Northern Lights: Talent and ambition powers the dining room of Poplar Haus on the Gunflint Trail

The route to Poplar House via the Gunflint Trail // Photo by Becca Dilley

Ask a handful of Minnesotans about going “up north” and you’ll probably get a cluster of different responses that share a few things in common. Up north isn’t a specific place, although many people have a place in mind. It’s not a where, it’s a what—a slower pace of life, a retreat from the lacerating daily battles of the modern world into a place defined by pine trees, clear skies, and freshwater.

It may be physically impossible to be more emotionally “up north” than the lodge and cabins of Poplar Haus on the Gunflint Trail.

In order to understand Poplar Haus, you’ve got to radically shift your frame of reference. Imagine the trip to Duluth—not quite three hours from Minneapolis–St. Paul, and yet a different world, from the steeply sloped streets to the aerial lift bridge to the cool, mercurial mass of the inland ocean that is Lake Superior. 

Now travel another two hours along the lake and you’re in the gem-like hamlet of Grand Marais, which stretches out parallel to the lake, saluting the lighthouse perched on the eastern end of the harbor breakwater. 

Now turn away from the lake, and head up the Gunflint Trail, moving north and eventually northwest toward the Canadian border. A bit less than an hour from Grand Marais, past countless birch, pine, and aspen trees, and you’ve arrived. 

But where have you arrived? Walk into the main lodge, and you may need to catch your breath—the place’s spare, soaring, Scandinavian-esque elegance is a minimalist frame for Poplar Lake, which joins you at the bar or at your table through oversized windows and an enviable lakeside deck.

The lakeside dining room is well suited for any of Minnesota’s season // Photo by Becca Dilley

“You get to stare at this every day, which is great,” says Bryan Gerrard. Bryan is part of the core team at Poplar Haus, along with his wife and front-of-house maven Stacey (Palmer) Gerrard, chef Kippy Kuboy, event coordinator Lynse McDonough, and a couple of key kitchen team members: Ted Greum (formerly of the Gunflint Lodge) and new-hire Jaclyn Von.

Between them, the Poplar Haus team has seemingly worked in every high-profile restaurant in Minneapolis, from La Belle Vie (Kippy) to Piccolo (Jacklyn) to Smack Shack (Bryan and Stacey) to an event company called Rustic Elegance (Lynse). The two couples that founded Poplar Haus in 2017 (Bryan and Stacey, and Kippy and Lynse) came seeking a change of pace after years of working in an urban hospitality industry that has a reputation for draining people dry.

“One of my favorite things about being up here is that nine out of 10 people are just decompressing. Everybody’s just chill—everybody’s just happy to be here, they’re happy to be out in the woods,” says Lynse.

“What I loved about this place is, in Minneapolis right now if you want to open a place, you have to have an angle,” says Bryan. “You gotta have something, you have to have a thing. Up here, this is an opportunity for us to run an honest business being who we are and just be normal with no competition and just do what we do.”

The owners of Poplar Haus, left to right: Lynse McDonough, Kippy Kuboy, Bryan Gerrard, and Stacey (Palmer) Gerrard // Photo by Becca Dilley

For the Poplar Haus team, doing what they do means a menu centered on accessible food and drink done well, and without concern for the trends that sometimes drive restaurants in Minneapolis–St. Paul. “These cocktails and the food we make, it’s normal for us,” says Bryan. “Instead of trying to come up with the next Hai Hai, we could just do what we know how to do—be an oasis for an urban environment. And it’s also an entry point for the Boundary Waters. People who have never been here come up because of us and say, ‘I’ve never been this far north before.’ They love it and get hooked on it. There are four Boundary Water portages off of our lake. You’re looking at it right now.”

Bad Spirits Hit the Trail

Before its rebirth in 2017, the Poplar Haus went for years by another name: the Windigo Lodge, a spot that persisted for decades even after a notorious fire in 1991. Windigos are Algonquian spirits associated with greed, cannibalism, and murder, and the lodge has a local reputation only slightly sunnier than its namesake. “It’s crazy, the stories people tell,” says Stacey. “People told us they had a contest [involving] going up the deck rails naked… in the winter. It was to see who could get up to the top first. Some dude at the bar said that, and I was like: ‘Not surprising.’”

