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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).
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
At 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.