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Restaurant Magnus

Restaurant Magnus Update 9/14/10: It's planned that Magnus will be replaced by Velo Bahn in 2011.
12/8/10: Plans may have changed.
1/1/11: Restaurant Magnus is closed.

In a word: Magnus? It is.

The specs: #0548  
Address, hours & details via Isthmus; reviews at Yelp, Madison Beer Review, QSC, Succulent Photography, Eat Drink Madison; official web site, Restaurant Magnus on Urbanspoon

Latest Restaurant Magnus news and reviews

JM ate the herb-salt beef striploin with a lemonade.
Nichole ate the cocoa wild boar tenderloin with a Viking cocktail.
We split a warm chocolate brownie.
The bill was $80, or $40/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole both gave Restaurant Magnus an A (see our grading rubric).

We kicked off our own private, two-meal "Restaurant Week" with dinner at Magnus. It's been a big year for them; in May 2009, they introduced their Scandinavian menu, and 2010 saw Chef Nicholas Johnson make the semifinals (if not an outright nomination) for the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef: Midwest award. We don't mean to sound flip, but the experience really did come off as if JM's Norwegian grandma had opened a restaurant. And used vegetables. And cooked better - way better. (OK, and he didn't see any sandbakkels).

Our first impression was of the heavy decor. From the matador sculpture to the faux-antler chandelier, the lounge was incredibly manly. In the dining room, a WPA-era Milwaukee public school aesthetic (sponge-painted orange walls, vault ceiling, drapes a la fire curtain) held sway, with two sunburst pieces on the far wall invoking a halfhearted Starliner Diner feel. Again, like Grandma's, only manlier (Gramps died when JM was two).

Rye bread, Magnus sauce, duck confitThe look of the food was much more coherent than the room's decor, and after all, the food is what matters. Maybe it's just what we happened to order, but a beautiful color palette of rich browns and mild taupes dominated our table.

JM flipped for the lemonade which was both super sweet and super sour. Nichole also liked the sweet-sour balance of the Viking cocktail of Wisconsin's own Death's Door vodka (as if she could tell the difference), port, and blackberry liqueur over a maraschino cherry, served so cold that it arrived with tiny wisps of slush.

Cocoa wild boar tenderloinThe rye in the bread basket was tender and fragrant, with a soft crust. It came with two condiments: a duck confit which was too subtle for us, unless we made sure to grab some of the maple syrup swirl, and a vibrant green blended Magnus sauce which was salty and delightfully bright with dill and fennel. 

(Story time: Though we saw no lefse on our visit, occasionally it is on the menu and good on 'em for that. JM's dad recalls the first time he ate with his in-laws at a family Christmas. He leaned in close to JM's mom and whispered, "Why are they eating their napkins?")

A positively wild scent rose off the plate of wild boar tenderloin topped with grilled mushrooms. The meat was dark and hearty, much more like beef than pork, and each slice was bound with a strip of crisp bacon molded onto the tenderloin like Marilyn's birthday dress. The parsnip puree was thick with butter, and the trio of fig sauce, shreds of pickled squash, and pea shoots were just enough to cut the butter.

Herb-salt beef striploinThe herb-salt beef tenderloin (already off the menu) was served in a zingy, lipidy sauce. The yellow fingerling potatoes were tender as an Idahoan before harsh range life got to them, and even the spinach was delicious.

Though the krumkakene, chocolate truffles, and "veiled Norwegian farm girls" beckoned from the dessert menu, we went for the brownie. It followed the brown-thing-with-white-glob-and-leaf-for-accent presentation theme that we had unwittingly assembled. The brownie itself was incredibly light yet deeply chocolatey. The raspberries were nigh unsweetened, which gave them a fresh-from-the-bush-and-smooshed flavor. Smoked slivered almonds added texture, and each spoonful from a dollop of very vanilla semifreddo went from frozen to gone.

