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.
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.
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.
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.
JJ Astor Restaurant
Upscale American in Duluth
Radisson Hotel Duluth-Harborview
505 W Superior St
Duluth, MN 55802
CHEF / OWNER: Ryan Zander / Radisson Hotel
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / Yes on weekends
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: No / No
ENTREE RANGE: $16-28 (with a $10 burger option)