dining

Web Exclusive: More Than the Main Course

At IL Angolo, meals come multi-plated.

As we discovered in this month’s issue of FOX CITIES Magazine, coursed meals are proving to be a popular option among adventurous diners in the Valley. The coursed meals, with anywhere from four to nine plates, offer gastronomes a new way to approach food. Servings are typically smaller, with an emphasis on exotic flavors, interesting ingredients and the chef’s creativity.

Always on trend, IL Angolo Resto-Bar in Appleton has been offering a variety of coursed menu options for about the past two years. According to Chef Fortino Solano, the restaurant typically sees about 40 percent of guests choosing “the challenge” on any given night.

“We call it the ‘chef’s challenge.’ It gives me the challenge to cook something different on a small scale,” he says. “I can be more creative with different textures and flavors than if it was just one plate.”

Chef Fortino Solano

Solano and his kitchen staff can create five, seven or nine course meals, each tailored to the diner’s preferences. The meals consist of selected salad, soup, appetizer, seafood, protein, starch and vegetable courses. (Of course, always ending with a house-made dessert such as gelato or sorbet.)

Solano starts his mornings by checking the reservation book to see what the evening will have in store, so he can prepare the kitchen for your visit. He might also give you a call to talk about the direction you want the culinary trip to take.

“I ask customers what they’re thinking, if I can be creative and ‘wow’ them. I find out if they are eating with friends, clients or family,” Solano says.

Diners should not be bashful — any allergies, likes or dislikes should be expressed up front to ensure the courses will be something you can stomach. Keep in mind that coursed meals provide the opportunity to try small portions of interesting food, so have faith in the chef to create delicious, if unusual, dishes.

Offerings from IL Angolo

Often times it’s the seasonal bounty that determines of what a course selection will consist. For instance, Solano purchases small quantities of seasonal seafood up to four times per week. This way, diners can be sure that what they’re being served is at the peak of freshness. Browsing farmer’s markets, Solano will prepare dishes inspired by the ingredients he picks up. New sauces are made every day so dishes can be presented differently each night.

That’s the other thing we should mention. The five, seven and nine course meals are constantly changing. Not only do the courses change from night to night, but they even differ by table.

“Nothing will look or taste the same,” Solano, a 20-year culinary veteran, assures. “The next time you come in and try the five course meal it’s going to be a totally different approach or highlight a different culture.”

Cultural cuisine often serves as themes for coursed meals at IL Angolo. Be it French, Italian, Spanish or a homage to his home country of Mexico, Solano brings diners on a culinary voyage across cultures using ingredients such as peppers, chiles and infused oils.

“It gives customers a chance to travel the world,” he says.

IL Angolo servers are educated in wine pairing suggestions to enhance each course should diners choose to imbibe. With more than 100 different wine offerings, the wine pairings can progress from light to bold or anywhere in between.

Multi-course meals lend a sense of anticipation with diners never 100 percent sure of what their next dish will be. The only warning Solano has for diners is that the anticipation can become addicting. 

“In general a lot of [customers] will take the challenge,” Solano says. “They want to see what will be created next.”

A Perfect Pair

Coursed, chef-selected meals bring experimentation, as well as entertainment, to the table

Wine pairing events such as chef’s tables or chef tasting menus, once reserved only for VIP guests, have become all the rage among diners in the Fox Cities who are searching for something beyond the average restaurant experience.

Instead of simply choosing an entrée from a restaurant’s menu, chefs pre-plan an exquisite multi-course meal and personally select a wine pairing for each. Guests not only are able to experiment with a variety of high-end food and wine, but these events also provide an educational dining experience where even the well-trained wine enthusiast or seasoned foodie can learn a thing or two.

Five-Star Experience

Diners have been blown away by the high-end appearance of chef’s table events and the elaborate menus. However, these events are especially enjoyable because guests are receiving a five-star dinner at an affordable price — around $35 per person.

Chef Dion Block of Flanagan’s Wine Review in Appleton wanted to bring his experience of working in fine dining restaurants in Chicago and San Francisco back to Wisconsin by introducing a more unique way of doing things.

“I was looking for an avenue to still be creative, while not being too far outside the box for some of the more traditional diners,” he says. “Our diners that come in for the chef tasting menu tell us they love the variety.”

Having the dinners divided into five or six courses allows guests to try a variety of items in smaller portion sizes so they are not stuffed by meal’s end. This way, each course can be highlighted and the different flavors won’t get lost within the meal.

Most restaurants that feature coursed chef’s menus offer at least one to two events each month, some in private dining areas. These popular events book quickly so diners are encouraged to make reservations early to guarantee a seat. Attendance is usually limited due to space and in attempts to maintain intimacy.

