Pop-up restaurant takes place of Chocolate Moose

Chef Bryan Morcom, a fifth-generation Iron Ranger, is shown at his pop-up restaurant, Moose Bear Wolf, in Ely. The New American cuisine eatery is located at the site of the former Chocolate Moose.

ELY — People sometimes get mixed up on the order of critters in the name of the eatery on the corner of Sheridan Street and Central Avenue in Ely.

“It’s a moose and then … is it a bear or is it a wolf?”

There is, for sure, “humor” in the name, says the restaurant’s manager, Sarah Knapp. “Everybody says it and mixes it up trying to get it right. It’s a fun way of making people talk about us.”

But Moose Bear Wolf is quite serious about its quality of food and providing an exquisite dining experience.

The New American cuisine “pop-up” restaurant — located at the site of the former, iconic Chocolate Moose — is focused on local, sustainable practices using fresh ingredients whenever possible.

Moose Bear Wolf (MBW) popped up for business on June 15 and is slated to be open through Oct. 15.

The restaurant features only “scratch cooking,” said Chef Bryan Morcom, a Tower native and fifth-generation Iron Ranger, whose great-great grandfather was the first captain of the Soudan Underground Mine. “There is nothing that is processed.”

Morcom, who spent years as “Chef de Cuisine” at the James Beard Award-winning Restaurant Alma in Minneapolis before returning to his hometown, uses flowers from his own garden in the cuisine (edible ones) and to decorate the tables. He personally harvested the wild rice used in dishes on the menu.

The chef’s philosophy is that “food connects us all.” That’s a “very powerful” concept, he said. “Uniting people with food.”

Morcom said he is glad to be back in the northwoods, where he feels more connected to ingredients, with greater opportunities to forage for and grow food.

The restaurant’s menu tells a story. “It’s based on excerpts in my life,” said Morcom, who has biked to Louisiana along the Mississippi River. It is inspired by his encounters with food along the way — from the flavors of the Iron Range to New Orleans, “weaving in and out from there.”

The chef opened with a spring menu, is currently serving a menu based on summer ingredients, and will round-out the temporary restaurant with a fall selection.

Ordering is a little bit different, as well. MBW has a “prix fixe” menu, meaning diners select from three courses for a set price, and dessert is optional.

“We are not trying to cater to everyone,” Morcom said. “It’s about giving people a memorable dining experience.”

The summer menu’s first-course choices are: Local simple green salad (pickled blueberries, almonds, chèvre); sweet corn soup (puffed wild rice, walleye, corn); and corn and cucumber salad (wild rice, baby arugula, smoked gouda, croutons).

The second course consists of: Fresh tagliatelle (pork, tomato, garlic); native parched wild rice cakes (smoked white fish, dill hollandaise, pickled jalapeño); fried green tomato (poached shrimp, siracha butter, remoulade).

Third course selections are: Pan-seared walleye (wild rice, basil butter, summer vegetables); lightly smoked local pork chop (charred tomato, corn relish, jus); and cast iron-cooked beef strip (corn flan, creamed chard, jus).

The restaurant also serves beer, wine, and its signature drink, the “Bear Claw” — a vodka and homemade rhubarb lemonade crafted cocktail.

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Moose Bear Wolf started as bit of “an experiment,” said Morcom, who began working at age 15 at Fortune Bay Resort Casino, with aspirations of becoming a hotel and restaurant manager.

But he “fell in love” with cooking.

“I joined the (U.S.) Navy at 18, then went to cooking school, then I was at Restaurant Alma (for 15 years), and now I’m circling back,” Morcom said. “I like the slower pace.”

He was looking for a place in Tower to begin a restaurant, when Steve Piragis offered Morcom the opportunity to lease the former Chocolate Moose building month-to-month.

Piragis, owner of the adjacent, attached Piragis Northwoods Co., and his family had bought back the location of the longtime restaurant and ice cream parlor, which Piragis had originally started in 1985.

Morcom decided to give the new venture a go — as a pop-up style business — “to assess if I can keep this going up here.”

He was joined by Knapp, “who has managed the whole thing. I’m very fortunate to have her.” The team includes 12 employees.

“It’s been amazing so far,” Morcom said. “I’ve seen so many happy people out in town who say, ‘Hey, Chef, thank you.’” The Facebook reviews have been excellent, he said.

Morcom was initially “afraid there would not be enough customers,” but finding staff proved more difficult.

“It’s pretty much full every night,” Piragis said by phone.

MBW is open 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday by reservation. While there are a few tables held for walk-ins, reservations made at least 24 hours in advance are recommended to prepare not only the food, but for the staff needed.

“I don’t think people always understand the work that goes into scratch cooking,” Morcom said.

The customer base has been a mix of locals and tourists, he said.

The building, built by log builder Barry Bissonett, has retained its cozy, log cabin interior and exterior.

“It’s an incredible dining experience,” said Piragis, who has dined there about five times so far. “The flavors are all so different, the choices are all incredible. It’s all so incredible. Every time I go, it’s a new dining experience. … You will not find anything like it north of the Twin Cities.”

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Moose Bear Wolf has been “good for town and good for our business,” he said.

The Chocolate Moose had been vacant since it closed after the 2017 season. Piragis, his wife, Nancy, and daughter, Elli Piragis, currently own the building.

The Piragis couple, along with Barry and Milli Bissonett, originally opened The Scandinavian Ice Cream Shop in 1984, located farther up the hill on Sheridan Street. It served Steve and Barry’s homemade ice cream.

The following year, when sandwiches, homemade soups and desserts were added to the menu, The Chocolate Moose was born. Bissonett built the hand-scribed log structure from red and white pine on the site of the old Shagawa Hotel, which had been destroyed by fire.

The restaurant was so successful that a new kitchen was constructed in 1987 behind Piragis Northwoods Co., and the menu was expanded to include weekend outdoor barbecues and lobster boils. In 1989, table service was introduced and a beer and wine license was acquired.

The Chocolate Moose was later sold and changed hands a few times, before the Piragis family recovered ownership of the building.

Morcom said he is unsure of the future of Moose Bear Wolf after Oct. 15. For now, he is simply “happy to get back in the kitchen. When I’m cooking I’m in a meditative state.”

The restaurant is yet serving homemade ice cream — this time it’s Morcom’s homemade sweet corn ice cream served with his blueberry pasty.

And, it still has a moose in its name, with a few more animals, to boot.

It’s fitting, after all, because Ely is home to the North American Bear Center and the International Wolf Center, and plenty of the wild critters, as well.

“Today I was driving in and saw a bear cross the road right by the bear center,” Knapp said Tuesday. “When Bryan was trying to think of a name, he saw all three (including a moose) in one day.”

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