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The Boat House Pizza Review

The Boat House Pizza Review

It’s hard not to judge a restaurant by its location. If Oakfire had been built in Elkhorn with a view of the Burger King, rather than in its current, splendid, lakeside location, would the pizza taste the same? Along those lines, can we judge a restaurant that inhabits a space known for being a restaurant killer in the same way that we might judge a restaurant housed within a non-infamous building? These are the things I was wondering when I puttered up to the Boat House in Lake Geneva.

I called ahead to see if there was boat parking available, and sure enough, there was. When I pulled up to the piers, two kids helped usher the boat into an open slip. The problem with this pier set up is that there doesn’t appear to be many mooring spaces for diners, which could be problematic if you, like me, left your pier in your boat in hopes of eating pizza by the lake. Still, the sun was shining, the lake was calm, and the patio beckoned.

But about that restaurant space, about the ghosts of restaurants past. This is the lakeside building to the South of Big Foot Beach, to the Northeast of the Geneva Inn. Next door, bulldozers have recently torn up what was left of a lakeside forest to make way for a clubhouse- a clubhouse that I argued shouldn’t have been approved, but we live in a community that has greedily bought the lie that progress is good. The restaurant here is a few years old, and that’s a long time for a restaurant in this building. Prior iterations have all failed. But why? It’s hard to say. Those who are quick to blame the location as being out of the way and too far from town obviously haven’t watched the success of far-away icons like the Duck Inn. It’s not the location that has doomed the earlier restaurants, it’s the restaurants themselves that have doomed the restaurants. Bad food is bad food, no matter the lakeside patio.

When I was hopping from pizza place to pizza place last winter, I was told several times to try the Boat House. I was told the pizza was good, maybe great. A favorite, for some. I was also told that the live music on the patio is often too loud, and that it can be an impediment to table-side conversation. When my son and I walked across the street and to the hostess table, the music was indeed loud. I asked to be seated on the patio as far from the live music as possible. It was the right decision.

The waitress was over with waters and menus, as we listened to the musician croon and the waves lap. It was a pleasant scene, and I was glad to be part of it. We didn’t waste any time with the menus, ordering a 14″ pizza with jalapeño and sausage (eschewing my typical green pepper/mushroom concoction, and leaving that in the past, with the winter). As this pizza was just 14″ and we were two strapping men, we added an order of calamari. I have a theory that supposes you can tell the quality of a restaurant by ordering their fried calamari. If the squid is good, odds are the restaurant will be as well. We ordered and waited. The man plucked out Take It Easy, which I pointed out to my son was made famous by the Eagles but actually written, mostly, by Jackson Browne. He didn’t care.

The calamari was out first. It was darker than typical, with large rings and whole bodies. It was tender, but the flour coating tasted a touch raw to me. I didn’t love it, but it wasn’t bad. The theory about calamari was being tested, since there was no clear opinion on this dish. The pizza followed shortly, taking 18 minutes from when we first made the order, which is in line with my expectations. The pizza was noticeably smaller than the usual 16″ pie. It was cut tavern style. Some restaurants cut small and some large squares, this was of the large variety. The jalapeño was obviously cut and placed on the pizza raw before cooking, which is a method I don’t like. The sausage dotted the surface with some consistency but it lacked an impressive quantity. The pizza, with those caveats, looked good.

And it was good. The crust was exceptionally thin, and well crisped. It wasn’t chewy, nor was it hard to eat (like some of the thin crust pizzas have been). It was just thin and crispy, and I liked it quite a bit. The pizza passed the flop test with ease, and in a rare feat, the test was passed on the first slice and on the very last. A nice surprise, indeed. But the defining characteristic on this pizza was the sauce. It wasn’t sweet, it wasn’t spicy, but there was a ton of it. JoJo’s should visit the Boat House to see how a ladle of sauce looks. This was a saucy pizza, to be sure. The cheese was normal, the sausage typical. In a blink, the pizza was gone and my son and I were left to ponder the score.

Was it as good as the best in this series? No. I think it was better than the Kringle Company and not as good as Mama Cimino’s. I liked the crust, but it’s a frozen crust, so we can’t go about pretending this is some fine pizza establishment like Larducci’s. This is just a restaurant/bar on the lake, in a building that is no stranger to restaurants. And on this night, with the sun fading and the musician singing, the pizza was quite good. Check out the Boat House next time you’re lakeside, and let me know what you think.

The Boat House Bar and Grill

N2062 South Lake Shore Drive, Lake Geneva

7.0/10

$19 for a 14″ pizza with sausage and jalapeño

Oakfire Pizza Review

Oakfire Pizza Review

One year ago, I stopped writing fish fry reviews. Over the following weeks, I was often asked why I didn’t crown a winner. Why, after so much fish and so many potato pancakes, I never declared the outright victor. When I began the series, I had every intention of doing just that. Eat, score, rank, declare. That was my intended process. But after some time of visiting different restaurants and hearing commentary from the patrons who prefer certain establishments over another, I realized something. Going to fish fry isn’t about finding the best fish or the crispiest potato pancake. It’s about the idea. The concept. The practice. If your dad took you to the Village when you were growing up, you take your kids to the Village. Never mind the odd potato pancake, you love it. Friday Fish Fry in Wisconsin isn’t about finding the best fish, it’s about going where you want to go.

This lies in stark contrast to the pizza series. People don’t just go out for pizza, they want to go eat good pizza. But this is where the problem lies. People like different sorts of pizza. I might dislike the sort of pizza you like. If you like to order a pizza well done, you will love The Next Door Pub. If you know to order extra sauce on a JoJo’s pizza, you’ll love it. If you like the slightly pungent cheese that Larducci’s uses, you’ll find this to be the best pizza in the area. We’re all different, and we all have different tastes, and that’s just fine by me.

I did take some heat for this pizza review series, just as I did for the fish fry series. I had some shop owners lambast me for my honesty. This is not an area that takes kindly to objective reviews. This area is used to puff pieces, like you’ll find in local magazines or newspapers. There’s never a grade applied to an effort. Never an opinion levied. It’s just a glowing non-review that lacks any substance. I had hoped to change those generic puff pieces, but in doing so, struck a nerve. No one likes to be told their pizza (fish, burger, burrito, etc and etc) isn’t any good. No one wants that in print, and I do not blame them. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t mind being pummeled by people after I tell the world (or at least this tiny part of it) that the pizza they make, or the pizza they prefer, is no better than Meh.

With that in mind, I’m not going to wrap this series, but I am going to slow it down. There are places I have yet to visit. A new place in East Troy (wait until the Elkhorn people learn how I feel about East Troy), some other joints here and there. But that’s in the future, and the past is the only thing we can review. Which is why I went to Oakfire last night, and pregamed my Oakfire pizza with a Mod pizza. This the new fast-casual joint by Starbucks. I wanted to try this first to see if Oakfire was better, or if our local places were getting beaten by an upstart franchise. The good news is that Oakfire was better, but Mod is a nice little place if you’re in a hurry for a quick lunch or dinner, and you also want a delightful view of the Walmart parking lot.

Oakfire first came to Lake Geneva several years ago and opened in a renovated space that used to house Scuttlebutts. After they renovated, they opened, and then a couple of years later, they tore down the building and built new. The new building is modern, large, and if you want to know if I think the architecture is right for our lakefront, I’d tell you that it is not. However, on this night, with the calm lake to our south and the sun setting to the west, there was little about this scene that some reasonable person could dislike. We settled into our streetside table (here there is a large interior space and patio on the first floor, an interior space upstairs with matching open-air patio, and the streetside patio adjacent the sidewalk), and ordered.

The waiter was nice and quickly talked me into the Di Bufala Margherita as opposed to the regular Margherita. The imported cheese is worth the $2 he told me. We ordered another pizza, this the Diavola, and swapped the salami for the spicier soppressata. This is the only restaurant in this series that features a real wood-fired pizza oven. This type of cooking requires skill and knowledge, and we’d be fools if we didn’t both understand and appreciate that nuance. The pizza’s arrive table side within 15 minutes, and they were undeniably beautiful. The edges charred, the crust raised just a bit, the cheese sparse and nicely melted. This is a wood-fired pizza, all right.

The Di Bufala was good, though the cheese slid off the pizza when we tried to pick it up. A note of advice for Oakfire: serve this true Neapolitan pizza in a true Neapolitan way, with a knife and fork and not pre-sliced. The complaint about Oakfire is that the interior tends to be sloppy and wet. This is true, and this condition of Neapolitan pizza was affirmed to me by Steve Dolinsky before I began this tour. If the pizza is going to be soggy and floppy, too much so to properly pick up, then why cut it into slices? Serve it as it would be served in France, with a large knife and fork, uncut. That’s my two cents. The pizza, either way, was quite good. The sauce is made of San Marzano tomatoes, and while I would have liked it a touch sweeter and a tweak spicier, it was good. I cook my sauce longer, so this sauce has a slight raw-tomato flavor that isn’t my favorite, but it’s undeniably good anyway.

The Diavola was equally good, the crust nicely charred and chewy. It’s a nicely executed pizza, and on this night, there was nothing about Oakfire that I didn’t like. The scene was delightful, the pizza tasty, the service capable. I ate pizza at Stella Barra in Lincoln Park a few weeks ago, and while I preferred that pizza to the Oakfire pie, the scene at Oakfire was, dare I say, better? Happy patrons ate their pizza, music played, the big old lake turning shades of pink and purple as the sun faded. This is the finest of our pizza scenes, and the only place to eat a wood-fired pizza. Because of this, Oakfire deserves our praise, and if you’d like to put your fancy shoes on and enjoy a night out in our lovely town, this is your place.

Oakfire Pizza

831 Wrigley Drive, Lake Geneva

8.2/10 (this is the highest score I’ve given, but this score is based on this type of pizza, so I’m not saying this is the best overall in our market, just the best of this style (and, coincidentally, the only of this style)

$16 Margherita Di Bufala, $16 Diavola

Holi Cannoli Pizza Review

Holi Cannoli Pizza Review

During this pizza series, one place was the most consistently and aggressively recommended to me: Holi Cannoli. You know how I feel about Elkhorn. And you know how I feel about Whitewater. Imagine then, if you will, how I could feel about the space between these two towns. That’s where Holi Cannoli lives, in the space between. The only question is were these recommendations wicked lies or were these people hoping to keep me safe from the pain that is a miserable, if local, pizza.

It was Saturday night and I was tired. I had worked during the day, and then retreated to more work in the evening. The office garden needed weeding and mulching, and my wife had a party that appeared to include every woman in Walworth County. I had to go somewhere. Anywhere, and since it was Saturday and I was tired that meant I was also hungry. My son was finishing a baseball double header, and I would need some salve for my blisters and he some salve for his wounded ego. I called HC at 7 pm and was told it would be an hour wait. The place was slammed. I asked if they take reservations and they did. 8:30 was the soonest they could offer, which was fine because I had to clean up and look reasonably respectable for this, my first ever visit, to Holi Cannoli. We drove through Elkhorn, quickly, stopped at Walgreen’s for a couple of last minute Mother’s Day cards, and arrived at the restaurant at 8:30 sharp. The parking lot was jammed.

Most pizza places in Walworth County lack any type of recognizable scene. They’re just places to get pizza, and when you’re in the mood to devour pizza you care very little about the terrible decor that haunts most local pizza establishments. A good pizza erases any concern of your surroundings. But HC was happening. The interior space isn’t much to consider, it’s just a couple of dining rooms with a large bar in the middle, and the decor is typical North American Italian Restaurant Issue. Some faux paintings of wine bottles, some plastic grape vines with impressive plastic grape clusters, some paintings of Napa, or Tuscany, no one can be sure. HC might not win any design awards, but on Saturday night the crowd was lively and happy, the wine appeared to be flowing with vigor, and the various plates of food scattered about all looked equally delicious.