Passionate chefs who create amazing food want nothing more than to share it with others. These events allow diners to gain a new appreciation for something they might not have tried before.

“It’s all about relaxing the apprehension and risk found in trying new and exciting things,” explains Scott Roekle, director of operations for Fratellos in Appleton. “We love to celebrate those that want to try something different, because we like to drink and eat something different ourselves.”

Nothing is more important to the chefs than the seasonality and quality of the ingredients when planning these extensive menus, not to mention using local ingredients whenever possible. During the warmer months of the year, Chef Block heads to the Farmer’s Market in the Festival Foods parking lot and creates his upcoming week’s tasting menu based on which produce items are at the peak of freshness.

Importance of Pairing

When food and wine are paired correctly, there is harmony among the flavors. Wine has the ability to pull different flavors out of food items, causing different ingredients to shine.

“Food and wine is one of the most natural matches we have,” Chef Block says. “The flavor profiles of both play off each other and enhance them, leaving the diners reaping the benefits of the pairing.”

To a novice wine drinker, pairing seafood with white wine or steak with red wine might sound appropriate, but these chefs go the extra mile when developing their specialty menus to create the perfect combination of food and wine.

“It’s a lot more intricate than most would think due to having to balance it over all six courses,” Chef Block explains. “But when you take the time to know how to layer the flavors, the result is a dining experience that you won’t soon forget.”

Chef Block creates his menu first by selecting the food items and then pairing each course with an appropriate wine, but every chef has their own method and style of doing things.

Chef and owner Peter Kuenzi of Zuppas in Neenah does a wine tasting each month prior to his chef’s table to ensure the best pairings possible. After he chooses the wines he wants to highlight in the upcoming event, he plans his menu around the different flavors.

Being a certified wine specialist, Roekle knows the importance of having a successful food and wine pairing.

“The significance is found in presenting items that when separated are wonderful, yet together can become magical,” he explains. 

Sue Bogenschutz, owner of Atlas Coffee Mill in Appleton, brought in local wine expert Tom Jensen of Badger Liquor to educate and entertain 42 guests during their holiday wine and dine event. While the diners enjoyed live music and amazing food, they also were given a crash-course on wine origins and other fun facts regarding tannins and the viscosity of different types of wine.

For non-wine drinkers, Fratellos has created events where each food course has a liquor pairing instead. Their recent Jim Beam tasting event with host Fred Noe, grandson of Jim Beam himself, provided diners with different liquors for each of the six courses, as well as “insight and knowledge into the world of bourbon.”

Slow Down & Savor

Whether the dinner is for two or 42, the experience can be intimate as well as a social gathering, bringing friends or even perfect strangers together over a great meal.

“There are few greater treats in this world than to sit down with those close to you and enjoy the perfect marriage of food and wine while indulging in conversation,” says Chef Block.

Knowing that the guests thoroughly enjoyed the meal makes these events worth the time and effort that each chef and owner put into making them special.

“We want them to smile a little more than they did before they sat down at one of our events,” says Roekle.

These chef’s tables and tasting menus are definitely unlike your typical dining experience. This is not a meal to rush through. Savor each sip of wine and try each item of food. You may just find a new favorite dish.

“In a society where the focus is on the now and how fast things can be done, it’s nice to slow down our hectic lives and truly enjoy something,” Chef Block says. “What better way than with friends and family over great food and wine?”

—FC

All Grown Up

Food to bring out the kid in you

Just because you’re a “grown-up” doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the foods you loved as a kid. FOX CITIES Magazine has found restaurants that are revamping dishes usually seen on the children’s menu. Relive your childhood with these sophisticated dishes and drinks that cater to even the pickiest of gastronomes.

Mac & Cheese, Please!

The phrase “kid food” probably inspires thoughts of wagon-wheel macaroni garnished in a powdered cheese sauce, but local restaurants in the Fox Cities have put a gourmet spin on this iconic staple so it’s no longer just for the under 12 crowd.

Green Gecko Grocer & Deli in Appleton is the frontrunner for changing up the basic macaroni and cheese with its weekly feature of different specialty cheeses, meats and other gourmet ingredients. One famously featured pasta is creamy baked noodles mixed with smoked pheasant, smoked gouda and aged 10 year-old cheddar cheese.

“People love it because it’s comfort food,” says owner Bob Wall, who also notes the seasonal appeal of the dish. “On a cold day, there’s nothing like a steaming bowl of mac and cheese.”

As to the inspiration for his cheesy concoctions, Wall notes that the ideas “just come to him.” The mac and cheese dishes he makes change frequently, sometimes made with bleu or feta cheese and various smoked meats. With these ever-changing recipes, customers can find new twists on the classic dish every week.