Warm chocolate brownieAt the end of the meal a bicyclist walked through the dining room in cleats. The noisy expense-account table a few feet away was about the only thing that marred our meal, which speaks to the sad truth of a place like this: it really is so good, but people dining on the dime of others or for special events seem the common currency. This is too bad, because Magnus provides comfort too, even if the price is a bit steeper than most.

Comments

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Oof, now I feel bad. "People dining on the dime of others" pretty well sums up the one full meal the wife and I have had here. But I had oysters at the bar back in the South American days, and we had snacks and drinks in the front lounge a month or two ago. This is definitely one of those places I wish I went more often.

love the lefse story. My family is also Norweigan but my mother's generation moved away from the traditional food. My uncle did try making lutefisk a few years back, but it was god-awful. Even the feral alley cats behind his house wouldn't eat it.

Loved the old menu but haven't been here in a while. Anybody have any thoughts comparing the two incarnations?

Why are they eating their napkins? LOL
So glad you added that bit of hilarious info.
Also, sorry JM lost his grandpa so young.

Wow, I think that's your most poetic review yet. "Marilyn's birthday dress"--now there's a captivating description! I haven't been since the menu change either. I am not Norwegian or any other type of Scandinavian, but I love me some lefse!

We've only been there a few times since they changed menus. The old Magnus lured us in about once a week. It just makes me too sad to go there now. I don't think the food is as good.

Oh Jeff! Too funny. The one time I ate lutefisk, at Norske Nook, the regulars glanced over and said "she's actually eating it!"

Ken and Lila, thanks - that's sweet.

Is it true Norwegians don't really eat lutefisk? I've heard that...

@catwoman, they do eat it, but really only at the traditional times of year, and it's more of a ritual than pure enjoyment. (From what I saw.)

It's funny, the wife's grandmother is (was) also Norwegian, and she (the wife, not the deceased matriarch) has to stop at the Norske Nook and pick up a couple dozen lefse whenever possible.

What was your thought on the Death's Door vodka, if you could taste it at all against the other stuff? I tried their gin the other night and found it had a really offputting bitter aftertaste. Guess I stick to Bombay Sapphire (or Hendricks if in a cucumbery sort of pinch).

I couldn't discern anything specific about the vodka, but that's my palate's fault.

While Restaurant Magnus richly deserves a nomination for a James Beard Foundation Award, it turns out it's more factually accurate to say it is home to a semifinalist. As mentioned in our post above, I noticed that elsewhere Chef Johnson's 2010 honor has been referred to as a nomination (at OnMilwaukee, Dane101, and Isthmus twice, and just today another semifinalist was referred to as a finalist). Recently the restaurant itself published a FAQ that used the "nominee" label as well.

Wanting clarification of the terms, and finding no definition of "nominee" on the JBF award website, yesterday I wrote to both the James Beard Foundation and Restaurant Magnus. The Foundation replied:

The semi-finalist list is not a nominee list, so Chef Johnson is a semi-finalist not a nominee. The semi-finalist list is a list of 20, the nominees are the top five of that list of 20.

Prentice Berge from Restaurant Magnus replied as well. We had a brief exchange during which he reaffirmed pride in Chef Johnson's achievement, said he was unaware of the different meanings of the terms, and stated he would change the restaurant's communications to be more accurate.

Kudos to Mr. Berge for a quick, gracious, and principled response to a nitpicky question from a fan, and congratulations to Chef Johnson for the recognition.

Thanks for the clarification. Never would have guessed that a "nomination" was HIGHER than a "semi-finalist" position!!!

Being a true blood norwegian I have to admit that I liked the old menu better then the new as well. Maybe instead of looking forward to a gastro pub they should look back.

Don't look back in anger, Joey. Memories are soon all we'll have. The Velo Bahn concept is off, plans are scotched to develop anything new at the site, and the building is up for lease. Another notch in Gov-Elect Walker's belt.

They can’t open a restaurant because there won’t be a train stopping nearby? That seems pretty disingenuous. Or it was a pretty silly business model.

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