After the pleasant hostess sat us at our four top near the wood-fired oven, the bus-boy was quickly over to slap down a couple of waters. The sign outside says “COAL FIRED PIZZA”, which I thought interesting since “WOOD FIRED PIZZA” is the same thing, just at a different state of combustion. The oven on the back wall was clad in brick, and the busy hands of an open pizza kitchen were arranging toppings, stoking the fire, and feeding the dough through a mechanical roller. I wasn’t sure what type of pizza I’d be eating here, since a typical wood-fired pie is normally of the neapolitan variety, similar to what I had last week at Stella Barra in Lincoln Park, and similar to that which is served at Oak Fire in Lake Geneva. The mechanical roller threw me off, as any proper neapolitan dough would never be rolled like this. Never mind, the mystery would soon unravel, and we ordered a sausage pizza with mushrooms, along with an order of Calamari. Shortly after ordering, a bevy of bread and a dish of marinara was brought table side. We dipped and munched. My son summed up this part of the dinner perfectly, “it’s not very good, but it’s free bread”. Free bread indeed, son. Free bread indeed.

The calamari arrived quickly. It was lightly breaded, more pale than golden, and mostly rings. We dipped it in the cocktail sauce, which tasted a bit too tangy and not in a horseradishy sort of way. It reminded me of a Heinz cocktail sauce that you squeeze out of a bottle. Too much ketchup, maybe. We ate the plate anyway, it was fine, but not memorable. The pizza was out quickly. Frighteningly quick. Maybe eight minutes after ordering it, tops. It was impossibly flat, nicely browned, the edges charred in the tell-tale style of a wood-fired pie. It looked delicious. 16 inches of razor thin pie for $21.95 plus $1.50 for the added mushrooms. Not a terrible ransom. The first slice passed the flop test, which is rare for a neapolitan style pie.

Ah, but this isn’t a neapolitan style pie. This is a wood fired pie that is, in actuality, a tavern style pizza. The crust is mechanically rolled, which creates that super thin, remarkably uniform crust. There is no raised edge here, no soft middle. It’s a hybrid of sorts. The cheese was proper and well browned, the sausage mild but plentiful without being overwhelming. The mushrooms were mostly absent, but I would prefer that to the overload that occurred in Whitewater a week or two prior. The exterior bits of crust were crunchy and singed by the flame. It was a good pizza.

But there was a problem here, and it’s one that I can appreciate as someone who has struggled at the helm of a wood-fired oven. The top of the pizza was nicely browned, but the bottom of the crust featured no such browning. It was nearly flour white. The edges were crisped, but beyond that the crust was soft and undercooked. I know what happened here. A gas oven heats up uniformly, with the oven deck holding that heat beautifully, just as the thermostat dictates. But a wood-fired oven, after working overtime during the heated pace of a Saturday night service, tends to lose some deck heat. The chef fixes this by adding wood and stoking the fire that burns in a back corner of the oven, but while the air heats, the deck is shielded by a handful of pizza pies. The deck stays cooler than the air, which results in a pizza that shows beautifully on top but is, as a matter of undeniable fact, undercooked on the bottom. This was the fate that befell our pizza.

I liked this restaurant. It was bustling with activity, and the pizza was reasonably good. The bigger question for me is will I be back? Sadly, I believe the answer to be no. But that’s just me, and it takes some effort and time for me to leave Williams Bay and drive to that location north of Elkhorn. It’s a good pizza, don’t get me wrong, but is it as good as the best? No, on Saturday night it most certainly wasn’t.

Holi Cannoli

N7605 US Highway 12, Elkhorn, WI

6.7/10

$21.95 for a 16″ Sausage Pizza, plus $1.50 for mushrooms.

PS. I may do one more review along with a summary next week to wrap the series.

JoJo’s Pizza Review

JoJo’s Pizza Review

There’s a particular scene in Django Unchained that finds a group of men in the midst of preparing for a raid. The reason for the raid is unimportant. It’s dark, and the group of men are riding horses and wearing masks. The masks have two small eye holes cut into them and nothing else. The men are complaining. They can’t see. They can’t breathe. The complaining is colorful and intense. One man is defending his wife, who made the masks, while another man chides, “well if all I had to do was cut a hole in a bag, I coulda cut it better than this!

That’s how I feel about pizza. It’s just a crust, some sauce, cheese and random toppings. There’s not much to it, really. It should be so easy that anyone could make it. My mom makes it, but she’s a good cook. Your mom makes it, and she might not be so good. I make it, my wife makes it, my kids, if given some time, they could make a pizza, too. Someone who doesn’t understand pizza might think this way. When I started this series, I knew pizza was hard to make at home in my wood-fired ovens, but I figured that any restaurant, if given enough time to practice, could master the art of the pie. Each week I’m realizing just how wrong I was.

On Sunday afternoon, I was hungry. This was not unique to last Sunday. This is an affliction that I carry with me every day, no matter the month, the season, the year. I will bring this curse to my grave. I had finished some showings, stopped at Lowes to buy a few bits and pieces needed for my bathroom remodel project, and since I was already in Delavan I decided to round out the Delavan pizza places with JoJo’s. I called on the pizza from the parking lot of Lowes, an extra large pizza called the Favorite Five, to go. The Favorite Five did not contain any mention of olives, proving the intelligence and refined palate of JoJo’s owners. The wait would be about 30 minutes, just enough time to run into Walmart to buy some deodorant and subsequently wait for 10 minutes in Walmart Line Hell while the people in front of me navigated through the futuristic waters of the self check-out.

JoJo’s is a basic restaurant on Highway 50 in the Delavan Inlet. It’s nothing much to look at from the exterior, but pretty much every pizza place in Walworth County, excepting Oak Fire, would be accurately described in the same way. I was early to pick up my pizza, but I wanted to walk inside for the first time to see what this place was all about. I was pleased to see patrons seated at the tables, eating their pizzas. A girl stocked drinks in a glass-front cooler, and I sat down to peruse the local magazines. One such magazine talked about pizzas without actually grading the pizzas, for shame.

Exactly 30 minutes after I placed my order, the pizza was brought out from the kitchen. I appreciated the punctuality. Unlike other pizza places, their extra large pie is an 18″, rather than the typical 16″, so I was excited to have a chance to pack on some extra calories before summer. I paid the tab, $21.40 plus tax and tip (a great price for an 18″ pizza), and retreated to the safety of my car, where the lustily intoxicating smell of a fresh pizza perfumed my interior.

The first thing you notice about this pie is the pepperoni. It’s placed on top of the cheese, like a true pepperoni pizza. The other vegetables of sausage, mushroom, onion, as well as the other meat, sausage, were tucked under the cheese as is a normal tavern style preparation. The flop test was a breeze, as this crust was sturdy but thin, crunchy but soft. It was a relief after the molar cracking episode at Gino’s the week prior. The crust is more like Mama Cimino’s, crunchy but soft, very little chew. Like a Ritz cracker without the buttery sheen. I liked the crust, but it wasn’t necessarily a standout.

The first bite was good. The second bite, too. But something was amiss here. The cheese was fine, the vegetables a bit raw for my taste, but something was off. I ate a few more pieces to see if I could decipher what it was. Perplexed by the delicious looking, yet bland tasting pizza, I drove to a friend’s house for a second opinion. As I sat at a stop light, jamming as much pizza into my mouth as I could before the light turned green, it dawned on me. This pizza had no salt. Once at my friend’s house, I didn’t fill him in on my discovery, but instead asked for his opinion. He couldn’t place it. He said what I was thinking. It’s a fine pizza, but I don’t need to eat it again. A few more pieces and I told him what was missing: salt. He concurred, and with that, the pizza’s fate was sealed.

On Facebook, I made note of my JoJo’s visit, and my astute cousin told me to order the pizza with extra sauce. With that comment I lifted the cheese and toppings layer from the crust and revealed the sin. This pizza had hardly any sauce. Like four tablespoons for the entire 18″ pie. It wasn’t that it lacked salt, it was that it lacked sauce, where the salt should be. A perfectly good pizza rendered average due to nothing more than a light dollop of tomato sauce. As for ordering a pizza with extra sauce, I will not do this, just as I won’t ask the Next Door Pub to cook my pizza well-done. Nor will I ask Culvers to make sure my custard is served cold.

I wanted to like this pizza. It looked terrific. The crust was crunchy and thin, and held up quite well during the ten minute drive from JoJo’s to my friend’s house. But the lack of sauce and salt cannot be forgiven. With a proper dose of sauce and salt I could place this pizza north of 7.0, up near the epicurean leaders. But without the sauce, I must place this pizza where it belongs. Ahead of the bad pies, but below the good ones. I appreciate the effort that JoJo’s brings to their pizza game, as everything showed signs of care and expertise. Even the sauce was good, if only there had been enough of it.

JoJo’s Pizza and Pasta

308 State Highway 50, Delavan

5.3/10

$21.40 for the Five Favorite Extra Large (18″ with sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, and green peppers)

Gino’s East Pizza Review

Gino’s East Pizza Review

Monday night found me in Burlington for my son’s baseball game. Since I was in Burlington I asked a few people for their opinions as to the best pizza in their town. The opinions varied. The Waterfront, someone said. Napoli’s, others chimed. Without a clear consensus pick I decided to move on from the city of Burlington and drive to the West and South, back to Lake Geneva where I belong. Burlington may have delivered a beating to my son’s baseball team, but I did not stoop so low as to eat their pizza and pay them back with a blistering review.

Gino’s East is a pizza place in Chicago. There are several locations. It serves deep dish pizza and other sorts of pizza, salads, etc. It may be an institution of sorts, though Malnati’s claims a more audible fan base, but it has only been a part of the Lake Geneva scene for the past several years. This Lake Geneva location is attached to an old hotel, the sort with PVC patio furniture. The restaurant space is fine, with bold views of the lake and a vaulted ceiling. The tablecloths are plastic, checkered in black and white. I’ve been there before, but on Monday night, after the baseball disaster, it was time to judge this institution.

We were led to our seats only after a several minute wait, not because there was a long line, but because the hostess was missing in action. We were seated at a booth tacked to the wall that separates the dining room from the bar area, but it was a nice perch to watch a spring storm roll across the lake. The waiter wandered over a few minutes later to take our order. There was some sort of special underway, so we ordered an extra large (16″) pizza of their supreme, and were told it would be half off, or something similar. This was a nice surprise, coupled with the nice surprise that their Supreme doesn’t come with olives as a standard inclusion. Finally, some good sense being displayed.

We ordered at 6:48. By 7:05, our water glasses were dry. By 7:10, we were telling each other that the pizza had better come out in the next three or four minutes, or there will be an automatic deduction to their score, no matter how good the pizza may or may not be. The water was nowhere to be found. After we had chewed our ice cubes, our tongues began to rattle around our mouths like wooden mallets. At 7:19, the pizza arrived. I don’t need to tell you that a 31 minute wait for a thin crust pizza, on a weeknight in April, with perhaps four other tables occupied, is not ideal. Still, we lustily drank our refilled waters and tore into the pizza.

The crust was slightly misshapen and smelled of yeast, a nice touch to prove its handmade origins. But while the crust was exposed, it was not particularly raised, leaving me to wonder if this is how the crust always is or if this was a bad batch. The crust was hard, like rock hard. Teeth-shattering-hard. The exterior was laced with corn meal, an option I vastly prefer over a floured crust (Harpoon’s should switch to cornmeal). But the interior was thin and held up nicely to the flop test. The cheese was a bit whiter than I prefer, but not as white as the white-out that is the top of a Next Door Pub, medium-rare pie.

The vegetables were adequately softened, with finely diced green peppers scattered about with slices of onion and mushrooms. The sausage was bland, and not particularly well represented in this ensemble. The sauce, was it even there? I couldn’t taste it, even though I saw some red smeared on the crust. Was it bland or just applied with a touch too much restraint? Either way, it wasn’t very good. The first few pieces of this tavern cut pie had me thinking that I’d place this pizza just under the front runners, but ahead of the pack. As two pieces turned to five, I realized that this wasn’t a good pizza at all.