The lodge’s decor matched its seedy rep—based on photos that Kippy saved on his phone, the old establishment was worlds apart from the modern Scandi-cool of Poplar Haus. “The colors were hunter green and pink, there were big wicker chairs, Polynesian… it was nuts,” says Bryan. “The look on people’s faces when they walk in without knowing that it’s changed—it’s just shock. People are like, ‘Whoa, didn’t the bar used to be over there?’ It was green carpet—like four layers of it; they carpeted over the old carpet.”

The Windigo Lodge name, wrote Bryan in an email follow-up to our interview, was: “Bad juju for sure. […] A lot of people seem to think that’s why this place used to be a bit cursed. We have had some spiritual types come through here and without even any prompting, they told us that we ‘released the Windigo.’”

If design is what it takes to exorcise evil spirits, it’s no wonder that it worked: the Poplar Haus lodge and cabins feel 100 percent up-to-date, a harmonious match of chic minimalism, up-north rustic charm, and Minneapolis–St. Paul design. Our cabin was clean and airy without feeling out of place or ersatz; an Adam Turman print on the wall and a turntable connected wirelessly to a Bluetooth speaker made late-night Yahtzee and wine near the wood-burning stove that much more enjoyable.

The cabins and the lodge make up two of the three spokes that keep the Poplar Haus business model turning; the third is its offsale liquor license, which makes it (like the Windigo Lodge before it) the sole purveyor of bottled spirits on the Gunflint Trail.

The winter view of Poplar Lake // Photo by Becca Dilley

Urban Comforts Among the Pines

Spruce Margarita & Haus Old Fashioned at Poplar Haus // Photo by Becca Dilley

The view from the window of the lodge is enough to sell a guest on the experience—it would work with average or even mediocre food and cocktails. But what Poplar Haus offers is far from average.

Bryan’s spirits experience pays dividends with Poplar Haus’ short but carefully considered cocktail menu. Everything is easy to “get”—a house Manhattan, a twist on a Moscow Mule, etc.—but is diligently made with good brands. The cocktails tend to be strong, balanced, and smooth.

It’s difficult to get into the particulars of the Haus Old Fashioned (Belle Meade Bourbon, demerara, oak, and Angostura, $10) because it went down with so little protest. It’s big, it’s mellow, it’s cheerful, it’s well-balanced, and it’s elegant without being even the slightest bit pretentious.

But for sheer Instagramability, you’re not going to top the Spruce Margarita ($10), which combines Cazadores Reposado tequila, Cointreau, lime, and pine syrup, the last ingredient made from spruce tips foraged from a nearby island. The cocktail is garnished with a spruce tip, too, giving a traditionally summer drink a remarkably wintry look and feel. This is the odd cocktail that would be equally suited to July on the porch or January by the fire, making it a key utility player for the lodge.

“The Spruce Margarita has been a huge hit this winter,” says Bryan. “I was trying to find a way to make tequila approachable in the winter, where it doesn’t feel like it has to be summer. We love this little island out here and it has these great little young spruce trees, and I started clipping them off. It feels wintery, like a winter margarita. It’s something people understand. It just feels like here. Every time one of them goes out, 10 more of them get ordered.”

Our experience with the food at Poplar Haus was, in a word, stellar, but the Beard Wrecker Duck Wings ($14) may well have been the highlight. From the sticky, balanced, beautifully compelling ginger-garlic glaze with scallions to the perfectly rendered, tender, rich meat of the wings, this is a dish that demands (and rewards) your full attention.

What makes a really great French onion soup? Based on our experience at Poplar Haus, chef Kippy is the guy to ask. The Poplar Haus version ($8) has a depth and intensity of caramelized onion flavor that surpasses anything we’ve ever tried, and the crunchy, cheesy croutons that rest atop the bowl are the perfect complement to its earthy depth.

The Haus Burger ($13) leads with the tart kick of its pickles and is a rich, yielding, truly enjoyable hamburger that—and this is rare—uses special sauce without abusing it.

And finally, we tried and highly dug the Walleye Po’ Boy ($15). The twist that elevates this particular spin on a Minnesota bar-food classic is the addition of sweet heat in the form of tiny peppadew peppers. Otherwise, its components are traditional, balanced, and built from scratch in a way that gives the whole dish an incredible integrity.

