Blog : Restaurant Reviews

South Shore Bar Fish Fry Review

South Shore Bar Fish Fry Review

I was born in Elkhorn. Raised in Williams Bay. Then I lived in Linn Township, Geneva Township, Delavan Township, Fontana, and now Walworth Township. I am the embodiment of local. The word was made for me. If I’m not a local here, no one is a local anywhere. I was in France last week, being a non-local. If not for my strapping American frame and my obvious American nature, I might, after some lengthy period of time, be considered, at least by some, as a local.  This business of localness typically requires significant effort and significant time.  Last Friday night I walked in to the South Shore Bar and Grill on Delavan’s southern shore, feeling very much not like a local.

I’ve been to this bar before, or I should say, at least once before. I went with a friend for pizza on a night when our wives weren’t looking. On that night, I generally enjoyed the pizza, which is tavern style. But on this night, I was there for the fish fry, and the parking lot sign proclaimed that I was indeed at the right place. I should say that I didn’t intend to visit the South Shore Bar that night. I first went to the Rushing Waters Trout House restaurant in Delavan. The restaurant there is very large, and when we walked in we were delighted to see open tables and no one waiting. The hostess told us there would be a 20-30 minute wait. But there were open tables, I replied, incredulous in my tone. She said there weren’t enough servers. And so we left. This is embarrassing for the Trout House, and if I were in any position of authority there I’d quickly right my ship before all of this excess water sinks it.

The South Shore Bar and Grill is a bar. There’s a large bar in the main room, with a small dining room off to the West side. When we arrived the parking lot was full and so was the restaurant. We were told the wait would be maybe 10 minutes, so we stood by the door, sticking out like very sore thumbs. Eyes glanced our direction. At least one man at the bar whispered something to another man at the bar. It might have been about my powder blue shorts, but I couldn’t be certain. A man on the other side of the bar drank from a tall can of Busch Light. His wife nursed a cocktail.  Everyone knew each other, no one knew us. If it weren’t for the Wisconsin law, I’m guessing 40% of the bar would have been pulling on a heater.

A polite but somewhat harried hostess led us to our booth. The booth cushion on the one side was torn open in many spots, so I opted for the other side. But the other side had very little breathing room, and the table was affixed to the wall, a condition I only realized after pushing and tugging at it for a while. I switched with my son and sat on the torn side. I reviewed my fishy options.

All you can eat fried cod, $11.50. Baked cod dinner, $11.50. Pan Fried Walleye, $15.95. Fried Walleye, $15.95. Fried Perch Dinner, $15.95. These are fine options. Impressive really, for a small bar on the way to no-where, just around the corner from Nothing. The menu reflected a general understanding of the Wisconsin Fish Fry. All items were served with a  side of potato and access to the small salad bar that resided in between the bar and the dining room. I asked the waitress what she recommended. The fried walleye was a bit bland for her taste. She loved the perch. I opted for the fried cod, with a piece of baked cod for good measure.

The salad bar was modest. A few bowls of mayonnaise based salad of some variety, along with some lettuce, chopped onion and tomato, and shredded cheese. I could have used a few more accoutrements, but seeing as how I was at a bar for fish fry, I didn’t mind. If you wanted a salad bar, you should have gone to a salad restaurant. This was a fried food restaurant with a side of pizza, and I was content to nibble a bit of salad and wait for my fish. After a week  of French food,  my stomach was hankering for some classic Wisconsin fish fry.

And the South Shore Bar didn’t disappoint. The fried cod came out, two pieces with my initial order, and it was delightful. The batter was well seasoned, and the fish was moist, sweet, and salty. I really loved it. The baked was a bit dry, but it was served with a small plastic tub of drawn butter, and that made everything better. There was a single slice of rye bread on my plate, which was awful as expected but it was buttered so how terrible could it really be? Give me liberty or give me death, but if you’re going to give me rye bread you should at least butter it for me.

The two potato pancakes were nicely fried to a golden brown, and while they were a touch dry, they met the expectation of an average pancake.  I quickly ate all of my food and asked for a few more pieces of fried cod, not because I was hungry but because I refuse to walk away from an all-you-can-eat dinner offering without ordering seconds. The cod was again delightful, even if my second piece was thicker and ended up being slightly undercooked.  My wife said the tartar sauce was okay, and I found the applesauce to be delicious. It was served ice cold, and had immense flavor. It was, perhaps, my favorite applesauce to date.

I enjoyed my dinner at the South Shore Bar and Grill.  The waitress was sweet and attentive, the food above average for this tour. The fried cod was a real treat, as the seasoned batter elevated otherwise bland cod to a higher level. I’d add the South Shore Bar to your Fish Fry rotation, especially if your preferred joint is slammed this summer.  I left feeling satisfied in my dinner, and had it not been for those powder blue shorts and my wife’s white jeans, we might have fit right in.

 

South Shore Bar and Grill 7/10

W6763 South Shore Drive, Delavan, WI

$11.50 All You Can Eat Fried Cod

 

Mars Resort Fish Fry Review

Mars Resort Fish Fry Review

A man and his wife sat at the corner table and argued over the bark on a tree. Half way down, he insisted.  She responded with something about the weather. Snow, soon. The waitress confirmed it.  He talked about earthquakes. She asked about the tree. They nursed their drinks, each engaged in a conversation that seemed to have no bearing on the other.  A man at another table. Rick, or Jim, or Bill. He walked in slowly and sat down. The waitresses came over, one by one, to give him a hug. Good to see you, Jim/Bill/Rick.  The bartender knew his drink.  He had on his Cubs hat, and the Cubs had just won. He had reason to be in a good mood. It wasn’t yet 4 pm.

Mars Resort has anchored the south shore of Lake Como since 1923. Originally named “The Old Glory Camp”, this lakeside restaurant/bar had a few ownership and name changes before finally resting on the name Mars Resort in 1949. It has operated continuously ever since. No matter the fish, no matter the ribs, something in this area that has operated for so long under the same roof deserves our praise and our attention.  That’s why I slinked in to a window table just before 4 pm last Friday night. No area restaurant has had as much practice serving fried fish, and practice, as I tell my kids, is supposed to make perfect.

There were schedule conflicts on Friday night. I’ve tried to eat at Mars several times during this fishy tour, but each time the sheer number of cars in the parking lot rebuffed my attempt. I like to eat fish, but I don’t like to wait 30 minutes for a table. Because of our odd Friday schedule, I knew I could either eat dinner slightly later or slightly earlier, and as a devoted fan of eating, I opted for earlier. Knowing I needed to capitalize on this early dinner, I headed for Mars. Surely the restaurant couldn’t be busy at 4 pm.

And it wasn’t, excepting the bar that was filling in and the happy customers nursing their Old Fashioned’s.  Sometimes  you want to go where everybody knows your name, and it seemed that indeed everyone here knew each other’s name. Except mine, of course, even though my local status is likely even more local than the most local among them. Still, Mars isn’t my thing, and it isn’t my place, so I sat at a local bar with my daughter and her friend and felt very much like an outsider.  I almost felt the need to apologize to the waitress, who seemed concerned that she didn’t recognize me.

Mars is a classic supper club. It has classic supper clubby things, like a piano bar, where, on one of my only other visits I was entertained by Wayne Messmer. The decor is old school, thankfully old school. If I learned anything from the Big Foot Inn it’s that you don’t go messing with what works. At a supper club, old works. Don’t dress it up. Don’t ruin what makes the place different. Mars doesn’t, and that’s why Mars feels, even for an outsider like me, very much like home.  Sitting lakeside on Como, my daughter commented on the water. It’s so shallow, she said. I assured her that she wasn’t seeing the bottom, but just the scum of the water that is Lake Como. After I told her that, I wondered if it could have indeed been the bottom. With Como, one never knows.

The fish fry is All You Can Eat cod, fried or broiled, with a choice of potato and a choice of soup or salad. I liked the option of a soup or salad. A friend of mine was in Boston over the weekend, so in his honor I ordered the soup, Clam Chowder, on this chilly, windy spring evening. My daughter and her friend both skipped the fish fry and ordered off of the menu. Apparently everyone around here is sick of fish except for me. There were other options for fried walleye, but I didn’t want to eat walleye two Friday’s in a row. I’m watching my figure. At $12.95, the cod dinner was a bargain.

Shortly after ordering the waitress brought out a cracker basket and a rounded mound of soft, spreadable cheese. I greedily fought my daughter for the cheese, and enjoyed it very much. There was no traditional bread basket, just this cracked basket, but the addition of the soft cheese made me forget all about the bread, and even made me look past the foiled packets of butter. My clam chowder arrived a minute later. It was hot, creamy, and above average for a clam chowder. It wasn’t all poisoned with too much celery, either. The clams had some nice sand content, so I knew they were good.

The fish was table side within a few minutes, which was a benefit of eating dinner at 4 pm with my elderly friends.  The plate looked right. A lemon wedge,  two large piece of fish, two potato pancakes, and some plastic containers holding my applesauce, tartar sauce, and drawn butter.  Don’t assume I’m just a fan of softened butter, by the way. Melted butter works just as well, and I felt rather satisfied and portly as I submerged my pieces of baked cod into the pool.  I tasted the applesauce first- nice and cold, a little bit of chunk, delicious. Nice. The tartar sauce would have to go unjudged, as my wife and designed tartar sauce tester was not present. It looked super relishy, which may be good and it may be bad, I couldn’t tell.

The baked cod was good. Firm, reasonably well cooked, and quite satisfying. It was good enough on its own, but with some lemon and a butter bath it was even better. The fried cod was fine, but not particularly memorable. The batter wasn’t really a batter, as it was too thin. It was more like the fish was rolled in flour and tossed into the fryer. Without the batter to protect it, the exterior of the fish dried out a bit. It was still good, and I still enjoyed it, but it wasn’t quite on par with the standouts.

The potato pancakes were pretty good, and closely resembled breakfast hash browns pushed into a pancake shape. I liked them, but I won’t say they were at the top of the list. That’s sort of how I felt about the whole dinner at Mars. It was quite good, but not as good as others. I liked the scene, a lot. I liked that the patrons were happy and known. I like that a place like this exists, here, in this place, on that shallow water shore.  Mars didn’t reach Anthony’s level, but it is certainly a nice little bar. If you go there often, I have no doubt that it won’t take long before everybody knows your name.

