Hit the Road
Up for adventure? The New Scenic and Nosh are national-class restaurants that are worth the drive.
New Scenic Café
New Scenic Café
Nosh Restaurant & Bar
Nosh Restaurant & Bar
I’ve had two of the best meals of my year lately—in the most unlikely places. At the New Scenic Café
, off Lake Superior, on the pretty drive between Duluth and Two Harbors, I had half of an egg, poached till stoplight orange and trembling, paired with vaporously tender and sweet morsels of king crab and spring-bright peas—the whole thing given an earthy ground by a porcini mushroom purée and salty pecorino cheese. It was a perfect evocation of spring—that first buoyancy, anchored in the good earth.
, overlooking the Mississippi in Lake City south of Red Wing, I tried a plate of charcuterie that was as closely tied to its place as any farmhouse dinner in France. There was a knee-weakeningly lush duck pâté from Au Bon Canard in Caledonia, meaty rillettes from Hidden Stream in Elgin, Carr Valley cheese—and it was all delicious, not outsize or over-flavored in any way, but just right. More significantly, it achieved everything food dreamers around the world have been trying to accomplish for 20 years: It provided a meal that was truly unique in that it amplified a real (and beautiful) place through the real (and delicious) products that grow there. As I stared off the deck at the little white boats tootling along the Mississippi, two questions rose before me: When did outstate dining get this good—and how do they do it?
“I lived in the garage for five years,” says Scott Graden, chef and owner of the New Scenic, explaining to me how he personally did it. “No heat, no water—I froze my buns off in that garage. I remember waking up one day, really frustrated. I’m 30 years old and I live in a garage. But I decided to think about it another way: I live on the shore of Lake Superior, I walk to work, I have coffee on tap—and some people love what I do.” More people every year, in fact. Since Graden bought the old Scenic Cafe in 1999 and turned the little roadside shack into a forward-thinking destination for budget gastronomy, his restaurant has grown and grown. So much so that he now lives in a bona fide house and isn’t awakened in his garage by the sound of lake ice expanding at two in the morning. “It’s a noise like you’re inside a horror movie, this crashing, rubbing, screaming harsh sound. I went outside and it was a black night; the starlight was beautiful.”
Since then, says Graden, “Every year has been better than the one previous. It still blows my mind. I remember in 1999 people saying, ‘What the heck is goat cheese?’ like I had invented it. Now we sell a profane amount.” And sheep’s milk cheese, too, like the Shepherd’s Way “Hidden Falls,” a brie-like cheese that on my visit was served slightly melted as the crown for a beautiful salad of darkly roasted beets and still-crunchy haricots verts in a brown butter vinaigrette, a rich composition that gives the lie to the idea that vegetables aren’t indulgent.
I had other great dishes at the New Scenic this spring: a pheasant breast as crisp and succulent as any I’ve ever tasted served on a buckwheat waffle that grounded the dish and amplified the nice woody notes of the game. I also had a sea scallop that was served hard-seared outside and trembling raw in the middle, which is one of the best ways to serve nature’s little buttery sea gem, but daring in this context too, as this is a community known more for chainsaws and snow machines than raw seafood. Or it used to be. One of my signature moments visiting the New Scenic came the Saturday night I was seated at a pretty table in the front window admiring the view, when a sloppy, hearty man in a sweatshirt covered with brambles sat at the next table. What will someone like that order here? I wondered. “I’ll have the scallop entrée for an appetizer like I always do,” he boomed, “and one for the table!” So I suppose clearing brush works up an appetite.
Meanwhile, in Lake City, Greg Jaworski, chef and owner of Nosh, is perhaps earlier on his path to local acceptance. When I ask him how he’s managing to do such fine cooking and succeed in Lake City, he tells me he’s not sure he is succeeding in Lake City: “I was in my parking lot the other day, and this guy came up to me: ‘How is that place?’ I told him I thought it was pretty good. ‘I’ve had a gift card there for two years,’ he told me, ‘but I’ve never set foot in the place. I hear it’s spendy.’”
Jaworski tells me he believes that most of his customers come from Rochester or the Twin Cities. He’s definitely made the drive worth your while: At Nosh I’ve had duck meatballs that sang with chili sauce in the prettiest elevated bar-food way, I’ve had a hangar steak that tasted like some magical meeting point halfway between iron and butter, and I’ve had paella with saffron rice so richly flavored I wanted to walk from table to table on the little deck overlooking the Mississippi and say: “Try it, try it! See, you can make great paella in Minnesota.”
Jaworski moved to Minnesota essentially sight unseen after falling in love with the restaurant on a weekend visit. He opened Nosh in Wabasha in 2004 and moved it to its current location in 2007. The food is obviously the main reason for customers to visit Nosh, but beer has become Nosh’s secondary driver: The beer list is full of hard-to-find local rarities, at budget prices, and this fall Jaworski plans to put a nano-brewery on the ground floor, making it even more of a destination.
Make no mistake, these overachievers in the woods want to be a destination. Either could run restaurants worth reckoning with in the Cities—but they prefer the countryside.
“Here’s what my father told me,” Graden says. “Figure out where you want to be, and then figure out how you can be there. The story of the New Scenic is the story of me figuring out how to be here. I like the air; it smells good here.” The air looks mighty good, too. A glance out the window at either the New Scenic or Nosh will confirm that these are places anyone would want to be. Nature doesn’t get much more magnificent than this stretch of deeply forested bluffland Mississippi, or this silver platter of Lake Superior. Evidently the code has been cracked on what it takes to live as a chef in such magnificence. All you have to do is wildly top any reasonable expectation of the quality of food you can provide in rural America, and keep doing it, year after year, until someone notices and applauds. —D. M. G.