By William Turner
What is fine dining? Generally, it means somewhat more expensive fare (no burgers or pizza), showcasing the real culinary talents of the chefs who create the menus. We decided to try six fine dining restaurants in Lake Geneva and report our findings here.
THE GRANDVIEW RESTAURANT AND LOUNGE AT THE GENEVA INN
Located on South Shore Drive just beyond Buttons Bay, the 23-year-old Grandview Restaurant and Lounge offers some of the best views of the lake. Restaurant Manager Dianne Watson, Head Chef Matt Hankins, and General Manager Susan Lorr came to The Grandview four years ago with the objective of maintaining the tradition of fine lunch and dinner dining while introducing some new elements.
One of the elements they added was breakfast: diners can look out over the lake and enjoy French toast, an omelet or Eggs Benedict (prices fall between $6 and $8). Their outdoor patio is now open for lunch every day as well, and on Sunday afternoons, they feature live music.
The bar is perfect — ask for Larry Crown, the best barkeep in the Geneva Lake area and a true wine cognoscente. On Tuesdays, all wine is half-price from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.; on Thursdays, appetizers are half-price. Come by boat if you want — they have six moorings available.
Because of the beautiful setting and elegant dining options, this is a favorite spot for marriage proposals. Last summer, they had over 30 — usually three or four each weekend. That certainly makes for a festive atmosphere.
The chef had us taste his most popular dish — Hong Kong-Style Calamari Salad. The restaurant serves about 2,500 orders of this salad per year, as I well know, since I always get it when I dine here. It is sweet and spicy but not overpowering. The calamari are always tender, so I asked Matt for his secret. He says he cooks them for exactly 30 seconds — anything more and they become rubbery. This is a major-league salad served with a lot of greens and topped with caviar and caramelized onions.
He also served us Crab Cakes, which he prepares fresh daily with lump crab and claw meat, bell peppers and red onions. You get two cakes served with a veggie for $12. Don’t forget to order a glass of the Sauvignon Blanc.
Spend an entire Thursday at The Grandview with a good book. Start with breakfast and adjourn to the patio for some quiet reading; then try the crab cakes for lunch and the calamari at cocktail hour. Sit outside, contemplate your life as the sun drops over the lake and decide who you will call to meet you for dinner.
THE BAKER HOUSE
Located right on the lake in a truly historic Victorian mansion, The Baker House is a must-stop. When the restaurant that formerly occupied the mansion closed a few years ago, we all wondered what would come next. Well, this is a more-than-worthy replacement.
There has been a definite attempt to focus the menu on small plates. We tried the Shrimp and Andouille Sausage Risotto ($15) and Berries and Brie Salad ($14). Both were great light meals and quite good; they seem to taste better looking out over the lake. There is a very romantic, cozy bar inside and you can order a small plate while examining the beer/wine list: they have 25 craft beers and an extensive wine cellar. There are also five Big Plate options (featuring beef, chicken and fish) and a children’s menu.
While the menu tends toward casual dining, the atmosphere of The Baker House pushes this establishment into the fine dining category, because the good food is really only half the story. The owners, Bethany and Andrew, were trained in the hospitality industry and had created a successful business in Woodstock, Illinois, called The Townsquare Inn. They were selling that business and planning to move to Europe to start a new project, when they saw that The Baker House was for sale. They quickly changed their plans.
They bought the property in 2009. They also bought Maxwell Mansion just off South Shore Drive, with the larger goal of operating both together to produce interesting guest experiences; cocktails at The Baker House followed by dinner theater at Maxwell Mansion, or dinner at The Baker House followed by a cabaret show at Maxwell Mansion. They also host special events like the Venetian Masquerade Ball at The Baker House and Dickens Dinners with a one-act theater presentation at Christmastime at Maxwell Mansion.
At The Baker House, they invite all the diners to take a short break at sunset to stroll outside for a complimentary champagne toast as the sun goes down over the lake. (Vintage hats are provided.) Very cool.
In addition to the restaurant, The Baker House has four European spa rooms complete with butler service and private chef — $350-500/night during the season. Maxwell Mansion has rooms also, which are more affordable.