 

Mars Resort 7.5/10

W4098 South Shore Drive, Lake Geneva

$12.95 All You Can Eat Cod (Walleye optional, likely an upcharge)

 

Whiskey Ranch Fish Fry Review

Whiskey Ranch Fish Fry Review

There’s a certain thing about a restaurant name that sets the tone for diner expectations. If you visit a restaurant called Whiskey Ranch, your expectations are set long before you pull into the gravel driveway.  This particular restaurant occupies an old house at the intersection of Highways 14 and 11, just outside of Delavan and Darien. Across the street there’s a strip club, in case you’d like to wash away your whiskey sorrows with a dash of glitter. The parking lot at Whiskey Ranch is nearly always full, whether from patrons of the Ranch or patrons of the aforementioned club. Parking in the lot across the street feels like an awfully flimsy alibi.

When we caught a glimpse of the parking lot at Whiskey Ranch on Friday night it seemed as though we’d be finding somewhere else to dine. It was around 6:30 and the lot was absolutely slammed. I parked near the front door and entered the bar to ask how long of a wait I’d have to suffer through. Five minutes was all, so I found a permanent parking spot and we pulled up two chairs to a high top in the bar. There appears to be only two dining areas in this bar, both very bar like.  The waitress and the host both told us often about the beer sampling that was taking place in the other room, which might be a more traditional dining room, but I couldn’t tell. The free beer would explain the abundance of cars in the lot.

The crowd here was a bit boisterous, celebrating the certain fact that they had made it through another work week. How I wish I could celebrate like that. I can barely celebrate New Years Eve, (it’ll be a new year no matter if I celebrate or not), or my birthday (big deal, lots of people have lived this long), or a large closing (Great, now I don’t have any deals pending). This was a group engineered to celebrate just making it, and there they were, enjoying the evening and the free beer and the fish fry.  When the waitress was table side I asked about the fish, which, for the first time in this tour, actually required some explanation.

The Friday specials, the waitress explained, included a traditional fish fry (two pieces find cod), a Fried Walleye Dinner (two pieces), Pan Fried Walleye (two pieces), Baked Cod (two pieces), some fried shrimp dish, a grilled salmon dinner, and a fish fry sandwich, in case you were in a hurry. I appreciated the multiple options, and asked the waitress for her recommendation. Without pause, she said she liked the fried Walleye. So that’s what I ordered, ignoring the cod completely. If a restaurant serves Walleye (like the Waterfront at the Abbey), I must oblige their effort and order the Walleye with potato pancakes. My wife ordered the shrimp dish with fries.

One of my many poor eating habits involves the appetizer. As a child, I didn’t get to eat appetizers. I wasn’t really sure what they were. My dad would never consider pre-gaming a meal with a smaller meal, because who would spend $8.99 on something so unnecessary? I asked the waitress if any appetizer was important here, and she explained some sort of fried corn ball thing that sounded sort of appealing but sort of strange. I ordered the jalapeño  poppers, which was a mistake. They were brought out first, and they were bland and pretty much terrible. I should have known better. This is my fault.

The fish dinner, on the other hand, was a beautiful plate of fried food. The Walleye filets were large, battered, as the menu said, to perfection. The potato pancakes (two) were thin, but well crisped. The plate had a small piece of cornbread, a tiny container of applesauce (too smooth, bland), and matching plastic containers of coleslaw and tartar sauce. There was also a small plastic container filled with some sort of maple syrup concoction. I’m not sure what it was or what I was supposed to do with it. A lemon wedge provided the only color.  The cornbread was on the dry side, but flavorful. It could have used a nice smear of softened butter, but my only butter option was a foil packet from somewhere in Houston. For shame, Whisky Ranch. For deep and terrible shame.

The Walleye was delightful. Beer battered and fried to a wonderful golden hue, it was moist and tender, quite divine. I think the Waterfront’s (Abbey) fried Walleye might have been slightly better, but this Walleye was delicious. The potato pancakes were more traditional, one note, some potato and onion crisped on the flattop. I liked the fact that they didn’t try to church the potato up with some sort of add-in.  There were only two pieces of fish and two pancakes, but that was plenty of food. My wife said her shrimp were pretty good, and I had to eat some her fries so I could properly report back on my findings. They were superlative.

Our waitress was friendly, but she let our water glasses go dry for what felt like most of my dinner, which wasn’t terrific. We waited for quite along while after our plates were cleared to be presented with the check, which did allow for a bit more people watching but was also slightly annoying. The hostess reminded us again of the free beer in the other room, and continued to be somewhat perplexed at our lack of enthusiasm.  The Whiskey Ranch is a bar. It’s in an old house. The ceilings are low, the bar is loud. It feels like an up north bar, which is actually a good thing. Their Friday Fish Fry was above average, but not on par with the standouts I’ve so far discovered. If you’re in the mood for fish and want to hang out with some locals, give the Whiskey Ranch in Delavan a visit. It won’t let you down.

 

Whiskey Ranch 8/10

W9002 Highway 11, Delavan, WI 

$14.99 Fried Walleye Dinner, $10.99 Fried Cod, $11.99, Pan Fried Walleye $14.99, Fish Fry Sandwich $8.99

 

Abbey Springs Yacht Club Fish Fry Review

Abbey Springs Yacht Club Fish Fry Review

I take some offense to the term “yacht club”. It’s a bit over the top, a bit ostentatious. A bit too much.  There are boats that are launched with routine frequency at the lakefront in Abbey Springs, but I’ve seen these boats and while many are nice, none are yachts. We should reserve use of the word for when we really mean it. Like when we say something is breathtaking. If it took your breath away, it’s breathtaking. If it’s a view of the lake, it’s just a nice view. But in spite of this grudge against this phrase I pulled up a chair at a lakeside table last Friday night and did what it is that I do. I ordered the fish.

But before I could order and before I made that reservation I filled out the membership application and sent in my $200 to Abbey Springs. That membership fee allows me access to the restaurants of Abbey Springs, both the clubhouse grill on the golf course side of the property and the Yacht Club Dining Room on the lakeside. It’s a small price to pay for another dining option on the water, and so there I was, membership in hand, seated at the table watching the rollers build and sway from one end of our big lake to the other.

The dining room here is nice. It’s not incredibly nice, but it’s nice. It lacks some of the sophistication of the Lake Geneva Yacht Club, but the space is comfortable and nicely appointed. There’s a large bar on the West with adjacent dining space, and a large dining room on the East. Like most restaurants of this style, the dining room was full of folks that belonged to a different generation, the greatest, perhaps. While we waited for our friends I perused the menu.

I’m fond of restaurants that list their fish fry in their menu. I don’t like restaurants that mention the fish fry as though it’s some unique treasure, some special that they just thought of and had little time to add it to the menu. In bold print, there it was:  Friday Fish Fry. Cod, potato, sides, $15 for all you can eat.  Our friends were late but that didn’t stop us from enjoying the bread basket, complete with a pumpernickel, a whole grain, and sourdough roll.  The bread was warmed and quite wonderful and likely would have done well on its own, but the most glorious addition to a Friday Fish Fry was also present: A dish of soft, whipped, room temperature butter. What a delight, after weeks of bread and butter disappointment, to start my meal with this treat.

The waitress was pleasant and attentive and quick to take our order. Mine was clear. I’d have half broiled and half fried along with the potato pancakes.   Within fifteen minutes our dinner was served. At first blush the plate was a delight. Several smaller pieces of broiled cod, one large piece of fried, two potato pancakes, a lemon wedge, two hushpuppies, and a nice ceramic dish of applesauce and tartar sauce. The coleslaw was served on the plate, which was unique, and not especially preferred considering I don’t like coleslaw, but I abided the addition and neatly pushed it to the side.

In a first, the broiled cod also featured distinct grill marks. The fish may have been broiled and then briefly finished on the grill, but it looked to me like it was only grilled. Either way the pieces were tender and sported an extra flash of flavor from those grill marks. My dinner mates enjoyed the broiled cod quite a bit, perhaps more than I did. I liked it well enough, but I don’t think it was the best broiled cod I’ve had on this journey. The fried piece of cod was supremely crunchy, battered in a tempura style. The fish inside was moist and tender, but lacked salt. It was good, but again, not quite the best I’ve had.

The potato pancakes were well crisped on the exterior while still maintaining a creamy interior. They were delicious. It’s a rare feat, or so I’m discovering, to serve potato pancakes worthy of actual praise, but the Abbey’s pancakes were near perfection. The hushpuppies, two to an order, were drier than a typical hushpuppy, and sweeter, too. But I wouldn’t let that get in the way of devouring both of them, as the sweetness was a nice interruption to the savory fish and potato.  Were they as good as the Popeye’s hushpuppies? No, but they were certainly close. The tartar sauce won some praise from the table, and the applesauce was remarkably flavorful, if a bit too smooth.

It was apparent to me that this was a superlative dinner. Some of the items were not perfect, but the combination of lakeside dining, comfortable seating, and delicious food is a rare combo here. If you’ll recall, I loved the fish fry at the Outlook Bar at Lake Lawn Lodge, but I hated the restaurant space. I loved the restaurant space at the Ridge Hotel’s Crafted Americana, but the cod was dry. There’s always something that takes a meal and derails it. But at the Abbey Springs Yacht Club, whether there are actual yachts there or not, most things were executed to near perfection. Buy yourself a membership and order the fish. It’s worth it.

 

Abbey Springs Yacht Club 9/10

1 Country Club Drive, Fontana, WI 53125

$15 All  You Can Eat Cod (plus $200 annual dining membership)

 

(Author note: The definition of Yacht in my usage has nothing to do with Coast Guard certification, rather only my own interpretation of the class of boat that should be referred to as a yacht…)

 

Culver’s Fish Fry Review

Culver’s Fish Fry Review

I was a bit nervous about having to write this review. It reminded me of the time I decided to go visit Harbor Country for the first time, just to see what it was all about. I booked my hotel and drove East, down that terrible route and across Indiana, the Fireworks and Strip Club signs lighting my way.  Once I was done driving East, I drove North, up and along that shore, worried that what I would find would be so wonderful that I’d have no means to ever compete with it. When I pulled into the town a deep sense of relief gently washed over me.  This place wasn’t great at all. I had worried about this competition for no reason, for no reason at all. This place was lame, and I was relieved.

