Should You Find Yourself in Door County, Wisconsin
For better or worse, Door County, WI, is getting progressively less wild.
When my father was a kid vacationing in Door County, he and one of my uncles got ahold of an all-too-functional bow and arrow set, which they decided to investigate in a quiet area behind the cottage. Being kids, they conducted an experiment: They shot an arrow straight up to see where it would land.
But something unexpected happened: The wind caught the arrow and blew it straight over the cottage and out of sight. They ran, frantically, to the front of the cottage, and there it was… sticking vertically through one of the lawn chairs out front. Unoccupied, as it turns out.
My own days as a kid vacationing at Glidden Lodge on Whitefish Bay were less mischievous, at least from a “deployment of lethal force” perspective. But my brother and I always had the feeling that we were free while we on vacation: Video games weren’t yet portable and the cottages at Glidden Lodge were crude and open to the elements, so we had the feeling of being outdoors for the duration of our stay.
Food was never a big part of the trip. Hamburger stands and supper clubs were the mainstays; we’d make s’mores in the fireplace of our cottage. I remember the ice cream-filled cream puff at the Lodge restaurant being an annual favorite.
By contrast: Back in Door County this month as part of a Door County Visitor Bureau press tour (full details at the end of the story*), our first meal after arriving was at Parador, the new classically styled tapas restaurant in Egg Harbor.
What are tapas doing in Door County, previously known for Al Johnson’s Swedish pancakes and homemade cherry bounce?
And how did these tapas come to be legitimately tasty?
And what’s the deal with all the olive oil shops and wineries in a region with a climate almost but not entirely unlike Napa or Italy?
A fine question. Not surprisingly, Door County has evolved rapidly to keep pace with the often well-heeled visitors from Milwaukee and Chicago who buy up its waterfront homes, fill its marinas with $750,000 yachts, and keep its pricey restaurants and gift shops in the black. Some of that change has been wonderful and refreshing, some has been grimly necessary, and some has been perplexing, but the overall impact has been to leave the peninsula a marvelous place to vacation and dine, if you keep your wits about you.
SPAIN UP NORTH, VIA PARADOR
As a point of reference: While honeymooning in 2007, my wife and I stayed at the Parador (state-run national heritage hotel) in Ronda, Spain. The hotel room’s two balconies overlooked rich pasture land dotted with small farmhouses and a gorgeous crest of mountains, affording one of the most beautiful views we’ve ever enjoyed. The interior decor of the two-story apartment was spare and impeccable. Breakfast was a dream: cafe con leche, fresh fruit, fresh orange juice, local pastries.
Naturally, the dinner at the Parador restaurant in Egg Harbor didn’t compare to the one in Ronda. It was actually much better. By some quirk of lazy management, the Spanish hotel was serving aggressively priced fancy food served by classically snooty waiters made from lousy ingredients by indifferent chefs. Dessert, which looked great on the menu, emerged as a sub-McDonald’s level ice cream sundae with at least one human hair on it. From appetizer to dessert, Becca and I moved in turn from doubt to shock to horror to hilarity.
Door County’s Parador reminded me far more of the tapas bar we found across the street and down the block from the Spanish hotel — a joint packed with locals that served up simple, nicely balanced bites of food for a reasonable price. While Parador in Door County is a bit more fine dining-oriented than many of its Spanish cousins, it has much in common with them in terms of the flavor profiles of its dishes and its dedication to using fresh ingredients; this makes it all that much more remarkable that the chef, Michael Reid, has never been to Spain. His work stands up with the real deal.
On the night we arrived, Parador was offering three sangrias, including a red, a white with lime and cucumbers, and a sparkling featuring cherry juice, cava, and another Spanish wine. We tried the sparkling sangria and thought it terrific — well balanced, refreshing, light with a bit of bite to it, and not oversweet.
Bacon-wrapped dates ($7) came with a brandied reduction and were pleasingly rich, with the right mix of smoky, sweet, and salty flavors.
A tortilla española ($5, a potato, onion and egg omelet) was also spot on, mellow and soothing.
A Basque apple tart for dessert fell flat in terms of flavor impact, but a queso de cabra ($7, a combination of melted Wisconsin goat cheese and tomato sauce served with garlic toast) was a hit. And a goat cheese cheesecake (above) with impeccable Spanish peanut brittle set our table full of food writers atwitter.
Parador, 7829 Hwy 42, Egg Harbor, WI | 920.868.2255
COLD FISH, HOT FLAMES, AND A SOMEWHAT CONTROLLED EXPLOSION: THE FISH BOIL
What is a fish boil? Cross a plate full of fish with the buttery goodness of lobster with the ending of just about any Die Hard film, and you’ve got a pretty good approximation.
