First Look: Northern Waters Smokehaus goes full service restaurant

Maple-sambal pork ribs were a bit heavy on salt, but evened out by the great kimchee.

Maple-sambal pork ribs were a bit heavy on salt, but evened out by the great kimchee. Mecca Bos

As far as I’m concerned, Northern Waters Smokehaus is Duluth’s greatest calling card (well, that and the lake). 

They’ve got a back story that starts with founder Eric Goerdt living in Alaska, working in the Coast Guard, and smoking fish because, you know, Alaska. But he wanted his fish to taste like fish, unlike lots of smoked fish which tastes mostly like smoke.

People kept coming back for more. He moved to Duluth, and continued his craft. In addition to smoking the fishes that come out of Lake Superior, he and his team smoke some of the best pastrami outside of New York, as well as turkey, porketta, and a great many other things both smoked and cured.

They do pickles and kimchees and pates and lots of other things that go well with sandwiches.

They started to do so many things, turning their wheels so furiously all the time, that they were bursting out of their tiny storefront in the Dewitt-Seitz Marketplace. So they recently opened a new restaurant, one that runs on core values of slow food, local sourcing, food industry as career not stepping-stone, and extreme care and attention to detail.

How are they doing so far? Pretty good, I’d say. The space in the Woodland/Hunter’s Park neighborhood is in a strip mall, but enter, and you're in a strip mall no more. The graphic fish wallpaper is irresistible, as are the clean and sleek stainless steel touches. This is the modern version of the old smoke shack.

Northern Waters' interior is clean and sleek and there's no sign you're dining inside of a strip mall.

Northern Waters' interior is clean and sleek and there's no sign you're dining inside of a strip mall. Mecca Bos

The menu is broken down between “water” and “land” so you can decide if you’re feeling fishy or unfishy. They do good things with both.

I particularly loved the "schnitzel sticks," pounded pork loin battered and fried in the Germanic fashion, cut into "sticks" and served with honey mustard, chips, and "pickle parts." It's unique, whimsical, and delicious. 

Pork ribs lacquered in maple sambal were also pleasant if a little salty. Their truly excellent kimchee offers more high effervescent notes than low fermentation notes. It's outrageously good and evens things out nicely. 

Much of the menu reads like any modern bistro USA, with nicely composed salads using whatever’s in season and great, the ever-present charcuterie plate, a no-brainer given their original concept, a good pot of French fries, and a fancy cheese plate.

If you’re looking for something more evocative of what Northern Waters is most known for (fish) look to their Old Bay Burger, which makes use of whitefish instead of ground beef, or the chowder with seasonal Lake Superior Whitefish.

Northern Waters has also opted to go with a no-tipping policy, an experiment that’s had some mixed results in the Twin Cities. They say that it's also having mixed results there, a move that might be a little progressive for sometimes provincial Duluth. (Their words, not mine).

They’ve even got some hate mail and nasty phone calls, but for their progressive business model, it seemed like the only way to go. They want their staff to be careerists, people who can make a living wage on the restaurant, and not just treat it like a stepping stone.

So while initially that sticker-shock sets in the way it did the first time I saw a no-tipping menu, $17 for a nicoise salad for instance, you gotta factor in that tax and tip are included in that number.

And, when my dining companion went to pay the bill, she looked up and said: “This is really nice.”

None of that tough math after a couple glasses of wine can be a blessing.

Northern Waters Restaurant
1608 Woodland Ave., Duluth