Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Sep 5, 2011
12:23 PMSmall Dishes
By the Side of the Road
In the chaotic clutter and too often ticky-tacky of modern life, it’s still possible to find treasure and sometime when least expected. After all, television shows such as Antiques Roadshow and American Pickers wouldn’t be so popular otherwise. I recently made my I-hate-to-admit-it first trip to Door County and thought I’d share a few of the places on and off the road that gave me pleasure.
I’m not much for traveling any distance in the car—perhaps that explains why I’d never gone to Door County before—so any excuse to stop is welcome and Ardy and Ed’s Drive-In in Oshkosh is a good one. The first time I came upon this place it was at night after traveling some distance down a very dark highway, and seeing its bright lights ahead wondered if I had entered the Twilight Zone. Before my eyes with its welcoming orange paint and blazing neon was every bit the 1950s root beer stand, complete with car hops on roller skates. The menu boards are as big as the building and the offerings predictable, but it’s not for the food that I return here. Somehow it’s reassuring that something from my youth really did exist and is more than just nostalgic fantasy.
Another place in Oshkosh (1832 Doty Street) that I keep hearing about is Hughes Home Maid Chocolate Shop, but I’ve never been there because it isn’t open during the summer! It’s actually located in the basement of a house and everyone raves about their toffee. Seemingly it doesn’t have a website, but here is a link to a business that resells and ships their candy.
When it comes to food, Door County’s two best known attributes are the fish boil and cherries (more about the latter later). Quite honestly, the mere sound of “fish boil” is about as appealing to me as lutefisk or cream of wheat. The fact that it’s managed to become ridiculously popular in a state that absolutely worships fried foods is beyond me. Perhaps the answer lies in the dramatic preparation over an open fire in a finesse of showmanship worthy of Tommy Bartlett. Potatoes first go into the big iron pot followed by whitefish. As the fish cooks, the oils rise to the top of the pot; then the chef adds a splash of kerosene to the fire. The flames flare, the liquid in the pot boils over, and the fish oils spill over the side of the pot adding a final foray of fireworks. Voilà, c’est fini!
The tradition of cooking lake fish in this manner is Scandinavian. The Viking Grill in Ellison Bay gets credit for starting the restaurant fish boil. Then owners Annette and Lawrence Wickman wanted to replicate the popular trout boils held by local churches and civic groups in the area, deciding to use whitefish instead. Today Dan Peterson is the owner and master fish boiler. Unlike many other restaurants in the area, no reservations are required for the fish boil held outside every day May through October at the Viking Grill. Also available are family-style dinners served in the dining room.
The big news each day in Sister Bay is whether the goats are out on the sod-covered roof at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant. (Go here for live goat cam.) The big meal is breakfast served all day long. What set the menu apart from your average American coffee shop is the Swedish pancakes and meatballs. Most likely there’ll be a wait at any time, but don’t be discouraged by the line; just head to the “Butik”, otherwise known as the gift shop. I don’t think it incidental that the square footage devoted to selling Scandinavian merchandise of all kinds rivals that of the dinning room. If you’ve been looking for a “Kiss Me I’m Swedish” (or Norwegian, or Danish of Finnish) t-shirt, you’ve found it. Most appealing personally are the specialty plates—platters of pickled herring or cold meats served with sliced cheese and pickled beets.
Al Johnson’s, despite the tourists and hype, is worth a visit. Considering our state’s rich Scandinavian heritage it’s too bad that there are so few restaurants that feature its cooking or carry on its food traditions.
Another anachronism is Wilson’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor, located in Ephaim since 1906. It does serve light meals just as they did at the soda fountain counter back in the day—there’s a sidewalk café with a view of the harbor. At its heart, though, Wilson’s is all about ice cream with many flavors, varieties of sundaes, malts and shakes. The Banquet is an ice cream extravaganza large enough to satisfy the hardiest of Sconnie appetites with five flavors of ice cream and just about everything else you can think of. If you’re still hungry for nostalgia, check out the Skyway Drive-In Theatre in Fish Creek, one of only 10 outdoor, big screen movie theaters still functioning in the Wisconsin.
In Door County, there’s no shortage of places to buy and enjoy cherries in every incarnation known to the culinary world and then some. Just when you think you’ve seen your last cheery orchard and sign touting Grandma’s cherry jam there’s one more. At the very tip of the peninsula on the road to the Washington Island Ferry near Gills Rock is Bea’s Ho-made Products. A farmstead market, Bea’s makes and sells jams, jellies and baked good with a focus on cherries. Linda Lardin began the business in 1962 when she sold their cherries from a roadside picnic table. As the business grew into a farm produce stand, her mom, Bea, came up with the idea to add chopped cherry jam, concocted from a treasured family recipe. Today the family produces over 100 products all made without preservatives or artificial ingredients. They also have other local gourmet specialties and ship anywhere in the U.S.
Dining options on Washington Island are limited, especially since the restaurant and cooking school at the venerable Washington Hotel closed. (The Washington Hotel Coffee Room in Madison, which was under the same management, is still open.) On Washington Island grows the wheat used to make Capital Brewery Island Wheat Ale and Death’s Door Vodka—named for the treacherous channel between the island and mainland.
Probably the most revered of local landmarks, though, is Nelsen’s Hall and the Bitters Club. The century-old hall has served many functions for the islanders and today is a bar and restaurant. Danish immigrant Tom Nelsen ran a tavern there until prohibition threatened to force him out of business. Resourceful, he applied and was granted a pharmacy license and began to dispense Angostura Bitters. Bitters today used as a flavoring in cocktails were once thought to have medicinal benefit as an aid to digestion and sold in drug stores. The remedy was also 98 proof (49% alcohol)! Now it’s a tradition for newcomers to the island to belly up to the bar and down a shot of this peculiar libation, officially becoming a member of the International Bitters Club.
I didn’t make it to Parador located in Egg Harbor (maybe the only town in the country named after a food fight!), though it came highly recommended. I suspect I would have if faced with one more day of supper club fare or another piece of cherry pie. A Spanish-style tapas bar might seem out of place Up North, but owners Larry and Rebecca Majewski were inspired to do something different when on their honeymoon they encountered a family-run pizzeria in Tahiti.
On the way home, it’s worth timing it right to hit Wendt’s on the Lake for dinner. Located in Van Dyne, this unassuming roadhouse would be easy to miss if it weren’t for all the cars in the lot. Always packed, drinkers and diners spill out on to the sprawling lawn that spreads to the edge of Lake Winnebago. The specialty is fried lake perch and though technically it’s not “all you can eat”, you can order what you want—portions sized from five to 30 ounces! The butterflied fillets are lightly breaded by hand and fried to a crisp golden crunch. Perch can also be paired with fried shrimp and prime rib.
People were always telling me Door County is just like Cape Cod. I suspected that was not the case and now know that it is not. But why would I want to go someplace like someplace else? Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but it’s always lacking. I liked Door County … it had its own personality and quirkiness that I enjoyed. Most of all I appreciated the lack of in-your-face signs, water parks and chain restaurants.
This is especially good on grilled fish.
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ pound (2 cups) Bing cherries, pitted and coarsely chopped
½ small red onion, finely chopped
½ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 jalapeño, minced
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
Coarse salt and pepper
In a medium bowl, combine cherries, onion, cilantro, jalapeño and lime juice. Season with salt and pepper and toss to combine. Set salsa aside until serving time.
Makes about 2½ cups.