It’s becoming all too rare to find a spectacular dining experience – where the entire experience is 5-stars and the price point is appropriate. However, the opportunity to indulge is alive and well at the revolving restaurant – JJ Astor – high atop the Radisson Hotel in Downtown Duluth. Here, my traveling companion and I found the perfect dining experience – exceptional service, food, and ambiance. We dined on Saturday evening April 21. With a 7:30 reservation for 2, we were greeting and seated almost immediately upon arrival. The restaurant sits atop the hotel on the 16th floor (well, officially on the 15th floor, as the hotel omits floor 13). Every single table commands a view on the revolving platform that provides you with a 360 degree tour of Duluth Harbor and the rising hills. There is simply no bad view. You’ll need about an hour to complete the revolution, though we took 2½ indulging ourselves in every course of the menu, at a pace orchestrated with perfection by our server, Candice. I cannot recall the last time service was so professional and so well timed – it was if the entire evening was rehearsed.
Toasting the occasion with a bottle of Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand), we selected our first course, an appetizer of Frog Legs with Soba Noodles and Peanut Sauce. For our salad selections, my guest selected Apple Endive, and I chose the Shrimp and Asparagus with Orange Vinaigrette. We were off to a great start, with fresh ingredients and a delightful combination of flavors on every plate. While savoring the food and drink, we enjoyed the panoramic views, and watched as night fell upon the city.
Our entrée’s arrived in perfect timing. My friend ordered the Elk Ragu (braised in red wine, with sofrito over pappardelle) and I selected the Filet Mignon (with Yukon gold potato puree). The steak was a true medium, as ordered, and of finest quality. Sampling across the table, I enjoyed a taste of the equally well prepared Elk. Shortly after arrival of our main course, the Jazz Ensemble started on cue at 9pm. If the evening wasn’t magical enough, the addition of this beautiful music added the final touch of style and sophistication. With the continuous revolution, every single table enjoys a front row seat, as you pass by the live trio of musicians (situated on a non-revolving section of the dining room). It’s like having a private song played just for us! And it insures that everyone leaves happy – no complaints the music is too loud, or not loud enough. With the 3rd course of exceptional dining complete, all that remained was dessert. If there were any disappointments, it was that 2 of the handmade items were sold out. However, I would rather have freshly made desserts any day over dessert from a box. The best desserts come from restaurants that make everything on site. We shared the Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta (with coffee bean croquant) - delicious. Hot (and fresh) coffee completed this incredible dining experience.
For point of reference, appetizers and salads ranged mostly in the $8 to $12 range, and entrée’s mostly in the 20’s, with a few in the upper teens and the steaks appropriately in the low 30’s. Great selections of wine could be had for as little as $20 a bottle. Considering the view, the ambiance, the service, the live music, and the sheer cost of operating a revolving rooftop restaurant, this was an absolutely incredible experience.
I encourage anyone with a desire for a delightful culinary event to experience JJ Astor. From a historical perspective, you’ll be supporting the last rooftop revolving restaurant in the upper Midwest still open to the public. An endangered art form indeed, as people settle too quickly for cookie-cutter chain boxes in the suburbs. The recent renaming of the venue pays homage to John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), the German-American business magnate and first multi-millionaire in the United States. Astor built a fur-trading empire that extended to the Great Lakes Region and Canada, and later into the American West. On the floors below the restaurant, you can turn your dinner engagement into an overnight stay by reserving a room at the Radisson Hotel. Opened in 1970, the hotel is one of the longest continuously operating hotels in Downtown. For the true hotel history buffs, stroll a few blocks down Superior Street, and take time to experience the former grand lobby of the Hotel Duluth (our breakfast waitress at JJ Astor shared some history when we asked). The historic hotel opened in 1925 (then the tallest building in the Northwest) and operated until 1979 before being saved and converted into apartments. The lobby itself retains the grandeur of a venue that once hosted President Kennedy in 1963.
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