I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to sit in the VC meeting where Culver’s first pitched its business plan. The Culvers’ brothers on one side of the table, with their attorney, me and my VC cohorts on the other side.   I’d lead off by asking what this new plan was that brought them to my office.  “It’s a burger joint”,  one Culver would respond. I’d say, so what’s the catch? There’s a lot of burger joints, obviously. How do you plan to attract customers? What’s your angle? Will you serve the food like super fast? “No, we’ll take the order and then give people and little plastic number and make them wait in their cars for a while, maybe like five or seven minutes, then we’ll bring them out their food”. 

Ok. So is the food like super cheap and affordable? “No, it’ll be very nearly the same cost as a sit down meal might be at a regular restaurant where they have waitresses and metal silverware”.  Ok. So, you’re going to create a fast food restaurant that will be quite expensive and you’ll make people wait in their cars for an extraordinarily long amount of time before you serve them some burgers and crinkle cut fries?  “Yes, that’s right”.   That’s when I’d pass on the deal and that’s why the Culver’s family is super rich and I’m typing fish fry reviews.

Last Friday called for a short road trip, which means there was no time for the traditional Friday Fish Fry. But alas, the trip was through Wisconsin, and so we decided there would be no better time to test the waters at Culver’s. The fast food chain has become a ubiquitous Wisconsin staple, and their television commercials spend considerable effort touting their fish fry. I have little doubt that their fish is among the best in the fast food world, but how does it stand up to the typical Wisconsin dinner?

The Cross Plains Culver’s is in an awkward location. It’s right off of Highway 14, but the drive-thru is wonky and the parking lot is small. The display screen doesn’t show any particular fish fry option, though it does offer an Atlantic Cod Sandwich, which is presumably the same fish that is served as a fish fry. Wild caught from the Barents Sea, apparently. I asked the fella on the other side of the screen if there was a fish fry. There was. Two or three pieces, served with two sides.  The price wasn’t listed, but I came to find out when the total was announced that it was $12.99. That’s in line with any sit down establishment where you don’t have to eat with one knee on the steering wheel.

I ordered three pieces with fries. Then I paid the enormous tab of $36 (my son had a fish sandwich, my wife chicken tenders with no fries, my daughter a kid’s meal, no ice cream, no sides, no extra drinks) and pulled around to my designated waiting spot. Several minutes later a nice girl brought out a large brown bag with our dinner. After disbursing the contents, we noticed we were short a couple of items, so my wife had to run in to ask for what was left off our order. This is pretty lame, but it’s Culver’s, so nothing fast should be expected.

My fish dinner was served in a plastic plate with matching plastic lid. Three pieces of cod, all nice size filets, with a lemon wedge, fries, and a small dinner roll. The roll was a nice touch, but if ever I would have given a pass for serving foiled, cold butter, this was it. Yet no butter was included. Perhaps it was left behind, like the rest of our order. With no potato pancake to judge, I’ll just say that the fries were fine but in no way should Culver’s be proud of their crinkle cut fries. Their custard is praise worthy, but their potato is not.

The cod was fine. The battered exterior was crunchy, the fish was respectable but in no way memorable. It was a touch dry,  bland, and not worth the $12.99 ransom. I ate it as I drove West, one hand on the fish, the other on the wheel. Nothing about the dinner was good. Nothing about it was memorable. Nothing about it is worthy of your fish fry time. If you’re running late on a Friday night and feel like a fast food fish fry might be a convenient substitute for a sit-down fish fry, don’t do it. Just skip it and wait for the next Friday to roll around.

Culver’s 3/10

Everywhere, Wisconsin

$12.99 Three Piece Fried Cod

Lake Geneva Yacht Club Fish Fry Review

Lake Geneva Yacht Club Fish Fry Review

Sometimes, dive bars aren’t where it’s at. They’re fun, the irony of it all, of the dated this and the out of style that.  But once in a while you just want to be surrounded by nice things. This is why we have nice lake houses. Old cottages are cute and fun, but luxury isn’t so bad either. Last Friday night I abandoned the dive bar scene and embraced the fanciful surroundings of the lake set. The Lake Geneva Yacht Club serves a Fish Fry, which means it must be judged.

Friday night wasn’t a great night. It was a bit windy and a bit cloudy, excepting a bright burst of sun that pushed through the low clouds right around sunset. The dying light made one last gasp and filled the lakefront bar just as we pulled up a chair. Our benevolent hosts had arrived before my wife and I, and as we chatted in that beautiful bar that lakefront light slowly faded beyond the western shore.

This is a restaurant at a yacht club (with a venerable history), so the E-Scow hanging from the ceiling and the trophies filling the glass cases shouldn’t come as any surprise. The surroundings here are vibrant and clean, beautiful, really, as they should be given the building is only a few years old. A large fireplace anchors the Eastern wall of that large, lakeside dining room.  The glow flickered throughout the room, with the overhead chandeliers warmed to low.  Excepting Pier 290, this is the nicest scene of any fish fry you’ll find in the Lake Geneva area.  But this is also a private club, so you’ll need to consider membership to enjoy this place. Or just be like me, and tag along with friends.

After some time lingering near the bar, where I nursed my Sprite, we sat at a table for four in the middle of that lovely dining room.  The crowd was well dressed, happy, with most sporting birth years that fell closer to those of my parents than my own. The waiter was quickly table side, and with a slightly uneasy cadence described our dining options. The Fish Fry was two piece cod, served broiled or fried, served with potato pancakes, applesauce, tartar sauce, hushpuppies, and coleslaw.  That sounds good, I’ll take it.

The Crab Cake appetizer looked worthwhile, so we took a stab. It was a singular cake ($14), nicely crisped but tender as a crab cake should be. It was served with a smear of something or other and a small assembly of finely diced vegetables, bacon, and some corn. It was a delicious appetizer, though I would have liked to have some larger chunks of crab in the cake.  In the distance, the old men in blazers discussed the wind and knots and cleats and sails.

The fish arrived within a reasonable amount of time, served on a white platter with quality, smaller dishes holding in the tartar sauce and other accompaniments. I liked this, as the plague of plastic takeout containers had been kept out of this fine establishment. The fish filets were not large, but they were large enough, and shaped like a proper rectangle, not a silly square. A lemon wedge sat atop my broiled piece. The potato pancakes were moderately sized, and after a disappointing run where my cakes were served in the singular, I had a nice pair of pancakes to consider.

My first bite was of the fried cod.  The batter was super crunchy, thin, not tough, the cod white and tender like the cod in my dreams. It was perfect. Well salted, slightly sweet, and perhaps the best fried cod I’ve had so far, only rivaled by the Lookout Bar at Lake Lawn Lodge. The broiled piece was slightly undercooked, which is preferable to slightly overcooked.  The hushpuppies (2) were sweet and creamy, the best hushpuppies I’ve had to date. If dusted with powdered sugar and served after dinner on a small white plate, I would have appreciated them even as a dessert.

The potato pancakes were well salted, with a bit of extra flavor that I couldn’t quite identify. They were thin, but properly cooked, nicely crisped, and delightful. Were they the best pancake I’ve had? No, but they were close.  The applesauce was too smooth for my liking, but it was cold and flavorful. The tartar sauce, according to my dinner mates, was lighter than typical, nuanced with flavor, and generally accepted as being delicious.

This was a beautiful dinner. The food was wonderful. The scene divine. The hushed murmurs of sailing strategy only slightly distracting to my fishy focus.  Given that this is a private club, it only stands to reason that it would be better than your average fish fry, but this dinner was exceptional. The next day, I inquired of the membership manager as to what a social membership would cost me. This is a fish fry I might not be able to live without.

 

Lake Geneva Yacht Club 9/10

1250 South Lakeshore Drive, Fontana, WI 

Members Only

$17 Single Serve Fried or Broiled Cod

Harpoon Willies Fish Fry Review

Harpoon Willies Fish Fry Review

Last Friday marked my twelfth consecutive Friday night fish fry, at my twelfth different restaurant. The process of deciding which establishment to judge hasn’t been as easy as you might think.  Should I drive to East Troy to some restaurant that someone on this blog said I should visit? Or do I stick to the staples, to the restaurants that everyone knows? Visiting the unknown might be more fun, and if I visit the unknown and the fish is awful then at least I won’t offend anyone in my home town. Last Friday, my wife and I went to Harpoon Willies in Williams Bay. I’ve been there more times than I can count, but this was the first time I’ve ever ordered the fish.

Unlike the other restaurants I’ve visited, Harpoon Willies matters to me.  On a hot summer afternoon in the early 1990s I stood nervously in that parking lot in my dirty lawn mowing clothes while Harry Caray autographed a receipt for me. Holy Cow, Cub’s Win. Followed by a scribble that must have been his signature. I took some time off from Harpoons after that day, but in recent years the in-house smoker brought me back. The brisket sandwich is as smoky and tender as it might be anywhere. The waffle fries are the best french fry on any menu in the county.  It’s with this understood bias that I entered into that dark establishment last Friday night.

The restaurant is across the street from the lake in Williams Bay, but it still classifies as lakeside to me. There’s a large screened porch that was understandably quiet on this chilly Friday evening. The primary dining area consists of a long bar surrounded by some high tops and a few booths. The booths were rebuilt with reclaimed barn wood a year or so ago, and they’re quite nice. The whole scene is nice. It’s like a dive bar that looks cool and doesn’t make you regret entering the second the door pulls shut behind you. There’s an old boat hanging from the ceiling, sports on the televisions, and generally upbeat crowd that would make me comfortable with my mom and dad or my daughter in tow.

Once we were situated at our high-top for two nearest the porch and lakeside windows, the pleasant waiter was table side to take our order.  I asked if any appetizers were worth my consideration.  Without hesitation the calamari was recommended.  When ordering calamari it’s a toss up between restaurants that serve it with marinara sauce and those that serve it with cocktail sauce. Harpoons makes no equivocation and serves theirs with cocktail sauce, the way God intended.  The Fish Fry, according to the waiter, was a single serve portion of fried, beer battered cod, with a single potato pancake (the single pancake returns to vex me). The sides of applesauce, coleslaw and tartar sauce are included.  We ordered the fish and waited.

