I never expected that, “Oh my goodness, more drinks?” would be a recurring thought running through my head on Thursday evening. 

The 2013 North Dakota Writers and Bloggers Workshop hosted by the North Dakota Department of Commerce June 6-7th was propelled by a food crawl through downtown Bismarck with Marilyn Hagerty. Our plan was to wander to a few of her favorite restaurants in downtown Bismarck and mingle over tasting menus. No one, not even the event’s organizers, predicted the extent to which the restaurants rolled out their red carpets.

Last spring, when Hagerty’s earnest review of The Olive Garden in Grand Forks went viral, I might have had some snarky things to say. But I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and I didn’t like what I saw. I had become the very thing I despised the most in other foodies. Pretentious. The Olive Garden review was my first introduction to Hagerty’s THE EATBEAT column published in the Grand Forks Herald and I’ve looked forward to reading it each week, ever since. 

Wednesday is EATBEAT day and it’s the first thing I enjoy with my coffee in the morning. I’ve read Hagerty’s reviews from years ago in addition to those written during the past year and appreciate how they range from chain restaurants to small town cafes to Le Bernadin. They’re concise and never boring. By the time she appeared as a guest judge on Top Chef Season 10: Seattle, this new North Dakotan felt like a real North Dakotan and cheered on our hometown hero.

On this evening, we began at Pirogue Grille and enjoyed a four-course tasting menu created by proprietors, Chef Stewart and Cheryl Tracy. We got acquainted over baskets of crusty bread with soft butter, rhubarb cocktails, and smoky red wine, followed by beet salad, venison sausage and a walleye cake, and a rosy slice of bison. Many of us were tickled pink to taste our first morel and then there was dessert that thrilled even me, who typically prefers salty over sweet. 

A silky ball of ice cream coated in crunchy nougat floated in a boat of rhubarb soup. It was Willy Wonka whimsical and filled me with glee. I’ve never tasted anything like it and have come to accept I probably never will.

From Pirogue Grille, we wandered to Peacock Alley and I was nervous to find myself sitting near Marilyn. She graciously answered all of our questions, asked some of her own, and shared stories. Peacock Alley’s tasting menu was as extravagant as its décor. Think newly renovated stained glass windows and billowy tent-like ceilings. I wasn’t surprised to learn it’s popular amongst suited legislators. Our eyes and stomachs bulged upon sight of an eight-course tasting menu complete with drink pairings. 

I won’t try to describe each course, but many contained beef that was every bit as good as their National Food Service Beef Backer award implied. It proudly decorated the middle of our table. I knew I was in trouble when I started feeling full after the first course of Asian Nachos made with crispy wonton chips and beef short ribs. 

After the third, I considered waving my napkin as a white flag. By the final course, I giggled at my collection of drinks ranging from a Bloody Mary to an espresso Martini and managed to push down a frosty, sugarcoated doughnut with the chew of a beignet.

Our walk to Fireflour Pizza felt more like a waddle. Those who attended Fargo’s Street Fair last year may remember Fireflour’s pizza oven. Co-owner Kenny Howard showered us with marinated olives and four of their Neapolitan-style pizzas with airy, blistered crusts. 

They reminded me of the Twin Cities’ popular Punch Pizza, except, dare say, bigger and better? We all stood up and raised our arms, trying to will more room into our stomachs. The evening ended as Howard passed around tiny cups of housemade gelato flavored like salted caramel and lemon.

What had originally been planned as a three-hour food crawl grew into four, and, over the span of a single evening, we left feeling like friends. Extremely full friends. I will always sitting on Fireflour’s sidewalk patio that cool summer evening listening to the trains passing. It was as lovely like Marilyn’s humility and inspiring like her confidence. In fact, I was humbled by the hospitality and warmth I found in the rest of the cohort, as well as the participating restaurants. I think her best piece of advice that evening was simply to be authentic, something that makes writers and non-writers, alike, stand apart. 

North Dakota’s rich with talented writers and bloggers and ripe with stories to tell. Come find us or try your hand at crafting some of your own.

Photo courtesy of ND Dept. of Commerce

You can read Marilyn’s thoughts on the workshop here.

What: Pirogue Grille
Where: 121 North 4th Street, Bismarck
When: Tues-Sat, 5 p.m.-close
Info: http://www.piroguegrille.com/
What: Peacock Alley
Where: 422 East Main Avenue, Bismarck
When: Mon-Thurs, 11 a.m.-Midnight, Fri, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Sat, 10 a.m.-1 a.m., Sun, Closed (Kitchen open until 11 p.m. Mon-Sat)
Info: http://peacock-alley.com/
What: Fireflour Pizza
Where: 111 North 5th Street, Bismarck
When: Tues-Thurs, 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri-Sat, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Info: http://www.fireflourpizza.com/