“I make my own breading for the walleye itself,” says Kippy. “It’s got a little more crunch and flavor to it. The fish gets lightly fried and put on top of the coleslaw and there’s two slices of tomato, and then a dill/lemon/rice wine vinegar-pickled fennel, and then there’s chopped-up peppadew peppers on top of that, and then hot sauce and more tartar sauce on the other side of the bun, and that’s all there is. There’s a lot going on, but it works.”

It’s a sandwich worth the drive. But if you can’t log the miles to the Gunflint Trail, you can always make your own.

Poplar Haus Walleye Po’boy // Photo by Becca Dilley

Recipe for Poplar Haus Walleye Po’boy

By Kippy Kuboy

* indicates a sub-recipe found below

Ingredients

5-ounce walleye fillet
½ cup flour dredge*
½ cup egg milk*
3 ounces breading*
½ ounce tartar sauce*
1 ounce lemon dill pickled fennel*
2 ounce tarragon coleslaw*
2 sliced tomatoes
½ ounces chopped golden peppadew peppers
Tapatio hot sauce to serve
6-inch Franklin Street hoagie bun, split, brushed with butter and toasted

Directions

  1. Dry the walleye fillet and placed it in the dredge. Take it from the dredge to the egg milk and then into the breading. Press down firmly on the breading, cover the fillet completely, then flip the fillet and bread the other side. Fry on medium heat for 3 minutes or until you reach 150 degrees internal temperature.
  2. Brush the insides of the hoagie bun with butter and toast, flat sides down, until golden brown. Spread tartar sauce on both interior sides of the bun.
  3. Building from the bottom up, it goes in this order: tartar sauce, coleslaw, walleye, tomato slices, pickled fennel, golden peppadew, Tapatio, tartar sauce.

*Flour Dredge

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon old bay

*Egg Milk

Equal amounts by weight egg yolk and whole milk

*Breading

4 ounces panko bread crumbs
4 ounces seasoned kettle chips
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
2 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning

Combine in a food processor. Alternate method: crush chips inside a plastic bag until well-ground before combining with panko and other ingredients.

*Pickled fennel

2 bulbs fresh fennel
2 cups rice wine vinegar
½ cup sugar
2 ounces fresh dill
3 lemons juice and zest
Pinch salt

Thinly slice the fennel (I like to use a Japanese mandolin for consistency) and hold in water until ready. Dissolve sugar in rice wine vinegar over medium heat; when sugar dissolves, add dill then immediately turn off the heat. Drain fennel from water and pat dry with a paper towel and place in a medium-sized bowl. Add pickling liquid, lemon zest, and 2 tablespoons lemon juice to fennel and let sit for 5 minutes, then chill in the fridge.

*Tartar Sauce

¼ cup dill pickles, chopped finely
2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
¾ ounce fresh dill, chopped finely
2 cups homemade mayonnaise or substitute store-bought mayo** (** indicates a sub-sub recipe)

Fine chop the ingredients by hand or process them in your food processor using the pulse option, being careful not to over process ingredients, starting with the firmest items first, finishing with the fresh dill. Whisk together chopped ingredients with the mayo. Side note: don’t be too shocked to see the sauce turn green from the fresh dill.

*Haus Lemon Pepper Mayonnaise

2 egg yolks
1 ½ cups canola oil
½ cup water (or substitute 2 cups of store-bought mayonnaise for ease)
1 lemon juiced and zested
salt and pepper

Emulsify canola, egg yolk, and water. Whisk yolks and then whisk in a thin stream of oil, a process that should take about 5 minutes. Balance with salt, pepper, and lemon juice (for acidity) to taste.

*Tarragon Coleslaw

½ cup Haus lemon pepper mayo (see above)
A handful of tarragon leaves, chopped
2 cups chopped cabbage
Salt and pepper

Regular mayo with some lemon juice and pepper will do to speed things up here. In a medium bowl, mix ingredients. The overall yield will shrink quite a bit as it sits. Season to taste.


Read more chef profiles and get other great recipes in The Growler’s Minnesota Spoon column here.

A BLIND TASTING BEER FESTIVAL

Taste & Rate
48 Hazy IPAs

July 18, 2019 | 5:30–9:00pm
Upper Landing Park, St. Paul