The calamari was brought out first, within five or six minutes. It was a decent sized portion, not necessarily generous. But the calamari was tender and the breading light. It was a delicious appetizer. We greedily ate it, which is the only way to eat fried calamari. Should you ever find yourself with someone who casually and delicately eats fried calamari, you must distance yourself from them. They likely swallow pills dry and purposefully bathe in lukewarm water. A few minutes after we finished the calamari the fish was served.  The first glance proved three golden pieces of cod with a large, flat potato pancake underneath. The sides were served in plastic take-out containers, stacked on top of it all.  In spite of my immediate disapproval of the takeout cups, the rest of the dinner looked delicious even if the portion size looked small.  Because I’ve been a patron of Harpoon’s for years, I had high expectations that they would deliver on their typically better than average bar fare.

I knew there was trouble when my fork first, and barely, touched the fried cod. The human brain is a an amazing creation, and it knows just how much pressure a hand holding a fork should have to apply in order to break through a piece of soft cod. My hand applied the pressure, the fork pressing into the battered exterior. Instead of breaking open, as a piece of fried cod should perform, this cod just compressed under the pressure of my fork.  I pressed harder, the fish didn’t yield. I picked up the piece of fish with my hand, this is a bar after all, and took a bite. The crunch was perfect, but the fish was immeasurably dry. The next piece was the same. The third piece, the same. My wife’s fish was equally tough and dry. The fish was the worst piece of fried fish I’ve had on this tour. The week of anticipation, the hunger brought on Friday while thinking of a delicious bite of fried fish, the entire week and forthcoming weekend, ruined by this overcooked fish.

The potato pancake was very thin, and as a result, it was a touch dry. It wasn’t super crispy, and it wasn’t very flavorful.  The singular note of potato was all that I could discern.  It was a disappointment. The applesauce was smooth but flavorful. The coleslaw and tartar sauce acceptable, but not praiseworthy, according to my wife.  There was no bread or butter served with dinner, which is a typical situation at a bar, so while I missed it I didn’t expect it.  We finished our meal and quietly drove home to pick fish out of our teeth.

And in this, there is a lesson. Just because a place serves fish, that doesn’t mean the place is somewhere you should go for fish fry. I’m doing this review series to weed out the restaurants that aren’t worth your time, but that only applies to the fish fry. Harpoon Willie’s serves most delicious smoked meats. The waffle fries are divine. The scene is quite wonderful, summer or winter. But the fish fry was a complete and terrible miss. Perhaps the chef left the fish in the oil for a couple of minutes too long. I’ve done the same. Perhaps every other order that night was perfect. Whatever the reason,  I wouldn’t go to Harpoon’s for their fish. Just like I wouldn’t go to Pino’s for their fish. I’d go to Harpoons to eat a brisket sandwich and waffle fries. I’d go for their pizza, which is quite good. I’d go because I like Williams Bay and I like the idea of a quick dinner or lunch lakeside, either in winter with a game on or during summer in the screened porch. You’ll see me again at Harpoon Willies soon enough, but I won’t be eating the fish.

 

Harpoon Willies 3/10

$13 Fried Cod (three piece) with Potato Pancake

8 East Geneva Street, Williams Bay

Pino’s Fish Fry Review

Pino’s Fish Fry Review

Pino’s Last Call has been a Walworth dining option for more than 30 years. I’ve eaten their pizza many times, and count it among the best tavern style pizza in the area. In spite of these years and because of this pizza, I’ve never, ever, eaten anything else from Pino’s. It’s a pizza place, so I order the pizza. Except last Friday night when I went to order the fish. Every restaurant in Wisconsin is a fish restaurant on Friday night, so whether Pino’s wants to or not, they submit to the expectation. Friday night I found myself in the restaurant, hungry.

Pino’s occupies the old Ben Franklin store in Walworth, tucked into the back of a small strip-mall style enclave wedged between the old town square and Sentry. The space is large. Correction, the space is too large. It’s a space that I’m sure fills at certain times, but most of the time it’s just a large restaurant that feels rather sparse.  My wife and I entered around 6:30 pm and made our way to the North side of the restaurant, opposite the bar area, and sat down in what was the frame department of my youth. The high top for two was fine.

The waitress was cheery and table side in a reasonable amount of time. I had asked to be seated in the bar area on account of the NCAA basketball that occupied those televisions. I am nothing if not an inattentive dinner date.  I asked if any appetizers were worth ordering. She said the mozzarella sticks are homemade, rather than saying they were housemade, which is, of course, the correct way of identifying the location of assembly.  I ordered the cheese curds, because my wife is a curd aficionado and we’ve had a nice run with the curd lately.

The fish fry is Haddock, a Cod like fish that’s somehow different. A quick google search told me that Haddock is drier than Cod, a bit more firm, and nearly indistinguishable from its dark water dwelling relative. The Haddock is served broiled or fried, all you can eat, with potato pancakes or fries. I ordered the usual, one piece of each, with the potato pancake.  The cheese curds were brought, along with our waters. Michigan State was winning.

The curds were fine. Not the best I’ve ever had, but fine. Sort of similar to a Culver’s curd with a breading and not a batter. They are served with marinara sauce rather than ranch dressing, and while I prefer the ranch I did like their super sweet marinara sauce very much. The wait for our fish was somewhat lengthy, but not so long that it felt like an inconvenience. I watched some of the game and some of the kids pestering their parents for video game money (there’s a small arcade area near the front door).

When the fish made its initial appearance it was obvious were weren’t dealing with Cod here. The Haddock was in small fish-stick shaped pieces,  two pieces fried and two pieces broiled. The pieces were small, perhaps four or five bites each. The battered was golden brown, the broiled sprinkled with a top spicing of paprika and what I thought to be oregano.  The broiled was a bit dry, which is apparently a hallmark of Haddock. It was passable, but I didn’t find it to be magical in any way. The fried was a bit soggy on the exterior, lacking any particular crunch.  When cutting off a bite sized section with my fork the fish fell out of the battered exterior, leaving me with some hunks of fish and a calamari shaped ring of batter. This wasn’t ideal. The fish had a nice flavor, perhaps preferable to a typical cod dinner, but I didn’t care for the more dry texture and I didn’t like the deconstructed arrangement between the batter and the fish.

The potato pancakes came two to an order, which was a welcome plurality after the singular cake at Crafted Americana. These pancakes were not crispy, a bit greasy, and a touch dry.  This is not a winning combination for a potato pancake. After having found several pancakes with interesting flavor profiles, this was back to the single note, rather bland cake. It falls somewhere in between the average pancake on this tour and the poor pancakes I was served at 290 and Gordy’s.  As I ate, I longed for the delicious pancake of the Lookout Bar, or the Big Foot Inn.

The sides of applesauce, tartar sauce and coleslaw were served in small plastic containers. The applesauce was perhaps two large spoonfuls worth. It was smooth and bland, but at least it wasn’t hot. The coleslaw and tartar sauce were okay, my wife said.  I noted the lack of enthusiasm in her eyes.  In spite of our orders being identical, my wife’s dinner was served with a small container of drawn butter, but no applesauce. I was served applesauce but not butter. This is an inconsistency that shouldn’t be tolerated, at least not by a restaurant that’s been in business for thirty or more years.  There was no bread for the table, no butter, softened, foiled, or otherwise.

I have no relationship with Pino’s. No fond memories of eating here with family and friends, laughing the night away.  Because of this I can judge this dinner without any cloudy encumbrances of nostalgia or familiarity. This fish fry was not memorable. It was cheap, and at $9.95 per for all you can eat it registers as our most economical dinner of 2018.   But the fish fry was mediocre at best. There were too many misses to consider this a fish fry worthy of your time.  In spite of this, I still think you should visit Pino’s on a Friday night. Just order the pizza.

 

Pino’s Last Call 4/10

$9.95 All You Can Eat Haddock

545 Kenosha Street, Walworth

 

Crafted Americana Fish Fry Review

Crafted Americana Fish Fry Review

You’ll be forgiven if you have no idea what a Crafted Americana is.  It might be a beer or an ice cream sundae or an antique shop or a woodworking studio deep in the heart of Appalachia. It’s none of those. It’s just a restaurant in the Interlaken Hotel. Or The Ridge, as it’s being called these days. It might have been something else for a while, too.   Whatever the name, whatever the condition, it’s on Highway 50 and it’ll always be Interlaken to me. I went there with my family last Friday night at the beckoning of their outdoor signage. FISH FRY $14.

The interior space at this old hotel has been transformed into something new. Something different, at least for this market.  It’s very shiny and very modern and there’s a coffee shop that serves Wisconsin’s Collectivo Coffee, which is nice.  I’m glad to see this old hotel looking its best. But in spite of the glitz and the shimmer it feels very much like a hotel attached to an airport. The dining room, while rather impressive with large chandeliers and comfy leather backed banquet seating, still felt like I was whiling away an hour before my flight to Toledo.

The dining room was quite full on that Friday evening. Full with fish fry eaters, yes, but mostly with groups that looked like they were on some sort of business. A pharmaceutical sales retreat, perhaps. Dinner at Crafted Americana at 6:30, presentation by Astrozenica at 8, sharp. We were seated at a four top, with two chairs opposite a long leather bench. I sat on the bench, to better surveil the room, and found the seating to be quite comfortable. The table was nicely arranged, The chandeliers twinkly. The waiter quickly arrived table side, with a checked shirt with seems to be the new uniform for restaurant staff.

I asked if there was an appetizer worth my time. Cheese Curds, he replied with immediate enthusiasm. I asked about the fish fry, per usual. He said it was two pieces of fried or broiled Atlantic Cod, a distinguished regional fish apparently, and one potato pancake or fries. He assured me the pancake was large.  The dinner was single serve, which I always find disappointing after starving myself in anticipation of my weekly fish feast.  Four waters and an order of cheese curds it would be, followed by fish fry, one piece of each, with the singular pancake.

The curds arrived within seven or eight minutes. They were in a small modern style serving container, perhaps 12 curds in total. This is my typical complaint about the curd. Too much money for too little cheese. These curds were battered and served with an aioli, which is a fancy word for mayonnaise. The curds were good. Better than most, not as good as some.  Following the curds I was delighted when the water brought out a slab of slate with several slices of bread and a prodigious mound of whipped butter.  The bread was Pumpernickel, which I obviously hate, at least usually. This bread had nuts and raisins and barely the slightest sniff of rye. The bread was pretty good, but the butter was divine. Sent from the heavens, whipped by the angels, delivered to me on this Friday night. I liked the bread, and the butter was the absolute best butter I’ve had on this tasting tour.

