Story and photography by Manos Angelakis
Great Food at Elkhart Lake
Elkhart Lake, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, is a small village (pop. 1,021 in the 2000 census) on the shores of the eponymous lake that attracts epicures because of the high quality food that is found in the area. The “farm to table” mantra that is constantly talked about in larger communities is practiced everyday here, where organic vegetables grown in local farms find their way to the village every morning, and one can visit pork-chops and T-bones “on the hoof”, within 5 miles of the village’s restaurants. If you are so inclined, you can also have fresh milk, warm from the cow, and excellent cheeses also produced within a few miles. Wisconsin is famous for their cheeses after all, and many US cheese producing companies are located within Sheboygan County, just one hour from Milwaukee and two and a half hours from Chicago.
And talking about excellent food. First there is the Osthoff Resort, with two restaurants and a cooking school.
Lola’s on the Lake, named after the resort’s General Manager and enthusiastic supporter of the Elkhart Lake village, serves regional cuisine created by an award-winning culinary team that crafts menus that change with the seasons. We had a couple of dinners here, and I will give kudos to the staff for the quality of the service, to the kitchen for its excellent fare, and to the sommelier for an outstanding wine list.
From the dishes we had at Lola’s, worth mentioning were: the Apple Walnut Stuffed Quail with corn and cheddar stuffing and maple bourbon jus; the Roasted Duck Arancini with apple, ginger and watercress puree; Golden Bear Farms Pork Chops with sweet potato, rishi tea-poached apple, and buttermilk blue cheese butter; and the Stout-Braised Kobe Short Ribs with potato and vegetable hash, and blueberry Syrah demi sauce, to name but a few of the exceptional dishes. Accompanying one of our meals was an extraordinary 100% Pinot Noir from Napa Valley’s Sturino Trotta Cellars.
Actually, there is a Tasting Menu I highly recommend, that shows off the capabilities of the resident chefs, and can be had with Reserve wine pairings or with Standard wine pairings or even without wines.
The cellar at Lola’s on the Lake has a number of very interesting wines, mostly from California, that included some of the better Napa and Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignons; brilliant Pinot Noirs; nice sparklers from Champagne, the Veneto, and Anderson Valley; Chardonnays from France, Sonoma and Mendocino; Zinfandels – including one of my favorites, called 7 Deadly Zins; and Ports, Late Harvest, and Ice-Wines, amongst others.
Then, there is Otto's Restaurant that offers a full menu of American cuisine in a casual setting. Otto's features mostly fun-food for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as seasonally available outdoor patio dining, with beautiful lake views.
The Grilled Gulf Shrimp Cobb Salad, with tender greens tossed with citrus vinaigrette, Gorgonzola cheese, smoked bacon, tomato and avocado stood out, and so did the New York-style Cheesecake with Strawberries and Strawberry Sauce.
L'ecole de la Maison cooking school is headed by Scott J. Baker, Executive Chef at the Osthoff Resort. He is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, the premiere cooking school in the country, where he learned fundamental skills, and just as importantly, the reference points for quality. The day we attended, the course consisted of preparing pasta from scratch with numerous meat and/or vegetable sauces.
We prepared 6 pastas: Bucatini with Roasted Fennel and Heirloom Tomato, Black Pepper Pasta with Wisconsin Veal Bolognese, Butternut Squash Agnolotti with Garlic-Sage Sauce, Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Walnut Sauce, Spinach Fettuccini with Prosciutto di Parma, and Orecchiette with Sardinian Ragout and Rapini (Broccoli Rabe).
But the restaurants at The Osthoff Resort are only a few of the available excellent-food establishments just a short walk away in the town.
There is the Paddock Club, named after an infamous local gambling spot at the turn of the 20th century. It is currently owned by two sisters that understand what excellent food and good service, is all about.
