There are two sorts of people in this area. People who know where Millies was and people who don’t. There are no other sorts of people. For what I remember to be the entirely of my childhood, Millies served Lingonberries over pancakes on the corner of South Shore and County O, just south and a smidge west of Delavan Lake. The people who don’t know this are Johnny Come Lately’s. The rest of us are locals, and if not locals, then certainly part-timers with local knowledge. Without some degree of historical understanding relative to the location of Millies, someone could not, should not, consider themselves any variety of local.
Friday was an odd day. I was busy. My son wanted to workout after school, so we went to the Grand Geneva to work on our biceps and triceps, because that’s what we do. One the way home it was raining. There was some snow in each drop, only noticeable once splattered on the windshield. The night was to be nasty, with rain turning to sleet before turning to snow. On any given night, this wouldn’t matter to me. I’d go home, make a fire, lament the fact that I can’t eat pizza, and turn in not long after 9 pm. But on this night, my daughter had a basketball game at 8 pm at Saint Andrews that required my attendance, and so there was time to kill. I asked my wife if she wanted to go to dinner. She did. So around 6:20 we arrived at Millies.
Except it isn’t Millies, because it hasn’t been for years. It’s a new restaurant called Fire 2 Fork, and even though it opened last summer, I hadn’t yet been. I have no comment on using the numeric 2 in place of to, but by not commenting you should know what I think about it. I feel bad when I visit a restaurant recently after it opens. A new staff, a new menu, a new chef, and a new space generally fail to hold up well under my intensely critical nature. So I waited, in spite of having heard good things about this place. When I walked in on Friday night, it didn’t look anything like Millies. There was no Lingonberry jam in sight, though if Fire 2 Fork wants an unsolicited suggestion I would recommend they play homage to the old space and to us old-timers and offer something with Lingonberries on the menu. A Lingonberry gastrique, perhaps. It would pair nicely with salmon.
The space here is new. It’s nice, enough. It feels like a restaurant in Steinbach, Manitoba, but not just any old restaurant—one that tries hard. The tables are wood and iron, the light fixtures unique, the restaurant divided into two distinct spaces by the large open kitchen. We were seated on the west side of the kitchen, where the bar and a large fireplace occupy two of the four walls. The fireplace, in what is an obvious, intense and unforgivable mistake, was gas. This is a wood-fired restaurant, but while the meat gets treated to some real flames, I, the patron, must stare into the soulless face of a piped-in flame?
We were seated at a high four-top, and our waitress was present in a snap. She explained that the food is wood fired. That much of it is local. As I thumbed through the menu and explained my unfortunate dietary restrictions, she was pleasant and added that the kitchen makes every attempt to help out the afflicted like me. Substitutions would be fine. I liked that. I didn’t like that the only steak on the menu was either part of the tasting menu ($42, seemed to be a strong value), or a standalone ($36) served with some parsnip mash, a gratin of chard, and a garlic puree. The type of steak wasn’t specified, just that it was their Market Steak 28 days dry aged, provided by my fine friends at Alden Hills. I hope to run into this sort of local purveyor focus at other area restaurants, but I’m guessing it won’t be common. Fire 2 Fork not only cooks over firewood provided by my friend, it cooks meat provided by my other friend. This effort is commendable and immediately gave me some confidence in both the experience and the food itself.
The steak it would be, but I’d have to avoid the dairy in the parsnip mash and the chard gratin. The waitress said they could substitute Duck Fat Fries and some grilled vegetables instead of the dairy sides, and I jumped at the suggestion. Anything to spare me from another dry, bland, petulant baked potato. My wife wanted salmon, and even though the only salmon on the menu was part of the tasting menu, the waitress said she could order it as an entree. Nice. All the while, she refilled our water glasses with frightening consistency.
We ordered at 6:30. Some diners filtered in through the doors, including some clients and friends of mine, but the restaurant was perhaps only 25% occupied. I attributed that to the burgeoning snow storm and to the fact that it was indeed January. A decent crowd, all things considered. The waitstaff was pleasant, the music lively, the space comfortable, in spite of the lack of diners. I took a moment to walk over and gawk at the kitchen.
The wood-fired grill is beautiful. I own two such grill set ups, and mine are embarrassing and sad in comparison. This was a beautiful kitchen. I loved that it was open to the dining spaces. The chefs are on display. Unable to hide. If they’re in the weeds they have no choice but to remain composed. It’s a challenge, I imagine, and I was impressed.
The dinners arrived 30 minutes after we ordered, which felt like a bit of a delay, considering we were not drinking and had only a small salad for an appetizer. My wife’s salmon was beautifully plated. My steak was as well, perched atop a mound of fries, with those promised vegetables lurking on the margins. The steak was narrow and oddly cut. I didn’t love the visual. I must also admit that I don’t love dry-aged (or wet aged, for that matter) steak. I have ordered it, I have cooked it, and I have eaten it. But I don’t go out of my way for it. As this didn’t give me an option, I grabbed by knife and made the first telling cut.
The steak was nicely cooked, perhaps a few clicks to the well side of medium. It was incredibly lean. Last week I was swimming in fat, and this week I was cutting through nothing but lean, tight grained meat. The steak was good. It wasn’t as tender as the steak from last week, likely owed to the fact that the cows are grass fed and spend their lives growing slowly (naturally) without the aid of grains. For a wood grill, I didn’t have the sort of heavy char that I wanted, nor did I pick up any smoke, and that would be my only critique of the steak itself. That and my opinion that it needed a bit more salt. I would have added some, but there was no table salt. Obviously by design, fine.
The fries were crispy and delicious, my grilled vegetables lacking any smoke that might suggest the manner in which they were cooked, but they were nicely softened and flavorful. When the meal was over I was left with one impression. This is a good restaurant. They care. There is effort. I had lunch earlier on Friday at the Waterfront (Abbey), and it was dreadful. It appeared that no one cared. To find such a different attitude at dinner was a delight. Fire 2 Fork might not have served me the best steak I’ve ever had, but they served up a solid dinner and I will most assuredly be back. If you’re around the lake this summer, just head to Millies, and now it’s finally ok to admit that you never liked their pancakes anyway.
Fire 2 Fork
South Shore and County O, Delavan
$36 For the Market Steak 28 Day Dry Aged