The fish was brought next. A large plate with one pancake, and one piece broiled and fried cod. Both were a bit square in shape for my initial liking. A couple of lemon wedges dressed up the plate, and the sides of tartar sauce, applesauce, and coleslaw filled the table. At first glance, aside from the square filets and the singular pancake, the meal looked pretty terrific. First, the broiled cod. The second my fork touched the fish I knew it was tough. The texture wasn’t flaky and light like a delicately cooked fish should be. Instead it was a bit hard, sort of tough. Overcooked. Fail.

The fried piece was marginally better, with a beautiful dark brown batter concealing a reasonably well seasoned piece of cod. Still, while this fish was better than the broiled, it was a bit dry and a bit underwhelming.  A taste of the applesauce revealed a hot sauce, warmed like a bowl of soup on a cold day. It was heavy on the cinnamon, which is okay, but smooth and hot. I like my applesauce like I like my Blizzards. Cold and chunky.  The tartar sauce and coleslaw were apparently passable, but, like me, neither elicited high praise from my wife.

The potato pancake was already facing an uphill battle since it was on its own, without a companion to offer support.  It looked the part, and was made of properly shredded potato, but it lacked any depth of flavor and was a bit too dry. It was also salty, very salty, as if the chef over salted some soup earlier in the day and let the potatoes soak in the soup to absorb the excess salt. Then he made my potato pancake with those potatoes.  It wasn’t a very good cake, though it wasn’t as dry as the Pier 290 and Gordy’s DustCakes.

The good: A pretty restaurant with a higher level of finishes. A deliciously unexpected bread and butter tray. That butter, man. That butter. The bad: Dry fish. Salty, slightly dry pancake. My immediate thought was that this space would earn a seven out of ten. But after the weekend, I thought I cannot let the nicer surroundings offset the fact that the fish was dry. After all, this is a fish fry review, not a restaurant design review.  The Ridge Hotel and its Crafted Americana restaurant should be on your tour for Fish Fry. Perhaps they’ll take out the fish a minute earlier than mine, and the pancake won’t be so salty. Even so, on this night, those two mistakes cannot be forgiven.

Crafted Americana (At The Ridge Hotel) 5.5/10

W4240 State Highway 50, Lake Geneva

Fried or Broiled Cod, two pieces, $14

Popeye’s Fish Fry Review

Popeye’s Fish Fry Review

I called ahead. It was 5:50 pm and I figured I’d arrive at Popeye’s with my party of six sometime just after 6.  I learned many weeks ago not to take  off-season dinner seating for granted, so I called Popeye’s and a woman answered. I asked if I needed a reservation for dinner.  She said, “honey, we seat 600.”  But then she proceeded to tell me that a reservation wouldn’t be a terrible idea and she took my name. I asked if they had fish fry, a question asked with an answer already known. Honey, we have the best fish fry in Southeastern Wisconsin. 

It’s difficult to be a big restaurant in the biggest location in the biggest resort town in the Midwest. While I imagine it’s nice to have seating for 600, and that premium location will never go out of style, if you would have asked Andre, he’d agree. It’s not easy being a giant. When I suggested Popeye’s for fish fry my friend immediately replied,  “Is the food good or is it just a cheesy tourist trap?” 

The parking meters are no longer free. We learned this after parking and noticing the meter maid waltzing along the lakeside street, after 6 pm.  I insisted to the meter maid that assuredly parking had to be free after 6 pm, at least in March, right? 7 pm, the maid replied. I fed my credit card into the machine and felt certain that had it been 7 pm his answer would have been 8 pm.  Slightly irritated by the gall of the Lake Geneva Parking Policies, we entered Popeyes and were led to our seats in the elevated dining room to the East of the entry and bar.  In the event that you didn’t know, Popeye’s Lake Geneva is not affiliated with the fast food restaurant that shares their name.

Our water glasses were quickly filled and my typical question about the fish fry posed. $14.99, all you can eat fried or broiled cod, with a choice of potato pancake or fries, hush puppies and a few of the usual sides. The waitress moved quickly through the dining room, quickly to our table, quickly from our table. Quickly. The evening rush was on and this large restaurant was filling up nicely. We ordered the fish and a half rack of ribs as a pregame to our fishy meal.

The ribs arrived quickly, and were fine. Nothing special. It’s a shame really, since there’s a charcoal spit roasting chickens outside at nearly all times. I’d make a custom basket for the ribs and twirl those over the charcoal along with the chicken.  But that’s just me, and I like tasty food. The menu says the ribs are smoked, which they may very well be, but I couldn’t detect a whiff of smoke in these ribs.  Within 10 minutes our dinner was served.

A huge tray of food was placed on an elevated platform in the middle of our table. It was like a pizza platform, but filled with fried and broiled fish, potato pancakes, and hushpuppies.  A few lemon wedges dressed up the edges. The french fries came in their own basket. It was a feast. I must say that I don’t like family style servings. It cheapens the food.  That’s the reason shrimp cocktail is usually served with five or six or eight shrimp tails. Throw 100 shrimp tails on a platter and smear some cocktail sauce in the middle and the special treat has turned into a free for all.

I grabbed a few pieces of fried cod, one piece of broiled cod, a potato pancake and a hushpuppy. The hushpuppy was nicely crisped, tender in the middle. It tasted of crab. It may have had some crab in it, but I didn’t check the menu to see if it really did. The pancake was quite good. My grandmother was a terrible cook, but she did whip up a fine dish of Tetrazzini with bits of pimento peppers. These pancakes had pimento peppers, and I enjoyed the nostalgic flavor quite a bit. The potato was shredded, as it should be, the exterior crisped but not greasy. These were delicious potato pancakes, and for the first time this tour, I was offered a dollop of sour cream for my pancakes. I liked the effort.

The fried cod was shaped more like an extravagant fish stick.  The pieces were slender and narrow, like fingers. But there was some variation in the sizing, and I like variation in my fish filets. The batter was light and airy, the first of its kind on this winter tour. The fish was tender, well seasoned, and quite delicious. I was impressed. The broiled cod was your basic square of cod, needing salt and lacking any particular dimension.  The french fries were delicious, slightly spicy, and memorable. I place them in a tie with Gordy’s for finest traditional french fry in the area.

The sides were a disappointment. I have long adored the dinner rolls at Popeyes, and used to eat one with a bowl of clam chowder long ago when I ate semi-frequent lunches there. This fish feast, not that it needed it, didn’t include any bread. No dinner roll. No loaf of bread. No slice of intolerable Rye. I suppose I’d rather have no bread than be blindsided by Rye, but still. With no bread there was no butter, no judging. The applesauce was bland and smooth, and sadly served in a small plastic take out container.

The tartar sauce was apparently rather sweet, but not terrible, also served in a take out container. There was no coleslaw. Had there been coleslaw, it would have been served in one of those take out containers, the sort you’d pump ketchup into at a Culver’s. We finished most of the mountain of food and the waitress quickly cleared our table. There was some leftover fish and at least one potato pancake, but the food was unceremoniously taken from the table.  The menu warns that leftovers will not be taken home.

Popeyes very well might be a cheesy tourist restaurant.  There is so much flair here, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for Chotchkie’s.  It’s an undeniably large, loud space. The prime seats are the two tops nearest the window, even on a dark March night.  While this Lake Geneva institution won’t win any awards for excellence in design, Popeyes manages to be both cheesy tourist trap and purveyor of above average fare.   On this Friday night, I left impressed by the fish fry. Sure, I bemoaned the lack of bread, coleslaw (the menu says it’s included), and softened butter. And I felt ill over the plastic  cup my flavorless, smooth applesauce was served in. But the lightly fried cod was delicate and well seasoned, the potato pancake with pimento rather divine, and that’s all it takes to win my affection.

 

Popeye’s Fish Fry 8/10

Cod, All You Can Eat, $14.99

811 Wrigley Drive, Lake Geneva

Above, Popeye’s image courtesy Visit Lake Geneva.
The Village Supper Club Fish Fry Review

The Village Supper Club Fish Fry Review

From Friday to Friday, one side of Delavan Lake to the other, I turned into the parking lot at the Village Supper Club at 5 pm sharp. Early, you say. Necessary, I reply. The prior week I tried to eat here at 6 pm but was faced with a 30 minute wait, so I made a concerted effort to arrive early. Such a popular place for Friday fish must be worth that minor sacrifice.

This is a supper club, much in the same vein as Anthony’s or the Big Foot Inn. The foyer is dark, a requirement of supper club design. If you invite me to your supper club and the foyer is brightly lit I’m going to suggest what you’ve actually got there is a restaurant, not a supper club. The hostess was pleasant and walked us past the bar, around a salad bar, and to our table in the front room, facing the lake. There are a series of dining rooms here, but only two face the water. That’s where we were seated, with a nice view of Delavan Lake, if such a thing exists.

The waitress quickly brought our waters and I inquired about the fish fry. She was a pleasant woman, and excitedly told us about the fish. She knew what we wanted. $13.75 for all you can eat fried cod, served family style. Broiled is single serve. Choice of potato pancakes or french fries, along with the usual sides. The kids fish fry was only $9.25.  I ordered the fried cod, with a side of broiled, and that, was that.

There’s nothing much to consider when seated at the Village Supper Club awaiting your fish. So we spent a few blank minutes and were quickly presented with our dinner. It almost felt like we received our food too quickly. Without any delay there is no anticipation, without anticipation there are no pangs of developing hunger, without hunger there is no relief.  A heaping plate of fried cod, a side of broiled cod,  a plate of potato pancakes, some fries for the kids,  applesauce, tartar sauce, coleslaw, along with a sliced loaf of bread. At first blush the fish looked good, the potato pancakes looked odd, and the bread sported the tell-tale blistering that results from some time spent in the microwave.

I was immediately drawn to the unique potato pancake. It was pillow shaped, fried to a quite dark brown, and softer than a typical pancake. The texture of the potato was not shredded, but rather riced, creating a mouthfeel not at all like a potato pancake.  It was oddly sweet, and I couldn’t quite tell if I was eating a potato pancake or some sort of hush puppy with some potato bits thrown in.  That distinction shouldn’t ever be blurred.  Excepting Pier 290’s dried out saw-dust pancake, this was my least favorite pancake I’ve eaten this year. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste, but I have little time to spend suffering through that acquisition.

