By Tom Wilkowske
Bob Bennett's first Duluth restaurant, Bennett's Bar & Grill on West Superior Street, is widely credited with helping to bring contemporary cuisine to what had been a mostly meat-and-potatoes dining scene.
When he moved to the Fitger's Hotel and Brewery Complex in 1997, Bennett played another role: helping the hotel earn a four-diamond rating from AAA. But last fall, after 10 years there, Bennett's lease ended and he closed the restaurant that he and his wife, Kathy, owned and managed. In September, he was quoted in this newspaper saying it didn't see likely he would stay in town.
Five weeks later, he took over as senior executive chef at Restaurant 301 By Bob Bennett, the fine dining eatery on the ground floor of the new Sheraton Duluth Hotel at 301 E. Superior St. In so doing, he achieved a stated goal to keep working as a chef without the headaches of business ownership.
To accompany me, I chose three former Table for Two guests whose sensibilities mesh with an upscale-yet-approachable restaurant such as Bennett’s. Lori Peterson and I had dined at the Nokomis, which she considers one of Duluth’s best. Pat Thomson and I ate at the Boathouse, one of his favorites. Natalie Brewster and I ate spicy noodles at the Zhong Hua Restaurant in West Duluth, not what you’d call upscale. But her ability to talk about why she likes a particular dish or restaurant — plus the fact that she dines out a lot — made her a good choice for this outing.
We met at 6:30 p.m. on a bitterly cold Monday. We found about a half-dozen other tables occupied as we were seated in the corner table nearest the entry. The leather-upholstered chairs, white tablecloths and dark wood paneling gave a refined air.
For appetizers, we decided to share blue cheese fondue and ginger-cured salmon. Everyone raved about the blue cheese fondue; some wanted more of the fried bread cubes. Thomson and I liked the ginger-cured salmon, but Peterson and Brewster were less impressed.
Amid all of our chatter, our patient but persistent server finally coaxed entree selections out of us. I picked the Braised Lamb Shank. It was Whitefish Fillet in orange sauce for Thomson, the Seafood Trio for Brewster and the Kosher Chicken in Green Apple Sauce for Peterson.
I’ll give my impressions, followed by those of my guests. Bob Bennett’s comments follow.
My lamb shank looked substantial on the plate and the meat was succulent — tender but with enough texture to retain its shape. The glaze was subtle and supported the lamb’s mild flavor. It was served on a bed of barley that, at first blush, appeared to be merely overcooked, but later, upon tasting, I found a mild goat cheese flavor. Sort of a risotto, only with barley and goat cheese instead of rice and Parmesan, I thought. I loved the lamb, but wasn’t sure if the barley worked as well as it could have.
I tasted Peterson’s chicken and loved the concentrated green apple flavor of the sauce — nice balance, not too sweet.
Brewster’s Seafood Trio may have been my favorite entree of the night, though, from the lobster bisque sauce to the large, lovely scallop and shrimp wrapped in two sheets pasta.
I, too, dug the blue cheese fondue. I hadn’t read the menu carefully and wasn’t expecting our bread cubes to be nearly crouton-crunchy, but they turned out to be a nice contrast to the creamy blue cheese. Peterson, who normally doesn’t like blue cheese, said she would return if only for that dish.
The ginger-cured salmon, wrapped around marinated vegetables, had some lovely texture contrasts. I wanted more ginger and more of the wasabi, which is admittedly too hot for some.
My wine selection, a Louis Martini Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, proved a great suggestion by our server. It was confirmed by Brewster, who said it was her favorite cabernet. It was substantial enough of stand up to the blue cheese yet didn’t overpower the lamb.
Name: Lori Peterson
Occupation: Retired magazine production manager
Entree: Roasted Kosher Chicken with Green Apple Sauce
Value: So-so in terms of the portion size and lack of a vegetable side. I thought it was pricey for what you got. It was a pretty small chicken breast.
Appearance: It looked nice. It was served on a generous portion of mashed potatoes and there was a nice mound of caramelized onions ... but that was the only vegetable.
Flavor: The flavor was really good; the reduction was really good. The breast was moist and not overly seasoned.
What worked in this dish: The green apple reduction, I think that’s the star of the dish.
