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Pier 290 Friday Fish Fry

Pier 290 Friday Fish Fry

There are many things that set Lake Geneva apart from its so-called competition. The water quality, the housing stock, the liquidity; all are important aspects of our superiority. But perhaps chief on the minds of residents and would-be residents is the plentiful existence of places to dine or imbibe that are accessible via boat. Lots of lakes have a place to eat on the water. Like one place. Maybe two, but probably one. When living on Geneva, there are loads of restaurants reachable via water chariot, and among those restaurants there are bars like Chucks, casual joints like Gordy’s, and the king of waterfront dining: Pier 290. When Pier 290 opened several years ago it immediately became a shining lakefront beacon, drawing residents and day trippers to this lakefront scene. The fanfare was and is deserved.

Friday night called for an early dinner.  My daughter was skiing and my son had basketball practice, so my wife and I put on our going to dinner clothes (in a twist, these are also my going to work clothes and going to Walmart clothes) and arrived at Pier 290 at 5:25 pm. It was dark, cold, and we were pleased to find a parking space near the front door. The hostess led us to an ideal table for two, in the far southeast corner of the main dining room, near the lakeside window and fireplace. It was a wonderful spot in a beautiful room. The firewood was stacked neatly near the fireplace, our table so close I could have tended the fire if I wished. And I did wish. The fireplace was absent of fire on this 14 degree January evening. Why is there a fireplace here if not for an evening such as this? Suddenly my fireside table felt out of the way and meaningless.

The waiter was soon table side and took our order. He was both polite and well spoken.  Two waters and an appetizer of deviled eggs. I’ve had these deviled eggs before, and though they were previously a bit overly mustardy, they were always delicious with a splash of Tobasco. The  plate, two eggs cut in half ($8) arrived quickly. The deviled eggs were good, though not at all as I remembered. The white of the egg was firm, perhaps too firm. In a twist, it seemed to me that the yolk filling also contained chunks of the egg white, which I found to be interesting at first and then annoying.   Bread and butter were served, and I was delighted in the softened butter. I will always delight in softened butter.  The bread was warm, though barely. It could have used another minute in the oven, but was a nice bread, airy and chewy, an ideal accompaniment to the soft butter.

When the waiter returned, we ordered the fish fry. On the menu, it’s listed as an All You Can Eat fish fry with two options: Cod or Bluegill.  Neither option had a listed price, which I thought strange, but perhaps the market price of frozen cod fluctuates wildly and the menu pricing is best left blank. The waiter recommended the bluegill,  so I succumbed and ordered bluegill, it only comes fried. I also ordered one piece of cod fried and one piece of cod broiled. Potato pancakes as the side. Pier 290 offers house made potato chips as a side, and I would suggest you not order those. If you’re going to eat potato, you might as well eat it in the proper dinner form.

In the entirety of the front dining room, just one other table was occupied, so when our fish arrived quickly after ordering I was pleased but not surprised. The plate was large, the serving size ample. Two potato pancakes, one piece of broiled cod, one piece of fried, and perhaps five small bluegill filets. The fried items were not golden fried, as you’d expect with a fish fry, but were rather lightly fried, as if the fish was tossed only in flour or cornstarch before frying.  Maybe dredged, not battered.  That’s fine, but I found the exterior to lack crispiness and necessary crunch.  The potato pancakes were flavorful, hot, and generally delicious. There was more to this mix than is typical, lending a creaminess to the interior that I enjoyed.

The bluegill, with that pale breading, was served skin-on. It was overcooked and had a dull flavor not at all like the bluegill filets I grew up eating.  We would always filet our fish and remove the skin entirely before breading with an egg bath and instant mashed potato mix on the exterior. If you’ve never done this, I suggest you do. I’d also suggest Pier 290 consider it, because the bluegill dinner wasn’t something I’d ever order again. The cod was better, though breaded in that same light crust.  The broiled piece was fine, if small and square, like a Williams Bay 1986 cafeteria serving. Still, it was well salted and not overcooked like the bluegill.  I ordered a second piece of broiled, to make good on that All You Can Eat offer, and was quickly presented with two more squares of cod. These came with a lemon wedge, something the initial plate didn’t include. These are the sort of odd inconsistencies that are common here.