The fried cod was good. The batter crunchy, the filet appropriately shaped. I didn’t mind the fried fish. The broiled piece was a thick rectangle served with a side of drawn butter and a lemon wedge. I will always appreciate a pot of butter on my plate, no matter how tough and bland the cod might be. And the cod was both.  The bread, with those microwaved skin blisters, was chewy, as microwaved bread tends to be.  The flavor was good, but how can you expect me to enjoy this sort of bread served with cold foiled butter? You can’t, and I didn’t.  The applesauce was bland and too smooth. The tartar sauce, my wife said, was fine, but a bit sweet. We didn’t ask for seconds of anything, and within 30 minutes the whole ordeal was over. Two adult fish fries, two kids fish fries, and a side of cod ($1.95): $60.59 with tip.

While we walked out a steady stream of hungry patrons poured in. Do these people not know what good fish fry tastes like? Are they unaware that a much better dinner exists on the other side of that shallow lake?  When it comes to fish fry, often tradition takes first place in deciding where to go. Tradition can outweigh good food any day of the week, especially on a Friday. Thankfully I have no tradition to obstruct my objectivity. The restaurant is blah. It’s a classic supper club, but it isn’t quite dated enough or cheesy enough to win my affection. The fried cod was meh. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good. The potato pancake was more a potato hushpuppy, and I cannot abide such an interpretation. The bread was blah, the butter foiled. The applesauce? Blah.

The Village might be one of the most popular places to eat fried fish on a Friday in Wisconsin, but that Friday visit will count as my first and my last.

The Village Supper Club  3/10

$13.75 All You Can Eat Fried Cod

1725 South Shore Drive, Delavan, WI

Lake Lawn Lodge Fish Fry Review

Lake Lawn Lodge Fish Fry Review

We pulled into the Village Supper Club parking lot at 6:20 pm. Everyone else had pulled in at least a few minutes before that. The large lot that sends cars across Delavan’s South Shore Drive was full.  I called the restaurant to find out if there was a wait. There was. 30 minutes. My commitment to the fish fry does not allow for such a wait, not when there are dozens of other restaurants that beg my attention (or beg to remain anonymous).  We drove North, then West, then through the entrance to Lake Lawn Lodge.  The Christmas lights were still up, still twinkling.

Lake Lawn Lodge has had a tumultuous last decade, and I’ll admit to you now that I’ve avoided the resort like the plague.  I don’t really golf so much anymore, so the golf course no longer draws. I have loads of dining options closer to Geneva Lake, so I won’t be running over to Lake Lawn to grab a bite. And I’ve always said that if you ever see me swimming in Delavan Lake I implore you to check the rope and cinder blocks around my feet, because I’m not in the lake on my own accord.  We followed the parking lot arrows towards “RESTAURANTS” and walked into the first of a series of interconnected buildings.

There are detailed building maps inside Lake Lawn Lodge. Illuminated maps. You Are Here.  At first glance you’d wonder why so much attention is paid to these maps, but after wandering down the maze of hallways that connect this sprawling resort, you’ll soon appreciate the guidance.  My family used to eat at Lake Lawn on Friday nights many many years ago, so I’m no stranger to the general location of the restaurant. We followed the hallways, past the gift shop, past an ice cream shop, past an arcade, and found the restaurant. In the foyer of the restaurant space the smell of perfume overwhelmed me. It was as if my dead grandmother and her dead sisters got together one last time to have a contest to see who could douse themselves in the most Chanel No 5. There are no winners in such a contest, and I wondered why a restaurant would employ such powerful, artificial odors. Is the Fish Fry that bad?

The restaurant was large and somewhat fancy. I thought, aside from the overpowering air fresheners, that it might be a nice place to eat.  I asked the hostess if there was a fish fry available. There wasn’t, she explained, but the restaurant farther down the maze of hallways serves a fish fry. We left the perfume strafed area and forged ahead. Past this and past that. Outside, a fireplace was lit. No one stood near it, because remember this isn’t Colorado and we have our wits about us? After some time of wandering we found the Lookout Bar. It’s at the far southern end of the particular building we were in, close to the lake.  I imagined the view would be decent in the summer, but it was winter and it was dark and so we took our seats.

The restaurant is just a small area with a low ceiling and perhaps 25-35 tables, along with a lakeside bar. The Lookout Bar, presumably.  The bar area looked more interesting and inviting, but the room we were in was rather awful. It felt like an out of the way room in an old hotel, which is exactly what it is. The table had a neat old timey map of Delavan Lake on it, and when I remarked to my wife that Delavan Lake looked like a whale, she didn’t agree. The walls had old prints of the lodge and of old men with stringers of fish, indiscriminate varieties including walleye and pike. Old timers always look so proud of themselves in those photos. Our waitress was quickly table side and explained the fish fry.

Fried cod, two or three pieces, with a side of potato.  No broiled cod. No substitutes. No all you can eat. At first I was disenchanted. If I’m going to eat fried fish, I want to eat so much of it that I wonder what’s wrong with me. With no such option, I ordered three pieces. I asked that the potato be served as one potato pancake and a scant inclusion of french fries, which the waitress said were delicious. I asked if any appetizers were particularly important and she stressed the cheese curds. Never one to pass on the insistence of a convincing waitress, I ordered as she instructed.

Within five minutes our cheese curds were brought out, served in a metal fryer style basket. I should say I’m not a huge cheese curd fan, as an order of curds is usually small and expensive and I am proudly large and cheap. These curds, however, were amazing. I’ll tell you now that they were the best curds I’ve ever eaten, and I’ve had them all over the world. They were fried perfectly, soft and tender inside, crisp and light outside. They were battered, not breaded, which is an important distinction with cheese curds. Culver breads theirs, which makes them less than. These curds were delightful and the serving size was huge. We didn’t eat the entire basket, which doesn’t sound out of the ordinary to many people but is, as a point of fact, a rare occurrence at my table.

The fish followed, and my three piece order with a mix of potatoes was served as a two piece order with two potato pancakes. This was a regrettable error, but I’ll let it slide. Applesauce, coleslaw, tartar sauce and bread accompanied the fried platter. The applesauce was bland and smooth, a miss. The coleslaw was dry, and my wife said it was blah. The tartar sauce she said was delicious, perhaps as good as the Waterfront’s from the Friday before. The bread was pumpernickel, with is basically rye bread in disguise. Nice try, rye. The butter for this sacrilegious bread was served cold, in a small rectangular foil wrapper. This is unacceptable, and I’d encourage Lake Lawn to fix the error of their bread and butter ways.

The fish, on the other hand, was absolutely delightful. The batter was crunchy and light, the fish tender and well seasoned. It was the best fried fish I’ve eaten. The two pieces proved to be more than enough, even without touching the devil’s bread. The potato pancakes were very interesting. They were thick, well crisped on the top and bottom, and creamy on the interior. They tasted heavily of leeks, or perhaps just green onions, and for a while I couldn’t decide if I liked them. After some contemplation, I concluded that indeed, these were mighty fine pancakes. Different, but good. It was a risk to serve a different style potato pancake, but the risk paid off. The combination of wonderful fish and unique potato pancake elevated these two staples to the top of the leaderboard. Lake Lawn, you’ve done well.

But it isn’t all perfectly fried cod. The bread and butter cannot be forgiven. The clumsy restaurant space is not something easily forgotten.  Both of our water glasses went dry, without any offer for a refill. I ordered three pieces of cod and only received two, and the potato switcheroo. These things unfortunately offset the delicious fish dinner. Still, I’m impressed with the effort, and encourage you to visit Lake Lawn’s Lookout restaurant. Maybe it’s much better in the summer when you can sit outside.  Maybe it’s better if you sit in the bar room. Either way, it was a delicious dinner and that means more to me than anything else.  I’m pleased to place Lake Lawn in a tie for first.

 

Lake Lawn Lodge Lookout Restaurant 9/10

Two Piece Fried Cod $12.50, Three Piece $14

2400 East Geneva Street, Delavan, WI 53115

 

 

The Abbey Waterfront Fish Fry Review

The Abbey Waterfront Fish Fry Review

We intended to arrive as a party of seven sometime around 6 pm. Having been rebuffed in my dinner attempt on the prior Friday, I called ahead to make a reservation. It felt unnecessary, a dinner reservation on a snowy night in February, but I didn’t want to face the difficulty of a 30 minute wait. The hotel operator answered and asked how many in my party. Seven, I replied. She informed me that reservations are only taken for tables of eight or more.  Seven is trivial, eight is everything. And so we went to the restaurant and hoped there would be a table. There was.

The Waterfront restaurant sits on the lower level of the Abbey hotel in Fontana, closest to the harbor. The hotel has undergone some significant improvements over recent years, but some of it still feels sad and old. This is the plague of an old hotel with low ceilings. You can gild the walls and diamond encrust the ceilings but when the last stone is set you’ll just be left with an ornate coffin.  The restaurant is broken into two distinct dining areas separated by a bar. The initial space is comfortable, with a lower ceiling,  while the lakeside room opens up to a soaring ceiling with ample glass to take in the views. The hostess quickly sat us at a high-top in the lakeside room overlooking the icy harbor. Outside, twinkly lights lit a makeshift skating rink, nearby an outdoor fire. If this were Colorado, dozens of people would have been gathered, toasting to the mountain gods and reveling in the dry cold. But this is Wisconsin, so we all sat inside and wondered what insanity would  compel someone to stand outside, fire or not.

Our waiter was a bit nervous, perhaps on account of the large group.  We ordered a round of waters, and my friend asked for a half order of ribs for a warm up. The fish fry featured a choice of broiled or fried cod or walleye, and to my surprise, the walleye and cod were both just $13, all you can eat. The side offerings include potato pancakes, fries, and sweet potato fries- the first restaurant to offer the additional potato. I ordered the fish, one piece walleye and one piece cod, both fried, with the potato pancakes.  The rest of the table ordered various bits and fishy things.

