Smokin' good in Duluth

When a friend suggested placing Canal Park's DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace on my Duluth itinerary, he failed to mention the most important piece of information: The collection of shops and restaurants is home to one of the state's great culinary shining stars, the Northern Waters Smokehaus. Disguised as a sandwich shop -- a fabulous one, at that -- owner Eric Goerdt's tiny stomping grounds are so much more. Goerdt fills his cases with gorgeous delicacies he painstakingly hand-crafts in his lower-level smokehouse: brown sugar-cured Lake Superior trout and smoked Lake Superior whitefish, an extraordinary bison pastrami, luscious pâtés and ham, pancetta and charcuterie made using Minnesota-raised Berkshire pork.

The shop also stocks cheeses, a short list of gourmet groceries and those aforementioned sandwiches, each one a treasure (don't miss the coin-size slices of Goerdt's chewy, peppercorn-studded chorizo layered with peppers and provolone inside a torpedo roll, or thin shavings of that swoon-worthy pastrami stuffed into pumpernickel and topped with sauerkraut and Russian dressing, perfect with an ice-cold cream soda from the shop's cooler), best savored on a bench overlooking the lake.

Pancakes and paella

As I was enjoying my fragrant Spanish red at the wine bar inside the dual-named At Sara's Table Chester Creek Cafe, here's the thought that flashed through my cortex: I'm glad I made the trek up the hill. Sure, I could have settled for one of Canal Park's cookie-cutter restaurants -- there are plenty of Red Lobsters in the Twin Cities, thank you -- but it's always more gratifying to go native and embrace the when-in-Rome thing. Co-owners Barbara Neubert and Carla Blumberg place a premium on local ingredients -- a new herb garden is blooming just outside the restaurant's front door -- and their abundant breakfasts and lunches keep the neighborhood well-fed; Paul Bunyan himself couldn't finish the divine plate-size pancakes.

At dinner, the kitchen sets itself apart by stretching its creative muscles with travelogue-inspired menus. This spring's food odyssey has taken diners to Spain, Portugal and Morocco, the region's flavors well-represented in broiled Lake Superior whitefish paired with fennel and currants and finished with an eggplant aioli, a lamb-date tagine, lemon-scented couscous with perfectly roasted vegetables, a messy but well-meaning tapas platter and a rib-sticking paella packed with succulent chicken and spicy sausage. Top price: $14. No wonder the place is perpetually busy.

Beer and burritos

There are two burrito sizes at Burrito Union: big and bigger, with flavors to match. There are well-seasoned beef, chicken and pork options, done up in standard options (get the "Fat Capitalist," a winning combination of slow-cooked achiote-rubbed pork, red beans and rice and roasted tomato salsa) or build-your-own. Think Chipotle, minus standing in line. Because it's located in a neighborhood and not on the tourist track, this boisterous, blues-loving joint is full of Duluthians of all stripes: families with young kids, UMD students, couples on dates, retirees, the works, all gathering for quick, Botero-proportioned portions, low prices, perky table service and a full complement of first-rate beers from Fitger's Brewhouse (both restaurants share the same ownership). Breakfast is another option -- particularly on weekends -- and the roadhouse setting makes a favorable impression.

Up the North Shore

Some of the region's most compelling cooking lies just outside Duluth. Follow London Road out of the city and the pavement eventually offers two options: Veer to the left for the high-speed expressway to Two Harbors, or hang a right to the slower, two-lane road. Take the latter, not only because the shoreline-hugging route is ridiculously scenic, but because it eventually turns into a miniature culinary highway.

First stop: New Scenic Cafe. Take a window seat for views of the water and chef/owner Scott Graden's well-tended garden, then soak up Graden's around-the-world menu, which is like no other in the region, notable for its emphasis on seasonal, locally raised ingredients and its capacity to surprise. There's a zesty curried peanut soup and a stunning ode to spring in the form of an asparagus flan decorated with morels and pert peas. Crisp fried wontons standing in for taco shells are filled with gently seared tuna and avocado and finished with a slow-burn vegetable slaw.

