Dark skies and steady rain dampened what would otherwise have been a pleasant drive through the western Wisconsin countryside in my journey to Shady Grove. As fields and farmhouses whizzed by the window, my thoughts began to wander from the road to the meal ahead. Could a chef-driven, fine dining experience be found out here?
The owners of Shady Grove are Chef Steve Snook and his wife, Heather — a team that has made a splash in the local dining community. Diner reviews linked from Shady Grove’s website describe a restaurant unlike others in the area. Just outside of cheese curd hotspot Ellsworth, WI, among neighborhood bars and grills, Shady Grove seems to stand out from the crowd. The allure of a possible diamond-in-the-rough, hidden gem of a restaurant in the rural countryside was too good to pass up.
Pulling into an unmarked parking lot and an unassuming house further elevates the air of mystique around Shady Grove. Through the doors visitors are welcomed into a fairly large dining room and a full-length bar. Warm wooden tones, red leather seats, and white tablecloths fill the space within, creating an inviting atmosphere.
The menu at Shady Grove is an eclectic mix inspired by varying influences from classic steakhouse to Asian. There is a sense of judicious effort in the menu to source local ingredients. In addition to the regular menu, Shady Grove showcases a nightly “feature menu” which changes frequently and with the seasonality of ingredients.
Two seafood appetizers kicked off our night’s sampling of Shady Grove’s menu. The crispy calamari (pictured at top) with Asian slaw ($9) started as a special, but through its popularity among regulars made its way onto the regular menu. In this plate flash fried calamari is served alongside a slaw of cabbage, carrots, and parsley tossed with green curry vinaigrette. While the curry vinaigrette gave off a pleasant heat along with a satisfying zing of acidity, the calamari was under seasoned and just a tad soggy. The slaw would have also benefited from a more finely cut julienne.
The second appetizer of crawfish beignets ($9, above) came from the nightly feature menu. The beignets were executed nicely with just the right level of density and outer texture. However, the heavy handedness of brandy and tarragon worked to mask the flavor of the crawfish.
The first entree we sampled was a plate of duck breast with a cranberry-chipotle sauce ($18, above left). In this plate the flavor of perfectly medium-rare duck breast was accentuated by a unique combination of molasses, balsamic vinegar, red wine, and orange zest. The sauce was simultaneously tart, spicy, and sweet, creating a delightful sense of flavor on the palate. Cracklings atop the duck breast add a welcomed texture variance to each bite.
The second entree, a Gehl’s Buffalo Hill Ranch bison strip steak finished with a wild mushroom sauce ($29, above right), was sadly not as satisfying. The steak was cooked unevenly, in stark contrast to the perfect doneness of the duck. The unevenness of the cooking coupled with the lean cut of bison made for a dry steak. The wild mushroom sauce was pleasing in its savoriness, but ultimately could not compensate for the preparation of the steak.
Shady Grove’s dessert selection is varied, including items made in house and those sourced from outside vendors. We selected two of the in-house preparations, the first of which was a salted caramel chocolate tart ($7, above right). The tart showcased the deliciousness of the salty / sweet play of salted caramel, although in a hard-to-chew crust. The second dessert, a lemon custard with blueberries ($6, above left), was very tart with bursts of sweetness from the fresh fruit. Whipped cream added another layer of sweetness to balance the lemon custard.
The attentiveness of the owner and the waitstaff ensured a comfortable flow to the evening as well as proper timing between courses. The staff also appeared knowledgeable about the menu and demonstrated a genuine interest in their customers. The high point of the meal — the duck entree — demonstrates a great potential in Shady Grove and its chef. If this potential can be realized throughout the menu, we’d be more than happy to make the drive out for dinner once more.
Fine Dining / New American in Ellsworth, WI
N6240 St Rd 65
Ellsworth, WI 54011
OWNER / CHEF: Heather and Steve Snook / Steve Snook
HOURS: Thurs-Sun 5pm to Close
BAR: Full bar
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / Yes
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Limited / Limited
ENTREE RANGE: $17-$27