Should a pizza place with a Chicago pedigree be held to a higher standard than a local shop being run by a guy and his wife? I’d like to think the answer is yes. But on this night, Gino’s served me a bland pizza, the only thing memorable was the rock hard crust. I expected better, and I deserved better. Alas, with that mediocre pizza resting comfortably in my stomach, I found solace in the simple fact that I was back in Lake Geneva, and no longer in Burlington.

Gino’s East

300 Wrigley Drive, Lake Geneva

6.0/10

$27 for Gino’s Supreme (discounted on Monday to $13.50)

Vesuvio’s Pizza Review

Vesuvio’s Pizza Review

This is the tenth week in a row I’ve eaten pizza. One week, I ate pizza three times. If you think this is why my shirts are tighter than usual, I assure you that the shirts were tightening long before the string of pizzas. When I started this series, I worried that the pizza would all end up tasting the same. I worried that I’d quickly grow tired of pizza. That the area would disappoint in its pizza options and I’d lament having ever brought up the subject. But alas, ten weeks later I’ve found each pizza to be different, and each week an exciting opportunity to uncover Lake Geneva’s best pizza. Besides, one does not simply grow tired of pizza.

Vesuvius Little Italy is hidden in plain sight on Delavan’s main thoroughfare. There’s a magnificent oak tree on the corner that looms over the sign, over the building, over the entire corner. What a tree it is. On Sunday it was covered in snow, an unfortunate spring reminder that winter routinely plays outside of the lines. Late into the afternoon I realized that my Monday night was complicated, and on Tuesday I had to be in Chicago for meetings. That left Sunday, so in the snow we traveled to that hidden corner, just north of Hernandez and south of the brick road, and we picked up our pizza.

I called ahead to order, as this is a takeout and delivery restaurant, much like Larducci’s in Elkhorn. There may be a dining room here, but if there is, I didn’t see it. Perhaps owed to that large oak tree obscuring my view. As I scanned the online menu I noticed there were some immediate differences at Vesuvio’s. This seems to be mostly a pizza place, but the menu is lengthy and detailed. If you wanted a pizza and, say, some breaded cheddar cauliflower, you’re in luck, Vesuvio’s has you covered. Their large pizza isn’t a 16″ as is the area norm, instead it’s just 14″, but it is priced a bit less to offset the missing pie. The Vesuvio’s Special is their version of supreme, offering sausage, pepperoni, bacon, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, and both green and black olives. I ordered the large (14″, which was a special for Sunday so it was only $16.95) and asked that the green and black peppers be thrown in the trash prior to assembly. To think a pizza place would serve so many satanic olives so close to a church.

The wait was to be 30 minutes, give or take. When we arrived, a few minutes early, there were two other diners waiting for their pizzas. My daughter told me of her plan to take a trip to California with her friends when she turns 18. I told her she was forbidden. She said I couldn’t do anything about it, since she’d be 18. I told her she will always have to do as I say, no matter her age. She told me this was a lie that I was telling myself. She’s 13 now, full of confidence, quick to reply and eager to assert some level of independence. I considered arguing this to a further detail, but the pizza was ready and we retreated through the dwindling snow and to the car. We agreed to talk about the future another time, sometime after this pizza was sampled.

The fourteen inch pizza looked small to me. Forced portion control is something that only flies in New York City and public school cafeterias, so I admit I lamented this 14 inch pizza in a world flush with 16 inchers. The crust was risen, the cheese nicely browned, hunks of sausage and diced vegetables protruding at predictable intervals. The cheese was good, normal, and as I ate this pizza I couldn’t help but wish this was the cheese that Larcucci’s would use. The pizza was cut square, tavern style, but I have a hard time considering this to be a tavern style, given that slightly raised crust. This looked more like my mother’s pizza, if less doughy, and as of yet my mother’s pizza style is unnamed.

The first bites revealed serious differences between this pizza and the others I’ve had. The crust was thick around the edges, but quite thin in the middle. It held up to the flop test. The crust wasn’t chewy, not at all, and the raised section of the edge was as crunchy throughout as a prepackaged breadstick in a supper club’s relish tray. The sausage was good, the vegetables a bit raw for my taste, and the sauce was considerably sweeter than any I’ve encountered. Was the sauce too sweet? My daughter and I couldn’t decide.

When the pizza was sufficiently sampled and I successfully fished out a wayward slice of pepperoni from the gap next to my driver’s seat, I decided that this was a fine pizza. It wasn’t remarkable, and I don’t think it belongs in the same category as the standouts. But it was better than the bad pizzas and similar to the market average. If I lived in Delavan, I’d have this pizza in my rotation. But I don’t live in Delavan, so I likely won’t make any special effort to have this pizza, in the same way that I would make an effort to order another pizza from Larducci’s. Still, I’m glad Vesuvio’s Little Italy continues to anchor that shady corner in Delavan, and I wish them continued success.

Vesuvio’s Little Italy

617 East Washington Street, Delavan

6.7/10

14″ Vesuvio’s Special $16.95

Larducci’s Pizza Review

Larducci’s Pizza Review

On Sunday night I watched a documentary about the ills of an animal based diet. Dairy products are full of puss, the pork industry ruined the state of North Carolina, and chickens, well, chickens are even worse. Processed meats are killing us faster than cigarettes, and if we eat animal products we’re all going to die. The next documentary on my screen was about the perils of grains and beans, because those, too, are killing us. Eat meat, cheese, and full fat dairy, and then you’ll live forever. Regardless, I switched off the documentaries and decided that a plant based diet was the one for me.

But what a ridiculous thought that was, because it was Tuesday night and I was hungry not for grains and carrots, but for cheese and sausage. (For my diet fiends, don’t start lecturing me now, because alcohol is as carcinogenic as sausage, so remove the plank, etcetera and etcetera). I wanted to visit a pizza place farther to the north in Elkhorn, but alas, Tuesday is the day that pizza places like to rest. Besides, my son was playing baseball in Williams Bay and the game was running long and the runs were piling up, so I did what any father with hunger would do: I drove to Larducci’s in Elkhorn to pick up a pizza. This way I could satisfy my need for a blog post, satiate my hunger, and arrive at the end of the baseball game with whatever was left of the pizza. Hero, all around.

Knowing that Larducci’s isn’t a dine-in establishment, I called the restaurant from the baseball field to place my order. Larducci isn’t just the name of the owner/chief pizza maker (presumably) and the restaurant, it’s also the name of their version of a Supreme. But unlike other Supreme concoctions, this pizza boasted pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, red onions, and a smattering of red, yellow, and green peppers. While the menu doesn’t mention it, there was also some canadian bacon thrown in for good measure. My Sunday night self would have abhorred this animal based dinner, but my Tuesday night self placed the order and drove to Elkhorn with anticipation (I called at 6:08 and was told the pizza would take 35 minutes). It should be noted, that’s the third time I’ve ever driven to Elkhorn excitedly. The first time was when I was driven in utero to be born at Lakeland Hospital. The second time was when I was driven to the DMV to take my driving test. This was the third time. Sorry Elkhorn, there have been no other times.

Larducci’s isn’t much of a restaurant space. It’s a small brick building behind Lyle’s Appliance on Some Street in Elkhorn. Open the door, and there’s just a kitchen. Some work stations, coolers, and open air conveyor ovens, the sort Quizno’s used to roast your sandwiches in, back when there were Quizno’s outside of airports. A man met me at the counter, and while he never mentioned his name or his position, I assumed he was the owner and head pizza maker. We exchanged some pleasantries about the coming storm while I eyed my pizza making its way, slowly, through the oven. I paid the tab, $23.21, scribbled in a tip, and waited. But this wait was different than my other waits.

Since there was no buffer between patron and chef, I asked the man how long the pizza needed to bake. Eight minutes, he told me. I asked how long his dough took to make, and if there was a constant starter that he kept on hand, or if each batch was from scratch. He told me that he’d love the dough to have two or three days, but it can be ready after a minimum of one day. He talked about the dough as a baker would, not as a chef who pulls a thin crust from a plastic freezer bag. In the background, a younger man dotted a pizza with hunks of sausage. He said he, too, likes making the dough. The two men were happy to be here, happy to be making my pizza. There was pride in this effort that I haven’t yet seen on this tour. That’s likely because I was essentially in this kitchen, rather than separated by the drywalled line that typically hides chef from patron, but even so. I appreciated this man’s candor, his effort, and his desire to make a perfect pizza.

After checking on the pizza twice, both times saying that it wasn’t quite ready, he pulled the pie from the oven and took it to the box. He asked if I’d like some red pepper flakes or parmesan, I declined, and instead only received a sprinkling of fresh chopped parsley. A nice touch. We talked a bit more about outdoor pizza ovens, about the dough, about the difficult but short winter we had just endured. I left with my pizza and felt content to have encountered this pizza maker.

Now, any regular old slob might have opened the pizza box right there in the parking stall in front of the restaurant. I’m not that regular slob, so I had the decency to pretend to drive away, as if I were driving home to deliver dinner, our quarry, to my waiting family. But instead of driving home, I drove to the stop sign and opened the box. This was a beautiful pizza. Easily the most beautiful of this tour. I took a bite. And then a few more. And a couple of pieces later, someone had the nerve to pull up behind me at the stop sign and suggest with a tap of their horn that I should drive forward. Elkhorn, I thought as I shook my head and licked the sauce from my fingers. Elkhorn.

The immediate difference between this pizza and every other I’ve had to date is the crust. This crust smells of yeast, and that’s the sort of smell that a dough can only find by spending a day or two developing. The interior of the pie was impossibly thin, but still gathered the strength to hold up for the flop test. The exterior was a raised crust, uneven, to prove the hand made origins. The dough wasn’t particularly airy, but it had a nice chew, again a result of that time spent proofing. The cheese was well browned and the vegetables (mushrooms from River Valley Kitchen) were adequately softened. The sausage was serious and didn’t suffer from an overdose of fennel. Thanks to the fine folks at Hometown Sausage Kitchen in East Troy for this lovely sausage. Things were looking up, and as I left Elkhorn I delighted in this new to me pizza place, and in this delicious pizza.

But as time wore on, I noticed the cheese was different. It was nuttier, almost like a gruyere, or other alpine cheese. Was that because this mix had mozzarella and provolone? Was there something else to this cheese? Either way, I would have preferred a different cheese, and if this pie had the cheese, say, of Harpoon Willies or Pino’s, I would have raised up Larducci’s as the new standard. I should have asked the chef when the pie came out of the oven what his cheese blend was. It was noticeably browner than a typical pizza, perhaps owed to this different cheese blend?

With the possible caveat of the cheese, this was a most delightful pizza. I was impressed by this chef. Impressed by the care and attention paid to this pizza. This man loves pizza, and as a fellow admirer, I greatly appreciated this encounter and his product. The fact that he sources his sausage and mushrooms from local purveyors is more proof of this passion. Next time you find yourself lost in Elkhorn, or just hungry in Williams Bay, do yourself a favor and get a Larducci’s pizza. It’s a winner. Is it better than Harpoon’s? On this night, no it was not, but it’s darn close, and that earns it a starting position in your animal based diet.

Larducci’s Pizzaria

20 South Washington Street, Elkhorn

7.9/10

$22 for The Larducci

Siemer’s Cruise In Pizza Review

Siemer’s Cruise In Pizza Review

I was already in Hebron. Hebron, the place where they won that basketball championship so many years ago. The place that’ll be damned if they’re going to let you forget it. I was there for a baseball game, and after my son’s team was dismantled by the Hebroners, as I’ve decided to call them, we knew it was time. Time for more pizza. But where? I had heard good reviews of Red’s Pizza a ways west on 173, and since I was already in Illinois, it seemed like the right decision. Red’s it would be.