The waiter remained attentive to our water glasses and quickly asked if we wanted any seconds. We declined, and asked for the check. The cod dinner was $13, which comes in just below Anthony’s price. The bluegill dinner cost me $18.95, which came as a surprise only because it wasn’t priced on the menu. I wouldn’t consider ordering that bluegill again, no matter the price. Our total dinner tab for two (no drinks) was $51.15 including tip. In line with expectations, and in line with a typical Wisconsin fish fry.

If you go to Anthony’s, you go to celebrate the big plate of fried fish, and to tolerate the rest, even if the rest is quaintly charming. At Pier 290, you go to celebrate the scene, to celebrate the design of the restaurant and the way the space feels. You tolerate the fish. Will I go back to Pier 290? Of course I will. I’ll always go to Pier 290 because it’s so darn pretty. But the food remains a mystery, and a Friday Fish Fry that should seemingly be the easiest to master because it never, ever changes, was still a slight miss.  Visit Pier 290 because you can. Because it’s accessible by boat, and you can dine outdoors in the summer with your toes in the sand. Visit because it’s our most beautiful area restaurant. But when you go, don’t order the bluegill.

 

Rating 5/10

Pier 290  

1 Leichty Drive, Williams Bay, WI

Friday Fish Fry $13 (Bluegill $18.95)

All You Can Eat

 

Friday Fish Fry

Friday Fish Fry

The problem with restaurant reviews is that they’re generally written by people who wish not to offend the restaurant. If we were in a large city, and I were Jonathan Gold or Steve Dolinsky, I would write about a restaurant without any fear of calling out their shortcomings. So long as I praised their successes, no one would mind the negatives. But in small town America, restraurant reviews are written in bulk in the back of seasonal guide magazines, or only after a restaurant opens. The reviews often, always, glow. They glow because they must, because small town America does not wish to see small town America fail. Ah, but fail we do, and so it’s time that someone wrote proper reviews of Lake Geneva area restaurants. I volunteer.

I’ve often written that most area restaurants are not all terrible.  They do one thing well, or a few things well, and equal things, or more things bad. A good dish here and there does not make a restaurant. Consistency across the menu, throughout the experience, that’s what makes a restaurant. And sadly, those are the things that often fail local, small town restaurants.  Because of these inconsistencies it is necessary to judge each restaurant on the same dish. The same night. The same idea. In Wisconsin, thanking the Catholics for their tradition, we have Friday Fish Fry. It’s revered in this state, as it should be, and it’s a staple on every menu across this great state.

That’s why this weekly review is going to pinpoint the Friday Fish Fry, FFF from here on out. I’m going to choose one local restaurant each Friday for the next 12 or more Fridays, and on Monday you’re going to read about it. To keep things fair, I’m going to review based on the experience, the price, the service, the food. For the food, it’s going to be the FFF, and the FFF only. If an appetizer is bought, you’ll know. And unlike other reviews that have proceeded mine, I’m actually going to tell you the truth. If the restaurant’s offering is terrible, I’m going to tell you it’s terrible. If it’s delightful, you’ll know. Since I come to this review with some existing bias, I’ll start where the bias is most poignant: Anthony’s Steak House.

I first visited Anthony’s as a child, perhaps in the fifth or sixth grade. My parents took me and some older relatives. The decor was dated, the interior dark. The circle turn around with covered portico reminiscent of a funeral home. That was likely almost 30 years ago. Friday night,  fresh off a Faith Christian School basketball victory in Hebron, where they’ll never stop talking about that ancient state basketball championship (for good reason, I must admit), I pulled into the dark parking lot (ample, and easy to find a spot in no matter how jammed the restaurant) and walked into the darker restaurant. The iconic roadside sign remains the thing that shines brightest at Anthony’s.

We were joining friends, making the table a party of nine.  After a few minutes to arrange a table (we didn’t make reservations), we were escorted to the back room of the restaurant. There is a large bar on the East end, a large fireplace that long ago burned its last fire on the North, and this banquet room to the far West. It felt like a room in the basement of an older hotel where a low budget wedding reception might take place. The ceiling hangs low in this restaurant. But the space is clean, and the waitstaff was friendly, and avoided calling anyone at the table dear, honey, sweetie, or darling.  The room was warm on that bitterly cold evening. We ordered waters, because I am my father’s son, and were presented with bread and butter. The bread was warm, if lacking any density. Sort of airy, like a Wonder Bread thrown into the oven for a moment to toast the top. The round orb of butter attracted my attention, as butter tends to do, and I tore off a small hunk of white bread and attempted to slather on some butter.