“Adults can better appreciate my dishes because they have more sophisticated ingredients,” comments Wall. “Kids don’t necessarily like smoked meats, aged cheeses or unconventional vegetables.”

The number of places to find “grown-up” macaroni and cheese like the ones at Green Gecko Grocer & Deli are endless. In Andrew Commons of Lawrence University, Eat at Ed’s Diner invites diners to make their own special combination with a macaroni and cheese bar offered every other Monday. Students and community members pick from regular or chipotle cheese sauce as well as an array of toppings such as broccoli, ham or bacon to top their macaroni noodles.

Customers crave the comfort of Zuppas’ mac and cheese, made gourmet with a special roux sauce. The Neenah restaurant uses American, cheddar, muenster and parmesan cheeses blended together to make a delicious dish. Additionally, in downtown Neenah, Madhouse Grill serves an elegant Mac and Cheese appetizer garnished with bacon and granny smith apples.

Play with Your Food

Most kid-friendly dishes make mealtime fun by combining playtime with sustenance. Children love kicking the fork and knife habit by using their hands to dig in.
Although requiring utensils, Fratellos Waterfront Restaurant in Appleton offers a Crunch Chicken Salad so kid-inspired, you might just throw out the fork. Nestled on a bed of romaine lettuce, baby spinach, red onion, roma tomatoes and cucumbers, these crunch chicken tenders will remind anyone of the nuggets popular when they were kids.

“So many adults order chicken tenders,” says Fratellos Corporate Chef Foster Deadman, “because a lot of them like to be nostalgic and not so serious about their food.”

What’s special about this seemingly simple chicken dish? The breading of that crunchy crust comes from an old favorite: the sugary cereal Captain Crunch. The sweet and salty mix of these chicken tenders are bound to bring out the kid in you—so much so that you might just grab the tenders by hand.

Another utensil-free favorite for both children and adults can be found in the sandwich. Ladybugs Bistro on College Avenue has perfected the art of the sandwich with paninis that cater to both children and adult taste buds. This restaurant offers an upscale menu based on the classic peanut butter and jelly, grilled cheese and other childhood-inspired sandwiches.

“Adults need higher-end ingredients with more texture that kids probably shy away from,” notes owner Susan Richards. “We try to take it outside the box with a menu that appeals both to children and their parents.”

Thinking about the parents and adults coming into the restaurant led Richards to really evaluate what her customers would enjoy seeing as well as eating. She decided to aim toward childhood favorites, but direct the menu toward her target audience.

“This idea eventually spiraled into sandwiches with kiddie names that can remind adults of their childhoods,” Richards comments.

With titles such as Papa Smurf, Popeye, Aladdin, Fraggle Rock, Sgt. Pepper and Mario Bros, these paninis are whimsical, delectable and reminiscent of many parent’s favorite childhood figures.
 
Richards believes that customer favorites include Turkey in a Jam and the Speedy Gonzales, both based on the basic turkey and cheese sandwich. While Turkey in a Jam includes raspberry preserves, swiss cheese and lettuce, the Speedy Gonzales features guacamole, pepper jack, lettuce, tomato and red onion.

“A lot of these ingredients aren’t something you would normally think to put in a turkey sandwich, but are really good,” Richards says.

Richards’ favorite is the Popeye, which includes herb cream cheese, parmesan, artichoke, organic baby spinach and red onion. Inspired by a basic grilled cheese, this out-of-the-box panini offers pizzazz with its sophisticated cheeses and vegetables.

Many other Fox Valley restaurants are spicing up their grilled cheese options. Kangaroostaurant, a new Fox Valley favorite on wheels, offers a Margarita Grilled Cheese which is partly inspired by the kid’s sandwich and partly by a margarita salad.  Made of fresh mozzarella, basil and tomatoes between two slices of Mom and Pop’s crusty Italian bread then sprinkled with parmesan for a crunchy crust, this cheesy, Italian grilled sandwich is a favorite with customers. Although mostly a summer special, this grown-up grilled cheese can be found year-round in new versions. Each week, Kangaroostaurant updates its grilled cheese with new flavors and ingredients. Fajita grilled cheese, anyone?

Got a Sweet Tooth?

What child’s dining excursion is complete without a ride to candy town? It’s true, every child’s favorite meal of the day is dessert, and FOX CITIES Magazine can’t help but agree with these delicious kid-inspired drinks and dishes.

Searching for an unparalleled sugar rush? Look no further than the Melting Pot in Appleton, which ups the sugar ante by offering chocolate by the pot. Customers make their own dishes by dipping fruits, brownies, pound cake, cheesecake and other delicious bite-sized desserts into a variety of flavorful chocolate-based fondues at this one-of-a-kind restaurant.

