The town of Bayport is almost Wisconsin-esque in its approach to small-town life. Not as attention-receiving or grand as the neighboring town of Stillwater, Bayport opts for more of a relaxing vibe.
Nestled along the St. Croix River, between Highway 36 and 94, downtown Bayport is about a half-mile long and home to a charming ice cream shop, a bakery, a café, an outdoor ice rink, local hangouts that welcome bikers in the summertime, and to Manger Restaurant and Wine Bar.
Manger (which in French means “to eat”) is located a block from highway 95, and when you walk by it, you need to do a double-take. This? Here? You immediately look around, making sure you haven’t somehow stumbled into a vortex that dumped you onto the sidewalk of Grand Avenue in St. Paul.
The small space and dim lighting make you think it’s the hidden gem no one knows about. Except, it’s no “hidden” gem. Everyone knows the not-so-kept secret here on the east side of the cities: Manger is brilliantly fantastic.
The restaurant’s intimate space provides the perfect portrait of a date night. Numerous bottles of Italian and French wine line the east wall, soft music plays in the background, the open kitchen busily hums, and the wood beams provide enough rustic charm to make you instantly feel at ease in the cozy ambiance.
The owner of Manger is almost as surprising as the restaurant itself. Once you taste the Manger Burger with mouthwatering house-ground brisket and chuck blend, you expect to see a red-faced, full-sleeve tattoo-bearing burly chef; angrily working the line while yelling at his peons.
Instead, you see Mike Willenbring. An baby-faced chef where, if you had not just wolfed down his Smoked Pheasant Bigoli, might find yourself asking, are you even old enough to be alone in a kitchen? Mike is as pleasant and down-to-earth as they come. You will find him diligently working behind the line—no commanding, no yelling—just getting the work done and serving memorable food.
Manger is another example of a restaurant that didn’t just sit on its laurels when the pandemic hit. Having little ones of their own, Mike and his wife Nicole decided to serve free bagged lunches to the community’s kids. A cooler, with the lunches, was placed on the restaurant’s front patio, and anyone could come up and receive free lunch—no questions asked.
On to the Food
Mike grew up in a family that loved to cook. This love created the culinary blueprint for his cooking-from-scratch approach at Manger. The food is locally sourced, and the philosophy centers around creating approachable dishes. Simple, yet tasty.
At the center of the open kitchen is a roaring wood-fired oven. But it’s not just pizzas firing up in there; a large portion of their menu is brought to and from that oven. Their bread, hot desserts, proteins, and vegetables start, finish, or thoroughly cook in the oven’s high temperatures. Even the orange syrup in their rye-soaked cocktail, “Home by Ten,” meets the fire.
One star staple at Manger is their oysters, and they have quite the variety. Sourced fresh from coast to coast, they have species ranging from Sweet Petites out of Prince Edward Island to Stella Mars from Long Island Sound in Connecticut and Fanny Bays from Baynes Sound in British Columbia. Their oysters are served either raw with lemon and a spicy mignonette sauce or baked “Rockefeller” style.
New Year’s Eve Dinner
I have never been disappointed when I’ve dined at Manger. My latest visit occurred on New Year’s Eve for their Five-Course Dinner. New Year’s Eve can be a challenging night for restaurants. They are busy, guests’ expectations are at an all-time high, and it doesn’t always go as intended. Creating baited elegance from bare ingredients is no easy feat.
As a customer, you can leave thinking, Wow! Incredible meal! or What the hell did I just pay for?
I left knowing every cent was worth that dinner.
The five-course dinner started with a mixed green pistachio and pomegranate salad tossed in a citrus vinaigrette and topped with bacon and celery dust. Light and refreshing, it was the perfect start to the meal.
The second course was seared scallops. Served in a half seashell, the presentation was so angelic, I half expected the scallops to break out into a hymn. (Confession time – I don’t like scallops. I find them bland and believe they should only be used as a prop for bacon.) I don’t know what these particular scallops were laced with, but they were unbelievable. Salty with a perfect sear and accompanied by a sweet carrot emulsion and topped with microgreens and a beet tuile.
The third course consisted of ricotta-stuffed sunchoke agnolotti with black truffle. The neutral color of the pasta wasn’t visually delightful, but the flavors of the rich ricotta mixed with the earthiness of the black truffle and saltiness of the grated cheese more than made up for it.
The fourth course was a choice between beef tenderloin or black cod. I chose the cod, which was served with crispy carrot peels, smoked mushrooms, salmon roe, and saffron aioli. The generously-sized black cod was firm but flakey with textures that played well together. The carrot peels added a wonderful crunch, the roe brought a fun “pop,” and the savory saffron aioli added a subtle zing to the mild fish.
For the dessert course, three options were available: a blood orange crème brûlée, chocolate cake with white chocolate, pink peppercorn, and peppermint buttercream, or a pear and apple galette severed with pistachio ice cream. All sounded amazing, but nothing else matters if I see crème brûlée on a menu. The caramelized crusted sugar crust provided the ideal introduction to the creamy orange middle. I devoured that dessert as if my life depended on it.
I felt elated and ready to start the new year— full of wine and delectable food—and precisely how one should leave a fabulous dinner.
On an ordinary evening, Manger has now selected a weekly prix fixe menu, starting at $40/person during the week and $65/person on the weekends. It is an absolute steal with menu items such as Prawn Tagliatelle, Striped Sea Bass, New York Strip Steak, Escargot, Baked Brie, and Pan-Seared Duck Breast.
Next time you visit the “east-side,” take a drive along the gorgeous St. Croix River, enjoy the tranquil scenery, partake in the small town festivities, and happily dine (like the American-Parisian we all want to be) at Manger Restaurant and Wine Bar.
Où trouver votre prochain dîner fabuleux
Follow Eating Minnesota
Latest from the ‘Gram
More from Eating Minnesota
What started out as an underground poker group turned into one of the biggest breweries in Minnesota. When Brad Glynn, co-owner of Lift Bridge Brewing in Stillwater, sits down for our interview, I am immediately put at ease with the amount of chill this successful entrepreneur carries. Like if the entire brewery caught on fire…
Walk into Brunson’s Pub on Payne Avenue and instantly get a sense of the history behind East Side St. Paul. You can almost hear glasses clinking along the wood bar, the shuffle of boots over the original wood floors, and men regaling stories over a pint while their voices echo off the tin ceiling. The…
Hope Breakfast Bar lives by its name in more ways than one. Located right off Grand Avenue, this St. Paul restaurant wasn’t even deemed to exist. But, there is always Hope. The all-day breakfast joint resides in St. Paul’s oldest public building, the firehouse of Hope Engine Company No. 3. Built in 1872 and operating…