What didn’t work: I think it might have been better paired with pork than with chicken.
Would I recommend this entree: If the chicken breast was larger, or if pork was used, or maybe add a vegetable.
Service: Good, attentive but not obtrusive.
Would you recommend this restaurant: Maybe. It gets to the value for the money. I’m not a blue cheese lover, but we will go back, even if it’s just to have the fondue. That was tremendous.
Name: Pat Thomson
Occupation: Special education teacher
Entree: Golden Fried Whitefish Fillet
Appearance: The plate presentation was impressive, with a nice contrast of color with the orange sauce covering the plate, the golden fried whitefish fillet cut and stacked into a tower in the center and then crowned with the dark green roasted asparagus on top.
Flavor: The sauce tasted fresh, with a nice citrus flavor and a slight aftertaste of horseradish. The fish was fried perfectly and the grill-roasted asparagus was equally tasty. Sampling the other entrees was equally enjoyable. The Seafood Trio’s cheese sauce, homemade pasta and perfectly fried scallops were a treat. The chicken with the apple reduction sauce had a nice flavor, and the roasted lamb with barley had that great “hot stew on a cold day” taste. The standout element at 301 would have to be the use of sauces for the entrees. Each dish had a very unique sauce that used interesting flavors to enhance the dining experience.
Salad: The low point of the dinner was my dinner salad. Normally, I would not focus on something as minor as the dinner salad, but it seemed to lack pizzazz … For dining at one of the better restaurants in town, I expected more — maybe some fancy olives, cheese, onions cut into rings and cherry tomatoes instead of the diced variety.
Appetizers: The high point of the meal would have to be the blue cheese fondue and hard fried bread. The cheese sauce had a nice blue cheese flavor without being overly strong like pungent cheeses can be. I also enjoyed the wasabi salmon appetizer with its light flavor. Personally, I enjoy spicy food and would have liked to have had more wasabi on the salmon.
Name: Natalie Brewster
Occupation: Furniture sales, HOM Furniture
Entree: Seafood Trio
Value: Good. If you put it in perspective, you’re going to pay $21.95 at Red Lobster for the Ultimate Feast. I think it’s so complex, you don’t need any sides.
Appearance: I thought the presentation was rather pretty, with the sauce and the seafood wrapped in the sheet of pasta. I liked the greens underneath, that looked nice.
Flavor: It was really good, the creamy sauce. The scallop was good and tender and the pasta was excellent. It had to be homemade. It’s hard to make it right. The mozzarella tasted really fresh. It didn’t have a smoked, packaged flavor, just a really good, creamy texture.
What worked in this dish? It all went together really well. I think for average-to-sophisticated taste buds, this dish works well.
What didn’t work? I think the shrimp was a little overcooked.
Service: Our server seemed to know what she was doing. The hotel staff greeted me when I arrived and the bartender came over and asked me if I needed anything and made sure I hadn’t missed my group.
Would you recommend this restaurant: Yes, I would definitely recommend it, if you’re looking for an upscale menu with a wide selection of flavors. But if you want an intimate night, you might want to choose a less busy night like we did.
ABOUT THE DISHES AND THE RESTAURANT
Executive chef Bob Bennett said that even though the restaurant is part of the Sheraton, “We want to make locals feel like it’s part of their environment, too.” Coming attractions — such as half-price wine nights and Sunday brunch —should help with that effort, he said.
Bennett termed the Seafood Trio “probably my signature dish for Duluth,” something that has been evolving over the years” from a seafood lasagna arrangement to its current incarnation, served with a lobster bisque-like sauce and wrapped in freshly made pasta. The scallops are dry-packed and the shrimp is wild-caught American Gulf shrimp. “I have people come in weekly for that,” he said.
The smoked apple sauce is made by hickory-smoking Granny Smith apples, then steeping them in a chicken stock, reducing somewhat, then pureeing and seasoning. The chicken is a kosher product, which has a higher fat content in the meat to keep it more moist, Bennett said.
The blue cheese in the appetizer comes from Amablu, a small independent dairy near Faribault, Minn. Bennett said using such a product is an example of his attempt to find local and regional products as much as possible.