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DINING OUT: New Scenic Cafe still inspires

Seared duck breast at the New Scenic Cafe in Duluth with a creamed leek tartlet, blue cheese, apricot curry, strawberry and pistachio. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 11
Red Adirondack chairs greet visitors in the gardens surrounding the New Scenic Cafe. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 11
Key lime and passion fruit panna cotta is made with meringue, raspberry and edible flower petals. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 11
Curried blue mussels at the New Scenic Cafe in Duluth with red curry, apple cider, cream, cilantro and ciabatta. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com4 / 11
The New Scenic Cafe in Duluth. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com5 / 11
New Scenic Cafe’s banh mi is made with pork confit, cucumber, pickled carrot and daikon. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com6 / 11
A heirloom tomato salad at the New Scenic Cafe in Duluth with spanish chorizo, shallot, mustard seed, idiazabal and a sherry vinaigrette. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com7 / 11
Seared duck breast at the New Scenic Cafe in Duluth with a creamed leek tartlet, blue cheese, apricot curry, strawberry and pistachio. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com8 / 11
Rhubarb custard tart at New Scenic Cafe in Duluth with pickled rhubarb, cookie crust, vanilla ice cream and strawberries. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com9 / 11
The dining room of the New Scenic Cafe in Duluth. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com10 / 11
Pastry chef Carrie Slick of Superior prepares rhubarb custard tarts at New Scenic Cafe. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com11 / 11

Visitors are always asking, where should we eat in Duluth?

“The New Scenic Cafe” tumbles off the tongue far more frequently than any other restaurant. That’s partly because of a changing dining landscape — where many want more than just a burger — and partly because of its earned reputation as a beloved place to eat in this region.

The New Scenic — in its most recent incarnation — has been doing its thing for 16 years. Food can get tired in that amount of time if a chef isn’t nimble, but Scott Graden isn’t one to take it easy.

“It’s always about trying to stay sharp,” said the 44-year-old chef, and getting rid of things that don’t work. “A friend said of the current menu: ‘Hey, it’s kind of a throwback.’ Yeah, we’re just doing it better ... I hope I haven’t had my best day yet.”

Graden and his aunt, Rita Bergstedt, bought the building in 1999. It’s been around since the 1960s when it was a drive-in. Graden is now sole owner of the New Scenic, which also caters events and has its own cookbook, released last year.

The setting of the North Shore restaurant — across the road from Lake Superior and nestled among trees, gardens and plenty of Adirondack chairs — has always made it a draw. From Duluth, you can have a mini “up north” summer getaway for the price of dinner, wine and a few bucks in gas. In the summer, herbs are grown outside for the kitchen and a campfire is often lit for those waiting for a table. In the winter it’s just as good; cozier and quiet and less wait time. Local art covers the wood-paneled walls and quirky chandeliers light some of the rooms.

The menu changes perhaps five times a year, both for seasonal and creative reasons. A few things, like the curried blue mussels, stay on the menu because of customer demand.

You get a tangle of briny mussels and a couple of slices of buttered and grilled ciabatta. Underneath is a creamy, spicy curry, set off by apple cider and a scattering of cool cilantro. Cilantro, and pistachios for that matter, can be found in many dishes. A little bowl of pistachios comes when you’re seated.

Cilantro stars in the classic Vietnamese-style banh mi sandwich. There are fun textures: crunchy cucumber, soft pate and candy-like pork. Delicious sriracha mayo, too, and sandwiches come with really good fruit.

The menu items are listed with key ingredients; a helpful guide for the indecisive.

The seared duck breast, is listed with a creamed leek tartlet, blue cheese, apricot curry, strawberry and pistachio. Well. How is that all going to come together? It looked from one direction like a tree with bits of strawberry and pistachio falling from greens, the tart and slices of duck. The apricot sauce was the trunk. From another direction, it was kind of a Jackson Pollock. Needless to say, it was pretty, and shows that Graden is inspired by color and nature. But, you could still tell it was food. (And really tender duck.)

Graden doesn’t generally deconstruct food, or get into things like foam and liquid nitrogen. Those who mix science with food are “impressive and inspirational,” he said, “but we want to do food that is basically simple … an apple is an apple.”

Through the years, presentation has been tightened. Dishes are well-edited. Graden and his staff aren’t as hung up on having everything organic and sustainable “just because.”

What matters most is quality, he said, “and if it’s just damn good, it’s just damn good.”

The restaurant is known for its desserts. Pie gets the most press, but I really love the more artful sweets: a lemon and lavender cake with thyme and sugared blueberries, the rhubarb custard tart and those with mascarpone, and layers of phyllo dough with fruit curd and berries in between. Many are topped with edible flowers. Nothing says Instagram like a New Scenic dessert. Graden creates the dishes, and a baker executes them.

The savory menu is fairly global. You’ll find touches of Asia, Mexico, Scandinavia and France. But there is a signature style pulling each menu together: restrained, colorful and smart.

I learned to love Brussels sprouts here, and the warm-weather salads — like an heirloom tomato caprese — are always worth getting. The treatment of game meat — like pheasant breast — is spot-on, and fish and seafood dishes are never masked by overpowering ingredients. A recent scallop starter that had a rhubarb consomme was paired with lemongrass and creme fraiche. I couldn’t stop thinking about the flavor combination, but especially the taste of the scallops.

Sandwiches are served all day, and as much attention to detail goes into those as the more composed plates. A recent, excellent grilled peach and prosciutto sandwich with fresh mozzarella made me realize that most of us eat pretty boring sandwiches on our own.

To drink there is local and regional beer and good coffee, fun fizzy dry sodas and fresh-fruited lemonade concoctions. But don’t miss the wine list, where you can find pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Sancerre from France’s Loire Valley, along with obscure Italian reds and Spanish and French whites. Many are by the glass; the restaurant’s philosophy is to lower the barrier to entry, not relying on wine for profit, Graden said. From the beginning, he and Bergstedt wanted both food and wine to educate diners. As better wine has become more accessible to restaurants in Duluth, the list has deepened. But it’s also a really good value.

Sixteen years later, New Scenic is still the best restaurant in Duluth for its consistency, imagination and ability to live in multiple worlds. The setting and food fits “big deal” days, but it’s just as sweet on a Sunday afternoon, sharing prime rib dips and tuna tacos.

And of course there is that sought-after view. Dusk is the best time, with the layered blues of the lake and the lavender sky. I don’t know why it sometimes seems so much better from the windows of New Scenic. But it does.

New Scenic Cafe

5461 North Shore Dr.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday;

11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Price range: $6-$30

More info: (218) 525-6274, sceniccafe.com.

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