The Waterfront boasts a menu with several smoked items, much in the way that Harpoon Willies has added a smoker and the accompanying meats to their menu. The ribs arrived quickly, slathered in sauce, smoked to tender. The half rack was small, as if taken from a tiny pet cow at a petting zoo on the outskirts of some small Midwestern town. The ribs came with a side order, which we filled with sweet potato fries. The fries were robust wedges of sweet potato, cooked perfectly. I’ve had these fries before and sometimes they tend to be a bit undercooked, so I was pleased to find the outside crispy and the inside soft. The ribs were quite good, and given their miniature size, we ate them without pause.  The only complaint I had on the ribs was the dry rub, presumably the rub they are smoked with prior to saucing, still tasted a bit too grainy. Perhaps the ribs are smoked and then tossed in some additional dry run before saucing. If that’s the case, I’d recommend they skip that step.

The fish was brought within 20 minutes of ordering which felt like the right timing. The plates were large, filled with fried things and served with ample sides of applesauce, tartar sauce, and coleslaw. The apple sauce was deliciously chunky.  I skipped the tartar sauce as usual, but my tablemates proclaimed the tartar sauce to the best ever. High praise from women who eat only to stay nourished. In the Midwest, Spotted Cow from New Glarus Brewery is a pretty important beer. Imagine then the delight of Waterfront patrons when they learn that their fish fry batter is a Spotted Cow batter.  The fish was nicely battered and fried to a perfect golden brown. The pieces were well sized, thick enough to hold moisture, and filet shaped.  The square cuts of fish that have plagued some of our reviewed restaurants were thankfully absent.

Both the walleye and cod received glowing reviews from our table, though I found the walleye to be better than the cod. I am not a walleye aficionado. I do not eat walleye shore lunches with the Chicago businessmen who fly to remote locations in Ontario to impress gullible walleye with their awful angling skills.  Still, the walleye was tender and so was the cod, though each could have used a touch more salt. This evening was shaping up to be the evening where Anthony’s was dethroned. The applesauce, chunky. The fish, tasty. The batter, crunchy. Nothing could derail the Waterfront now.  Nothing, except the potato pancake. It wasn’t as bad as Gordy’s Sawdust Cake, but it was close. It looked good and had a nicely crusted exterior, but inside, the cake was a bit dry. If you’re going to impress me, you cannot serve me a dry pancake. No amount of delicious tartar sauce or chunky applesauce can mask this fatal mistake.

Even though I should find a way to eat less bread, I was nonetheless displeased with the Waterfront’s lack of table bread. No roll, no loaf, no slices. At least they didn’t try to serve me Rye, I suppose. But no bread meant no butter, which means a key component of the fish fry review was rendered untested. Once I had eaten my fish and choked through the potato pancake and recovered from the breadless disappointment, I ordered my second helping of fish. This time broiled, one piece cod and one piece walleye.  During this wait I nibbled at the hushpuppies that come with each order. They were fine, though a bit drier than I would have liked. I appreciated the inclusion and the effort.

Our timid, but polite, waiter brought the fish out, one piece to one plate. The filets both looked remarkably similar. Both skinny and long, one indistinguishable from the other. If you know what a walleye looks like and you know what a cod looks like, I suppose they could have the same dimensions, though I found this highly unlikely. I just hope I wasn’t eating Florida golf course tilapia. The broiled pieces were far inferior to their fried counterparts. That rub that felt misplaced on the ribs was present again, or at least the paprika component, and the filets were liberally covered in this spice. I didn’t like it. The walleye was served skin on, which is fine, but since the fish was broiled and not first tossed in flour and quickly pan fried (sautéed, like the Gordy’s perch), the skin became slippery and slimy. I didn’t care for it.  Far worse, my son found two bones in his single piece of broiled walleye, which is the first bone anyone has found at any  of the restaurants we’ve visited.  For shame.

Another Friday night, another near miss. The fish was good, likely the best fried fish I’ve had on this tour. The broiled fish was a miss. The potato pancake was a miss. The bone-in filet was a huge miss.  The lack of bread was a miss. But the restaurant was reasonably busy on this cold night and the finishes in the space are stylish.  The service was attentive and polite, and the timing of the food deliveries was appropriate. I just wish they hadn’t screw up the potato pancake, and I left wondering if my wife would take offense to me stopping at Sentry on the way hope to buy some bread and butter. Try the Abbey’s Waterfront for fish fry. It’s quite good. Order the walleye, get it fried not broiled, and let’s hope your potato pancake is better than mine.

 

The Waterfront Restaurant at the Abbey Hotel  7/10

269 Fontana Boulevard, Fontana, WI

$13 All you can eat cod or walleye

 

Fish Fry photo courtesy the Abbey Resort and Waterfront Restaurant

 

Gordy’s Fish Fry Review

Gordy’s Fish Fry Review

I am a creature of habit. This means I do certain things the same way, for better or for worse, with amazing consistency. Perhaps my most notorious habit is my repeated ordering of the Yacht Club Chicken Wrap. When at Gordy’s, this is what I order. It’s not because it’s the best chicken wrap I’ve ever had. It’s not because I think it’s healthy. It’s just because this is what I order, and this is likely what I always will order.   With this in mind, you can imagine how difficult it was for me to tell the waitress that I’d be having the fish fry. Habits, they die hard.

When my son and I left his basketball game on Friday night, we didn’t intend to visit Gordy’s.  We first drove to the Abbey to sample the fish fry at the Waterfront restaurant. We approached the hostess table with anticipation. The restaurant was buzzing, even if a quick scan proved around 30% of the tables were open.  Two, for fish fry, I said. The hostess studied her book, as if looking for a loophole in the tax law, and told us that the wait would be around 30 minutes. She didn’t say it apologetically, but rather enthusiastically. I asked about all of the open tables, but she was unfazed. Thirty Minutes.  Perplexed, we drove around the corner to an open parking spot near Gordy’s Boathouse.

Parking, as you’re aware, can be a trick at Gordy’s. Thankfully, on this cold evening there was a spot open in front of the pro shop, and we hastily walked through the biting wind into the restaurant. Inside was warm and appropriately lit. The bar had a few patrons, the front dining room was mostly full, and a few groups had settled into the hi-tops near the restrooms. There was a hot chocolate bar set up with various hot-chocolate toppers and add-ins. I’m not a monster, so I didn’t mix fish-fry with hot chocolate, but I thought the hot-chocolate bar looked nice and charming, and I applauded the wintery effort. Our table for two was near the bar, close enough to smell a bit of hot chocolate in the air, but not so close that the smell disrupted my fried dinner.

Our waitress quickly brought us waters.  The fish fry, she said, was cod. Fried or broiled. There was a perch option, which came sautéed. She suggested the perch, so I followed her lead. Perch it would be, with an extra side of cod. The french fries at Gordy’s are among the best in the area, but I stuck to my guns and order the potato pancakes. I would soon be overcome with potato based regret.

We waited around 15 minutes for the fish to arrive table side, which was a fine wait and didn’t feel too long. The fish was presented, along with a dinner roll and a small plastic cup of coleslaw, tartar sauce, and applesauce. The little cups were tiny, maybe two spoonfuls, which was disappointing. I didn’t touch the coleslaw or tartar sauce, but I did eat the apple sauce. I prefer my applesauce like I prefer my silhouette: chunky. This was too smooth, too small, too sad.  The dinner roll looked nice, wheat maybe. But it wasn’t wheat at all, it was rye. I feel that a rye roll should be offered with some warning. Like, “are you sure you want the dinner roll? It’s rye”.  You can’t just pass off a rye roll and expect I won’t notice. I noticed, and I nibbled it only to find out of it was properly toasted and warm. It was moderately warm, but should have been toasted. The butter that I wouldn’t be eating with the roll that I didn’t eat was served Big Foot Inn style, in a small square, foiled wrapped. Like I was eating take-out on a park bench next to an airport. The butter and roll were a fail.

The perch filets were small, which I liked. Sometimes perch filets can be large, unnaturally so. These were appropriately sized, lightly dredged in flour or corn starch and then pan friend, which they called sautéed. The accompanying sauce was buttery, but I would have liked a bit of extra flavor with it. After my Pier 290 bluegill experience I was nervous to eat this perch, but my fear was quickly pushed aside in favor of delicious, tender bites of perch. They were skin on, but the skin was crisped and the fish tender. It was a nice variation on classic fish fry. I added a squeeze of lemon and greedily ate the filets.

The potato pancakes were large and looked the part. Sadly, they looked much better than they tasted. The filling was a bit too bread-like. As if the mixture called for one part potato to three parts cracker. Or one part potato and three parts sawdust. They were dry, unpleasant tasting, and easily the worst potato pancake of any potato pancake I’ve eaten. My son and I bemoaned the poor execution of this side, because we were prepared to crown Gordy’s the king of the fish fry and forgive the sin of the rye roll, but now we could do no such thing. If you’re going to unseat Anthony’s, you’re going to need to make a potato pancake worthy of the crown.

The waitress kept our water glasses full, and asked quickly if I wanted some more fish. I did, obviously.  The cod this time, one piece fried and one piece broiled.  After a few minutes I was served a new plate, with a couple of pieces of cod. The broiled was tender and tasty, eve if the filet was a bit odd. It was less a filet and more a collection of small bits and pieces. But it was delicate and nicely seasoned. The fried cod came in a fish-stick shape, which is an immediate downgrade from a natural looking section of fish. The breading was nicely browned,  less a beer batter and more a panko crust. The shape aside, it was tender and nicely salted, though the stick was a bit greasy, even for my well-adjusted palate.

The dinner for two came to $27.90, pre-tip. $12.95 for the cod all you can eat, and $14.95 for the perch, which is offered fried or sautéed and is not an all you can eat option.  The dinner was quite good, and I was happy to have eaten both delicious perch and cod.  Gordy’s came close, but the fish was still a small step under Anthony’s, and the potato pancake was several escalators under every other potato pancake that has come before.   The restaurant is charming and comfortable, and our service was outstanding.  Next time I visit I’ll be sure to check on the potato pancake to see if they’ve fixed that poor recipe, and you can bet I’ll expect the rye roll to be replaced with a delicious, all-American, bleached flour roll served with a generous dish of softened butter.