The bread was warm, but the butter was ice cold. Spreading cold butter on warm, airy bread doesn’t work so well. But alas, I had decided to order a bowl of French Onion Soup, labeled “Charley O’s”. I worked at Charley O’s in the very early 90s, and everyone has always known of the special soup that Charley featured. With Charley playing front of house host at Anthony’s, he brought his soup with him, and it was as delicious as I remember. The trip to Anthony’s may be worth while if only for the soup, $5.99 for the bowl. Thick and rich with beef stock and onions, capped with broiled gruyere cheese, this isn’t like that watery fancy-pants-french-restaurant-soup. This is cold hearty, stewy, like it should be, like it was always meant to be. The soup was delicious, the bread light and warmed, the butter ice cold.

The FFF is $13.99 for adults, and it’s all you can eat.  When we ordered, there was some confusion as to whether or not there was a child’s version of this dinner that wouldn’t be $13.99, but no one, including the waitstaff knew if the kid’s version was all you can eat, or not. It didn’t matter. I ordered- half fried and half broiled cod, potato pancakes.  Anthony’s does offer a perch dinner, but it’s not all you can eat and perch tastes like cod, so why not order the cod?  While we waited for dinner, small bowls of tartar sauce, coleslaw, and apple sauce were brought out. Our bread was refreshed without our asking, which was nice. The butter was still nearly as cold as the night air.

We waited around 30 minutes for the fish to arrive. That’s too long, especially considering the restaurant was not yet operating under full capacity, given our early arrival (6 pm).  Whenever a wait is that long  I worry that the food has been sitting on the counter, under warming bulbs, while the waitress takes a smoke break.  When the food arrived it was hot, wiping away my concerns over tepid fish. The potato pancakes were delicious, flavorful patties crisped wonderfully. They were oily, which my healthy friend commented on, but the oil is what makes them taste good. If you want baked potato pancakes, you best stay south of the state line. My fried cod was breaded lightly with a beer-style batter, crispy, hot, and well salted. Fried fish can often lack salt, but these two pieces were ideal.

The broiled cod at Anthony’s features a spice rub of some variety, salt, pepper, oregano and perhaps paprika. It’s a nice rub, though at times it can be overpowering. If you order a full order of broiled, you’ll get a big, thick, handsome filet. But if you order a half order, you’ll generally get the wimpy tail piece of the filet, which is thin and overcooks easily, and is also overpowered by the seasoning. Still, the fish was tender, well salted, and tasty. Given that this is an all-you-can-eat joint, I ordered one extra piece of broiled fish, just to feel like I had gotten my money’s worth. The fish that came out was a skinny piece of tail section, less than ideal.  I don’t eat tartar sauce or coleslaw, so you’ll have to judge those for yourself.

There’s a restaurant in the Driftless that serves a Wednesday night all-you-can-eat shrimp dinner. We went there once and ordered the shrimp. After the first plate was brought to our table, the waiter disappeared for what felt like days. When he finally surfaced we had lost our enthusiasm to re-order seconds, which we had rightfully intended to do. That’s a common trick in the all-you-can-eat business, if you don’t make yourself available to take the order, the patron cannot eat all he can eat. At Anthony’s, we were asked by the waitress if we wanted any more to eat, which is nice, and far better than the shrimp bar out West.

The dinner tab,  for five (two adults, three kids), with a bowl of soup and tip came to $94. That’s not particularly cheap, considering no beverages were ordered, but it should prove to be in line with most area FFF.  The scene at Anthony’s won’t give you any design ideas. You won’t be tempted to take many pictures. It’s just an old, dimly lit restaurant in the model of a Supper Club, charming in the easy way of old establishments,  and you go for the generous portions of hot cod. This cod will set the standard that the other restaurants must be judged against.  If you’re in town on a Friday night, you’d be wise to make your way to Anthony’s for their Friday Fish Fry. Order the soup and be sure to order seconds.   Rating 9/10. 

 

Anthony’s Steak House – 3354 State Road 50, Lake Geneva, WI (about a mile West of downtown Lake Geneva)