Sean Lewis of Nokomis in Duluth, MN
Editor’s Note: Nokomis is now closed.
By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.
When H.W. Longfellow wrote the epic “Song of Hiawatha” in 1855, he took inspiration from the legends of the Ojibway tribe. Fusing European poetic styling and distinctly Native American images, the poem has become a foundational work of art for the Upper Midwest, celebrated in the maps we navigate daily. It’s a kind of poetic theme song for the land itself, singing its contours.
Never mind that Longfellow was born in Portland, ME, or wrote Hiawatha while living in Cambridge, MA — the “big water” of Gitche Gumee, also known as Lake Superior, gives Minnesota its scenic North Shore. And the North Shore, parked as it is on a gorgeously temperamental body of water, gives us a number of great places to eat and gather.
One of the newest and already best regarded is Nokomis, and if Longfellow’s poem is a cunning hybrid of local and cosmopolitan, so is the restaurant. Rachel Hutton praised it for “the best views and fanciest food” on the North Shore; The Wall Street Journal talked up its “perfectly broiled” walleye. The restaurant’s founder, co-owner, and chef, Sean Lewis, is more modest about the place, which he regards as a sort of common ground between “Meat-and-Potatoes Land” and gastro-tourists who roll through the North Shore from Minneapolis-St. Paul and beyond.
“I still have some of the same problems that chefs in the [Twin] Cities face,” says Lewis, alluding to demand for traditional fare at the expense of culinary innovation, “although there’s been a lot of evolution down there in the last five years.”
Countering local demand for old classic dishes are travelers who make Nokomis a prominent gastronomic stop. “You get a lot of the same clientele who eat at Alma or Corner Table coming up here as tourists, and they appreciate food,” he says. “So they gravitate to myself or the [New] Scenic [Cafe].”
Lewis himself represents a meeting of two worlds — he grew up in Eau Claire, WI, but has an extensive and well-traveled cooking pedigree that includes both big-volume hotel restaurants and prestige eateries such as the Beard Award-winning Everest in Chicago. Unsurprisingly, the food of Nokomis echoes his life experience.
A whitefish cake appetizer ($9) is a beautiful little bundle containing all the contradictions that Nokomis and Chef Lewis embody. It’s a local fish, taken from the lake. Its ingredients are simple: fish, bread, roasted peppers, a mustard remoulade. And yet, it looks and tastes like haute cuisine. The texture and mild buttery taste of the soft, toasted crouton support the fish without overwhelming it. The slightly smoked fish has a touch of mustard and seasoning to it, accentuating the clean, natural flavor without shouting it down. Everything is in balance, and the result is a locally sourced fish cake of remarkable sophistication.
A lake trout served with fingerling potatoes, butter sauce, and wild mushrooms is equally well balanced. The urge to drown a mild fish in warm, strongly flavored fat is resisted — the sauce accentuates the dish without crushing the fish in its blubbery embrace. The sweet, mellow, almost nutty taste of the local fish shines through.
Serving light fish dishes like these is key to the restaurant’s mission.
“We’re very seasonal, so I use a lot of different cooking techniques depending upon the season,” says Lewis. “There’ll be more fish prevalent and lighter foods, for example, in the summer.”
The surf of Lake Superior is reflected in the Nokomis menu — but so, it turns out, is the turf.
“I use my own private farmer,” says Lewis. “He grows for me — a whole range of things. Swiss chard, baby carrots — when those come in, I throw them on the menu. Local fish, same thing. When that comes in, [my purveyor] will tell me when he gets them fresh, and I’ll incorporate that. The menu is small, so everything is prepped daily.”
Speaking of “his” farmer, Lewis recalls: “He ate here once and all of a sudden he says: ‘I want to be your farmer.’ Now he’s growing stuff for me.”
That local touch fills out the menu at Nokomis, breathing the lake and woods into the room.
“It’s all these little tiny things that play a part in your restaurant. [My farmer’s] just up the road, his name’s Steve. Granted, [small purveyors] can’t keep up the with the volume I do in the summer, but they offer a premium product.”
When Nokomis opened five years ago, Lewis was ambitious and aggressive about importing specialty ingredients, heedless of cost or distance.
“I’ve had to dummy down the menu a little bit,” he says, acknowledging that the restaurant has changed since its founding. “I started out hot and heavy and excited and went in using 30 different purveyors… fish flown in fresh from wherever.” The cost was crushing, and the restaurant’s visitors were equally appreciative of less prestigious — and often far more local — produce and protein.
“I’ve made things more approachable and pricewise more affordable, for this area especially,” says Lewis. Lunch at Nokomis, with all the bells and whistles, can easily be had for under $25 a person; dinner for under $35. It’s not casual dining, from a financial perspective, but it’s a pricepoint that lets Nokomis take a bite of the local market even as it courts free-spending vacationers.
It’s also a style of dining that embraces the bounty of the lake and the black and gloomy pine trees.
“I have a kind of quirky way of doing things,” says Lewis. “I have a mushroom guy, when the mushrooms come in, he calls me and goes: ‘The mushrooms are in, I’m going to go look for some for you.’ And he’ll bring me hedgehogs, and lobsters, and chanterelles. And morels.”
“I have a ramp guy who goes out with a dandelion poker and walks through the woods and finds ramps for me.”
Even Lewis’ family gets involved. “My uncle gets wild rice from up on Cass Lake and they go in their canoe and do the whole sifting of the rice, and the roasting of it,” he says.
Outside the windows of the restaurant, a storm is blowing in, turning a clear, picture perfect day into something considerably more dramatic and foreboding.
“This morning, it felt like you were in London,” says Lewis, reflecting on the big lake’s mercurial nature. “You couldn’t even see those trees. The wind was out of the northeast… we had whitecaps that were four feet high. It’s beautiful. We’ve got bald eagles out there, otters, loons… everything.”
He pauses for a moment. “It beats staring at a hunk of concrete,” he laughs.
Nokomis Restaurant and Bar
Fine Dining on Duluth’s North Shore
5593 North Shore Dr
Duluth, MN 55804
CHEF / OWNER: Sean Lewis
Summer: 11am-9pm daily
Winter: (October 15-Memorial Day weekend) Noon-9pm Wednesday-Sunday
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / Yes
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Not Really / No
ENTREE RANGE: $16-24