Duluth is a city with more than 80,000 people, but it still has the feel of a small town. The same bars are always filled with the same people and the same bands are always striking a chord at the same venues. The restaurant scene is no exception, and when it comes to the cutting edge of culinary cuisine, there are only a few chefs in town.
The Taste of Duluth, an event put on last week by Duluth Superior magazine, brought together four of the most well-known chefs in Duluth for an event to benefit the American Heart Association. The event included teams representing Scott Graden of the New Scenic Cafe, Bob Bennett of Restaurant 301, Sean Lewis of Nokomis [editor’s note: this story’s author works as a server at Nokomis], and Tim Linderholm of the Ledge Rock Grille. Graden, Bennett, and Lewis donated their time and food to the event. Sysco donated the food for Linderholm and all of the wine at the event was donated by Bellisio’s.
Each chef was given a station at the Ferguson Showroom and as attendees trickled in they put their final touches on their creations. The showroom filled up quickly and lines intertwined through the room. 150 tickets at $20 a piece were available for the event and almost all were sold. Space was limited and as the showroom filled up, the aesthetic platters of food quickly became a trough for attendees eager to get a quick taste of everything.
Lewis and Graden’s New Scenic team were placed at stations next to each other, echoing the placement of their restaurants, a stone’s throw apart from one another on Old Highway 61 north of Duluth. Graden did not attend the event, but his influence on the food prepared was obviously present.
Lewis differentiated himself from the other chefs by being the only chef to offer a soup: summer corn soup garnished with a hen of the woods mushroom and a pumpernickel crouton. Lewis was also the only chef not to offer a dish featuring tuna. Graden’s New Scenic team offered a tuna taco with seared ahi tuna on a fried wonton with avocado and Thai slaw. The ahi tuna trumped Bennett’s tuna tartare featuring yellow fin tuna on a fried wonton and Linderholm’s steamed tuna spring roll. Graden’s use of tuna revealed balance with the crunchy texture of the wonton and the smooth texture of the avocado.
Salmon, duck, beef, and rabbit were the other meats available. Bennett prepared a ginger-cured salmon with sweet and sour cucumber and wasabi horseradish. The wasabi horseradish overpowered the salmon, leaving little room for the finely cured fish to be tasted. Lewis and Graden both offered duck prepared in different styles. Lewis made a savory duck confit using local duck and served on a gougere; New Scenic’s duck was seared and served with garam masala, apricot, and strawberry.
Graden’s prosciutto-wrapped rabbit loin stood out as one of the most original dishes of the evening. Served with a honey-fennel glaze, the taste was complex yet approachable, tasting sweet but still savory. Linderholm was the only chef to offer beef with his hoisin-braised short ribs in sweet Asian BBQ sauce.
In-season tomatoes were the most-used vegetable. New Scenic offered an heirloom tomato with chorizo and cilantro monte and Linderholm offered an heirloom tomato bruschetta. Lewis did not offer any tomatoes, but instead offered Jem Farms Chioggia beets roasted and served with local goat cheese and a tarragon dressing.
Desserts were offered by Linderholm, Graden, and Lewis. Linderholm’s dessert, smores flatbread, was simpler than that of his peers — the New Scenic team offered a key lime pana cotta with meringue and cherry jus while Lewis offered a chocolate caramel cup hazelnut brittle. The meringue had difficulty holding its shape, but the taste was fresh and textured.
Bellisio’s had three wine stations set up with servers offering wines from Astoria, Toad Hollow, Oko, and others. A tasting menu with a list of the wines and places to make notes was available.
As the platters of food dwindled, Duluth Superior magazine addressed the crowd to thank the chefs for their participation and donations. Each chef came to the event with dishes that reflected their talents and their restaurants. For the culinary circle of Duluth, these chefs are at the top and their restaurants are on the cutting edge in a big city with a small-town feel.