As Highway 61 leaves Duluth, Minnesota heading north, it splits in two. The main road heads inland for a 65 mph sprint 20 miles up to the next town, Two Harbors. But if you turn right to hug Lake Superior’s shoreline, you’re rewarded with some of the quietest, most enchanting driving in the North. This is “Old Highway 61,” the scenic drive, a two-lane highway that follows the shore, past inns and oddities like woodcarving studios, smoked fish peddlers and an ironmonger. But the scenery and the roadside attractions only make up one part of Old Highway 61’s charm. About halfway to Two Harbors is the New Scenic Cafe, an outpost of fine dining that has become less a pitstop than a destination for foodies in and of itself.
The New Scenic sits on a broad lawn with a spectacular wildflower garden out front. Lake Superior is right across the road and provides a steady onshore cooling breeze and sparkling view. On summer weekends, the garden is full of those waiting for a table, dodging lazy bumblebees while sipping a microbrew in an Adirondack chair. The building itself is a sprawling low-slung affair with a corrugated metal roof and a trendy slate-and-orange paint scheme. Volvos and Subarus dominate the gravel parking lot, most accessorized with roof racks and panting dogs. You’re as likely to see dressed-up couples who’ve driven up from Duluth for dinner as you are Polarfleece-clad hikers coming out from a weekend in the woods.
New Scenic is the brainchild of Scott Graden, a Two Harbors-born itinerant chef who bought a 1960s roadside diner, the Scenic Cafe, and turned it into an artsy bistro. It was an opportunity to resettle on home turf and to cook inspired dishes in an environment that respects its location while also transcending it. A look at New Scenic’s menu confirms this philosophy. Here you find local fare like grilled pheasant breast and hot-smoked rainbow trout alongside a Mediterranean lasagna and a tempeh reuben sandwich. The menu rotates with the seasons, with a few staples that remain year-round. The dishes here surprise the diner with not just their diversity but also their quality. Three hours south, in Minneapolis, New Scenic’s menu would be a natural fit. But up here it is an oasis.
No meal at New Scenic would be complete without a slice to finish things off. The varieties change with what is in season, but insiders will tell you that summer’s raspberry rhubarb is one worth a long drive for, with its perfect mix of tart and sweet hidden under a top crust that gives at the slightest tap of a fork. Served with a piping hot cup of coffee and a dollop of melting ice cream, it makes one want to linger just a little longer, gazing out the window at the big lake, before setting off for points north.
Warmed Black Mission Figs
Makes 2 servings
This menu staple at New Scenic is one of its most requested appetizers. Consisting of no more than five ingredients, it can easily be prepared at home, in case the North Shore of Lake Superior is too far to drive.
1 cup salted butter
1 1/4 cups pure maple syrup
4-6 mission figs, quartered
1/4 cup toasted walnuts
Danish blue cheese
1. Slowly melt and brown salted butter in a saucepan. Allow the butter to cool for 5 minutes and then add 1 1/4 cup of pure maple syrup and bring to a boil. Remove pan from heat and continue whisking butter and syrup together.
2. Cut mission figs into quarters and place in a cold saucepan with toasted walnuts and maple sauce. Warm over medium heat, tossing to mix all ingredients, until figs are warmed but not cooked.
3. In the center of a small bowl, stand a wedge of Danish blue cheese and spoon the figs, walnuts and sauce around and over the cheese. Garnish with fresh sage leaves and serve with warm slices of toasted ciabatta.