The full title of this restaurant might be “Ivan’s On The Square Unique Dining”, but there’s a similar chance that it’s actually “Ivan’s On The Square, East Troy House Tavern”. I can’t be sure. No one can be sure. Ivan, he’d be sure. But I didn’t see him there, and I don’t know if he’s the owner. Ivan’s is dog friendly, according to the internet, so the odds that Ivan is a dog and that this place is his are strong to quite strong. Still, it was a Friday and a friend said Ivan’s was worth a shot, so I drove myself to East Troy’s small square and settled into a four top near the old-timey bar that guards the north wall of this in-town establishment.
If you’re a snob, then odds are you won’t admit to liking the smell of Burger King. If you look yourself in the mirror and allow your honesty to prevail, you’ll confess to being enthusiastic about that smell. Those smoky plumes rising from the roof of that greasy establishment, carrying with them the smell of grilled burgers–there’s very little that I find objectionable to that pronounced smell. I would subscribe to the theory that they do this on purpose. They do it to draw your attention. The other day I drove by Burger King in Elkhorn, and the smoke was billowing from the rooftop. There were no patrons inside, no cars in the drive-thru, perhaps two cars in the entire parking lot. Someone had to be working there. Yet the smoke was rising, signaling to passersby that the new burger had indeed been chosen, and it was flame broiled. The smell, man. The smell.
With that in mind, the smell in Ivan’s was of a particular cleaning agent. It might have been straight bleach, mixed with a bit of water and used to wash the tables and chairs, the bar and the windows. It was aggressively sterile, and the smell didn’t help develop my hunger, and my hunger needs so very little prodding to develop. The smell would bother me throughout lunch, and I thought that a terrible shame since the remainder of the lunch experience was delightful. A note to Ivan’s, stop using the cleaning agent, and if you ignore my request, then at least don’t use it shortly before lunch service begins.
Once I forced myself past the abrasive smell, I was onto the menu. It looked good. It looked like it should. The restaurant promises a bistro dining experience, and as far as I can tell the only thing that differentiates a bistro experience from a diner experience is nothing. The menu was full of sandwiches and assorted, proper offerings, each of which looked tempting in their own way. But it was Friday, and I am born of Wisconsin, which meant it was a day for fish, and I am a man made for fish. The fish here would be cod or perch, handed breaded and baked or battered and fried. The perch was only available hand breaded and baked. That’s a common theme for perch offerings in this region, perhaps owing to the more delicate nature of perch and its unwillingness to stand up for itself in a fryer. We hacked the menu with my friend ordering the breaded and I the battered, so we could exchange a piece and sample one of each when the time came.
There would be little time to consider the wait. The fish was out in short order, perhaps less than ten minutes, which I can always appreciate. The plate looked nice, with two pieces of a rye bread, a lemon wedge, small tubs of applesauce, tartar sauce, and coleslaw, along with two potato pancakes and the aforementioned fish. The bread was placed on top of the fish, which warmed the bread nicely. There was no butter here, no foil wrapped rectangles, no generous bowl of soft, beckoning butter. But the two slices were pre-buttered, which is the first time I’ve encountered this method. I can’t say that I didn’t like it.
After swapping fish, I tried the battered first. It was crunchy and well salted. The fish was flaky and moist. The batter may have been beer based, but the beer flavor was muted, which is preferred, and I enjoyed this fish very much. It was also the first fish fry I’ve eaten in several months, so perhaps my bar had reset lower over the summer, and Ivan’s fish easily cleared it. The next piece was the hand-breaded. It was like a shake and bake breading, but it was quite well seasoned, perhaps even salty. The fish was similarly tender, which I thought to be a feat, considering the two fish were treated and prepared differently.
The potato pancakes were smaller and thinner than is my lasting preference. They were crunchy, which was nice, and they weren’t saw-dusty like some of the pancakes I’ve choked down on this tour. But there was something slightly odd in that I detected the slightest hint of ginger in the cake. I have a distrust of ginger, so the ginger bothered me, if only slightly. I was in the company of one of these apple-sauce spreaders, but I did a fine job ignoring him as he slathered his applesauce on top of his potato pancake, like some sort of masochist.
The waitress was pleasant, if not overly so. My water went dry at some point during lunch, and as I write this morning I cannot recall if it was ever refilled. But Ivan’s does not disappoint, and the issues I had with the lunch, the bleach smell aside, were nuanced. The fish was excellent, the scene fitting, the little square in East Troy on a November afternoon, charming. A big thank you to my friend for the invite, and if two kids from Williams Bay can find their way to East Troy for some Friday fish, then perhaps you should, too.
Ivan’s On The Square Fish Fry 7.5/10
2087 Division Street, East Troy, WI
$10 hand breaded cod or perch, or fried cod