But while Red’s, just a bit east of Harvard, had ample open parking in their gravel lot, the sign on the door would tell us that we were not welcome. Cash only, it said. There’s something simultaneously quaint and annoying about establishments like this. On one hand, it’s a throw back. A memory of a more simple time, when people succumbed to Polio and carried cash. On the other hand, it’s actually bothersome. It’s 2019, Square exists. Just pay the 2% to the credit card company and move on with life. Still, in our cashless position we had no choice but to move on. Back to Wisconsin, back to Walworth. Back where the pizza flows like honey. (Note, Red’s announced last week that they’re closing their doors at the end of April. Sad news for Harvard, but Harvard is likely used to sad news by now, which is also sad.)

Siemer’s Cruise In is on the main drag in Walworth, east of the square, but only by a modest stone’s throw. There are some hairdressers, another bar or two, maybe a bowling alley, and at least one real estate office nearby. I parked on the street and walked in, my son still in his baseball uniform, me in my uniform of jeans and a t-shirt. I had been to Siemer’s before, if only once, and I quite liked the lunch I had there. But this wasn’t time for lunch, this was time for pizza, and we were hungry. Thomas was hungry from his baseball game, and I was hungry from this game of life.

A large 16″ pizza would do. There was no Supreme option, no real speciality options at all, actually. Just add on toppings for a fee. We chose sausage, mushrooms and green peppers, to remain consistent in this search for Lake Geneva’s best pizza. The pizza itself was $12.75, and each vegetable topping was $2.25, each meat topping was $2.50. Our pizza, all said and done, was $19.75, or on the low end of the local price range for such a constructed pizza. Since this is a bar first, we had to order at the counter with the bartender. No matter, he was kind and polite, even though it was obvious he was subtly signaling to the other patrons that my son and I were not locals and should be watched, closely. The time was 6:52 pm, but our hunger was nearing midnight.

We sat back at our four-top table and surveyed the scene. Televisions hung from the walls, the Brewers game was on most of them. On another, an NIT game, I think. There were signs on the walls about beer and others about food. Drink Beer, one commanded. The kitchen is half exposed, with the fryers facing the bar and a large double doored cooler doing the same. But this isn’t a sexy kitchen, in the way that some kitchens want you to watch them and admire their culinary ways. This is just a kitchen, some fryers and coolers. There’s nothing here to remember, and that’s fine. The locals didn’t seem to mind, as some nursed drinks at the bar and others wolfed cheeseburgers at nearby tables. The World’s Second Best Burger, according to their website.

The pizza arrived at 7:14, right around my 20 minute preferred wait time for such a thin-crust, tavern style pie. The pizza was pretty, but unfussy. It was flecked with oven marks, the sort The Next Door Pub finds maddeningly elusive. The sausage rose from the bed of cheese, along with a few peppers and mushrooms that poked through in random intervals. The pizza was noticeably light on toppings, with some pieces lacking a hunk of sausage, and an all-around lack of typical topping overload as is common in Walworth County. I couldn’t decide, at least at first, if I liked this restraint. I decided later that I did not, and at $2.25-2.50 per topping I would have expected a heavier hand.

Still, the crust was thin and crispy, the flop test passed with efficient ease. There was nothing initially wrong with this pizza, the topping issue aside. The first bites were crunchy enough, the sauce wasn’t bitter, the cheese fine. But as time wore on and one bite turned to thirty, the crust went soggy and limp. This was likely a frozen bag crust, and it showed. Still, we persevered and finished the pizza like champs. Locals came and locals went, many arriving via a back door that I didn’t even know existed.

This was a decent pizza, but I won’t go back for it again. The crust was too soggy, the toppings too light. The scene was a classic Wisconsin neighborhood bar style, but it lacked any of the age or patina that can make these establishments memorable. This was just a Tuesday in Walworth, and this was just a pizza that I’d only eat again if I found myself as I was that night. Starving, in Walworth, out of gas, and too far west from Pino’s and too far east from Nayeli’s. Then again, I wouldn’t even eat this pizza again, I’d opt for the World’s Second Best Burger, because that sounds promising.

Siemer’s Cruise In

107 Kenosha Street, Walworth

5.4/10

$19.75 for a 16″ with cheese, mushrooms, green peppers and sausage

Wisconsin Kringle Company Pizza Review

Wisconsin Kringle Company Pizza Review

I remember when this place first opened. I had a friend considering putting a donut shop into this odd building on the corner of the Lake Geneva Club and South Lakeshore Drive, just East of Fontana. We liked the idea of a donut shop here. A really good donut shop. But alas, before we could act, Wisconsin Kingle Company moved into the space and while they do serve donuts, it’s kringle first. I stopped after they opened and ate a kringle, for research purposes. It was okay, I suppose. But I couldn’t shake the thought of a dialed in donut shop. My Kringle Kingdom for one delicious donut.

This isn’t a donut review, or a kringle review, it’s a pizza review, so when I walked in the other day I ordered one thing and one thing only. A pizza. There was no Supreme offering on the menu, just some other concoctions (The Texas Tornado?) and a build your own menu. I built my own, a 16″ thin crust (that’s their only crust, plus a gluten free option) with sausage, green peppers, and mushrooms. The nice thing about this process is that I didn’t even have to warn the waitress that I’m deathly allergic to a mere whiff of olives. Good thing, too, because this isn’t really a restaurant. It’s a take-out place, so there’s no waitress so much as there is a lady behind the counter. I placed my order, $20.25 for the designer supreme. It was 3:47 pm and the girl said the pizza would take about 10-15 minutes. Yes, I know it was early, and yes, I’m obese, and yes, I was a bit hungry.

A man wearing a chef’s outfit appeared from the back corner of the kitchen. It was his time now. Time to make the pizza. He reached into a cabinet and pulled out a crust from a clear plastic bag. This was a crust like a Tombstone pizza crust. He wasn’t busy throwing and stretching the crust, he just grabbed it from a bag. With the frozen crust on the table, he began his assembly. Some sauce, the vegetables and sausage, the cheese. It was a decent looking pizza, but I couldn’t help but feel anxious over the bagged crust. I wandered around the small space, wondering if this was all a big mistake.

If normal Lake Geneva pizza shops aren’t high on decorating, this place fell well below that low bar. It’s just a space. Some sections have food items on shelves to buy. Some beverage coolers line one of the walls. A walk-in beer cave, I think I noticed in the back. And there are Kringles, all varieties. Along with some donuts. The tops of the donuts had cracks in the icing, which is a tell tale sign that these were not the freshest of donuts. A cop walked in and bought some snacks. My mind wandered… what a shame it was that we didn’t put a donut shop here.

At 3:58 the pizza was assembled. The man said it would need seven or eight minutes in the oven. The allotted time passed, and the man pulled the pizza. As he transferred it from oven deck to cutting board he looked at it admiringly and softly, lovingly, whispered “this is beautiful” . This was the second bout of pizza-self-congratulations within a week, but I liked it, as I am nothing if not guilty of the same. The man cut the pizza with a few extra cuts in each direction, so this tavern style pizza was cut differently than others I’ve had. Each piece was small, not even two inches by two inches, but that didn’t matter now. It was into the car with my pizza, and it was sampling time.

The crust, as I saw when it was removed from the bag, was thing. Quite thin. The toppings were ample but not heavy, the cheese adequate without being a burden. The sauce was quite bland, with no real punch or sweetness. Writing this now, I cannot even remember tasting the sauce. The vegetables were properly softened. There was nothing here not to like. This was the thinnest crust of the tour, rivaling Mama Cimino’s but without the soft crunch that bothered me at Mama’s place. All in all, it was a good pizza.

But was it the best? No, it wasn’t. I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat here again. I didn’t like that the sauce was bland and I had a visual disagreement with the crust being pulled from that plastic bag. If you live on the south shore and you’re in the mood for pizza one evening, this would be a fine option. Like all corner stores, this isn’t a destination. This is a store of convenience, and this is a pizza of convenience. If you go, you’ll buy the pizza and eat the pizza and probably like the pizza. But you won’t make a note to go back, you know, unless you’re in the neighborhood.

Wisconsin Kringle Company

W4724 South LakeShore Drive, Fontana

6.7/10

$20.25 for a 16″ build your own supreme

Nayeli’s Pizza Review

Nayeli’s Pizza Review

In a well known, oft admired scene in The Great Outdoors, Buck Ripley is shooting pool at a local, Northwoods bar. His introduction to Cammie, a local, comes by way of an unfortunate placement of his pool cue. When the cue finds its awkward position, Cammie, the street tough Northwoods girl of John Hughes’ imagination, reacts with disgust, assuming young Buck placed it there intentionally. Later, Cammie is sitting outside the bar, puffing a heater, when she teases Buck, “you don’t know how local I am“.

Why am I telling you this? Well, because until a few weeks ago I didn’t know there was a pizza place in Walworth called Nayeli’s. Some local I am. Aiming to educate my Walworth ignorance, I pulled in for an early dinner at this Walworth establishment. It was Tuesday, it was melty outside, and the restaurant was empty. But it was only 4:45 pm, so the quiet nature of this basic restaurant was understood.

The interior is as the rest of them. Simple. Nothing here to remember, nothing to write down. You will not find any design ideas for your next basement remodel. It’s just a restaurant in a strip mall next to a Subway and some empty storefronts. In the distance, Mecum’s headquarters occupies the old grocery store. It’s just Walworth, and Nayeli’s is just a place to get pizza or a sandwich.

When a friend suggested I try Nayeli’s, the suggest came with a recommendation. Order the Double Dough pizza. There are several varieties of crust here: a thin crust tavern style, the double dough, a hand tossed pan style (somewhere in the middle of those two, I presume), and a Chicago Deep Dish. I would normally have only sampled the thin crust, but with the recommendation, I had to try the Double Dough. One large (14″) Double Dough Cheese pizza, and one large thin crust Supreme with pepperoni, bacon, sausage, green peppers, mushrooms, and onions. I told the waitress to mail the black olives to Satan. It was 4:49 pm.

We sipped our waters, which my son tasted “dusty”, and waited. The restaurant smelled of cleaning solution, which I find obnoxious each and every time I encounter this restaurant flaw. Locals walked in with some frequency, picking up take out orders and driving away. Business seemed relatively brisk, and I was happy for the Nayeli’s that it appears as though they are holding their own in a town ruled by Pino’s. The waitress brought plates to the table and added that she brought us the bigger plates. Game recognizes game.

At 5:07, under the 20 minute timeline that I find to be a reasonable wait for a thin crust pizza, the Supreme was brought to our table. It was beautiful. Legitimately beautiful. Ample toppings buried in and around nicely browned cheese. There wasn’t too much cheese, which was nice, and more in line with Mama Cimino’s than Pinos or the Next Door Pub, who both apply cheese with a snow shovel. The initial crust test was astounding. This pizza stood at attention with no droop or sag, easily becoming the sturdiest, crispiest thin crust that I’ve experienced on this tour. I was impressed.

But things weren’t all perfect. The vegetables were a tad too crunchy, which wasn’t a fatal flaw, but was less than ideal. The real problem here is the sauce. It was a touch bitter. There was a heavy undertone of dried oregano. It reminded me very much of the pizza sauce at the old Chicago Pizza in Lake Geneva, the space now occupied by the Flat Iron Tap. The pizza was well constructed and well executed, but the sauce let me down. Admittedly I prefer a sweeter pizza sauce, but this sauce just wasn’t to my liking.

The Double Dough pizza was brought out shortly after the Supreme. The waitress said “this is beautiful” as she admired the nicely raised and golden brown crust. The crust was brushed with some oil, or butter, and it glistened under those dining room lights. Sadly, the pizza was mostly for looks, as the crust itself was, well, doughy. There was nice oven spotting on the underside, and it had some crunch, but it was a lot of dough, and the dough was a bit gummy, and not chewy. I don’t know what I expected, since it’s literally called Double Dough, but I’ve had better doughy pizzas. My friend, who is seemingly normal and capable of discerning good pizza from bad, failed me on this particular recommendation.

The pizza at Nayeli’s is good. The crust is superior. The restraint shown when applying cheese is to be commended. But the sauce wasn’t to my liking, and that is the only thing that holds this pizza back from taking the top spot on this tour. Next time you’re up at the lake and you’ve had enough of the regular pizza joints, try Nayeli’s. You just might like it, and if nothing else, you’ll feel like a local. You know, like me.