The typical fish boil involves potatoes, peeled onions, and circular cross sections of Lake Michigan whitefish cooking in an old metal cauldron heated by burning wood. As the fish cook, they release oil, which foams up to the top of the roiling kettle and mixes with bits of soot. Ingenious Door County residents (reputedly following an Icelandic tradition established on Washington Island off the northern tip of the peninsula) figured out a way to clear off the foam and make for a tastier supper: Just superheat the fire and boil over the kettle.
The solution to heating up the fire? Throwing kerosene directly onto the flames. The resulting fireball soars as high as a dozen feet into the air and the overflow of water from the kettle extinguishes the flames beneath. Dinner is served.
Dinner is also quite good. The onions are caramelized and pleasingly sweet and tender. The potatoes are plain but perfectly cooked, and easily enhanced with hot sauce and / or salt. And the two pieces of fish each diner receives are moist and tender and mild, reminiscent of lobster when doused with the house-made drawn butter sauce. Waiters offer to assist you in deboning your fish, and their assistance should be accepted; the whitefish pieces are laden with bones, but they can be cleaned quickly by an expert.
A slice of Door County pie (of course!) finishes off the meal. Also included: house-made rye, lemon, and pumpkin breads. Priced at $19 a person at the Old Post Office, it’s a square deal.
Frequent Door County visitors and residents all have their own favorite fish boil (our own Jill Lewis strongly endorses the version at Pelletier’s in Fish Creek), but the one put on by the Old Post Office gets high marks for theatricality. Boil master Earl Jones bangs out a stream of constant, mildly salty banter as he works the crowd, showing off the basket of fish before plunging it into the water and reeling off facts: how long the fish cooks for (8-11 minutes), when the first commercial fish boils got started (1956 on Washington Island and 1961 at the Viking Grill in Ellison Bay), and how much kerosene is added to create the boil over (a quart).
Here, transcribed from tape, is the rata-tat-tat “I Got Jokes” section of Earl’s fish boil schtick:
“How do you communicate with a fish? You drop it a line! Did you hear about Charlie the tuna from StarKist? Because of the economy, Charlie’s not working either — they finally canned him! Why do they cut the heads of the sardines off? That’s so they don’t bite each other in the can! How do fish pray? ‘Holy Mackerel!’ What song do fish sing at night? [sings] Sal-mon-chanted evening… What did the fish say when it hit the concrete wall? ‘Dam!’ How much did the pirate pay to get his ears pierced? A buck an ear! Why do mermaids wear seashells? Because B shells are too small and D shells are too big! I got a new rod and reel for my wife the other day; best trade I ever made! What day of the week do fish hate? Fryday!”
There’s more, but this seems like a representative sample, and also why people might collect the autographed Earl Jones glamour shots distributed by the restaurant.
The only real knock against the Old Post Office as a fish boil destination — Ephraim is a dry town, so if you want drinks, you’ll have to choose between lemonade, iced tea, and soda.
Old Post Office Restaurant, Edgewater Resort, 10040 Water St, Hwy 42, Ephraim, WI | 920.854.4034
THE SWEET, SWEET CRIME THAT IS WISCONSIN WINE
We had some options on this press tour, and one was the choice to either embrace or avoid Wisconsin wine. As a dedicated beer drinker and believer in locally made food, I’ve long believed that Wisconsin wine is a gastronomic dead end for a cold-weather state with a great Germanic beer tradition. Other than (possibly) eiswein, why try to compete with Napa?
On that basis, my thought process was this: OK. I’ll set aside my prejudiced attitudes and give Wisconsin wine a chance. Anything could happen. Perhaps things have come a long way!
Things have not come a long way. Anything did not happen. My tasting notes from various mostly fruit-derived wines sampled at three different wineries include a laundry list of not-particularly-flattering adjectives: “Questionable finish. Syrupy. Hawaiian Punch. Chemical-y tasting up front. Chintzy. Starburst-esque. Hollow. Pineapple and coconut, bit too sweet.”
After going through 15-20 wines, the best we did was a Cab Sav that would have been a find at $10 but was a minor outrage at $24, and a $10 cherry / plum / Merlot / Cab Sav wine that was oddly but pleasantly evocative of Japanese pickled plums. (It’s the Chaos Red from Door Peninsula Winery, if you’re intrigued.)