The Baker House is a unique experience at a reasonable price. Bethany and Andrew are going to make a difference in the community.
GENEVA CHOPHOUSE AND RISTORANTE BRISSAGO AT GRAND GENEVA RESORT
Just five minutes outside of Lake Geneva to the east on Hwy. 50, there are two wonderful restaurants at the Marcus-owned Grand Geneva Resort — Ristorante Brissago and The Geneva Chophouse. Both have an elegant, stylish, almost “21 Club” feel. Marcus definitely understands the fine dining concept.
The Chophouse offers cozy booths inside or tables on the veranda. As the weather warms up, you can start with a cocktail outside and then migrate inside.
We met with Executive Chef Michael Sawin and Executive Sous Chef Earl Morse. The prices are not cheap, but the quality of the food is superb. Their meats are all USDA Prime and many are dry aged. They served us the 8 oz. Filet Mignon with Roasted Garlic and Mushrooms ($38) and it was brilliant — the mild peppercorn crust hit the spot.
In fact, The Chophouse sells more fish than they do meat. They source it from a vendor in Chicago who receives daily air shipments of fresh fish. The freshness clearly showed when they presented us with a Pan-Roasted Halibut from the Pacific Northwest, served with a lemon cream sauce ($37).
The restaurant also offers seasonal specials, which are all sourced from the local Wisconsin community. These dishes tend to be interesting and more economical. The night we were there, offerings included an Angus Tenderloin Tips Appetizer ($12) from River Valley Ranch, Seared Char from Aqua Terra Farms ($25) and Pork Porterhouse from Berkshire Farms ($29).
Their desserts are spectacular — these guys are really into the sweets — and reasonable at $10. They have their own pastry kitchen and pastry chef. How about a Carmelized Banana Torte or their PB&J Bomb? I was “forced” to try both.
Ristorante Brissago is similar in feel to the Chophouse. Even the menu has some overlap; they have the same filet but now it is “al Gorgonzola” and the sea bass is “Mediterranean Style.” However, true to its name, Ristorante Brissago also features some great Italian classics like Veal Saltimbocca ($36) and, my favorite, Penne alla Amatriciana ($22) with their homemade Italian sausage. They have eight other pastas that are worth trying. They also have some fun options, like their wine flights called “The Piedmonte Tour” and the “Trentino and Toscana Tour.”
Too many choices! Better make two trips — try a simple fish dish and a decadent dessert at The Chophouse and a pasta dish with a wine flight at Ristorante Brissago.
THE RED GERANIUM RESTAURANT
Located on the eastern edge of the city, this is one of the area’s oldest restaurants. Owner Mark Swatek and his mother opened the restaurant on Mother’s Day, 1985. Though she has since passed away, Swatek says his mother wanted a restaurant that felt like a home. (In that sense, Mark says that she wouldn’t have liked the sound of “fine dining” because it feels too stiff.)
The Red Geranium is open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner. They have a lively, friendly bar that you should visit before dinner. On Sundays they do a plated brunch in addition to Sunday dinner. With capacity for 160 and a number of separate rooms, they host a lot of rehearsal dinners, showers and business meetings. Get the Garden Room for your group — it opens to an outdoor gazebo bar.
Mark is really into wines. He built a separate wine cellar in the basement along with a private dining room that can handle up to 22 people for smaller, more intimate private dinners. Every quarter, they select a vineyard to feature. When I was there, they were serving Castle Rock wines: 10 reds and eight whites by the glass, and, best of all, wine tasting flights — three wine samples for $9.
Chef Troy Barts prepared three great dishes on our recent visit. Their signature dish, She Crab Soup, is based on Mom’s South Carolina Low Country recipe and has been on the menu since they opened. They serve about 400 cups per week in the summer. The soup is loaded with chunks of blue crab, topped with a caviar mousse and served with a shot of sherry to pour on the top. It’s fantastic.
For our next course, we tried the Chicken Vesuvio and the Citrus Salmon. At $20 including soup or salad, vegetable and pasta, the Vesuvio is a bargain and it was outstanding. The salmon dish was a big 8 oz. portion, the citrus butter was a pleasant surprise, and the $27 price was competitive.
