First Taste: L’Etoile Du Nord

Olivier Vrambout is a bike-crazy Belgian with the most charming café in the St. Croix Valley

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Photos by Aaron Davidson

Brown’s Creek State Trail is a brand-new six-mile bike path that extends the Gateway State Trail all the way from St. Paul to Stillwater. You might arrive in Stillwater after a long ride and be content tucking into some jerk chicken at Smalley’s, and nobody could fault you for that.

Here’s another idea: keep pedaling just one more mile south and you’ll arrive at a splendid slice of Bruges in the middle of Bayport. L’Etoile Du Nord is the creation of Olivier Vrambout, formerly of Bikery Du Nord in Stillwater. Situated next door to Bayport BBQ, the space is polished and simple. It’s a refined and airy little café dedicated to the hallmarks of Vrambout’s upbringing: cycling, Belgian beer, and farm-direct cuisine.

“I was always into food in Belgium,” he recalls. “My grandmother was a pastry chef, and we were always in the garden. I remember going to the market every week and loading up a cart, and my grandmother was always canning things for the winter. Food was always around, it was the culture.”

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Olivier Vrambout // Photo by Aaron Davidson

L'etoire-12The menu is purposefully short: eggs and waffles in the morning, then salads, sandwiches, and pizzas for lunch. The café feels like a leisurely repose, a reward for the weekday brunchers who dare to venture off the beaten path. “I’m not in St. Paul or Minneapolis, surrounded by all this activity,” Vrambout says. “I love that people have been coming out here to find us.”

L’Etoile Du Nord matches Old World sensibilities with a decidedly local pride, and Bayport is the perfect place for this neo-European cafe. The town is like Stillwater’s less-boastful little brother. There seem to be fewer cars south of Highway 36. Vrambout says the area feels like Holland and he’s thrilled about all the bicycle traffic finding its way to LDN.

“I raced BMX as a kid; I’ve been on bikes since I was born,” he says, sporting a tattoo full of spokes and gears on his right leg. “When I moved to Washington, I joined a cycling club, started racing, and I’ve been racing ever since—18 years. And then I really got in to cyclocross. It’s great, I can be competitive without the thousands of miles that the road scene requires.”

Groups of riders congregated at LDN to watch last month’s Tour de France. Vrambout is working on a bike-rental program with Kona Bikes that he hopes to debut in August. What better way to explore the valley than a bike ride bookended by house-roasted coffee and a croque monsieur?

Well, there is one way: adding an order of Liége-style waffles to your morning coffee. Named the Best in the Metro by the Star Tribune for 2015, these are worlds different than the “Belgian” waffles you remember from the chain diner down the road.

“It’s a yeast bread that takes about 48 hours to get ready,” Vrambout explains. “It gives you some extra texture—that chewiness—plus a bit of yeast flavor. And I use a special Belgian sugar.” Ours comes loaded with cherries, rhubarb, and cashews over a mound of whipped cream. We’ve heard that the wine-poached pear version is the big winner.

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Bike culture is alive and well at L’Etoile Du Nord // Photo by Aaron Davidson

We sip on a scratch lemonade with basil syrup and watch Vrambout roll out pizza dough. A plate of shirred eggs comes bubbling by in a cute little casserole. Behind the bar, a print depicts Tintin staring in amazement at a gigantic mushroom. Our pizza special comes topped with fresh local produce. Vrambout, it seems, has much the same reverence for quality vegetables as Tintin.

“I want to showcase local farms,” he says. “We’re really lucky in the St. Croix Valley.”

His farm suppliers are listed on a placard near the entrance. The menu changes daily based on what they deliver. But such seasonal cooking also means more root vegetables and a tighter menu in the winter. “We can be really creative. You’d be surprised what you can do with carrots, beets and potatoes, squash and onions,” Vrambout says. “I can get hydroponic stuff, too, in the winter.”

He sites the tilapia from Future Farm in Baldwin, Wisconsin, as one such terrific off-season items. Vrambout also spends time during the summer canning and preserving, just like his grandmother used to do, to extend the valley’s best produce into the winter months.

Next page: Vrambout’s path to Bayport and killer pairings

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John Garland About John Garland

John Garland is the Senior Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in real life at various bar patios in South Minneapolis.