Nayeli’s Pizza

108 Fairview Drive, Walworth

6.7/10

$17.25 for a large (14″) Supreme, and $14 for a large Double Dough Cheese

Pino’s Pizza Review

Pino’s Pizza Review

If you went to the Next Door Pub and the Next Door Pub was in Walworth, but instead of being in a restaurant space the restaurant is in the Ben Franklin space, then you’d start to understand. If the pizza that you ordered at that restaurant in the Ben Franklin building was similar to the Lake Geneva restaurant pizza, except that the pizza was just flat out better, then you’d realize that you’re not in the Next Door Pub at all. You’re at Pino’s. And the pizza tastes good.

The night was full of confusion. I had intended to take my family with for pizza, and we had intended to go somewhere in Lake Geneva. Maybe Oakfire, maybe not. But the dog’s grooming appointment ran late due to matting and shaving, so we were left with little time between the grooming and the 7 pm Faith Christian basketball game. With that little time there was no Lake Geneva drive in the forecast, so we settled into a Walworth routine and pulled up to Pino’s at 6:15 pm.

If you’ll recall the fish fry review, Pino’s is in Walworth at the back of the strip mall that houses a library, a Chinese restaurant, a gym, a general contractor’s office, and a medical clinic. If you were looking for a theme here, there isn’t one. The Pino’s building is far in the back, and it’s not a Pino’s building at all as much as it is a Ben Franklin building, assuming you were in the Walworth area in the late 1980s and maybe even the early 1990s. The building is large, so large that it lacks any particular charm. If you want atmosphere, go somewhere else.

But we’re not looking for atmosphere, we’re looking for good pizza. When we were seated at 6:16, there were no other patrons in the dining room. Only a scant few contractor types sitting at the bar, no doubt considering, as was I, that they were sitting in the sewing section of Ben Franklin. The waitress was quickly table side and without delay we made our order. One large cheese pizza ($16.25) and one sort-of large (14″) Traditional pizza. Their traditional comes topped with onions, mushrooms, green peppers, sausage, pepperoni, ham, and olives in two tones, which we requested be mercifully left off of our pizza. The time was 6:19 pm. On the stereo, Tom Delong sang about his first date.

At 6:29 pm, Weezer came on. It was apparent that the person making the music decisions was also nearly 41, and I wondered if they, too, thought it odd that our lives have brought us to this place. At 6:39, the pizza was served. 20 minutes is a nice amount of time to wait for a pizza. It isn’t so fast that it leaves you wondering just how the pizza could cook in that short amount of time, and it isn’t so long that you start to grow impatient. The pies were large, well cooked without being burnt, and looked exactly as a tavern style pizza should look. I’ve had this pizza before, but never under the guise of grading it for the world. This time, there was more on the line.

The first slice made it obvious that we were dealing with a lot of cheese here. Loads of cheese. But this is Wisconsin, and a cheesy pizza is what the locals demand. The flop test, as evidenced above, was passed with ease. The crust was crispy, but it wasn’t cracker crispy. The crust is thin, technically, but not so thin that you could consider labeling it “thin crust” on a menu. There’s very little chew to the crust, and if you were on a search for the worlds best pizza crust you wouldn’t stop here. The vegetables and meat on the traditional were delicious, with properly softened vegetables blending nicely with the generous chunks of sausage and thin wafers of pepperoni. The sauce wasn’t too heavy, and down to the last bite the crust retained at least some crunch. This pizza dinner was a good one.

Was it perfect? No. The scene has to account for something in this series, and the scene here is very, very basic. The service was polite and prompt, our water glasses refilled as needed. The pizza is, for this style of pizza, about as good as it gets. Was the Traditional a bit heavy on the toppings? Sure. Was the Cheese a bit heavy on the cheese? Yes. Would I have preferred a crust that was either thinner and crispier or one with more rise and chew? Of course. But on this cold February night, we were happy to eat a properly prepared tavern style pizza, albeit in the woven basket section of the Ben Franklin.

Pino’s Last Call Pizza Pub and Grill

545 Kenosha Street, Walworth

7.8/10

$16.25 for a 16″ Cheese, $22.25 for a 14″ Traditional

Rosati’s Pizza Review

Rosati’s Pizza Review

More than fifty years ago, in a suburb of Chicago, a member of the Rosati family opened a pizzeria. Years later, a franchise model was born, and Rosati’s Pizza expanded throughout Illinois, the Midwest, and beyond. Today, there are nearly 200 Rosati’s locations. But that doesn’t concern me, because I didn’t even want to eat lunch at Rosati’s yesterday. Oak Fire was my aim, but Oak Fire’s website said they were open, their menu placard outside the restaurant said they were open, the guy inside walking around seemed to indicate that they might be open, but the door was locked. Improvise, adapt, overcome.

I thought of two or three other pizza places after Oak Fire and before Rosati’s, but those places would only open later in the day for dinner service. Pizza, it seems, is seen as a dinner item, which is silly. With the history of my day in place and the history of Rosati’s understood, I pulled into the parking lot and met a friend for lunch.

I had never darkened the door of Rosati’s. Not this one, not any one. The Lake Geneva location is adjacent the Sherwin Williams paint store, just a bit West of the Highway 120/50 intersection, behind the Taco Bell. The location is not ideal, but it works. The interior of the restaurant is decorated like the basement rec room of a Schaumburg tudor in 1996. Chicago Bears and Bulls memorabilia, along with a few token Packers pieces covered the walls. A life size cutout of Michael Jordan and another of a younger Brett Favre kept watch over the dining room.

Don’t confuse Rosati’s with a normal sit-down establishment. This is a fast food restaurant. The tables are covered in wood grain formica. The chairs are the sort you’d stack tall after a church service. There’s nothing here memorable, nothing that sets any sort of mood. This is a place for eating. At 12:30 pm on a Tuesday there were a scant few tables occupied when I walked up to the counter to place my order.

The large cheese pizza was 16 inches, the same size as the large at The Next Door Pub. The menu said the pizza was $16.99. The special, scribbled on a dry-erase board near the entrance, said that a Tuesday large cheese + 1 topping pizza was just $13.99. Their version of “supreme” is called Super Supreme and features opinions, peppers, mushrooms, sausage, pepperoni, and black olives. I ordered the pizza half cheese, half super supreme, minus the black olives because those are disgusting no matter what anyone says. The order-taker struggled with my order.

The way I saw it, she had a few different options for my bill. She could consider my order as the cheese special at $13.99 and add on a fee for the half that was super supreme. Or she could charge me $16.99 and add a charge for the super supreme half. Or she could charge me for the super supreme, and that would be that. The latter option seemed the wrong one, but that’s what she chose. I paid $21.49 for a Super Supreme that was half cheese. I was wounded. But I paid the tab, tipped her for her self-inflicted trouble, and sat down at a table near Brett Favre. It was 12:36.

Then I waited. And waited. And waited. I thought the wait was too long, especially for a chain restaurant that should, at this late date in their business history, have the art of quick pizza making well refined. I also thought of how I received the Next Door Pub pizza quickly, and that turned out to be fatal speed, so I waited. Thirty minutes after I ordered, the pizza was brought to the table. It was large, greasy, well browned, and cut tavern style. It looked pretty good.

And it was pretty good. The sauce wasn’t super sweet but it had nice flavor, the cheese was ample and spotted with browning from the hot oven, the crust crunchy, at least at first. The crust was thin, but it wasn’t particularly good. There was a school cafeteria vibe with the crust. It didn’t flop as terribly as the Next Door Pub rare crust, but that’s a low hurdle to clear. Toppings were applied with a heavy hand, and the cheese was thick, but not so much that it was a burden. It was good because I was hungry, but was it something unique, something worthy of praise? No, it wasn’t. Still, we ate the pizza and were satisfied.

Will I go to Rosati’s again for pizza? No, I won’t. The pizza was fine. But we’re not trying to find fine. We do fine really well here. We’re looking for outstanding. Rare. We’re searching for a winner, and in a crowd full of pizza, Rosati’s doesn’t deserve any special consideration.

Rosati’s Pizza

240 Edwards Boulevard, Lake Geneva

4.2/10

$21.49 for a half cheese/half super supreme thin crust pizza  (note: there are several styles of pizza available here- deep dish, double crust, etc)

Lake Geneva’s Best Pizza

Lake Geneva’s Best Pizza

On December 17th, I decided to try the Keto diet. The timing was complicated, so close to Christmas, a holiday revered in my family for its significance, yes, but also for the candies, the breads, the pies. In spite of the temptations, I adhered closely to this diet. No sugar, no bread, no starch. Fruits aren’t even safe on this diet, and so I steered clear. I was proud of myself for enduring the way I did, steadfastly from that day in December right up until a day during the last week of January when I realized that I am nothing if I not a bread eater. If I can’t eat bread, what’s the point of this so called life?

I like pizza. Quite a lot, but maybe not more than the average American, or European. I find it to be a comforting old friend, a safe menu choice, a small pie making for a simple appetizer, or a large pie feeding a family of four for $20 or so. Even when my wife and I traveled through France last spring, we often found our meal of choice in the shape of a circle. It wasn’t only difficult for me to avoid pizza during the six weeks I toiled under the meaty thumb of Keto, it felt wrong.

My mother made pizza on Saturdays. A homemade crust, thick and doughy, sauce, and toppings that generally steered clear of anything exotic. Sausage and pepperoni ruled. Later in my life, I had a wood fired pizza oven built at my house so I could experiment with my own pizza making, the results of which varied wildly from pizza to pizza. Later, I built a fly fishing cabin, and added a wood fired oven to that home as well. My pizza making skills evolved, but consistency still haunts me, even to this day.

Earlier this week, I posted a picture of a floppy slice of pizza on my Facebook page. It was a woeful slice, indeed. I announced the beginnings of a pizza review series, and the response was enthusiastic. In fact, when my wife logs into my account to tell the world that I’ve died, fewer comments will be left. Some warned me against local pizza. Go to New York or Chicago for pizza, they said. This place is the best, some wrote. Try this place, order the pizza well done, someone suggested. Pizza, while not a particular strong suite of the Lake Geneva area, is something that matters.

In preparation of my review series, I decided on the process. I will order one large pizza, half cheese and half supreme (or whatever the establishment calls their pizza with some vegetables and sausage). There’s a popular website where the founder travels from town to town reviewing pizza. “One bite, everybody knows the rules”.   This is what the man says before taking his bite. I know this concept to be preposterous. One bite does not tell the tale of a pizza. What if I’m exceptionally hungry that day, and that first bite is amazing not because of the pizza, but because of my near starvation? What if the first bite is good, but the next thirty-four are mediocre? This will not be a one bite review, this will be a pizza review. I’m not a coward, so I’ll eat the whole stinkin’ pizza. How else can a dish be judged?

That brings us to my first google search. “Best Pizza in Lake Geneva”. This is what I typed into my browser. Tripadviser, Yelp and others told me there was a consistent opinion in our market. The Next Door Pub received top placement on many sites, often followed or proceeded by Oak Fire. With the reviews of the people considered, I made my first decision. It was a snow day, and I was hungry, so at 5 pm sharp my son and I walked into The Next Door Pub.

This establishment on the north side of Lake Geneva is one that I know well. I’ve eaten the pizza perhaps a dozen times before, which doesn’t make me a regular by any stretch. The space is quite basic, nothing fancy. A couple of dining rooms and a bar. It’s modest. But at 5 pm on Tuesday night the place was hopping. The clientele was diverse: construction workers, families, retirees and at least one young couple on a date at the corner table, awkwardly sharing an order of wings. My son and I were seated at a four top near the front door, and then we waited.

And waited. And waited. Ten minutes later, a waitress made her way to the table and took our order. One large pizza, half cheese, the other half being their “famous garbage pizza”, that of onions, sausage, green pepper and mushrooms. We sat and listened to the conversations of the surrounding tables. No one had anything interesting to say.

