Bridgeman's walleye, for lunch or dinner, is perfection
Ernest Petersen grew up in Atwater, Minn., fishing pike and panfish in Diamond Lake, which he could see from a window of his family's farmhouse. These days, when he wants that fresh-caught, straight-ahead flavor, he heads to Bridgeman's Restauran...
Ernest Petersen grew up in Atwater, Minn., fishing pike and panfish in Diamond Lake, which he could see from a window of his family's farmhouse.
These days, when he wants that fresh-caught, straight-ahead flavor, he heads to Bridgeman's Restaurant near Miller Hill Mall.
So I did -- rather, we did, on the following Wednesday at noon. I had no trouble spotting Petersen from his description -- 6 feet tall, white hair, plaid shirt. Except for his height, that could have described one-third of the clientele in the busy dining area.
Our server came out within two minutes and took our orders -- walleye and fries for Petersen and walleye and minestrone soup for me, with a side of coleslaw and coffees for both of us.
"The one thing I don't care for is their commercial tartar sauce," Petersen confided. "We make our own at home," he said, "we" meaning he and his wife, Betty. Their version is a homemade relish of green tomatoes, peppers, onion and spices with mayonnaise. "We've made it every year for 60 years."
Knowing the storied history of Bridgeman's, an iconic Upper Midwest brand that started in 1883 in Duluth, I asked Petersen if he remembered the first time he dined at a Bridgeman's.
"I came to Duluth in '67," he recalled, to work in President Richard Nixon's Economic Development Administration. "The first Bridgeman's I went to was downtown, when I lived at the Lincoln Hotel," he said. "It was probably breakfast."
Petersen defines his ideal walleye fillet this way. "I think walleye shouldn't be changed a bit. It's good the way it is." In other words, don't mess it up with heavy seasonings or thick breading.
Our lunches arrived within 10 minutes. "I adulterate the tartar sauce with a little ketchup," he said, then shared his thoughts after taking a few bites. "It has a very nice light coating. It's always absolutely fresh," he said. "We've never had a piece that wasn't freshly made." The three fillets were about 9 inches long -- that's bigger than the last time they had dined on the Friday night, all-you-can-eat special.
Although it's my Table for Two custom to order a meal exactly as a guest does, I do make a few exceptions -- well-done steak (never), diet soda with food (never) and this new one, ketchup with tartar sauce. Maybe someday.
I found the (unadulterated) tartar sauce to be a tad on the sweet side, but otherwise fine. As for the star of the show, the walleye: fabulous. The breading was indeed thin and had a crispness I thought was from cornmeal (I was wrong). It was quite similar to some shore lunch mixes I've used, only less salty and better. The seasoning was mild enough to enhance but not overpower the walleye's delicate, fresh taste. The portion was generous enough that a lighter eater could follow Petersen's lead and take a fillet home. Or he could just wolf them down while piping hot and fresh and promise to eat less the next day.
My minestrone soup was noteworthy for its balance: just-right amounts of beef broth, tomato puree, veggies and beans and salt.
ABOUT THE DISH AND RESTAURANT
Bridgeman's restaurant owner Jay Broman said the walleye, among the restaurant's most popular dish, is Canadian walleye that's hand-breaded with a special process. "I wanted it to be like a shore lunch," he said, but commercial premixes didn't do the trick. So he experimented with a multi-step process that involves a batter dip, a roll in some seasonings, then a flop in some bread crumbs before hitting the fryer. On Wednesdays and Fridays, "We have one person doing fish all day long," he said. The Friday all-you-can-eat walleye dinner special, with two sides, is $10.99.
Broman, who started out as a 15-year-old Bridgeman's busboy, bought the place about five years ago. Besides the quality of the food and the historic ice cream, Broman said long-term employees have been key to his restaurant's success. Many have been on staff for 10 to 20 years; the manager has been on staff 35 years.
Help me out, readers. The Table for Two grab bag is getting empty. Tell me about some places I haven't been to or new dishes you've discovered. The best way to reach me is at firstname.lastname@example.org . Give me details. C'mon, dish!
Tom Wilkowske is a food reviewer for the Wave. You can reach him at email@example.com .