First, a warning: you cannot make a reservation at the Harbor View Café, and if you plan to eat at any normal mealtime, weekends in particular, you will have a long wait for a table. The good news is that the town of Pepin is a charmer and has many interesting stores in which to shop for antiques while you wait.
The even-better news is that the wait is worth it! This modest café by the wide spot in the Mississippi River known as Lake Pepin is a true gem. One of our eating pals who regularly treks south from the Twin Cities across the river laughingly describes its cuisine as “Norwegian with a Mediterranean accent,” meaning that the specialties are profoundly soulful renditions of northern European fare that epicures usually consider bland.
Norwegian meatballs, for instance, are rugged spheres of meat served in a sour cream sauce infused with an eye-opening measure of cardamom and sided by pickly red cabbage. Cod fish cakes are known here as “The Bishop’s Fish Pudding,” after proprietor Paul Hinderlie’s grandfather, who was, in fact, a Norwegian Bishop. They are spiced whitfish discs sautéed until faintly crisp, crowned with sheaves of smoked salmon, then gilded with a creamy-sweet shrimp sauce laced with dill and sided by a ramekin of cranberries.
There’s hot, crusty bread to start the meal, there are excellent salads, and a dessert list to die for, including strawberry-rhubarb pie that sets the world standard.
The place itself is charming: tables set with blue-checked cloths and walls lined with a fascinating collection of vintage books. Alas, none of the books are for sale (although there is a real bookstore adjacent to the dining room), but they help create an appropriately civilized ambience for one of the finest meals along the banks of the northern Mississippi River.
Note: the Harbor View Cafe is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Hours in Spring and Fall are limited.
"The Bishop's Fish Pudding: one of the great upper Midwest meals, named after the chef's grandfather, a man of the cloth."
"Definitely not your ordinary meatballs. Note the wonderful red cabbage in a cup on the side. This meal is a good example of the only kitchen we know that is accurately described as Norwegian with a Mediterranean accent."
"Jane occupies a booth at Harbor View. Note the literary decor. The walls are lined with books -- really, really interesting books!"
"A great destination for travelers along the eastern banks of the upper Mississippi River"