That Door County wineries offer fudge tastings equal billing with wine tastings and sell a pre-mulled “Hallowine” and a low-alcohol “Cranberry Lyte” wine does them no favors. It’s also a warning sign when your educational video is narrated by a cheerful, computer-generated talking cherry (left).
The winery thing is a problem for Door County, because it cuts into the space available to do good craft brew (which Wisconsinites excel at), innovative hard ciders like those made at Maiden Rock, or even craft distilling — there’s no reason why kirschwasser or cherry bounce couldn’t be made and served with pride. It even obscures the state’s tremendous native cheese industry: You generally can’t pair a subtle, gorgeous, world-champion cheese with wine that calls to mind the newest extreme gamer flavor of Mountain Dew.
A bright note on that last point: One of the wineries, Door Peninsula, has opened a distillery. Its vodka was good but unremarkable and its cherry vodka clean if a bit too soft spoken, but its gin was a good buy at $25 and really quite tasty: affable, well balanced, and cleanly and strongly flavored without being loud or overpowering. Perhaps there’s light at the end of the tunnel?
Or perhaps not. It’ll probably be a while yet before the tourists surrender their Chocolate Cherry and Sunset Splash wines.
Door Peninsula Winery and Door County Distillery, 5806 State Hwy 42, Sturgeon Bay, WI | 800.551.5049
A FEW WORDS ON NATURAL BEAUTY
Known (unironically!) as the Cape Cod of the Midwest, Door County is to Milwaukee and Chicago what the North Shore is to Minneapolis: a drivable escape from hot summer temperatures into a vacation wonderland of beaches, pie, and water.
Door County feels less wild than the North Shore, existing as a projection of civilization into a lake, rather than civilization’s last tenuous stand before it fades away into millions of acres of woods, lakes, trees, and wildfires. Door County’s quaint lakeside towns are riddled with B&Bs, golf courses, yacht clubs, marinas, candy stores, and tchotchke shops, and at the height of tourist season (July through August) it’s quite possible to get caught in traffic jams in Fish Creek and Sister Bay.
But there is a great deal of natural beauty here, as well — beaches and dunes that make for lovely walks or epic hikes, one of the nation’s most beautiful national parks (Peninsula State Park), the jewel of the Wisconsin parks system. There are acres upon acres of woods that line the roads, particularly as you drive north and leave the farmland and orchards behind. From 600-year-old white cedar trees to private islands, there are interesting secrets all over the County; deer and turkeys, too. (We probably spotted two dozen wild turkeys over the course of a three-day visit.)
Like Cape Cod, sailing is ubiquitous, and the easy co-existence of sailboats and small towns is pleasing to the eye and soothing to the mind. If you plan your itinerary well, you can spend half your time eating well, and half your time working all the food off, thanks to the ample opportunities for biking, hiking, swimming, and sailing.
A trolley tour through Peninsula State Park (featuring its magnificent limestone overlooks) is a good way to begin getting acquainted with some of the more appealing aspects of the area. If you’re lucky, your conductor will pass along his family’s recipe for Cherry Bounce. (See end of story for details.)
RISE AND SHINE AT THE WHITE GULL INN
The White Gull Inn in Fish Creek boasts one of the best one-shot food items of this particular visit to Door County: cherry-stuffed French toast ($10.50 with choice of meat), thick-cut egg bread dusted in powdered sugar sandwiching a tangy cherry cream cheese and topped with tart whole cherries. Like any good stuffed French toast, the White Gull cherry-stuffed version succeeds by working against, not with, the pure maple syrup — the tang of the stuffing and the tartness of the cherries are a beautiful contrast to the flavor of sweet maple. Other items we sampled (thick-cut breakfast ham, an omelet, the coffee) were all of consistent and excellent quality. Be forewarned: The cherry-stuffed French toast is enough for two hungry people, or three with modest appetites.
The White Gull Inn, 4225 Main St, Fish Creek, WI | 888.364.9542
We recently tasted 14 different area pies in a search for the greatest in the Upper Midwest, so our head’s still in the game as far as pie evaluation goes. And while the pies at Sweetie Pies in Fish Creek would fall short of our overall winner, The Stockholm Pie Company, they surely would have placed in our top five, if not the top three of our contenders. The hand-rolled shortening / butter crust of Sweetie Pies is both flaky and tender, and the filling is fruit-forward, accentuating the flavor of the berries, cherries, apples, and peaches without delivering the gelatinous sugar bomb that ruins so many poorly made commercial pies.
“It has to be a hand-worked crust,” says current co-owner David Lea. “There’s no machine that will make the lumpy bumpy consistency that makes a flaky crust, and it has to be unbleached flour.”
