Journey to the Stars With L'Etoile Du Nord

 Photo provided by L'Etoile Du Nord owner Olivier Vrambout

Photo provided by L'Etoile Du Nord owner Olivier Vrambout

L’etoile du Nord cafe (plus a new bike shop!) is Minnesota’s bike-centric “Star of the North”

It would be easier to count the ways in which biking is not a part of Olivier Vrambout’s daily life than to count the ways in which it is.

The Belgian-born chef, master baker, and cyclist found himself living in the Stillwater area after moving to be closer to his then-wife’s family. He had heard all of the typical things about us. Namely: It's freezing, and you know—it’s freezing.

 Wild mushroom rarebit on savory waffle. Photo provided by L'Etoile Du Nord.

Wild mushroom rarebit on savory waffle. Photo provided by L'Etoile Du Nord.

But it didn’t take long at all for him to look around at the river valley, and then jump on his bike and look around at the river valley, to know we had everything he needed to live his now very enviable Minnesota lifestyle.

How enviable? Click on over to his Instagram to see. We will wait. See that? Thousand-layer ridges of croissant dough, rolled by hand (“One rolling pin and 10 fingers,” reads the post, and then “#cycling”). Pillowy profiteroles drizzled in silken Belgian chocolate. Sunrise on the half-frozen river. Titanium bikes ripping through rough terrain.

The energy it takes to roll out those bona fide French croissants, and all of the other elegant details of L’etoile Du Nord, is fueled by Vrambout’s beloved Kona and his daily cycling habit: “I fit it in every day, no matter what. If it’s pouring rain or snowing, I find a way to fit it in.”

In addition to the restaurant, plus a sister bike shop that will likely be open by the time this issue hits the Internets, Vrambout is a dad to three kids and a stepdad to two. All of which means he’s often up before dawn for the ride, but no matter what, he rides. “I need that exercise to clear my head. I’m just hardwired that way.”

If you’ve never been to L’etoile du Nord, you’ve been missing out on one of the best kept secrets in Minnesota.

In Belgium, everyone is either on a bike, taking the train, or walking for transportation. In Vrambout’s case, it was the former. He started around the age of four, and by the time he was 10 or 11, he was BMX racing. “Cycling was always in my blood. Commuting or racing was always in my blood.” Now he’s into Cyclocross, and when we chat he’s just finished a race in Portland, Maine, one of the most scenic cyclocross courses in New England.

 Roasted scallops with almond cauliflower gratin. Photo provided by L'Etoile Du Nord.

Roasted scallops with almond cauliflower gratin. Photo provided by L'Etoile Du Nord.

If you’ve never been to L’etoile du Nord, you’ve been missing out on one of the best kept secrets in Minnesota. The wee cafe—it seats only 24 inside—is the French/Belgian haunt of your fantasies. “The Star of the North,” as it translates in English, was dreamt up as Vrambout took those first rides in the river valley.

“Discovering the area of the gateway trail, Afton and Prescott, the rolling hills—the beautiful pristine rolling hills—the farms, the valley, the Duluth terrain and Superior,” as he recalls it. It was all fairly reminiscent of his childhood in Belgium, where he was mostly raised by his grandparents who had lived through World War II, and by whom “food was taken very seriously.”

“They were always canning, gardening, scratch cooking, walking to the market. They made wine and honey, they kept bees, and family gatherings meant four-, five-, six-hour meals.”

 Photo provided by Olivier Vrambout

Photo provided by Olivier Vrambout

When the storefront opened in Bayport, it was a no-brainer for Vrambout to put his restaurant there. (He’s not new to the business—the bakery he started in Bellingham, Washington, called The Mount Bakery after nearby Mount Baker, now has three locations and is still going strong.)