They have specials on Sunday (Prime Rib and BBQ Ribs) as well as during the week. I’m tempted by the One-Half Baked Chicken with Bread Stuffing on Mondays for $16, and you get 20 percent off that if you dine between 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
Bottom Line: Get started with a cup of She Crab soup and a glass of wine at the bar during Happy Hour. Then enjoy a great meal at a competitive price.
Located on Broad Street just a few blocks north of the center of town, Medusa’s modest surroundings (it’s located in a former diner) might make you question their inclusion as a fine dining establishment. But after tasting the food, you’ll know that this is a special place.
Medusa is owned by Greg Anagnos, son of famous area restaurateur Nick Anagnos, who owned Popeye’s. (Nick has since passed away although his other sons continue to run that establishment.) Greg describes himself as the rebel of the family. He wanted to do his own thing, so he went to culinary school and developed a more artisanal approach to food preparation than he was used to in the family business. His manager, Jay, is the face of Medusa — Greg prefers to stay in the kitchen.
Jay brought out the first offering — an appetizer of Sautéed Calamari prepared in a non-conventional way. In addition to being sautéed, not deep-fried, they were served whole rather than cut up into little rings. This is a difficult dish to prepare, but they did it perfectly. Served with a little skordalia, pesto and sautéed greens, it was a gem.
The second dish was a Thick Cut Pork Chop, served with a jumbo shrimp on top, and it was clearly meant for someone really hungry. The meat was locally sourced and cooked on the wood-burning grill, which looks like it came out of a village in Italy or Greece. (In fact, the Anagnos family is of Greek descent, hence the name Medusa.) At Medusa, just about everything is cooked on this grill and the flavors are fantastic.
When I asked to see the grill, I finally met Chef Greg. We started comparing notes on other dishes, and I suggested he go to my website and try my veal piccata recipe. He laughed and said there was no need since his was unbeatable — something to do with using a veal demi-glace instead of broth. Within five minutes he whipped up some for me to try, and wow! It was indeed better than mine.
They also make their own gelato from scratch every day. Ask for little tasting cups of the day’s flavors before you decide what you want.
This is the place to go if you want some wonderful meat done in a wood-fired grill. And don’t forget the gelato.
SOPRA: AN AMERICAN BISTRO
Because it’s only been around for five years, Sopra is one of the newcomers to the culinary scene in Lake Geneva.
Located in a former storefront on Main Street in the heart of downtown, Sopra: An American Bistro is one of the smaller dining rooms on the list as well: They have seating for 97 downstairs (including those who eat at the bar) and 28 in their new upstairs room (which also handles private parties), making it neither small nor big — maybe just right.
Simon Cumming is the chef and part owner. He studied culinary science in Arizona and returned to Chicago where he had spent his high school years. He had been working in Chicago for seven years with his mentor, chef and restaurateur Jason Paskewitz, when he got a call from his father, who had just remarried and moved to Lake Geneva. Simon’s father told him that a restaurant on Main Street was for sale and suggested a family venture.
Now 35, Simon works as the chef, while his stepmother Carrie handles the front of the house. Together, they have brought some real culinary flair to our community. The menu changes four times a year. Simon uses local providers for his meats, all his fish is fresh, and prices are a breath of fresh air.
He served us two dishes. The first was a Whole Yellowtail Snapper, pan-roasted, stuffed with lemon and thyme, and served with yellow tomato coulis and purple potatoes; it was a bargain at $28. The filets came off the body easily and were incredibly moist. The second dish was a Beet Salad, comprised of roasted golden beets sitting atop a puree of red beets. With goat cheese, baby frisee lettuce, and honey, Simon delivered an incredible combination of flavors for $9.
Here are other things I like: There are no linens on the tables so you eat this fantastic food in a rustic atmosphere; The bar is part of the main dining area and you can eat there; The bar features eight signature martinis and an incredible selection of beers (48 bottle varieties and six draft choices), bottles of wine are half-off on Thursdays; The bartender says her biggest seller is Lobster Won-Tons at cocktail hour.
This place is very cool. Stroll in some Thursday with that special person, order a bottle of wine at half price, try an appetizer at the bar, look over the food as it comes out and stay for dinner.