Graden's tempeh Reuben becomes a sandwich that meat-eaters could love; an asparagus-Gruyère-fried egg sandwich more than compensates for the drive to Duluth. A tagine-style baked chicken has the meat falling off the bone and is zinged with occasional blasts of preserved lemon. Desserts are extra-special, wines and beers are chosen with authority and the knotty pine setting (leaving just a few traces of the building's roots as a drive-in) has a cheery Scandinavian vibe.

A few minutes up the road lies the Nokomis Restaurant. Chef/owner Sean Lewis' eclectic and exacting cooking sets his restaurant apart from its North Shore neighbors. Lunch can be an elk burger, a well-constructed walleye po' boy or an intricately prepared beet salad, while dinner expands into prosciutto-wrapped trout, a textbook coq au vin, an exceptional salmon chowder and beautiful preparations of chicken, beef and tuna standard-bearers. The intricate desserts are a high point.

Lewis cleaned up a former supper club, preserving the room's sweeping Lake Superior views, but giving the space a contemporary feel. A small bar, a handy wine shop and a striking patio only add to the allure. Here's another bonus: Prices at lunch rarely exceed $10, and most steer south of $20 at dinner.

When I commented to the nice sales clerk behind the white enamel counter about the intoxicating scent inside the Great! Lakes Candy Kitchen, she laughed. "If they were making caramel, you would really be going crazy," she said. As it was, I was in sensory overload given the enormous sheets of almond bark, the caramels twinkling with sea salt, the rows of pretty Pink Lady apples weighed down with caramel and crushed nuts. Owners Pamela Canelake Matson, Dennis Matson and Patricia Canelake do things the old-fashioned way, fashioning caramels and chocolates in the back of their adorable lakeside store, by hand, from scratch, putting their copper kettles to very good use.

I left with a bag filled to the brim with goodies, but now, a few weeks later, all I can think about is the taste treat I slowly savored on the shop's front porch. I parked myself on a red metal lounge chair, stared at the lake -- it was the exact color of Paul Newman's eyes -- as it shimmered through a stand of pine trees. I slowly savored a slab of vanilla ice cream, speared on a stick, dipped in chocolate and rolled in toasted coconut and Spanish peanuts. Yeah, the shop deserves that exclamation point.

Fine-dining deal

Here's a reason to extend a Duluth weekend through Monday: Sunday night dinner at Restaurant 301 by Bob Bennett. It's three courses for $15, and it's a doozy. Bennett, who spent a decade running his namesake operation in the basement at nearby Fitger's (now Midi Restaurant), has relocated to street level at the city's shiny new Sheraton Hotel. The higher-profile address and handsome, law-firm-library surroundings are doing Bennett -- one of Duluth's top craftsmen -- a world of good.

Dinner started simple, with field greens dressed in a bright citrus vinaigrette, thin shavings of Manchego cheese and sharp bits of red onion. Next up was a hearty, lovingly composed stew of smoked chicken and nutty cracked bulgur, accented by sweet carrots and locally foraged ramps. Bennett saved the best for last, an imaginative riot of color and texture in the form of three seared scallops crowning a ratatouille-style blend of roasted tomatoes and salty pancetta that in turn was resting on a circle of crisp, pan-fried spaghetti. Service was attentive and gracious (one nit: the so-so wine list is no match for the food), and the whole experience was so overwhelmingly positive -- did I mention the $15 part? -- that I was kicking myself for not setting aside time to check out Bennett's regularly scheduled breakfast-lunch-dinner cooking. Next time, definitely.

Over the bridge to Superior, Wis.

The recent demise of the Boathouse was a major dent in the culinary bubble of Superior, Wis., but that doesn't mean there aren't reasons for Duluth visitors to scoot over the vertigo-inducing John A. Blatnik Bridge, especially if they find themselves at Thirsty Pagan Brewing. In two tightly packed rooms of a former creamery, the walls festooned with an "Antiques Roadshow"-worthy collection of vintage beer signs, owners Steve and Susan Knauss preside over a rowdy, funky and fun-loving destination.

