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 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 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 whitefish 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 as good as any.
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 ambiance for a memorable meal 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.