Sunday, July 11, 2010

Restaurant Magnus

My sister came into town last weekend, and so I wanted to take her to Restaurant Magnus, in order to try food from the menu that landed chef Nicholas Johnson a James Beard nomination for best chef Midwest.

The menu took a Scandinavian turn in 2009 and now features New Scandinavian items such as a  Caesar salad with gravlax, cubed raw tuna on Himalayan salt brick, a pickled seafood board, and fennel-dill salmon with gravlax-fingerling potato salad. Although the menu is heavily fish-based, it also offers heftier bistro fare, such as venison and a coriander duck breast with lingonberry-horseradish glaze, the dish that landed it the James Beard nomination.

Despite part-owner Chris Berge's insistence that we try the duck, most of us were wanting to eat light(er) and, I think, mistakenly passed over this dish, as well as the cubed tuna.

I should preface this post by saying that being from Miami, it is difficult often to order seafood at all in Madison, especially at Madison dining costs, which rival, if not outdo, those in metropolitan, coastal cities such as Miami that have greater access to fresher fish.

Despite this fact, my sister ordered the winning item of the night, surprisingly, oysters with a cucumber-horseradish vinaigrette.

I had recently struggled through a brick oyster at another local haunt and was hesitant to order them, but she ordered several and they were so remarkable that we ordered several more. We had a little debate over whether oysters should be sent straight "down the hatch" (her method) or whether they should rest a while in the mouth, sort-of dissolving there. These oysters were so delectably melt-in-the-mouth that I though it a shame to do the former. The vinaigrette is also a piquant complement to the oyster.

Another standout was her main course, the chilled ahi tuna with mussels, caramelized red onion, parsnip, and caper-almond butter. The phrase "caper-almond butter" doesn't adequately describe the richness and flavor of the sauce, definitely the boldest and most flavorful mussel dish I've been served in Madison. It is, however, not light. Our server warned us that dish is more mussels with tuna than the reverse, and indeed, we felt the tuna was an unnecessary and distracting addition.

It was hard for Liese and I to judge our dishes against the strength of these others. The Caesar salad was a bit disappointing. The salad required a smaller plate; it was a medium-sized salad spread across a huge tablet. And the dressing did not have the acidic bite that we expected from a Caesar. The addition of gravlax, however, was nice.

My peppercorn cod with white cocoa-cauliflower puree, spinach, and citrus-roe butter was fine, but the sauce did not stand out as did the one in the mussel dish. I also was nearing full by the time it arrived. Magnus serves a dipping sauce with its house-baked bread that contains all of the herbs and spices on the menu, as a sort of palette preparer for the meal to come (although overall, what we tasted most was dill). We could not get enough of this, and indeed, it was complex, yet light enough to be featured as a sauce on one of the fish dishes. I would have gladly eaten this with my cod.

Liese had steamed rainbow trout with scallops and calamari, cucumber, blue potato, garlic mustard and horseradish-shellfish broth, and she enjoyed it, though we still felt the mussels were a much stronger dish.

As for cocktails, if you go during the summer, the drink to order first is the Finn's #7 Cup, with Death’s Door gin, dry vermouth, Lillet, St. Germain, apple, and cucumber.

I was nervous about the apple, but the apple is served as a garnish, and our server's description of the drink as refreshing and not overly sweet was accurate. He described the cocktails so well, in fact, that we began to really trust his assessment of the menu as a whole. This suggests Magnus' servers are trained well.

My sister and Liese liked Magnus' take on the Old-Fashioned, with Jack Daniels, Southern Comfort, ginger, and ginger ale.

A critical component for me of fine dining is atmosphere, and of that, Magnus has plenty. This is another restaurant that does not have a bad seat in the house, though we loved sitting in the front room, in view of outside, without having to get eaten alive by mosquitoes. I'm most anxious to return for more oysters and to ravage the appetizer menu.

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