Founded by the euphoniously named Susan Croissant in 1995, Sweetie Pies has grown into a 50- to 80-pie-a-day operation, with 16 varieties typically on the shelf at any given time. Starting in November, the store is only open weekends, and it shuts down entirely for six weeks in February and March.
At least part of the shop’s success comes from a general fussiness about ingredients, which starts with the crust.
“We use grade A butter and shortening,” says Lea. “We use a no-trans-fat shortening. We had to talk our suppliers into finding it. Our cherries are from an orchard right down the road, about a mile away, and they also provide apples in fall. The rest of our fruit comes from all over.”
We tried three pies during our visit: A caramel apple, which was rich but not over-sweet, a peach cherry, which could have used a bit more of a flavor punch, but was innocuously pleasant, and a strawberry rhubarb, which had the perfect sweet-tart balance required to make that particular variety a hit.
Whole pies at Sweetie Pies range in price from $14 to $22, and slices cost $5.
Sweetie Pies, 9106 St Hwy 42, Fish Creek, WI | 877.868.2744
CASUAL AND MARKET FARE
Wilson’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor in Ephraim is a neat little hamburger joint that has changed little in the 25 or so years I’ve been frequenting it. The hamburgers are still kind of flat and small and sad and overcooked, albeit with wonderful toasted sesame seed buns. The ice cream is still a treat, particularly when scooped into a frosted mug of the house-made draft root beer, which has a mild and balanced taste evocative of a good cream soda. And the miniature jukeboxes at each table can still be used to play songs, although what you select is not always what you get thanks to the ravages of time confusing the restaurant’s audio setup. If anything’s changed, it’s the atmosphere — it’s cleaner and more thoughtfully decorated with period signage.
Wilson’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor, 9990 Water St (Hwy 42), Ephraim, WI | 920.854.2041
Visitors to Wild Tomato in Fish Creek might expect a conventional tourist-trap pizzeria, an impression the colorful signage and prominent location in Fish Creek does little to discourage. And while its offerings aren’t going to blow away a native New Yorker or VPN-devoted pizza fanatic, the pies offered at Wild Tomato are well-balanced in terms of the distribution of their fresh-tasting toppings and sport a pleasing crunchy / chewy / carbon-kissed crust.
The highlight of our visit was the “Sconnie” pizza ($18 for a “small” that could feed three people, $22 for a large), topped with roasted chicken, bacon, grilled broccoli, spinach, and Wisconsin cheese curds. While the curds and bacon weighed this pie down, the lightness of the chicken and the crunchy brightness of the broccoli perked it back up again, and gave it balance. This could have easily been a train wreck; instead, it was a pleasure. Even more pleasurable were fried cheese curds ($7). Battered, not breaded (which makes all the difference in the world), these gooey bits of cheese were accentuated by their light, golden-brown crispy batter.
Wild Tomato also offers Luna Coffee Stout made by Hinterland Brewery of Green Bay. Although it has a bit of a bitter finish (not out of keeping with the coffee note), it’s a nicely composed beer with a smooth, creamy mouthfeel and a coffee flavor that’s well-matched by its toasty malt base note. It’s no Surly Coffee Bender, but it’s respectable.
Wild Tomato Wood-Fired Pizza and Grille, 4023 State Hwy 42, Fish Creek, WI | 920.868.3095
Wisconsin-native visitors to the Door County Ice Cream Factory will be pleased to see that the shop sells Blue Moon Ice Cream, a puzzling Badger State favorite that tastes of Fruit Loops and mild, vanilla-inflected bourbon. Blue Moon aside, as the name implies the Factory makes its own ice cream in house, and it’s rich, smooth, and creamy. Flavors vary from day to day but include Death’s Door Chocolate, Chambers Island Fudge, Mississippi Mud Pie, Peanut Butter Cup, and a number of appealing seasonal selections. House-made waffle cones are an option that the wise will indulge in.
Door County Ice Cream Factory, 11051 St Hwy 42, Sister Bay, WI | 920.854.9693
Fred and Fuzzy’s is an institution on the Peninsula, and it’s easy to see why: The whole restaurant is essentially an outdoor lakeside patio with a heavenly view, and it turns out nicely balanced and unpretentiously low-rent cherry margaritas by the dozens. The menu is targeted like a laser at the dining habits of the Chicagoans who are so numerous in Door County, offering an authentically topped Chicago dog ($7.75) and even a brat ($7.75) that comes standard with Chicago-style relish instead of kraut and optional sport peppers. Strange toppings aside, the brat is respectable and tasty.
