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Diners dig duck at new Midi Restaurant

By Tom Wilkowske It's fun to try out new restaurants with people who like good food. It's even more fun if those people are good at explaining why they love or don't love a particular dish, drink or restaurant. A Table for Two has been so much fu...

By Tom Wilkowske

It's fun to try out new restaurants with people who like good food. It's even more fun if those people are good at explaining why they love or don't love a particular dish, drink or restaurant.

A Table for Two has been so much fun these past four years that we decided the fun must be multiplied, at least on special occasions. When new "buzz-worthy" restaurants open, A Table for Two will -- at its discretion -- call out its own rapid response team, a dining foursome consisting of me and guests specially chosen for a) their knowledge and passion for a particular dish or food in general, and b) their ability to articulate what makes it good. We'll dine together, share our impressions and get the word out.

For the inaugural outing, I invited Claire Kirch, Kat Eldred and Dick Skogg to dine at Midi Restaurant, which replaced Bennett's on the Lake as the upscale restaurant serving the Fitger's Inn and Fitger's Brewery Complex. We met about 5:30 p.m. on a Wednesday and found the restaurant surprisingly busy. We managed a nice lakeview table despite having no reservations. On our way in, Eldred and Kirch remarked at the changed decor, which felt bright with warm yellows, framed art prints and exposed brick.

We ordered two appetizers: mussels in white wine, garlic and leeks and a pepper-crusted ahi tuna with wasabi peas. They arrived as we pondered our entree choices. Both appetizers looked good, but the sheer volume of the mussels was awe-inspiring. Everyone agreed: the flavor didn't disappoint, either. The sauce was mild but savory and all the mussels were just done, not overdone -- not a dud or sandy one in the bunch. Kirch, a tuna aficionado, vouched for the quality of the second appetizer. "This is good-quality tuna," she said. "Sometimes when it's lower quality, it gets mealy. This is firm and fresh."

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Eldred ordered a dish billed as a ratatouille-like provencal stew with shrimp, mussels and scallops. Skogg picked the Lamb Ragout, a stewed meat and pasta dish. Kirch ordered Sesame-crusted Ahi Tuna with Seaweed Slaw and Wasabi Cream. I got the seared half duck in an apricot-merlot glaze served with roasted garlic whipped potatoes.

TOM'S TAKE

My dish was done perfectly, with a slight crunch to the duck's orange-gold skin and a sauce that was fruity but savory. The dark meat was tender and, dipped in a dab of the garlic mashed potatoes, was classy comfort food. My wine, a Malbec (red) by the Argentine label Punto Final, was a perfect suggestion by our waitress. Like the entree, it was fruity, but not overly so; the tannins added a touch of pucker but didn't overpower the duck.

My dining partners weren't as wholeheartedly pleased with their entrees. I took a sampling of Eldred's and Skogg's entrees, and shared their negative to mixed opinions. I didn't taste Kirch's tuna entree, but she said the quality was the same as our appetizer. All in all, everyone said they probably would be back -- whether to try the duck (everyone else) or the paella (me), when it makes it to the menu.

Here's how my guests answered the questions I posed before our meal. They sent me their observations later, on the evening we dined. At the end is a short interview with Philip Warmanen, Midi's general manager.

KAT'S COMMENTS

Name: Kat Eldred

Age: 46

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Residence: Two Harbors

Occupation: Vice president, Zeppa Family Foundation; owner, Red Mug in Superior

Entree: Shrimp, Mussel and Scallop Provencal Stew, which the menu described as vegetable ratatouille with fresh herbs and couscous

Price: $16

Appearance: OK, but I immediately noticed that there were no vegetables -- other than tomatoes.

Flavor: Overall the dish didn't live up to expectations. "Ratatouille" connotes a certain type of vegetable stew that usually includes zucchini, eggplant, mushrooms and peppers. I was disappointed because the ratatouille tasted like and appeared to be stewed tomatoes, and the complexity of taste was similar -- very "tomato-ey" but with no depth and the added richness of flavor that the other vegetables would have added. The mussels and scallops were cooked right, but the shrimp was overdone.

Value: Disappointing dish; did not deliver on the description.

