheese fries. I need say no more.

My desire for pork nuggets was promptly shot down my dining companion. Sherill seemed to think I was ordering from the kid's menu or something. This wasn't exactly a white-tablecloth, coat-and-tie place where we were eating, but we weren't going to be ordering pork nuggets, I was informed.

I went with a bowl of squash soup instead. It was something I don't think I ever had until Sherill and I met the first time in Chicago several years ago. A distant cousin of mine had invited us to his place for dinner, seeing as how he's kind of responsible for Sherill and me getting together in the first place. His wife was gone on a trip somewhere and his mother was there helping him with his kids. She made what turned out to be one of my new favorite items!

We quickly discovered that Chef Matt doesn't do things conventionally at Estelle's. When my soup arrived at the table, it looked more like a salad. Correction. It looked like the beginning of a salad made in a kitchen where the construction workers were busy with insulation and hadn't bothered to cover everything with tape, a drop cloth, or even a giant blue tarp like the really fancy-schamncy places use.

Mystery in a soup bowl

My bowl appeared to be a few croutons with a pile of Owens-Corning fuzzy pink insulation in it. Perhaps I needed to look at my insulin pump and see if my blood glucose had dropped so low that I misread the menu and ordered from some gluten-free section when I clearly meant to order from the fiberglass-free section!

That's when Chef Matt showed up with a small silver tea kettle. He started to pour the contents of the kettle around the edge of the bowl as he explained how squash soup works at Estelle's. Turns out the pink fluffy stuff was cotton candy! The boiling-hot soup began to melt the cotton candy and got the croutons floating in a sea of goodness.

Candy in soup? This guy is a genius, as far as I was concerned!

This is that squash soup, showing the progression from left where you get croutons and cotton candy (you read that right), then Matt pours the soup into the bowl melting the candy and creating a new kind of deliciousness!

"Waiter! My chocolate-covered-bacon salad is running low. Could you add more toffee bits and truffles to it this time, please? Oh, and top off my Medtronic maple syrup infusion pump when you get a chance, too, before you bring the dessert tray. Thanks."  

This is the kind of place where I could see myself turning into Norm Peterson from "Cheers." Sure enough, the quality and variety kept up at a high level. Sherill and I have been back several times in the last couple of months. It's gotten to the point where I'm asking if she needs any shrimp deliveries made to Estelle's, and I take other people with me when I go.

On my second trip, we no more than sat down when I told Heidi, "Let's start with some pork nuggets. A full order."

Gotta get in quick before I was overruled by the dietary maturity police.

Lo and behold, yet another culinary masterpiece made its way to us. Chef Matt takes pork loin and cuts it into cubes about an inch to an inch-and-a-half thick. The cubes are then marinated in soy sauce and teriyaki for a few hours before being lightly breaded and tossed in a deep fryer. The same soy-teriyaki concoction is then splashed over them when they are served.

Talk to Don Tyson sometime and see what the breaded chicken nugget did for the poultry industry and their ability to get more value out of the whole bird. I think Chef Matt's pork nuggets could do wonders for the swine folks.

Sherill came home with a question for me a couple of weeks ago. She had delivered shrimp to Estelle's while I was stuck in line at an ethanol plant, delivering corn.

"Anything planned for New Year's Eve?" she wondered. "Heidi said they're having a special meal that night and it's a reservations-only kind of deal."

Hmmm, let's see. A place where soup with cotton candy in it as part of the regular menu is going to do something above and beyond for the holiday, and I could go? Okay, I am totally on board for that!

There would be three seating options for the evening. We could do the 6:00 or 8:00 version. Sherill thought it would be a good idea to take my folks and my aunt, Ellen, along with us. I had talked my folks into riding along on a shrimp delivery a couple weeks before that and they were instant fans of Estelle's. It didn't take much to talk them into going along for a 6:00 meal on New Year's Eve. Ellen and Uncle Phil had milked cows for most of their lives, so it's not all that tough to get her to go along for a food adventure from time to time.

A New Year's Eve special

We got to Estelle's on New Year's Eve and were seated at a table. The place was packed. The menu was set for us, so there was no need to study and make a decision. Besides all of the great food, Estelle's also focuses on wine and craft beer. When our reservations were confirmed a day or two ahead of time, Sherill was asked how many of the five in our party wanted to go with the wine pairing for the various courses that evening, and how many wanted to go with the beer pairing. We went with four wine pairings and, in light of 2016 marking 45 years as a Type I diabetic for one of us, a Diet Coke pairing for that medical lottery winner.  

There would be a five-course meal for us that evening. Each item was explained to us as it was presented. Between the crowd noise and the excitement of it all, it wasn't easy to remember everything as it arrived. Fortunately, I totally took one for you, the team of readers, and made another trip to Estelle's a couple days later to get a written version of what we had.

