JJ Astor Restaurant in Duluth

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

There’s no law that mandates that a revolving hotel restaurant offer bad food and surly service, but it’s only natural to be highly suspicious on your way through the door. Hotel restaurants are one thing — they’ve got a captive audience at their mercy and a corporate fixation on the bottom line, two powerful strikes. Throw in the mass appeal of an ever-changing scenic view and you’ve got a recipe for over-priced mediocrity, or worse.

Duluth’s revolving Top of the Harbor restaurant, located on top of the city’s downtown Radisson, took a fair bit of flack along those lines. Now the place has been reinvented as JJ Astor and, despite the hotel audience and revolving scenery, this place has truly broken from the mold and — at least at this early date — made a firm decision to put the food first, view be damned.

By drafting Chef Ryan Zander (former executive chef at Trattoria Tosca and a sous-chef at 112 Eatery), the management of JJ Astor’s made an implicit promise to food-forward diners: competence, quality, and a splash of creativity and color. Done, done, and done — although the restaurant’s menu leans on classic pillars such as steak and walleye, there are twists in execution and some clever fringe item decisions that offer real pleasure to the ambitious diner.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

First among them: fry bread with figs, balsamic vinegar, and prosciutto ($8). The balanced three-way contrast between the warm, soft, crispy bread, the bright sweet bite of the figs and vinegar, and the light but assertive taste of pork made for a terrific dish, one of those appetizers that demands pacing and restraint to prevent inhalation.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

A walleye dish ($18, above) skillfully played a light pecan crust off of the nuttiness of a supporting bed of wild rice; cherry tomato salsa added a splash of acid and color. The fish itself was nicely cooked, and the overall dish was balanced and soothing.

The restaurant’s filet mignon steak ($26, shown below) wasn’t a Manny’s-level champion steak, but neither was it priced like one, and it provides a stolid, well-executed, properly cooked satisfaction to a diner looking for a classic, hearty entree.

Breakfast is straight and narrow: well-executed French toast, crispy hash browns, delicate scrambled eggs, good old coffee, bacon, and sausages. It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s a pleasant, comforting way to start the day.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Service is cheerful and competent.

And the view? Holy moly. There’s a cheesy but sincerely enchanting thrill to watching the sunset over the harbor, and then over the hills of the city, and then over the harbor again until it’s dark and you’re staring at slowly rotating city lights.

Moreover: If you’re staying at the Radisson in Duluth, book online, and pick the Bailout package — 20 percent of your room rate is given back as a food credit, which should get you at least halfway through your meal at Astor, assuming a couple people staying a couple days.

BEST BET: The adeptly balanced fry bread with prosciutto, balsamic, and figs.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

JJ Astor Restaurant
Upscale American in Duluth

Radisson Hotel Duluth-Harborview
505 W Superior St
Duluth, MN 55802
CHEF / OWNER: Ryan Zander / Radisson Hotel
HOURS:
Sun-Thu 6:30am-10pm
Fri-Sat 6:30am-11pm
BAR: Full
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / Yes on weekends
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: No / No
ENTREE RANGE: $16-28 (with a $10 burger option)

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of Lake Superior Flavors, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a regular on-air contributor to Minnesota Public Radio.

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6 Comments

  1. Chris Wojtowicz 07/06/2010 Reply

    Once again Great New Restaurant opens with fanfare! Wine list is about as uninspiring as it comes. For petes sake! Maybe they need to teach this in restaurant school.

    Your customers come into your restaurant for some compelling reason! You’ve taken quite a bit of time to create an excellent menu, why do you crap it up with wine I can get EVERYWHERE else?

    It looks like the only thing that has changed for Radisson’s new restaurant is the name.

  2. James Norton 07/06/2010 Reply

    Chris, Google suggests you’re in the wine business. Sour grapes, perhaps?

  3. Chris Wojtowicz 07/06/2010 Reply

    Yes James, I am in the Wine import business. Sour Grapes….No…. Personal Feelings… Yes!!!

    Remember, just because I am in the trade, doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy eating out.

  4. Author

    Fair enough, but you assert that only the name has changed — what were your objections to the food? I went in skeptical and came out impressed. It should be noted that I’m a beer guy, not a wine guy, and the availability of a pleasant Lake Superior Kolsch made for a good meal.

  5. Dave Lund 08/14/2010 Reply

    I have a very different experience at this restaurant. I’m pasting what I put on another site; interesting how it connects with / clashes with the review and the comments…

    View is of course great, and the room and setting is nice.

    Wine prices were very reasonable. Other restaurants, take the hint – you will make more money with lower pricing and more glasses/bottles sold.

    Waitress did not provide a good experience. Very tentative. Knew very few details of the menu items; numerous questions were responded to with vague answers or re-statements of what was on the menu. When one of us ordered one the dinner specials, the waitress didn’t “reserve it” in the kitchen – another table that ordered after us received the last special.

    Some of the food had ingredients that were not as listed on the menu. A salad listed as being served with Chevre was instead served with fresh mozzarella balls.

    Some of the food had ingredients that weren’t listed at all: the seared raw Ahi tuna was wrapped in a thin bacon. And while I love bacon, it completely masked the tuna (and it wasn’t expected)

    Some of the food was simply not prepared well; the bread salad was served with stale croutons. The fois gras stuffed chicken wings looked like they were served undercooked.

    My first hint should have been that on a tourist-busy weekend that I was able to call that day and had my choice of reservation times.

Trackbacks for this post

  1. […] executive chef at sister restaurant Cafe Levain; and Ryan Zander, who departed for Duluth’s JJ Astor Restaurant after just a few months. But now under the leadership of chef Ian Gray, Tosca’s […]

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