Ten minutes later, the pizza arrived. It felt like it came out a bit too soon. We had waited more than ten minutes for our waters, and expected to wait another 15 or more for the pizza. But ten minutes later, there it was. A large pizza, half cheese and half garbage, cut tavern style. That style, by the way, is the common style for pizza in the Lake Geneva market. It’s a reasonably thin crust pizza with ample toppings, cut in squares, not slices. This pizza looked fine, but the cheese on top was quite white. There was no evidence of browning, no bits of char. The speed at which the pizza was brought to the table and the lack of browning on the cheese was worrisome, but I’ve had this pizza before and figured it would still be tasty, even if it didn’t look tasty.

But it wasn’t. The crust was limp, as evidenced in that damning photo above. It was soft, soggy, undercooked. When I mentioned this initially on Facebook someone said that I have to order the pizza “well done”. This is silly, and akin to ordering a Coke and asking the waiter to make sure it’s fizzy. The crust was soft and too thick to be considered proper tavern style, the sauce was a touch sweet, which I actually prefer. The cheese overwhelmed the pie, which is a condition that used to plague my mother’s pizza as well, though she never opened a restaurant. The sausage was fine, not too loaded with fennel seed, which is a vile seed that should never again be planted. The vegetables were adequate, not too crunchy, but here they are placed under the cheese and stacked high, which means great care must be made to pull a square of pizza from the plate and not have all of the toppings slide onto the table. Making matters worse, the crust couldn’t even support itself, so this pizza was less a pizza and more a soft, messy casserole.

I recognize people love The Next Door Pub. It’s a fine pub, and I’m sure many people count it as their favorite. But I’m not many people, and I have no allegiance to this, or any other restaurant in the area. I’m just hoping to eat some good pizza, and on this night, I struck out.

The Next Door Pub

411 Interchange North (Highway 120), Lake Geneva, WI

2.9/10

$19.70 for a large half cheese/ half garbage pizza

Ivan’s On The Square Fish Fry Review

Ivan’s On The Square Fish Fry Review

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

 

West Wind Diner Fish Fry Review

West Wind Diner Fish Fry Review

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have a thing for restaurants that offer Tater Tots as a side.  When a choice of potato is offered, it’s usually baked or fried. The baked potato is a thing of the past, even though Big Baked Potato works hard to convince you of their imaginary relevance. French Fries will always be a thing, always near and dear to me, but there’s no surprise here. It’s the Tater Tot that’s unique in today’s world of potato, and that’s why the West Wind Diner in Darien has a leg up on its competition, even before the rest of the menu is considered and a dinner is ordered.

The West Wind Diner is at the intersection of Highway 14 and Interstate 43, just outside of Darien.  The restaurant looks like something from Steinbach, Manitoba. If you’ve never been, trust me, this is what the restaurants look like. I’ve been. The parking lot is huge, mostly gravel, made that way on purpose to entice hungry truckers. It’s a truck stop, really, but it’s clean and it’s modern and there’s a case with  pies in it right next to the Please Wait To Be Seated sign.

A super friendly waitress sat us at a booth near the window. There’s no view here to consider, just the front grills of the vehicles in the parking lot.  We hadn’t intended to eat here, mind you.  We drove this direction to eat at the Duck Inn, farther to the North. That supper club staple was slammed at 5:40, with a 30-45 minute wait, so we drove back towards home and I remembered some fine diner meals I’ve had over the years at West Wind. That’s why we were there, and that’s why we listened intently to the fish fry offerings.

Baked or fried cod, fried is all-you-can-eat. There’s a perch offering, too, but when pressed the waitress revealed her affinity for the cod. The baked variety is offered plain, lemon-peppered, or blackened.  The choice of potato was as I earlier mentioned, and while I longed for the Tots, I stuck to my guns and ordered the potato pancakes. A choice of soup or salad was nice. My daughter went for the dumpling soup, my wife and I ate salad, appropriately drenched in ranch dressing.  The croutons were oily and misshapen, which at first seemed a bit difficult but was, in fact, a sign of their housemade origins.

I opted for fried and baked (lemon pepper, apparently, though I don’t remember ordering it that way). My wife went with the blackened cod and fries.  The baked pieces were large, rectangular. They were pretty good, though my wife thought the consistency was a bit chewy. They were a touch dry, and mine lacked salt. The seasoning additions were fine, but nothing memorable. I munched on some bread, because that’s what I do. The rolls were wrapped in plastic, like we were in seats 31 E and F, traveling from Newark to Tampa. There was no butter, foiled or otherwise, in sight. For shame.

My fried pieces were extra crispy, uniquely shaped, and sadly, dry. The tartar sauce helped a bit, but alas, they were beyond redemption. The potato pancakes looked the part, but they, too, were off. The texture was spongy, rubbery,  perhaps over-beaten to such a degree that the starch was too wound and bound. The applesauce was smooth, but at least it was served in a small metal tub (as was the tartar sauce).  At the end of our meal we were given the option of a few different sorts of ice cream, which were served in old-timey sunday glasses. The ice cream was meh but the touch was appreciated and charming.

When the dust settled, I was stuffed. The meal was perhaps a bit below average, but the waitress was sweet and there was obvious care put into the menu and the preparation. Sadly, this is not a congeniality contest. For the Lake Geneva Set, I can’t recommend driving this far out of your way for this fish fry.  While I appreciate the West Wind Diner, I think next time I’ll visit in the morning hours, and order an omelet with a side of tots.

 

West Wind Diner 5/10

620 North Walworth Street (highway 14) Darien, WI

All you can eat fried cod, or baked cod dinner (one or two pieces), typical sides plus tater tots.

Crandall’s Fish Fry Review

Crandall’s Fish Fry Review

Old people get a bad rap for eating early. Younger people flaunt their late eating habits as though they’ve made it into some exclusive club, the club that only eats late. Dinner reservations for me and my cool young friends at 8 pm, please.   But throughout this year of fried fish dinners, I’ve found that old people don’t deserve this bad rap. There’s nothing wrong with eating early. In fact, I’ve been eating most of my fishy meals around 5 pm. Why? Because I don’t want to wait in line.  The old people don’t want to wait either, that’s why they head out early. And that’s why I cozied up to a garden-view table at Crandall’s last Friday at 5 pm on the nose.

This review wasn’t easy for me. I’ve long known of Crandall’s, but I hadn’t yet been.  As I defend and flaunt all things Wisconsin, Crandall’s is on the other side of that skinny border. It might be two short miles from Wisconsin, but it’s technically in Hebron, Illinois. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, and we’ll begrudgingly allow our Illinoisan brethren to adopt our culture. I went there Friday night to determine whether or not they’re doing a proper job representing the Friday Fish Fry, which is, unequivocally, our thing.

I should note that my dinner at Crandall’s was covered by a gracious client of mine who had told me often of this regionally famous institution.  I was grateful for his invitation, and grateful for his wise guidance that led us to a four top table with a view of the pleasant gardens that Crandall’s has cultivated.  Something to be sure of, Crandall’s is not a Fish Fry Joint. It’s a Chicken Joint. The website isn’t CRANDALLSFISH.COM. It’s CRANDALLSCHICKEN.COM.  Even though the lake set knows Crandall’s predominately for its place in our fish fry realm, it’s a chicken shop first and a fish shop second.

Still, the waitress was table side and told us of the special. Fried Icelandic Cod is all you can eat. Broiled cod is single serve. If your obesity is uncontrolled, you can order the combo platter which is chicken and fish. And if you’re me, you order the combo platter AND a side of the broiled cod, just to be sure. The orders were placed and the waitress promptly brought out a basket of fresh, warm bread and cinnamon rolls. The butter was forced into a tablespoon rectangle and  held captive by foil, but it was softened, so things weren’t all bad. The dinner rolls and cinnamon rolls were both light and airy, and both quickly disappeared from our table. Our waitress removed the empty basket and we felt deep shame over our gluttony.

The fish was brought out soon enough, as the restaurant slowly filled with Friday diners of all makes and models. Some old farmers from down the road, some families from town. I recognized several diners from the Lake Geneva scene. Everyone was happy.  A heaping plate of chicken and cod and potato pancakes was placed before me, a towering tribute to fried flesh.  My large piece of broiled was on its own plate, served with some lemon slices.  I ate first from the cuts of fried  cod. They were flour dredged and fried, not battered. The fish was a slight touch dry, but the seasoning in the dredge was pronounced, which was a good thing.  The theme of proper seasoning would run throughout the night.

The baked cod had a nice texture and was properly salted, but it, too, was just a touch dry. I realized I was judging this place more harshly than it might have deserved, but this place is royalty in the fish fry world and I felt I had to hold it to that standard. The potato pancakes were crisp and moist and well salted. Maybe a bit too salted, if there is such a thing. While I was there for the fish, I ate a piece of chicken and quickly realized why the website proclaims the chicken to be world famous. It was tender and nicely salted, the thin seasoned dredge impossibly crispy. The chicken was divine.

As quickly as it started, dinner was over. I was stuffed. The dinner was a success, and it wasn’t difficult to see why Crandall’s holds captive the attention of the thousands of patrons who frequent this roadside restaurant.  While I’ve only been once, I had a distinct feeling that Crandall’s doesn’t waiver much from week to week, dinner to dinner. It has the air of consistency, much like Anthony’s, and that’s what keeps that till humming.  The staff was pleasant and courteous, the space clean and inviting, the parking lot oversized and accommodating. Unlike other restaurants in this series, I don’t think you need me to tell you to go to Crandall’s. If you already know, you already go, and chances are you’ll be there next Friday just like you were the Friday before.

 

Crandall’s  7.5/10

10441  Route 47, Hebron, IL 60034

Abbey Springs Yacht Club

Abbey Springs Yacht Club

This fish fry thing has become a problem for me. It’s not even a problem that I was required to consider, which makes it even worse. It’s a problem I volunteered for. If no good deed goes unpunished, then consider this review series to be both my deed and my punishment.  The problem isn’t that I’ve been eating lots of fish. I’ve enjoyed the fish. I’ve enjoyed discovering locations that are new to me. I’ve enjoyed all of it. And until last Friday, one of the places I most enjoyed was the Abbey Springs Yacht Club.

The first time around, I praised the club. Their bread was warm, their butter soft. Their potato pancakes creamy, their applesauce cold. Everything was above average, close to perfect. I told you this. I told other people this. When I’d receive emails where people wish for me to distill this search down to the champion, I’d willingly suggest that the Abbey Springs Yacht Club was the best available. With this in mind and lots of visiting family in town, I took control of the fish fry schedule and brought my party of 16 to the lakeside restaurant for what I presumed would be a lovely dinner.

We were seated at two adjacent tables, each with a pleasing view of the lake, at a few minutes past five.  Yes, we went early. A long day in the sun necessitated this.  Out waitress was soon table side, and she was as nervous as anyone has ever been, over anything at any time in history.  She barely squeaked out the special, and had a difficult time with any basic questions that our table posed. I felt sorry for her, but I also felt that by the end of July any summer server should have figured out how to overcome their jitters.

Our drinks were brought out soon enough, but the wait for the fish was significant. Perhaps 35 minutes? Perhaps a few minutes more, maybe a few less.  The restaurant was not even half full, due to our early reservation, so the kitchen couldn’t have been in the weeds just yet. When the food did arrive the plate looked mostly right, but there were things amiss.

The coleslaw was piled on the plate, not in a small dish or container as I’ve learned is standard. The reason you don’t set a pile of coleslaw on a plate is obvious.  This isn’t a solid. This is a creamy item that bleeds and leaks all over the plate. My potato pancakes had coleslaw on them, so did my hushpuppies and my fish. This was an unacceptable condition. Speaking of hushpuppies, I had one on my plate, my wife had two.  These are the inconsistencies that plague Lake Geneva area restaurants, and it’s a shame. They are not inconsistencies that require secret formulas to fix. They just require a touch of effort.

