comfort food

My original intent was to publish this in the food blog, but this post became more than just a restaurant review for me. It became a farewell to a place in Fargo that quickly became part of me.

When I arrived in Fargo two years and eight months ago (yes, it’s been that long), one thing was quickly apparent to me: the city’s food scene consists of 90% chain and franchise restaurants. (That figure is probably high, but not by much.) While I appreciate uniformity and predictability as much as the next guy (actually, probably a little less), I became frustrated rather quickly with the total lack of unique restaurants, at least outside of the downtown area.

That is, until my mother sent me a magazine article from Midwest Living.

It was a page worth of tourist ideas for Fargo (which caused me to chuckle).  Anyway, one of the places on the page was for a place downtown that served really good gelato (Italian ice cream). It was called Nichole’s Fine Pastry.  So one day on my day off in the late spring after my arrival, I went.  It’s on a side street downtown near the old train station, and at the time, it was in a small room with a semi-exposed kitchen. Back then, it had eight small tables, a pastry case, and a small frozen goods case for the gelato. I asked to try a few, and found one that spoke to me: carrot mango.  It was perfectly balanced, not too sweet, and had a perfect consistency. It was love at first taste.

Since my first visit, I’ve returned countless times (usually the weekend of payday) and have had the same thing only twice (the creme brulee and the cannoli are both wonderful). Chef Nichole Hensen is an innovative, passionate woman who knows what she’s doing, and works hard to keep the atmosphere relaxed and her diverse clientele happy and  full. I’ve always been greeted with a smile (and in the past few months, when they aren’t busy, my name), and the art on the walls changes all the time. Thanks to some fantastic reviews and a couple visits by Food Network personalities, the restaurant’s expanded into the other half of the building, and it’s almost always busy. The place has hot lunches (the best Reuben I’ve ever had was from here), tea, a larger pastry case, truffles, cookies, soup (the broccoli-blue cheese was amazing), wine, and egg bakes and quiches. She also makes wedding cakes.

I work retail.  Oftentimes, I have difficult weeks because while it isn’t that important of a job, it’s frustrating to deal with people who don’t have anything else to do but complain and find fault with the inconsequential. Some of my coworkers drink.  Nichole’s became my outlet when I wasn’t able to write. I’d sit there, eat my dessert, drink my coffee, and just forget everything else. In a very real way, Nichole’s became a place where I could find a degree of normalcy, uniqueness, and even comfort in a town where everything was pretty much the same. The people who work there are visibly happy, passionate, and loyal to what they do, because they understand what I do: sometimes, the best comfort is a familiar chair, something good to eat, and a friendly face.

The first time I brought Michonne to Nichole’s, she fell as deeply in love with it as I did. We consider it our place in Fargo. It may be a while before we come back (but we will sometime soon, for the wedding of a very close friend of mine), but it will certainly be on the list of places to visit when we return.

As I write this post, I think back not just to all of the desserts I consumed, but to the friends who went there with me and to the comfort I found in looking out the window onto South 8th Street at the barber college and the antique shop across the street, and I find my eyes filling with tears. I’m aware that there are some spectacular pastry and coffee shops in Chicago (I’m told the restaurant Michonne and I will have dinner at with my parents on the Saturday of the weekend I arrive there, Cafe Spiaggia, has the best gelato in the city), none of them will ever be this one.

Thank you, Nichole, for creating a place where people like me can be who we are and feel like we can’t find anywhere else like this in the world. Rest assured, I will be back.

Thanks is also due to my mother, who sent me that article in the first place.

Nichole’s Fine Pastry is at 13 S. 8th Street in downtown Fargo.

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