The first course was mixed greens with lemon thyme vinaigrette, fresh-pulled Mozzarella Burrata with black pepper, lemon truffle creme and sourdough croutons. The wine option was a Chardonnay and the beer was a Lonely Blonde (a light lager). Unfortunately, I didn't get any pictures. Trust me, it was beyond tasty, and I'm not a huge salad promoter.  

The second course was a potato leek soup with a leek puree, bacon crumbles, lemon zest and Yukon Gold potatoes. This one was similar in construction to the squash soup, only without the cotton candy. A bowl is placed in front of you with the base ingredients inside. The familiar tea kettle then shows up and a piping hot stream of creamy white stock is poured over the top.

Being in the cattle business, this was my idea of an excellent TMR with all of the ingredients mixed together to really shine with flavor! The wine option was a Sauvignon Blanc and the beer was Moose Drool (a dark beer).

Next was a plate of blackened shrimp with lemon garlic sauce and roasted cauliflower over linguini. Not surprisingly, they were Sherlock Shrimp, and I'm probably not the most impartial judge, so I'll just say that I was dangerously close to licking the plate. Had I gone with the Reisling wine or the Ace Cider beer, perhaps the scene would have been different. Diet Coke kept me level and well-mannered.

We watched one patron eating the moon rocks, you have to let it warm up on your tongue, note the 'steam' from the special.

Then it got interesting. The palate cleanser between the shrimp and the next course (beef) was what Chef Matt called Moon Rocks. He came to the table with a metal container that looked like a boiling cauldron of witch's brew. The scientist in me figured this was either going to involve dry ice or liquid nitrogen. The Child of the 1970's in me figured this could very well be a music video for a hair band from the 80's!  

Turns out it was passion fruit in a container filled with liquid nitrogen. Chef Matt took a giant spoon and dipped a piece of frozen passion fruit out as everyone watched the streams of frozen air swirling around it. We were given instructions on how to handle / eat Moon Rocks: Take a deep breath and place the Moon Rock on the tip of your tongue. Then exhale and watch the show before slowly moving the passion fruit around in your mouth so as not to freeze your entire G.I. tract.

You want to talk about fun? Take a room full of adults and have them act like fifth-graders in science class as they look at their dining companions emitting steam like a rail yard in the 1800's! Several tried, but no one seemed to be able to blow any really good liquid nitrogen smoke rings. This was three courses or more into a five-course, alcohol-paired meal, so Chef Matt didn't set the liquid nitrogen down at each table and let everyone have fun with it. He ladled out a Moon Rock to each guest and let them have it before moving to another table. It was fun to watch the various tables of people hesitantly put the super-frozen passion fruit in their mouths and then try to blow some smoke once they realized they hadn't frozen their mouth permanently closed.

The next course was an exquisite-looking sirloin presentation. Strips of steak rested on a bed of butter whipped potatoes, potato puree, mushroom puree and green garlic. The small dabs of puree placed in a line of increasing size is a special visual flair that you don't find everywhere.

My farmer term for it is "Sauce Braille." It looks especially fancy at home when done with ketchup next to a really good grilled cheese sandwich. 

The wine for the sirloin course was Malbec, and the beer was 2-Hearted. I went with a Vintage Diet Coke, based upon the recommendation of my pop steward. (It's Minnesota. We call it pop. Deal with it.)

The final course was dessert, and it was time for a show once again. A plate of chocolate bread pudding with raspberries, chocolate ganache and raspberry compote was placed in front of each of us. Then came the science experiment again.

You guessed it: liquid nitrogen!

We would be making our own Dippin' Dots to go with our dessert. Who hasn't had dessert placed in front of them and said, "You know what this needs? Liquid nitrogen!"

Well, duh.

Chef Matt placed two squeeze bottle containers in front of us, along with a container of liquid nitrogen. Our job was to slowly drip the fruit puree inside the squeeze bottles into the liquid nitrogen. The drops would hit the surface of the liquid nitrogen and freeze instantly. The smaller you made the drops, the more BB-like the Dippin Dots would be. Squeeze faster without pausing and you'd have yourself some Dippin' Chunks. Check out this video of how it works.

Not only was it a blast to make, but the Dippin' Dots were a great accompaniment to the giant mound of dessert in front of us. They topped off an incredible eating experience for all of us. Everyone was blown away by the way Chef Matt, Heidi and their entire staff put together the whole meal from start to finish. For a little town of about a thousand people, an hour from any real cities, Estelle's is truly a gem. You need to find a way to get yourself there to experience it yourself. 

When my A.I. guy shows up the next time to refill the liquid nitrogen tank in my cattle shed where I store bull semen for my cows, I may just have him get me a second container to store some liquid nitrogen for all of my new dietary demands! A couple friends and I are headed to Estelle's again this week. One of them is a BBQ aficionado. He and I may start plotting a way to get some shrimp and brisket on the smoker before dipping them in liquid nitrogen.

Not to tip my hand, but I'm thinking there is probably going to be a chocolate bacon compote involved, too.

Genius takes no holidays.

Guy No. 2

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