 Photo provided by Olivier Vrambout

Photo provided by Olivier Vrambout

Inside, the connections to the cycling world are subtle, but easy to see once you strap on your cyclist’s goggles. The stunning cycle-themed wallpaper in the restrooms, the various bike teams with their clips still on, happily sipping chalices of Stella mid or post-ride; a drop-down TV dedicated for screening the Tour de France, walls papered with postcards sent from bike races, Vrambout dealing Konas out of the roasting room.

Wait, what?

First, the roasting room: Vrambout decided pretty early on that for him to serve a decent (read: world-class) cup of coffee, he would need to roast the beans himself, onsite. So he does. “Coffee and cycling just go together.” Don’t they, though? So consider that a small batch, roasted onsite, single origin Ethiopian espresso could be yours for the second half of your ride, and be inspired for the 20 or so mile ride from the Twin Cities to Bayport.

But then, Vrambout found himself selling Kona cycles via the restaurant, and he found that the roasting room was almost big enough to open a bike shop on site. Almost, but not quite. Meanwhile, he also found that about 90 percent (his estimate) of serious local cyclists come through Stillwater and Afton on a regular basis, and yet, there was no bike shop in the area.

So, get ready for Velo du Nord, Bicycle of the North. For Vrambout, there are many benefits to the new endeavor: the roasting room goes back to being a place for coffee beans, and he’ll have a dedicated place to deal those bikes, as well to do the quick repairs that he already does by keeping spare tubes in his jersey when he’s riding. But the coffee will not stay behind—you can expect those perfect espressos, and perfect, caramelized, malty Liege waffles to go with them served right at the bike shop too.

the best Belgian chocolate brownie in the world, Vrambout’s daily house-made breads, diaphanous French omelets fat with wild mushrooms, stone hearth pizza, endive gratin wrapped in ham, those liege waffles thickly slathered with house-made Nutella. More.

And here we are at the very end, and I’ve almost forgotten to mention the cooking that goes on at L’Etoile. The very, very excellent cooking. A truncated laundry list: the best Belgian chocolate brownie in the world, Vrambout’s daily house-made breads, diaphanous French omelets fat with wild mushrooms, stone hearth pizza, endive gratin wrapped in ham, those liege waffles thickly slathered with house-made Nutella. More. But not a lot more. This is a very European little place, whose philosophy is: “Seasonal. regional, homemade. Every day.”

Like getting there by bike, slow and steady wins the race (with a little help from an exquisite espresso).

 Eggs Benedict waffles. Photo provided by L'Etoile Du Nord.

Eggs Benedict waffles. Photo provided by L'Etoile Du Nord.

Tips & Tricks for Visiting L’etoile Du Nord by Bike, from Vrambout:

  1. You can take the Gateway Trail from St Paul all the way into Stillwater. In Stillwater, connect to Brown’s Creek State Trail and follow it down the river toward Bayport by passing under the new Hwy 36 bridge. From there, a bike path runs all the way into Bayport, right to the back parking lot of LDN (featuring an air hose and tool kit, for quick repairs). The route is really cool. You can directly wheel out from the cafe all the way to the Twin Cities. We have a few older customers who have purchased electric bikes and make the trek from our place to the Cities on their pedal-assisted bike. 
  2. As an alternative, you could drive the Brown’s Creek State Trail on Hwy 36 by the Gateway Cycle bicycle shop (6028 MN Hwy 36). There is a park and ride parking lot where people can park and unload their bikes, get water, etc., and start the journey there to L’Etoile Du Nord. It’s still very scenic route and about 15 miles or less of easy/casual riding. 
  3. To cycle to Velo du Nord from LDN: Roll out from LDN and go directly to Afton via Stagecoach Trail, up the hill from the cafe on 5th Street, which takes you directly into Afton on the back roads, a really beautiful 11-mile ride with rolling hills. 

L’etoile du Nord
320 5th Ave. N., Bayport
651-439-7507
letoiledunordcafe.com

Velo du Nord
3291 Saint Croix Trail South, Afton

 

Mecca Bos