The shrimp and scallop ceviche ($11) we sampled was a disaster, but maybe that was too much of a reach; the onion-studded smoked whitefish pate with crackers ($11) was a solid hit, properly balancing the flavors of the fish and the cream cheese base.
Fred and Fuzzy’s Waterfront Bar and Grill, 10620 Little Sister Rd, Sister Bay, WI | 920.854.6699
Orchard Country Market is a winery, but don’t hold that against it — it also sells a variety of Wisconsin jams, honeys, dried cherries, baked goods, beers, ciders, and other savory and sweet treats. They had mint meltaway bars from Seroogy’s of Green Bay, too — possibly the best candy bars made in America, and a steal at $1.50 each.
Orchard Country Market, 9197 Hwy 42, Fish Creek, WI | 920.868.3479
The Sturgeon Bay Farmers Market has been in operation for 60 years, and its 50 to 70 vendors offer everything from fresh local cheese curds to maple syrup to a gorgeous sampling of sausages and meats to produce to barbecue sandwiches. At the market we attended, an alpaca wool vendor had two alpacas on leashes out and about at the market, where they could be hugged and petted by curious children and adults alike. Like many establishments in Door County, the market is seasonal, running from the first Saturday in June to the last Saturday in October.
Sturgeon Bay Farmers Market, Market Square, Sturgeon Bay, WI
OTHER STOPS, BY MEMORY
The intersection between my favorite haunts (all of which I’ve revisited in the last few years) and this trip was confined to Wilson’s, so a few notes on other places worth stopping at if you find yourself in Door County:
The Yum Yum Tree in Bailey’s Harbor brings magic and wonder back to the once wonderful and magical experience of buying candy. The selection includes everything from rock candy to salt water taffy to ice cream to the best “raspberries and blackberries” candy I’ve ever tasted. There are also those dots stuck to paper candies which some people enjoy. Overall: a feel-good retro dive of glorious sweetness. It’s sadly no longer called “Kierkegaard’s Yum Yum Tree” (as it was in my youth), a rare intersection of philosophical and confectionery prowess.
Yum Yum Tree, 8054 Hwy 57, Bailey’s Harbor, WI | 920.839.2993
Al Johnson’s in Sister Bay is a silly place, but it’s awfully lovable, too. It’s got a grass roof (trimmed and otherwise tended to by a group of roof-dwelling goats), and boasts a full complement of waitresses dressed in Swedish garb. There’s a full menu of Scandinavian favorites, but the main fare are pancakes; cherry- or lingonberry-topped Swedish pancakes are the house specialty, and they’re delicious, if a bit leaden on the gullet.
Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant and Butik, 10698 N Bay Shore Dr, Sister Bay, WI | 920.854.2626
Glidden Lodge isn’t the best bang for your buck, but if you hunger for steak and lobster dinners straight out of the ’50s, this charming lakeside lodge restaurant is a solid bet. My clan of Nortons has been dining here on and off for something like 60 years, so it’s one of the few places around that makes me nostalgic for things that happened before I was even born.
Donny’s Glidden Lodge Restaurant, 4670 Glidden Drive, Sturgeon Bay, WI | 920.746.9460
If you can’t make it to the White Gull for breakfast, The Inn at Cedar Crossing is a nice alternative. Beyond its hearty and / or indulgent full breakfasts, it offers morning buns ($2), a Door County transplant of the marvelous Madison Brittany bun — a cinnamon bun for adults, croissant dough wrapped up in with a crunchy, cinnamon-sugar coated exterior and a slightly gooey, sweet doughy core.
And if you’re in the mood to shop, stroll across the street to the Small World Market and check out the fair trade goods available.
The Inn at Cedar Crossing, 336 Louisiana St, Sturgeon Bay, WI | 920.743.4200
*Geiger & Associates and the Door County Visitor Bureau planned and guided my 3-day itinerary, and arranged for the donation or purchase of my round-trip ticket to Green Bay, lodging, and meals.
Trolley Conductor Bob’s Cherry Bounce
One pound tart cherries, not pitted
One bottle (750ml) of cheap but drinkable brandy
As much as one cup of sugar, to personal taste
Combine tart cherries (such as the Montmorency) with the brandy in a large, sealable container. Add as much as a cup of sugar or as little as none, depending on personal taste. Age for three to six months, shaking occasionally to help dissolve the sugar. The resulting liquid is a cordial, and the cherries can be used to top desserts or drinks, or eaten as is.