 

Gordy’s Fish Fry  7/10

Cod, All you can eat $12.95. Perch, $14.95

Gordy’s Boat House

336 Lake Street, Fontana, WI 53125

 

Vail Fish Fry Review

Vail Fish Fry Review

The woman on the chairlift said her boyfriend was filming something in some other mountain town. He’s a skier, like her.  She was happy about that, about him, about all of it. Her age led me to believe this wasn’t her first boyfriend. She was older now, content to work her mountain town job of selling ice cream or skis or bumper stickers, “THE MOUNTAINS ARE CALLING”. They already called her, and she rode up that chairlift beaming because it had just snowed. The other things didn’t matter.  She had to be to work by 11, so maybe she was a waitress who worked lunch/dinner. But for now there was fresh powder on the slopes and she was happy.   Happier than I think she should have been.  Exuberant about the snow. SNOW! She couldn’t contain herself. There was no other reason for living. Her boyfriend was away and her work was calling but first she had to worship the snow.

I spent last week in Beaver Creek watching the strange people who worship the snow. If you step back and look at it, it’s really quite insane. The snow is everything, in fact, it’s mostly the only thing. It’s why they get up, it’s why they live. It’s an obsession. That’s how I feel about fish fry. On Friday night we were walking the small faux-village of Lionshead and saw a sign outside a nondescript restaurant. “FISH AND CHIPS $13”.  Not wishing to break the chain of Monday fish fry reviews, I took the bait.

Bart and Yeti are dogs. This is their bar, or it was their bar. I think they’re dead now.  The bar claims to be one of the last few “local” hangouts in the Vail valley. We had to  park a half mile away in one of those terrible Colorado parking garage structures, but as it was after 5 pm we narrowly dodged having to pay for our stall. The bar was loud, full of snow-worshippers reveling in the dying dim of a powder day.  The restaurant was cold, a condition that plagues mountain towns everywhere. Somehow, somewhere, someone convinced Colorado that the cold is fine, that if it’s a bit sunny then 25 degrees feels nice on the skin. This is why the doors to restaurants, bars, clothing shops and even ice cream shops remain open, all through the winter. They’ve lied to themselves. It’s a dry cold, they say. It’s a warm sun, they insist. But they’re wrong, it’s just winter and it’s cold and Bart and Yeti’s was as cold as the Hagen Daz shop that sold the sort of ice cream that Culver’s would only serve to their back lot dumpster.

The waitress was an older woman who seemed both happy and disinterested. Perhaps she was still buzzing from her earlier sacrifice to the Powder gods. We were seated in a small room to the right of the bar. Our corner table was near the window, and close to a group of skiers who wore straight brim hats without the slightest hint of irony. I listened in on their conversation, which revolved around snow, beer, and an epic ski trip to Taos in the mid 1980s. Gnarly!  The men told the tales and the women laughed,  still high from their powder day or recently high from something else. Our waitress brought us water, which tasted like minerals, which tastes like all of the other restaurant water we drank that week. I ordered the clam chowder, which the waitress told me was homemade.

The compound word homemade should never appear on a restaurant menu. Housemade is the proper term, unless someone really did make the soup at home and then transport it to the restaurant, in which case I’d like to question the sanitary conditions in that home kitchen. Still, the clam chowder arrived and it was okay. The clam bits were tender and sandy, but the broth was a bit thin. I like my clam chowder to cling to my spoon with intent. We ordered an appetizer of nachos, because they waitress told us we couldn’t go wrong with that. She was wrong, when the nachos came out under a top layer of charred cheddar I found the juxtaposition  of hard cheese, tortilla chips, and heaps of raw onion and tomato to be a big swing and a miss.

The fish fry arrived almost 25 minutes after I ordered it.  Three pieces of fried cod, some french fries, and a side of tartar sauce. No coleslaw, applesauce, or other accoutrements. No table bread, no butter, softened or otherwise. The cod pieces looked more like chicken tenders, thin and shallow, almost kidney shaped. The breading was golden and crunchy, the fish overcooked but adequate. There was also some confusion as to the make and model of the fish. I asked the waitress if it was cod, and she replied in the affirmative. But the menu says “white fish”, which could be almost anything.  It might have been cod, but it might have been tilapia from the golf course ponds of central Florida. Who could know? The french fries were skinny, like McDonald’s fries but not nearly as good. The freezer bag must have been running low because my fries were mostly little stubs. The dinner was to come with chips, which could have implied fries, but the waitress made it appear as though the fries were an upgrade. I’m not in third grade, so don’t serve me potato chips with dinner. Thanks.

This was not an all-you-can-eat dinner. That would likely be too gluttonous and unhealthy for these Colorado patrons. With the smell of weed wafting through every faux-village, ski slope, and coffee shop, I suppose I can understand why the thought of a large fish dinner might make these locals squeamish. My wife was keen to point out that my dinner was not a fish fry. It was fish and chips, which is different, I suppose. And why shouldn’t it be? This wasn’t Wisconsin, where we know what a fish fry is, and what it should be. This was Colorado, where Bison Burgers and Rocky Mountain Oysters rule the menus of the bars and tourist restaurants.  When the tab was paid and we walked in the freezing cold back to the elevated parking lot, I felt confident to have been reminded of what I already knew. Colorado is fine, but Wisconsin is better.

 

Bart and Yeti’s 5/10

Lionshead (Vail), Colorado

$13 Fried Cod

The Big Foot Inn Fish Fry

The Big Foot Inn Fish Fry

There is risk in trying a new restaurant. When given the menu choice between discovering something new and retreating to the familiar, I opt for the familiar. The familiar doesn’t let you down. New choices can lead to wonderful discovery, but more often they lead to huge embarrassing disappointment. This is the basis of dinner envy, or order error, of coveting thy neighbor’s plate.  It’s out of this same fear that I’ve never found my way to the Big Foot Inn, located just south of Walworth. Technically it’s in Illinois, but that’s only technicality. This is a Wisconsin supper club, whether it wants to be or not.

The restaurant sits a solid throw off of Highway 14, just south of State Line Road. You can leave the Fontana lakefront and be to the Big Foot Inn in less than 7 minutes. If you drive by during the day, you’d be forgiven for thinking it might be closed. A relic of another era, you’d think. Too bad it didn’t make it, you’d say. But it did make it and it is open, and on Friday night I pulled in the driveway to find a busy parking lot and a warmly lit entrance. This evening I was joined by my wife and daughter while my son toiled away at another Friday night basketball practice. We arrived at 5:35 pm. The foyer was classic supper club, reminiscent of Anthony’s, with a drawing of whom I presumed to be Chief Big Foot on the south wall.  The bar is to the left, the dining rooms to the right. I looked longingly into the bar as we were led past it, not because I was thirsty but because it looked the part. Vintage furniture, softly lit, a handful of patrons at the bar and a scattering at tables. Nice.

The dining room wasn’t at all like the bar.  The website says the restaurant received a thorough renovation in 1987, and this was indeed the style of the dining rooms.   The furniture wasn’t new enough to be nice and it wasn’t old enough to be cool. It was trapped in the middle. Not vintage, not shiny. Just dated. Our oak dining table was in the far corner of the front dining room, which was nearly full with diners. Aside from one table near ours, we were the youngest people in the building.  While the bar was softly lit, the dining area was bright. Too bright, my wife and I agreed. Soon after,  as if having noticed our squinting, a waitress turned down the lights to an acceptable dim.

The fish fry is all you can eat cod, but only if you’re ordering the fried cod. Broiled cod is single serving. My wife ordered the broiled and my daughter and I ordered the fried. The table quickly filled with accoutrements. A basket of dinner rolls, a bowl each of applesauce, coleslaw, tartar sauce, and potato salad.  The dinner rolls were small and shiny, torpedo shaped, and absolutely delicious. Warm with a crunchy exterior, it was hard not to eat the entire basket. And I might have if not for the butter situation. The butter was served not in a dish or a bowl, but in small single serve containers, like a gas station might offer next to their hotdog rolling machine. It was a tremendous disappointment.

The potato salad was German style, but different than any I’ve ever had. Most salad of this style would be heavy on vinegar, but this was basically chopped up boiled potatoes with some bacon and deeply caramelized onions in a sauce of butter. The sauce was sweet, but there was no discernible vinegar present. I thought the dish to be different, and I couldn’t tell if I really like the difference, but I ate it anyway because it was quite good.  Shortly after ordering the fish arrived, a single plate for my wife and family style dishes for my daughter and me to share.  The potato pancakes  were super crunchy, super greasy, and super good.   My daughter ordered the fries, which were pale and looked like every french fry any diner has ever served. My wife’s broiled fish came with a side of vegetables, which were obviously from a frozen bag. And not the gourmet frozen bag, but the frozen bag that goes on sale Four For a Dollar.

My fried fish sections were lightly battered and appropriately golden brown.  When you buy cod in the frozen section of a grocery store, they come in long rectangle shaped bricks. Our fish was similar, except that the fried pieces were cut into 2 x 2 squares.  They were crunchy, adequately salted, and properly cooked. I liked them. But the shape was a distraction, and combined with the glimpse of my wife’s small cut up vegetables and the oak table with paper place settings I couldn’t help but feel like I was in the dining hall of a well cared for nursing home. I tasted a piece of my wife’s broiled cod and it was fine, although she mentioned that the tartar sauce was a bland and had let her down.

In the end, the tab with tip was $50.00. No drinks, no appetizers, no dessert. The portions were large, and I left feeling contented without ordering a second helping of anything. This may have been on account of the additional roll intake, but nonetheless, no seconds were ordered.   The waitress did ask us if we wanted more, which was nice, and she was pleasant and attentive even if our water glasses did get a bit dry midway through dinner. We weaved back through the two dining rooms, past the bar that still looked neat and inviting, and to our car. The night was a success,  and I was glad to visit a new to me restaurant.

I enjoyed my dinner. The price was in line, the service was sweet, and the food plentiful.  Nothing was bad, and the dinner rolls were terrific. But nothing left me feeling as thought I needed to go back. I wasn’t overly impressed with any aspect of the evening.  I liked my fish, but did I love it?  I liked the Big Foot logo work, but did that overcome the paper place settings?  I liked that it was just a handful of miles from my home, but will that make me come back? I think the answer to each is an easy no. Not a forceful no, because things were fine, but I don’t find that I’ll need to add the Big Foot Inn to my standard fish fry rotation. I’d ask that you try it, and maybe the dinner rolls and potato salad will bring you back. Maybe you’ll get a seat in the bar and it will affect your opinion, just as the back dining room affected mine.

Big Foot Inn  6.5/10

All You Can Eat Fried Cod $13 (I think, because I can’t seem to find my receipt and the website doesn’t list the price)

11508 Highway 14, Harvard, IL 

 

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)