The baked fish was ok. It wasn’t great, but it was ok. The pieces were small, almost like the kitchen shredded them with a fork so that we could eat them with a spoon. The fried piece on my plate was large, and at first glance, looked nice and appropriately browned and crisped. But the truth was revealed by the edge of my fork, as the interior of the filet was the consistency of applesauce.  The potato pancakes were redeemable, with a tender, creamy interior and nicely crisped exterior. I liked my pancakes very much, but the rest was a tremendous miss.

I felt the need to apologize to my group for leading them astray, for bringing them to this place with the mushy cod and the leaking coleslaw, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to sway those who might have been otherwise satisfied with their meal. But over the course of that evening and the next day I learned that no one particularly enjoyed their dinner. My dad said his french fries were the best he’d ever had, so that was nice. But the opinions were uniform: dinner was not very good.

This is why I’m going to kill this fish fry review series in the next couple of weeks. There are a few places left to consider, including Crandall’s (the stalwart) and Fitzgerald’s Genoa Junction. After those two options, I’ll crown a winner and we’ll be done with this thing. The biggest problem isn’t finding a nice place to eat fish on a Friday. It’s in finding a place that will serve good fish on a Friday in April, and back it up by serving good fish on a Friday in July. Sadly, Abbey Springs Yacht Club just failed this test.

Novak’s Fish Fry Review

Novak’s Fish Fry Review

On one hand, I should have probably visited France before I turned 40. Maybe it would have been more interesting if I had been 20 years old, backpacking and hitch-hiking my way through Europe, free as a bird without a care or concern or shred of responsibility.  Or maybe that would have been a terrible idea, because who would want to sleep in a dirty hostel when Amex has a Fine Hotels Collection? Who knew about this when they were 20?  Regardless of the benefit of better lodging, there’s one other desire I discovered on my recent trip that likely would have been lost on 20 year old me: The allure of outdoor dining.

While wandering our way through that foreign land I do believe we only ate three or four meals in-doors. This outdoor style had nothing to do with weather, as we ate outside as frequently in sunny Provence as we did in rainy Paris.   On my first full day home, I met up with a client who is also a friend and we decided to eat breakfast at Simple. It was a lovely spring morning, warm and dry.  The patio beckoned. But when I asked to be seated on the patio I was told that I couldn’t eat there. That it was closed. That the outdoor server wasn’t in yet. When I suggested that the indoor server could step a few feet out of the door and voila, become the outdoor server, I was met with resistance. We ate inside, much to our chagrin and much to the offense of my newly adopted habit.

Last Friday night it was a bit rainy, a bit cloudy, a bit windy. But Novak’s in Fontana was up for their turn on the Fish Fry Freighter, and so we pulled in and found a seat on their outdoor patio. Their patio has old metal chairs and tables, a lovely old iron fence, and ample umbrellas, so many that had it been raining we may not have even noticed. There is no remarkable view from this patio, no lake waves to watch, just a side of the fire station and a distant view of the gas station. Still, the landscaped boulevards in Fontana are in bloom and the grasses pushed and pressed with the wind, and the scene, in spite of any focal view, was rather delightful.

The fish fry at Novak’s is rather straight forward. It’s fried or broiled cod, served with a side of potato and all of the traditional accoutrements.  The cod meal is served as three pieces. If you want two, you’re out of luck. Expecting four small pieces? Hit the door. It’s three and you’re going to like it. When we inquired of our waitress whether or not we could do half and half, we were told no. Perhaps that’s because they can’t properly split three pieces. Maybe they have no tolerance for half pieces of fish, and they interpreted our request literally, with no wiggle room. My wife ordered the baked and I ordered the fried, thereby working around their no substitution rule. We were bored and hungry so we ordered the cheese curds to pregame.

It should be noted that while the patio is quite nice, the interior space lacks any particular panache. It’s just a restaurant space. You won’t remember it.  Our waitress was polite and prompt, perhaps owing to the fact that at a bit after 5 pm we were one of only two occupied tables. I’m guessing the restaurant filled up after we left.  We drank our water and watched the boulevard grasses dance in the lake breeze.

The curds were out within several minutes. They were smallish, and pale in color. I like my curds bronzed, but these were pale, almost yellow. Never mind the color, they tasted right, even if there was more chew to the cheese than I prefer. The cod was out a few minutes later, a nice little platter of fish and potato. The baked cod was covered in what we thought looked like dill, though it didn’t carry a heavy dill favor. The baked was well seasoned, nicely salted, and overall quite good. The pieces, however, were small. I could have used a slightly larger fish.

My wife ordered fries with her dinner, and we both agreed the fries were memorable. They are basically the same french fry that Gordy’s serves, which are among the best in the area. If you don’t eat french fries because you’re super fit and can’t spare the handful of calories, I weep for you. My potato pancake was singular, and it was just decent.  I found it to be too dry for my liking. It was close, but not close enough. Too much time on the griddle, or not enough mayo, sour cream, or whatever they use as a moistening agent.

The fried cod was properly crunchy, nicely salted, and nearly perfect. But there was something amiss. The batter was a bit soggy around the fish, so even though the exterior was crisped, the full bite featured some soggy batter. Still,  the fried portion was larger than the baked, and at the end of the dinner my wife and I both agreed that while we’ve had better, we’ve had many that were worse.  The tartar sauce was sweet and nicely seasoned, and while the applesauce won points for being served in a larger than typical plastic tub, it was too smooth for me.

I’d definitely add Novak’s to your Friday Fish Fry rotation. The patio might not transport you to Paris, but it’s better than sitting inside. At $14 per dinner it was in line with my pricing expectations, and the waitress was both polite and prompt, which is really all any of us can hope for. The fish was properly cooked, properly seasoned, and quite enjoyable. It wasn’t perfect, mind you, but attention was paid, and I appreciated their effort.

 

Novak’s 7/10

158 Fontana Boulevard, Fontana

$14 For Baked or Fried Cod

Daddy Maxwell’s Fish Fry Review

Daddy Maxwell’s Fish Fry Review

I’ve purposefully avoided reviewing Daddy Maxwell’s. The reasoning for this avoidance was complicated, I suppose.  Daddy Maxwell’s has been a staple in Williams Bay for as long as I can remember, and I hated the thought of delivering an honest review in the event that something went less than perfect. I love all things Williams Bay, and will defend all things Williams Bay, but I cannot effectively defend against my own honesty.  My father and his father and my great uncle were regulars at Daddy’s for decades, and I always felt  that I, too, might someday make it to that status (I haven’t yet). To make matters more curious, my son works there, dutifully washing dishes and bussing tables throughout the summer.  When I sat down at my table last Friday night I was fearful of the fish to come.

We went early. 5 pm, on the dot, early. It felt early, but other patrons were already finishing their fish when we were seated in that front, circular dining room. There’s just two spaces here, one room with booths that open towards the diner’s bar, and the other room with tables on the East side, where we were. There was a large middle table in that space that soon filled with a happy family and one shrieking child.  Fish doesn’t taste as good when your ears are under assault, but it was too late to back out now.

Daddy Maxwell’s isn’t open for dinner excepting for this Friday night fish fry. That shows keen awareness by the owner, and the menu reflects a willingness to modify what other restaurants often see as a very strict menu offering. This fish fry featured Haddock, Cod, Perch, Shrimp, and some other fish that’s served blackened with jerk seasoning. There are potato pancakes and the usual sides, each served in a small plastic tub. The menu, in case you haven’t ever been, has small bits of inside jokes and innuendo that I’m sure many people understand but I do not.  The deep fried perch comes with three pieces and a question, “Maybe retired old men eat out too often”...

The waitress was polite but firm, and responded with little hesitation when I asked what she recommended. The battered cod was good, she said. The grilled lemon pepper haddock is another favorite. I obeyed her and ordered the Tavern Battered Cod Plate ($10.75 for four pieces) with the potato pancakes and a single extra piece of lemon pepper grilled haddock, just to check it out. My wife opted for the Sizzlin Fish Tacos, (marinated, chopped haddock)…“Que Bueno”. My daughter left the reservation completely and ordered a burger. We nursed our waters and tried to ignore the eardrum shattering screams coming from the neighboring table.

The fish was out in short order, and looked good enough. The dinner was served with two slices of untoasted rye, along side a tiny packet of to-go butter. I’ll avoid comment, because I’m certain my opinion on this is already known. The fried cod looked more like fish-sticks than the larger, chunk pieces of cod most of our market serves. The small chunk of grilled haddock looked nice, so I tried that first. It was extremely subtle on the lemon pepper flavor, but the fish was delicately cooked and flavorful. I enjoyed it very much. The cod was crunchy with a thick batter, and the fish inside was pretty good. It wasn’t my favorite batter or fish on this tour, but it was in line with the average.

The potato pancakes (two) were thin and looked more like actual pancakes than most of the potato pancakes I’ve had. But they were very nicely seasoned and cooked perfectly. The interior was moist and creamy, the exterior just a bit crisped. They were a nice break from my unfortunate run of disappointing potato pancakes. The applesauce is only served with the potato pancakes, so if you opt for fries don’t expect any applesauce. But I am not the sort that slathers applesauce on potato pancakes, which must be something that one learns either at a very young age or never at all, so I eat my applesauce separate. And this was delicious applesauce. Huge chunks of apple, nicely sweetened. A winner on the applesauce scene.

When the dust settled I was satisfied with my meal. I wasn’t amazed by it, or enthralled with it, but I left satisfied that I had just eaten a proper Wisconsin Fish Fry, and my Friday night was still young. I made the most of that early dinner by going home to mow my lawn before returning to the restaurant to wait for my son to finish washing the pots and pans from dinner service. I’m pleased to report that Daddy Maxwell’s didn’t let me down. I was told later that I should have ordered the butterflied perch, but such is life.  Is Daddy Maxwell’s in my top five fish fish fry joints? No, it isn’t. But is it a nice, local joint to find a varied fish fry served with careful effort? Yes, it most definitely is.

Daddy Maxwell’s Fish Fry 6.5/10

150 Elkhorn Road, Williams Bay

Cod, Haddock, Shrimp, Perch, from $8.25 to $16.50

 

Fish Fry Problems

Fish Fry Problems

I might eat a fish dinner on a Friday. That fish dinner might be amazing. Tender, white fleshed fish, crisp, moist potato pancakes. Maybe even some chunky, cold applesauce. That dinner might be so good that I return to this computer a few days later and tell you just how good it was. Amazing, really. Go there, I’ll say.

And you might. The next Friday, because you were hoping to find someplace that might cure you of your bad run of fish-fry-luck.  And so you drive, to the place I went, order the things I ordered. The flaky fish and the crunchy batter, the crisped pancake and that perfect applesauce. You order and wait with anxious anticipation.  The fish is brought out. The pancakes, too. The applesauce is served.  But then something happens.

The batter isn’t crunchy at all. The fish is gray. There’s a bone in your broiled piece. The pancake is greasy and limp. The applesauce is warm.  Your waitress is rude and the ripped vinyl bench irritates your skin. You shouldn’t have worn shorts. Everything is terrible. David Curry was wrong.

Last Friday, I wanted to eat some fish. I had appointments that pushed my typical dining time to a later, more normal time. But it’s Fourth of July week, and restaurants are filled to overflowing. I called around to find a reservation. No luck. Our party of 10 would need special consideration, I figured, but no restaurant felt like confirming a table for me. Perhaps the knew the sound of my voice and knew to avoid me.  After some calling, we decided that the Abbey Waterfront should have availability because it is, indeed, a large space. We drove. We waited a few minutes. We were seated.

I didn’t really want to go back to one of my prior favorites, but with friends in tow I decided it would be good to stop the exploration and go somewhere I know to be good. The last time I went to the Abbey’s Waterfront restaurant I wrote a nice review. It was a good dinner. On this Friday I expected a repeat performance.