The kitchen is the culinary domain of Lynn Chisholm, Owner and Executive Chef, and Cheri Hau is Owner and Manager front-of-the-House. We had dinner one evening at this surprisingly elegant dining space and I will attest that Lynn’s cooking abilities are equal to many stared chef’s I have recently encountered. If you live anywhere nearby (Chicago, Milwaukee) it is worth the trip just to be able to experience their food. The menu, though small, offers something for everyone. We enjoyed handmade pastas and unique desserts. The wine list offered a great selection of leading, logically priced wines. Cheri, in charge of the dining room, has trained the staff who were there when needed, without being the least bit intrusive.
We tasted Lynn’s creation of Pan Seared Scallops with sweet corn flan, porcini mushrooms, preserved lemon, shaved Parmesan, and truffle vinaigrette. Also, Crispy Pork Belly with radish, apple, watercress, jalapeño and ver jus. Exquisite Mushroom Risotto Fritters, with arugula and white truffle dip. A BLT Salad, with sliced local heirloom tomatoes, romaine lettuce, bacon lardons, red onion and blue cheese dressing. We also had a Roasted Beet & Yuzu Pickeled Fennel salad with orange segments, arugula, aged goat cheese, pine nuts and orange balsamic vinaigrette. Both salads were original and outstanding as were the appetizers.
We then had mains of pasta that included Butternut Squash Ravioli, with sage, shallots, d’ affinois cheese, hazelnuts, and black truffle oil; and superb Veal Ragu Papardelle, with San Marzano tomato, porcini mushroom, rosemary, sage, pancetta, prosciutto, and parmigiano reggiano. Again, both of the pasta dishes were dazzling; flavorful, with perfect ingredients perfectly balanced.
Near to the Paddock Club, is another culinary winner, the Lake Street Café, established in 1999 by John and Lynn Shovan. There is an informal, rather loud bar/restaurant on one side, and a fine dining room with white linens and candles, on the other. The menu seems to be the same on either side and includes Salads, Sandwiches, Entrées, wood-fired Pizza, and a Children’s Menu. There is a daily specials menu with choices of 3 Soups, a Salad, an Appetizer, a Pizza, a Sandwich, and two Entrées (The day we visited they were offering Stripped Bass with Risotto and Tilefish with Chorizo and Potato Hash). They make everything from scratch using fresh ingredients, make all of their stocks on premises, and bake their own breads and desserts. They offer an extensive wine list impeccably assembled by wine lover John that is the recipient of the Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence.
We began with a black-and-white sesame crusted ahi tuna, with wassabi paste, soy sauce, and sesame seaweed salad and continued with the tenderloin seasoned by garlic and herb Boursin cheese, Shiraz wine sauce, and fingerling potato. This was my favorite dish in this restaurant. The large tender cut of Angus Beef was cooked to perfection, with the flavorful cheese and rich wine sauce infusing the meat with a silky elegance.
I never really expected the quality of the food coming out from those kitchens to be so high. Even with a number of resorts located in the area, the chefs seem to be isolated in the north center of the country. I’ll admit I was astounded when I tasted the product of their efforts.
Just across the street from both restaurants, on East Rhine Street, is Vintage Wine Shop & Tasting Bar. Owner Jaclyn Stuart is a certified sommelier and a very knowledgeable proponent of good food and good wine pairings. She carries over 100 wines, personally selected by her, plus a number of craft beers, most from the State of Wisconsin. She also carries her own private label of olive oil and vinegars plus local artisanal cheeses, salumi, chocolates and bread. The wine classes and tastings that she conducts in her store are well attended.
We tasted three very interesting wines from California from her cellar, and I thought her comments about the wines were right on the money.
For further information:
Osthoff Lake Resort. http://www.osthoff.com
The Paddock Club. http://www.paddockclubelkhartlake.com
The Lake Street Café. http://www.lakestreetcafe.com
Vintage Wine Shop & Tasting Bar. http://www.vintageelkhartlake.com
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