By David Hammond
Elkhart Lake’s spring-fed water, held sacred for centuries by indigenous peoples, is so clean that when it’s tested every year, inspectors dramatize its purity by ceremoniously sipping a cup of untreated lake water.
We didn’t take that taste test, but we ate at three worthy restos in Elkhart Lake (a two-and-a-half hour drive from Chicago), all a short stroll from the three main lakefront hotels: The Osthoff (osthoff.com), Victorian Village (vicvill.com) and Siebkens Resort (siebkens.com).
Paddock Club (paddockclubelkhartlake.com): Chef Lynn Chisholm of Paddock Club apprenticed under Wisconsinite Paul Bartolotta, serving food she describes as “inspired by seasonal goodness, local ingredients and European technique.” Reflecting, perhaps, her time with Bartolotta, Chisholm has a deft hand with pasta, and her ravioli reflects a delicate balance between simple ingredients and lush flavor. Several dishes—including heirloom tomatoes with fried eggplant salad and potato gnocchi with sugar snap peas—are composed, Chisholm says, “all from veggies and herbs sourced locally.” Wisconsin is one of the world’s great cheese producing regions, and Chisholm’s cheese platter currently includes local favorites like Deer Creek five-year-old cheddar, Salemville Smokehaus Blue and Sartori Chai Bellavitano. For a light meal, it’d be hard to do better than this cheese plate, a seasonal salad and a glass of wine.
Lake Street Café (lakestreetcafe.com): Walking into Lake Street Café, you’d think you were in a bar, and you’d be part right: half this space is a tavern and in the adjoining space is a linen tablecloth dining room with an estimable wine list (Wine Spectator Award of Excellence eight years running). The menu is the same on either side, so choice of ambiance determines where you eat. Reflecting both French tradition and an urge to innovate on the basics, dishes include a cassoulet of escargot, foie gras crème brulee, and veal breast confit. Lynn Shovan’s Lake Street Café, as well as the Paddock Club, Lola’s on the Lake and all three major hotels, are women-run. Shovan says “I love the camaraderie among the restaurants in Elkhart Lake. We all get along and help each other out. We understand that competition is good and the more people that we keep in town the better for all.”
Lola’s on the Lake (lolasonthelake.com): On the grounds of the Osthoff Resort, on the shores of Elkhart Lake, the kitchen at Lola’s does an exceptional job with fish. “We source much of our fish, meat and vegetables from small producers in the state,” says restaurant namesake Lola Roeh. “For example, our popular trout dish is from Rushing Waters Fisheries, less than two hours away. We grow a majority of vegetables and herbs in our organic garden, and our specials emphasize seasonal and local items.” Soup is always comforting, but a big bowl becomes boring; Lola’s helps those with a short-soup-attention-span by offering a tasting of three soups, which is, honestly (no, really!) more fun than it sounds. Dishes at Lola’s are finessed with a food photographer’s eye: they look fantastical.
Also at The Osthoff is the L’Ecole de la Maison Cooking School, offering skill-enhancing cooking classes under the guidance of chef instructor Scott Baker, who demonstrates endless patience as he explains to first-timers how to cut a carrot or bake bread. Though the classes are frequently themed with European food traditions (French, Italian, etc.), Baker uses local, seasonal ingredients whenever possible. He makes classic dishes approachable for the amateur chef.
Once the sun goes down over Elkhart Lake, the Stop-Inn at Siebkens seems to draw the biggest crowds, with a funkier-than-you’d-expect barroom with live music and a vibe vastly more casual than other local dining/drinking locations.
Saturday mornings June through mid-October, Elkhart Lake hosts a farmers’ market, which is the place to pick up seasonal vegetables and artisanal cheese to bring back home.
Wisconsin is the largest producer of cranberries in the United States, and if you’re a fan of the tart fruit, the Cranberry Discovery Center (discovercranberries.com) and Cranberry Highway are a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Elkhart Lake. This is the season for cranberries, and at family-run cranberry marshes, you can pick your own in time for Thanksgiving.
On the return trip to Chicago, Henschel’s Indian Museum and Trout Farm (henschelsindianmuseumandtroutfarm.com) is highly recommended. Excavations by Marquette University archaeologists have uncovered here a vast trove of projectile points, pottery and other everyday items. Gary Henschel oversees this respectful, enduring monument to local First Nations people, and he’ll clean any fish pull from his stocked pond ($6.95/lb, live weight).
Elkhart Lake is in Sheboygan County, and nearby Sheboygan is synonymous with bratwurst. We were unmoved by brats we had in Sheboygan; a better choice for this trademark sausage can be had at the Brat Stop (bratstop.com) in Kenosha, an easy stop on the way home to Chicago.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org