Typically, I make some variety of plan when contemplating a particular establishment and the steak they serve. Last night was not typical. I had an evening meeting followed by the realization that there was nothing to eat in my house. My wife is out of town for a few days, and rather than preemptively stock the refrigerator for her family she tends to opt for the “you’re on your own” treatment. Last night marked the fourth day of her absence and we were left with barely three shreds of edible foodstuffs. My son was at baseball practice and I was hungry. So I did what any Mr. Mom would do and I grabbed my daughter and pulled into Cafe Calamari a bit after 7 pm.
At this point in time, we can consider Cafe Calamari an establishment. The ownership group runs Cafe, Harpoon Willies, and Privato, the building where I spent two winters washing dishes for Charley O. The exterior of these spaces are constantly undergoing some variety of visual improvement, and for that we should thank them. But on this night I wasn’t interested in thanking anyone, I was interested in judging them. My day had gone from mediocre to worse, from sort-of acceptable to miserable, and so I was disgruntled and hungry, which is a terrible, but common, condition. To make matters worse, I was so ornery that I decided to ignore this nonsensical “wheat is bad for you” approach and live the best life I could live on a Tuesday night, in March, in Williams Bay.
There are three dining spaces here, four if you count the outside patio (one of the best outdoor dining spaces in the area), but the easterly dining room was occupied by some private group and the middle dining room is always sort of sparse, so we opted for a lakeside table in the elevated bar area. The waitress with her waiter-in-training was soon table side and offered to tell me the specials. I declined her advance. Instead, we ordered the calamari because why not, and I ordered the filet. I knew I wanted the filet, and the waiter confirmed that the filet was favored over the ribeye. The Sicilian variety would be dusted in seasoned flour and pan fried. That’s what I normally get at Cafe, and because of that I listed to the waiter’s suggestion. He said the Blackened was good, and that it was spicy, and so I obliged his informed opinion and ordered it. Medium. It would come with a side house salad, some garlic whipped mashed potatoes, and green beans almandine. I shouldn’t eat the mashed potatoes but if I die today of a massive and mostly unexpected stroke I’m sure I won’t regret the dairy. It was 7:13.
The calamari was first out, and I enjoyed it. The rings were tender and even though the breading was falling off, there was nothing wrong with this order. The cocktail sauce was perfect. Like the best cocktail sauce outside of the cocktail sauce that I make at home. Perhaps its equal. I dislike when restaurants serve calamari with marinara sauce, so credit to Cafe for the cocktail sauce. When the dinner was over we contemplated eating these small creatures. We felt sad. We wondered if someday we’ll be eaten by creatures larger than us, our tender bits dipped into a vat of sauce. These are the things I discuss with my 13 year old daughter.
Two small house salads were delivered to the table, each with some sort of dijon dressing and walnuts and cranberries. I enjoyed the salad, and appreciated its truncated size and chilled salad plate. While we finished waiting for our entrees, our waters were often tended to, and the general vibe of the restaurant calmed my frayed nerves. This is a comfortable space, even if I wondered aloud if the faux grapevines were really necessary. We wondered what sort of people liked that sort of decor, and my daughter thought that if she were very old and her eyesight was very poor she might find the vines to her liking.
Dinner arrived at 7:50, which was well within my preferred wait time. The filet was indeed blackened, the potatoes looking the part, and the green beans resting on their own small plate. My first cut proved the exterior to be heavily coated in the blackened seasoning, and revealed an absolutely perfectly cooked medium. This was the most temperature accurate steak I’ve had so far, and that’s no small feat considering the thick nature of a filet (8 ounce). The seasoned exterior was indeed spicy, and I was glad for that. The rich steak was complimented well by this aggressive seasoning, and as with Medusa last week I felt no urge to reach for the salt shaker. This was a delightful filet, easily the best filet I’ve ever had. The whipped potatoes were similarly flavorful (even better than the Medusa potatoes), the green beans carefully cooked and seasoned but still slightly crunchy. A very nice compliment to a very nice dinner, and at $40 I would place this as one of the best values in the area.
I’ve been to Cafe quite a few times. In fact, of the restaurants on this tour, I’ve likely been to Cafe more than any other. I always order the filet. I know this filet. I trust this filet. It is a fine filet. I appreciate Cafe Calamari and their consistency, and I shudder to think of Williams Bay if this old steady were to ever leave this place. On this chilly March evening, this dinner was exactly what I needed. This is a comfortable and welcoming space (in spite of the grapevines) and I’m very pleased that it’s here. It deserves your attention, just be sure to order the filet when you go.
Geneva Street, Williams Bay
$40 for the filet