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NORTH SHORE NOSHING

A WEEKEND OF FINE DINING ON MINNESOTA'S NORTH SHORE

{This story first appeared in the April 2010 issue of Mpls./St. Paul Magazine}

Dining on the North Shore in the summer is a very different experience than at any other time of the year. In the summer months, Highway 61 seems to stretch a little wider, beckoning the swarms of tourists to spend a some time admiring the beautiful vistas, shopping in the quaint roadside stores and dining on local food, well-made, far from the plastic and fluorescent dining rooms of a chain restaurant.

When summer ends, however, the North Shore pulls the blinds and locks the doors, bracing for the coming months. Some of the great summer places close for the season, while others turn their focus away from pleasing the palates of the summer transients and back to the locals, offering classy comfort food that helps occupy the time till the snow melts.

Here are your best dining bets for the North Shore, no matter the season.

SCENIC DRIVE

This winding stretch of road between Duluth and Two Harbors packs in more culinary delights than it has any right to.

Foodies can rejoice in chef Scott Graden’s New Scenic Café, which offers a menu that changes with the seasons. Start with the artichoke slather – a rich, velvety take on this classic appetizer, or go bold with the taleggio fondue, a tangy, fruity cheese that works its way into every nook and cranny of the bread cubes supplied for dipping. Then move on to any number of their dynamite entrees. Chef Graden has a real magic with fish, a skill that puts him head and shoulders above most other chefs in the area, where the protein is plentiful, but the talent to coax every last bit of flavor out isn’t.

Speaking of fish: Just up the road is a ramshackle shop where it looks like you’ll need a tetnus shot after using the bathroom. This is Russ Kendall’s Smoke House. And this is where you will find the greatest smoked fish you’ve ever had in your life. Enough said.

This narrow stretch of Highway 61 isn’t done yet, however. Nokomis gives the New Scenic Café a run for its money in terms of delicious food. Chef Sean Lewis, who cut his teeth in Chicago – a food-lover’s town if there ever was one – takes his high-powered culinary skills and puts them to use on local game and fish, creating delicious dishes where you’re almost guaranteed to taste something new and wonderful. Whether it’s a lemony risotto with spot prawns or coffee and cocoa rubbed venison paired with bok choy (naturally), you’ll find every last one of your senses humming in delight. Oh, and if the words “12 Hour Braised Short Rib” are printed on your menu, you don’t need to look any further. That’s what you’ll be having for dinner.

TWO HARBORS

If you’ve somehow managed to make it through the gastronomic gauntlet of Highway 61, you might find yourself in Two Harbors in need of a pit stop and a fill up. Tame that growl in your stomach with a meal at one of these fine spots.

The Vanilla Bean Café may be famous for its homemade soups, stop by early for a fantastic breakfast. The fondness for local food and customs found in the larger, fancier places on the North Shore extends to this café as well, where the Scandinavian breakfast will have those without Nordic descent wishing they could change their DNA. Slices of their smoky and deceptively complex caramel bread and slapped on the griddle to get a lovely little char before being topped with a burned butter sauce that’ll put you in a sugar coma once you realize that you just can’t stop eating it. If it’s too early for sweets, try one of their gigantic and fantastic baked omelets. I highly recommend the Green Ham & Eggs omelet, which is loaded fresh pesto and asiago cheeses. It’s herby, creamy, tangy, crispy, chewy and fluffy all at the same time. It’s like some sort of magic trick. And you’ll perform one of your own by making it disappear about three minutes after they place it in front of you.

A staple of the Duluth restaurant scene, the Two Harbors outpost of Blackwoods offers some seriously tasty food at seriously reasonable prices. If you’re of good Minnesota stock like me, get your meat and potatoes fix with Mac’s Glazed Meatloaf – featuring slices of their meatloaf chargrilled and slathered with an Irish Whiskey sauce, paired with chive mashed potatoes and a tiny little loaf of homemade corn bread. It’ll have you wishing for a roaring fire and an extra notch on your belt in no time.

UP THE SHORE

The farther north you drive on Highway 61, the more the road gives ground to the wild. The cliffs creep in and the trees surround you. Billboards and roadside diversions give way to unbroken stretches of green and some of the most spectacular views available – well, anywhere, frankly.

But, as wild as this stretch of road might seem, you don’t need to pull off to the roadside for a bout of hunting and/or gathering when hunger strikes. There’s still plenty of perfect options to feed the beast.