We ordered our various pieces of fish and potato and waited. The lakeside dining room was a bit warm on this sultry evening, but I gave it a pass as I guessed their air conditioning units were trying their best.  The restaurant was busy, so the 30 minute wait from ordering to eating wasn’t a surprise, though it was a touch annoying. Nevermind, I’d be more annoyed shortly, anyway.

The fish arrived and I knew it was off. The broiled cod wasn’t white like it should be, it was a bit gray, like it shouldn’t be. There was water pooled in the opened cracks of the fish, not drawn butter like any respectable fish would prefer to be baptized in.  The fried piece was still crunchy, but the batter was bland and the fish hidden inside was also gray. The potato pancake was fine, but dry, the applesauce was blah. The first order was cod, so I made the second order walleye. I waited for just shy of eternity, and when the fish came out the fried was just marginal and the broiled walleye was riddled with bones. I left, exceptionally disappointed.

And that’s the problem with fish fry in this area. It isn’t consistent. That’s why people drop anchor at their favorite and enjoy the experience for many reasons that have nothing to do with inconsistent fish and possibly dry pancakes. A friend of mine sent me a text on Friday night, just as I finished my gray dinner. He said, with more colorful adjectives, that the Evergreen Golf Course fish fry was terrible. The worst he’s ever had. An abomination, really. I took that to note and figured that based on his commentary I would be skipping Evergreen in future visits.

But I also sat back and thought that someone just left Evergreen the week before and told their friends it was the best fish they had ever eaten. Someone will leave the Waterfront this coming Friday and extol its impeccable delivery and marvel at the white, flaky flesh of both its cod and walleye. The problem with a fish fry is that for everything to go right there are too many factors. Too many nuances. Too many chances to serve me gray overcooked cod when all I really wanted was a nice little fish dinner.

Freddie’s West End Fish Fry Review

Freddie’s West End Fish Fry Review

Lake Como used to be known as Duck Lake, which I contend is a better name. It should have kept it. I had a cousin who once changed her name, and like the Como/Duck fiasco, I liked her first name better as well. In spite of this mix up, Lake Como is a curious thing. On one hand, it’s intensely shallow. On the other hand, it’s uniquely muddy. It’s the third largest lake in Walworth County, but it’s not much to consider. My lack of Lake Como knowledge aside, I gathered the troops, ignored the Highway 67 detour signs, and wrapped my way around to the north shore of Lake Como.

Freddie’s West End is a bar here, across the street from that lake, wedged into a residential neighborhood. It is not without charm. When I pulled up, early, at 5:10 pm, the parking lot and adjacent streets were lined with cars of varying makes and models. The rain from the wet week had cleared and the bar was full of patrons ready to kick the weekend off with some libations and fish. Do not go to Freddie’s expecting to find a restaurant. This is a bar, through and through, much like a Northwoods bar, this place has little concern for what you think of it.

We walked in what I believe to be the side door, off of a small deck that had a few tables and chairs, still soaked from the rain.  When I walked into the South Shore Bar near Delavan Lake, I was quickly judged by the patrons who knew I was out of place. At Freddie’s, there was no such judgement. A friendly fellow at the bar mentioned something about the weather, and I, noticing the ease of his effort, chimed in. I asked the bartender if we might be able to sit outside, and though she’d need to find something to wipe off the wet tables, she obliged. We settled into our chairs with a fine view of Lake Como in the background, and learned of their fish fry.

The menu was simple. It’s Mary Lynn’s Old Fashioned Fish Fry for $12. If you don’t like it, the only other thing to order would be the chicken tenders for $6, but more on those later. The fish fry comes with the Wisconsin fixin’s, and gives diners the choice of Walleye Pike (a fancy name for Walleye favored by Northwoods types), Lake Perch, Blue Gill, Fried Shrimp, Shrimp DeJonge, or Poor Man’s Lobster (cod). Interesting to note, the only cod option is baked, not fried. If you came to this bar and wished to eat fried cod, you might as well ask for a cobb salad with avocados. You’re going to leave hungry.

The waitress was attentive and sweet, and we made our decision.  The three of us ordered the Walleye, the Perch, and the Cod.  Feeling like the chicken tender must have done something special to wriggle its way into this fishy menu, I added in an order at the last minute.  We waited for around 20 minutes for the food to arrive, which I found to be somewhat of a strange delay given the basic nature of the menu. Still, the wait offered a nice chance to inhale some cigarette smoke that was wafting across the patio, and I hadn’t had a smoke in my whole life, so I needed my nicotine fix.

The food arrived in plastic baskets, which felt right for this bar. The fried assortment of fish and potato looked the part, and I was excited to taste the variety.  The perch filets were numerous, lightly breaded with a cornmeal exterior, and almost crunchy. The very light dusting of cornmeal wasn’t enough to make for a crunchy exterior, but it was enough. The perch was quite good. I had perch at Gordy’s, and this was easily as good or better. The french fries that accompanied that order were crunchy and thick cut, very nicely prepared. French fries shouldn’t be hard, but they are, and Freddie’s has them mastered.

The walleye dinner was one large fried filet, dusted in the same cornmeal as the perch. It was meaty and white, perfectly cooked. Unfortunatley it desperately needed salt, and I had loads of bones in my piece.  I have ten intense fears in this life, and one of them is choking on fish bones. I don’t know if I have ever choked on one, but I fear it anyway. In the way that I’ve never been bit by a large spider, but it’s one slot above the fish-bone-choke on my list. I cannot tolerate bones in fish filets, so it was a disappointment.  The applesauce was smooth and blah, the tartar sauce and coleslaw both okay but, much like me, did not receive any express praise from my wife.

The baked cod was quite good. A touch overcooked, but just barely. The drawn butter was flavorful, as drawn butter must be. I dunked a few pieces and decided it was an above average cod.  The potato pancakes, two to an order, were small and dense. Too dense. The interiors were starchy and dry. Last up, these chicken tenders. One bite revealed the truth that the menu was hiding. These were not chicken tenders, these were chicken tender shaped Mcnuggets. The assortment of mashed chicken bits into a tender shape was not good. In fact, it was terrible. I wouldn’t order these bits of chicken again if they were the last chicken Mcnuggets on earth. Even McDonald’s knows there’s a different between a nugget and a tender, and I’d hope Freddie’s fixes this error, soon.

All in all, I sort of enjoyed my visit to Freddie’s. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful.  The subtle ambiance of a Northwoods bar is something that slowly grows on you and gains your allegiance, and I can see how Freddie’s has become a local favorite. But judged without prejudice, it was just okay. The perch was the standout I think, though it was admittedly made better by a quick bath in the drawn butter that I borrowed from my wife’s cod. The walleye had too many bones for me, and the potato pancake was below average. I’d add Freddie’s to your rotation if you haven’t ever been, and if you’ve already been, well, then I’m guessing you already knew to avoid the chicken.

Freddie’s West End 6/10

W4118 Lake Shore Drive, Lake Geneva, WI (North shore of Lake Como)

$12 cod, walleye, perch, shrimp

Trout House Fish Fry Review

Trout House Fish Fry Review

Travel down any of these wide roads that lead to other towns and other states, and you’ll likely find something from here, there. There’s a nice parcel of land north of Elkhorn that was blessed with an abundance of cold water springs, the sort that are perfect for raising rainbow trout. Those ponds have tens of thousands of trout owned by Rushing Waters, and those trout find their way from this little spot in Wisconsin to some of the finest restaurants and grocery stores in the country.

A few years ago, Rushing Waters decided to try its hand at a restaurant, so they built out a nice space adjacent the building that houses their operations. The restaurant there is very nice,  a wonderful addition to the sparse restaurant scene that the Lauderdale folks must abide.  I ate at that restaurant a few times and generally enjoyed my meals. Last year Rushing Waters and their Trout House branded restaurant expanded into the Lake Geneva market, albeit by way of Delavan.  That’s where I went to eat last Friday night, because who better to serve me fish than an operation that understand fish from egg to table?

The space that the Trout House Delavan now operates from was most recently a large expansion undertaken by the cheese and sandwich shop known as Brick Street Market. The name comes from the brick streets in Delavan, in case you haven’t been to Delavan, ever. The cheese shop first occupied a smaller area to the West of this one, and then upgraded to this cavernous expanse of square footage and tables.  Brick Street Market didn’t last, sadly, and the Trout House took over the space. The issue with this particular location remains one of some trouble. On one hand, it’s Delavan, which struggles to pull from the Lake Geneva market. On the other hand, that space is so large that it’s nearly impossible to feel as though you aren’t eating a hot lunch in a school cafeteria on a Saturday, when just you and the other few kids in detention are in the building.

I tried to go to the Trout House twice before, both times being turned away. So last Friday I went early, arriving at 5:30, and found immediate seating near the front window.  The space, as described above, is nice and new, with some generic updated finishes, but the space remains so large that I cannot imagine it feeling lively or cozy under any circumstance. Still, the restaurant is clean and bright and there’s some exposed brick on the walls.  Once seated, we perused the menu. No mention of a fish fry. Some rainbow trout dishes, of course, but where was my cod?

I inquired of the waitress, and she told me of the fish fry. It’s two or three piece fried cod, or a single piece broiled cod, served with choice of potato and the typical sides. I ordered the three piece fried, as I need to keep up my weight in the event that I am ever called upon to hold onto a hot air balloon that has blown dangerously close to power lines. My wife ordered the one piece broiled. We drank our water and waited.

The wait wasn’t long, which was nice.   My fried looked crunchy and sublime, my wife’s broiled appeared to be a hefty portion. Hers was served with drawn butter, which immediately captured by attention. There was no table bread or butter, which I thought odd for a restaurant like this.  The potato pancakes were served two to an order, and the accompaniments of applesauce, tartar sauce, and coleslaw were offered up in small plastic tubs. How I longed for the sophistication of a ceramic or metal dish.

The potato pancake was up first. Nicely crisped, smallish in size, overwhelmingly bland. It had some green flecks in it that I initially thought might represent flavor, but those flecks turned out to be parsley, which is the anti-flavor. The pancakes lacked salt and needed a bit more panache. The fried cod was appropriately crunchy and sported a very nice battered exterior.  The interior was white and flaky, well seasoned. The fried fish was a delight, and after two weeks off from the Friday Fish Tour, I enjoyed my three pieces rather quickly. My wife’s broiled cod was dry, and needed some salt.

The applesauce, all two spoonfuls of it, was righteously chunky, which was also the name of my childhood praise and worship band. But it was a bit warm, which detracted from the otherwise wonderful sauce. The coleslaw was ok, and my wife liked the tartar sauce. When I pressed her for the reasons why the tartar sauce was good, she declined to comment further.  The dinner was over shortly after it began, and left me with a general feeling of meh.

Having spent that vacation in France last month, we decided that dessert would be nice. We ordered the chocolate torte at the waitress’s recommendation, along with two coffees. The torte was divine, deep and rich, not too sweet, but dense and more closely aligned with fudge than anything else. The coffee was acceptable, but would it kill local restaurants to indulge in an espresso machine? I have one that cost $599 and it works perfectly. Please, local restaurants, I’m begging for something other than drip coffee. Worse yet,  we were served cream in single serve take-out plastic teaspoon size tubs. The sort you’d find at a rest stop somewhere between Lodi and Necedah.  What a terrible miss this is for any restaurant, and what an easy miss this is to fix. Please serve cream with your coffee. It’s so easy. Painfully easy.

The dinner tab with tip came to $53. The fish dinners were $15 each, which is in line with expectations. Sadly, on this night, the Trout House failed to impress me. I love what it is that Rushing Waters does. I love their business, and their impact on this local economy. But a fish business should serve me a better fish fry. If not them, who? It shouldn’t be so hard to dial in the details of a proper Friday Night Fish Fry, but I’m finding that somehow it is. I’d give the Trout House a visit, either in their Delavan location or the Palmyra one (north of Elkhorn). But don’t expect to be dazzled,  just expect to be fed.

Trout House at  Delavan 6/10

118 East Walworth Avenue, Delavan, WI

$15 Fried or Broiled Cod

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