What worked/what didn't: The concept of this dish is wonderful; it needs to be executed better.

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Would I recommend this dish? No, not pleasing to the palate at all.

Would you recommend this restaurant? Yes, based on the appetizers and Tom's duck entree. My hope is that they do get it right -- it is nice to see a restaurant in Duluth that attempts to provide alternative cuisines and a more sophisticated palate, so I wish them the best and hope that they pay attention to the important details.

DICK'S DISCUSSION

Name: Dick Skogg

Age: 67

Residence: Duluth

Occupation: Retired teacher and coach; longtime gourmet club member

Entree: Lamb Ragout

Price: $16

Appearance: My lamb ragout (stew) was presented and tasted about as expected. It was served over a thin but wide pappardelle pasta.

Flavor: The meat was mostly disintegrated into mush, and although the taste was fine, the texture left a lot to be desired. I think it would have been better done with lamb shanks. Also, the pasta was not hearty enough for my liking. A thicker noodle, fresh, would have worked better for me. I probably wouldn't order this dish again, but it won't deter me from going back to this restaurant. Overall, it was a very nice evening.

Value: The serving was enormous, and I would say a good value for the price. I was especially happy with our two appetizers. The seared tuna, with its accompaniments, was very nice and the mussels were done perfectly (for me). The duck looked as good as it tasted and will most likely be what I order when I go back unless I pick something from the German special menu.

CLAIRE'S CORNER

Name: Claire Kirch

Age: 46

Occupation: Freelance writer and publicist

Residence: Duluth

Entree: Sesame-crusted Ahi Tuna with Wasabi Cream

Price: $15

Appearance: Nice enough presentation, nothing ostentatious, though the huge wad of wasabi (the "wasabi cream") perched on top of one of the risotto cakes was a little disconcerting.

Flavor: The tuna was rare enough, though I'd have preferred it even more seared, as I'd requested. The black and white sesame seeds were a nice touch. The quality of the tuna was good. I liked the combination of tuna with risotto cakes. The risotto was dry rather than moist, as risotto usually is. It provided a nice balance to the tuna's meatiness. But the seaweed salad did not add to that combination. It tasted bitter in tandem with the tuna and risotto. The wasabi cream and the unagi sauce -- in addition to the tuna, risotto and seaweed -- resulted in a cacophony of flavors that were all vying for my attention.

Value: It was a good value, especially considering how expensive tuna has become.

Would you recommend this entree? I don't think I'd order it again. It didn't thrill me, but I did not regret ordering it and ate all the tuna. If someone likes tuna, I'd say go for it, though it's not an amazing dish that one must try. I much preferred the duck, though I just had a taste.

Would you recommend this restaurant? The ambiance is pleasant. There was a good crowd, despite it being a bitingly cold Wednesday evening during Lent. The service was friendly and efficient. The portions are huge. This restaurant may not be the best restaurant in town, but it's competitive, on that score -- and it definitely provides the best value for the money.

ABOUT THE DISHES AND RESTAURANT

Midi Restaurant opened Nov. 14 and is owned and operated by Marie Schmidt, a chef who trained and cooked in Europe. Schmidt also owns the Winzer Stube, a German restaurant in Hudson, Wis.

Philip Warmanen, Midi's general manager, said the menu style might be called "European fusion" with dishes more inspired by the cooking styles around the Mediterranean rather than being direct representations of a particular country's cuisine.

Warmanen said the restaurant goes through enough tuna that it orders fresh, rather than frozen, which may account for the high-quality texture and taste. As for the wasabi cream served with the tuna entree, it is intended to tone down wasabi for northern palates who find the straight-up Japanese horseradish too strong, he said.

As for the provencal stew, there are other vegetables in small portions blended into the tomato-heavy dish. "That's a dish that we may re-engineer into something more like a paella," he said. "I'm not sure the flavors are blending the way we intended."

Besides current prime rib and weekly fish specials, other offerings in the works include weekly fondue and paella nights. German fare, a specialty at Schmidt's other restaurant, is popular with local diners, Warmanen said.

Tom Wilkowske is a food reviewer for the Wave. Reach him at atablefortwo@duluthnews.com .

Related Topics: RESTAURANTS AND BARS
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