The bar taps the Knausses' own fabulous house-made beers and the kitchen stays busy baking a brand of deep-dish pizza that has sadly fallen out of favor following the flatbread/Neapolitan crazes of the past decade. What stellar pizza! They arrive, piping hot, in battered round metal tins, boasting crusty dough, lusty red sauce and noticeably fresh toppings, and it's difficult to imagine a better companion to the adjacent brewhouse's malty amber ales and robust porters. Another high note: a superb lattice-topped strawberry-rhubarb pie, baked that afternoon.

A superior coffeehouse

Another Superior high point is the Red Mug, easily the region's best-run coffeehouse (and a stone's throw from the Thirsty Pagan). It's a total charmer, and the kind of one-size-fits-all enterprise that really gets the details right. Sandwiches are built on breads from upstairs neighbor Sustenance Artisan Breads, which is easily the region's top-performing bakery (baker/owner Dale Karsky has also developed a rabid following for his hand-made mozzarella).

The full-bodied soups are made fresh in-house and the grandmotherly sweets -- peanut butter-chocolate bars, buttery cookies, a carrot-walnut muffin of the gods -- are pulled out of the oven daily. Java comes courtesy of the good folks at Peace Coffee in Minneapolis, there's a short but decent wine and beer selection -- three cheers for Wisconsin's progressive alcohol statutes -- and prices are affordable. The joint, which occupies a garden-level corner of one of those 19th-century sandstone piles that pepper the Twin Ports, exudes an easygoing, stay-a-while vibe.

Party down up north

Duluth may be flooded with marathoners this weekend (www.grandmasmarathon.com), and overrun with music fans in early August during the 21st annual Bayfront Blues Festival (www.bayfrontblues.com), but the gathering that could have Twin Cities food lovers cruise-controlling up Interstate 35 is the upcoming Rhubarb Festival (9 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 27 at First Lutheran Church, 1100 E. Superior St.), which features live music, a recipe contest and plenty of fine rhubarb noshing.

Picnic provisions

Whole Foods Co-op, the city's beaut of a natural foods store, is a well-stocked repository of portable Minnesota-made noshes: gorgeous Gouda and Cheddar from Green Pastures Dairy in nearby Carleton. Snappy smoked-pork wieners from Lorenz Meats in Cannon Falls. Hot Italian brats from Pastures A Plenty in Kerkhoven. A superb butter from Dahl's Sunrise Dairy in Babbitt (for spreading on molasses-and orange-scented limpa rye from Duluth's Positively Third Street bakery). Hot and cold prepared foods from the store's more-than-decent deli (including a cheap and filling Sunday brunch) and the city's best produce selection. Runner-up: glitzy Mount Royal Fine Foods. The Lunds/Byerly's of the North Shore sports an impressive meal-replacement counter, a decent cheese inventory, fresh-made sushi, eight varieties of house-made brats, wild-caught Lake Superior smelt and killer cream puffs and cannoli.

Superior Street rising

Tourists tend to congregate in Canal Park, but an ever-expanding program of food and drink improvements to downtown's East Superior Street might lure visitors back to the city's historic main drag. Black Water Lounge, located off the still-grand lobby of the landmark Greysolon Plaza building -- the former Hotel Duluth -- shakes up all manner of ritzy martinis and serves up a long list of small-plate noshes (deluxe sliders, shrimp cocktail, Margherita-style crostini, bountifully topped flatbreads) in a swank, overstuffed setting that encourages grown-up conversation. Kippis, scheduled to open this week, is a Finnish tapas and cocktail bar, the nighttime version of daytimer Takk for Maten.

"I'm taking a lot of ideas from my grandmother's kitchen," said co-owner and native Finn Ari Eilola. The name, Kippis? It's Finnish for "cheers." Next up: Zeitgeist Art Cafe & Cinema, a two-screen movie house, a small black-box theater and restaurant, debuting in August at 222 E. Superior St. There's also talk of a sushi purveyor moving into the neighborhood.

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757