The Bluefin Grille, tacked on to the north side of the Bluefin Bay resort, offers spectacular views of mighty Lake Superior. I spent my honeymoon at Bluefin Bay, and had a fantastic dinner at the Grille, passing bites back and forth over candlelight. Imagine my surprise, then, when my wife and I headed back up for another meal, only to find the dining room deserted. Where was everyone? In the bar, watching the Vikings game. My wife and I settled into a booth in the dining room with a perfect view of the water and, feeling the need to honor the mood of the room, passed over the haute cuisine for some good ol’ fashioned bar food. We noshed on sliders, onion rings and buffalo wings – all of which were produced with a deft hand and perfect seasoning that elevated them above something to distract your hands and mouth with while your eyes were glued to the set.

A stone’s throw up the shore sits Coho Café, home to award-winning pizzas with inspired topping choices that go far beyond pepperoni. The barbecue pork pizza, topped with pork, red onion and roasted corn is a dynamite choice for a quick grab-n-go meal.

Just south of Grand Marais, the Lutsen Lodge offers fantastic comfort food and one of the best dining room views on the entire stretch of Highway 61 – and that’s saying something. The breakfasts here are magnificent and you can’t go wrong with the basics – they do eggs, bacon and pancakes to perfection. However, for something truly special, try the Stuffed French Toast – thick slices of French bread crammed with cream cheese and lingonberries before being coated in corn flakes and grilled. After tasting this dish, you might find yourself placing lingonberries at the top of your list of finest Swedish imports. Sorry, Abba.

GRAND MARAIS

This sleepy town on the shore of Lake Superior transforms itself every summer into the bustling gateway to the Gunflint Trail. During the warmer months, dining options abound: You can enjoy fish that was swimming mere hours before hitting your plate at The Angry Trout, dine on French-inspired cuisine at Chez Jude or have a meal packed with attitude, a sense of humor and fantastic flavor at local favorite The Crooked Spoon. If you’re spending the night, make sure you get up early (like Black Friday-early) so you can be assured of getting a piping hot skizzle -  a massive donut dusted abundantly with sugar – from World’s Best Donuts. One bite and you’ll realize the store’s name isn’t exactly hyperbole.

Trouble is, if you find yourself in Grand Marais between mid-October and May, these places are all closed. Not to worry, Grand Marais has got you covered. After all, since Sven & Ole’s is open year-round, you’ve always got some mighty fine pizza as your fallback position. But, while there’s plenty of options for dining year-round in Grand Marais, you really only need to visit one spot: the Gunflint Tavern.

This charming restaurant has a menu that was apparently written by a crazy person. Pesto mussels rub elbows with Hummus and Taboli on the appetizer menu, while English pub fare like bangers and mash share entrée space with a dizzing array of authentic Mexican dishes.

This sort of culinary schizophrenia is usually a bad sign: If a restaurant tries to do everything, it means they don’t do anything well. That’s not the case at the Gunflint Tavern. As proof, I offer the menu I enjoyed on my most recent visit.

My wife and I started out by sharing a cup of their award-winning vegetarian chili that was so dense and delicious we ordered a side of blue corn tortilla chips and ditched the spoon altogether. Then we moved on to the baked brie en croute. Yep, you read that right. We crackled our way past a delicate pillow of puff pastry and pulled out a spoonful of ooey-gooey melted brie that tasted great when paired with apple slices, candied pecans and the now-ubiquitous lingonberries. For my entrée, I decided to call their bluff and order the chicken mole. Sure enough, out came a plate of shredded chicken wrapped in tortillas smothered in a mole sauce that I’m still trying to reverse engineer. But as good as that was, it paled in comparison to what my wife ordered: The Asian Big Bowl.

When she told me she was going to order that, it was all I could to not laugh in her face. The menu announced it was scallops and shrimp with whole wheat noodles and shitake mushrooms in a ginger and seaweed broth. None of it had any business being on a menu in the far northern reaches of Minnesota. When it came, the aroma hit me immediately, and I was drooling before I could say, “Wanna trade?”

Let me make something clear right now: I like food. I eat it a lot. And I’m highly adventurous and rarely eat the same thing twice if I can help it. So I’m speaking with some authority here when I say this: The Asian Big Bowl from the Gunflint Tavern is one of the greatest things I have ever eaten in my life. Seriously.

And, as I fought off my wife with one hand and up-ended the bowl into my mouth with the other, I realized something: The seasons may change but the cuisine remains the same on Minnesota’s North Shore. Whether the sun is shining or the snow is falling you can find a dynamite meal virtually anywhere along beautiful Highway 61.

Now that’s what I call comfort food.

Andy Bennett is a Duluth-based freelance writer.