I grew up in small Midwestern towns and the most polite thing I can say about the culinary options is they sucked. There was a truck stop on the south side of town that specialized in greasy burgers and a bowling alley that happened to have a snack bar/grill. The bowling alley’s usually inebriated “chef” did whip up a mean potato soup every Friday.
That’s why I was so surprised to find Elkhart Lake, Wis. This little town has a population of 967 and no less than ten truly amazing restaurants. There’s even a French cooking school. Located at the venerable Osthoff Resort, it’s called L’Ecole de la Maison and one of my fellow chefs-in-training insisted, while we were cooking lemon curd and rolling out the homemade baguettes, that she’d been to the Cordon Bleu in Rome and that this was much better.
At dusk every night, an Elkhart Lake resident steps to the shore of the gorgeous spring-fed lake and blows into a conch shell, a sound that reverberates across the lake, a signal for the culinary games to begin.
On Tuesdays, locals — some that even drive in from Sheboygan and Milwaukee — fill the Paddock Club for small-plate night. Tapas Tuesday, as it’s known, gives Chef Lynn Chisholm, who restored the historic building with three siblings, the chance to exercise her culinary creativity and her customers the chance to try even more of the delectable results. Where else can you get halibut cake with rémoulade sauce and arugula for $4? Or coconut curry braised lamb for $9? My table couldn’t resist. We tried one of everything on that night’s bill. It changes every week.
Next door is Lake Street Café, an inauspicious name for a restaurant that pulls down a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence every year and sports a menu (cleverly pasted inside old books that owner Lynn and John Shovan pick up at garage sales) with escargot cassoulet, warm crusted goat cheese salad, and sesame seared tuna with wasabi paste and seaweed salad. Depending on your mood, you can either sit in the casual side (there’s even a make-your-own photo strip booth) or the side with candles and white table cloths. Menu’s the same.
To round out Elkhart Lake’s delectable options, there’s Back Porch Bistro, a favorite of Marco Andretti, Mario’s grandson, Lola’s on the Lake, and the Barefoot Tiki Bar where you can gaze out over the cedar-lined shores of this ancient 120-foot-deep lake. That is, if you’re not too busy enjoying curried sweet corn soup, free-range Berkshire pork, and other delicacies raised and grown nearby.
There are at least two theories as to why Elkhart Lake became such a foodie destination. Road America, a classic 4.5-mile race track cut out of nearby farmlands, draws wealthy Europeans and discerning vintage car racers, many who likely ascribe to the motto, “Life’s too short to eat boring food.” The other theory stems from being 18 miles away from the posh American Club, the only five-diamond resort in the Midwest.
Either way, visitors to this charming village near Kettle Moraine State Park reap the benefits. Now, if I can just convince the chefs in my small hometown to step it up.
(All photos courtesy of Pam Grout)