To satisfy that inner child, Melting Pot manager Fritz VanStraten recommends the S’mores dessert fondue, which is so popular because it “reminds adults of summer and campfires.” This dessert favorite includes a milk chocolate fondue topped with marshmallow cream, flambeed and garnished with graham cracker pieces.

Adult Dessert

For dessert cocktails that will have you running for the playground, visit the cocktail crafters at Déjà Vu in downtown Appleton. Owner Kelly Koroll evolves his extensive cocktail menu constantly, adding new drinks when inspiration strikes. The menu currently features drinks aptly named for your inner child and flavored for the youngest of tongue like the Scooby Snack, Oatmeal Cookie, Twisted Chocolate, Butterscotch, Banana Split and Strawberry Dream. The Scooby Snack, which Koroll was inspired to make from a shot that a customer ordered, is made from a combination of coconut rum, midori and pineapple juice; a juice-infused drink that will get your sugar levels spiked.

“The drink is a childhood throwback. Customers order it for the name and reorder it because it tastes good,” Koroll says, “It’s strong, but doesn’t taste like it’s strong.”

Another beverage sure to satisfy the kid in you can be found at Fox River House. The bar on Walnut Avenue in Appleton offers a variety of hard ciders, craft beers, and most recently, a new creation by Adult Beverages aptly named Adult Chocolate Milk. This delicious mix of chocolate, caffeine and vodka packs a 40-proof punch. The creation was inspired by a little after-hours mixology when Tracy Reinhardt, co-owner of Adult Beverages, spiked some chocolate milk with vodka one night after her kids had gone to bed. Now Reinhardt and her business partner, Nikki Halbur, sell their product with the slogan, “Re-taste your youth. At 40 proof.”

But if beer’s more your flavor, try the Young’s Double Chocolate Stout on tap, that, in bartender Kate Kedrowski’s recommendation, “goes great with a Nutter Butter.”

—FC

A Gourmet Gathering

Festive fare unites a group of faithful foodies

It could have been any brilliantly blue-skied fall afternoon. The kind of cloudless day that begs to be savored with travel mugs filled to the brim with hot cider, a full tank of gas and nowhere to go. But on this particular Saturday, the draw wasn’t to the open road, but rather to the kitchen, at least for four couples throughout the Fox Cities.

These couples, who come from all walks of life including education, the arts and finance, band together over their shared love for our culture’s universal icebreaker—food. Several times a year, they convene in each other’s kitchens for a celebration of good grub, wine and conversation.

Chad and Maria Van Laanen, Rod and Julie Huth, Bob and Pat Gioffredi along with Marvin Murphy and Ruth Ann Heeter are the couples donning aprons and oven mitts, busy in their kitchens concocting holiday-inspired dishes for the evening’s festivities.

The way the group works is simple: the couple that hosts the gathering is in charge of planning the menu and assigning dishes, usually two each, to the other members. Everyone makes their dishes and brings them to pass at the evening party where triumphant dishes are cheered and culinary struggles commiserated. The rules are straightforward: practice attempts are frowned upon, recipes are to be strictly adhered to (more on this later) and whatever the finished product, it must be shared with the group. No exceptions.

The goals are many: exposure to new foods, wider cooking repertoires and fostering relationships with like-minded peers. The latter, some group members would argue, becomes most important during the bustling holiday season that is upon us.

Before the party must come the prep, as Maria and Chad Van Laanen know well. They are the couple hosting this year’s holiday gathering which means they are also at the masthead of the menu.

For the Van Laanens, menu planning is an ongoing process spanning weeks and multiple revisions. It also is one that starts in a different place depending on who you ask.

“My husband and I are so opposite,” Maria laughs. “He’s the internet guy so he wants to hop online and look for menus, and I’m very tactile so I’m pulling books off the shelves and pouring through them.”

The couple’s ideas of what constitutes a holiday feast differs almost as much as their research techniques. When the pair decided bread was essential to the meal, Chad had his sights set on a sweet bread with fruit and nuts, while Maria was envisioning a hearty loaf to be served with the meal.

The way Maria sees it, they don’t always have to agree, but they do have to plan together. Planning the menu as a couple is part of the unifying power of a gourmet group. Even the Van Laanen’s 11-year-old daughter, Alexa, is included in the fun.

“Everyone is very welcoming to her,” Maria says. “She is really excited to be the hostess for this gathering.”

The appetizer Maria and Chad chose, a baked brie, is another reflection of their familial food ties. The recipe comes from a cookbook carefully complied with original recipes by Maria’s brother, Jason, who is a chef. The cookbook was a birthday gift to Maria and has become a cherished family resource. When menu planning, the Van Laanens routinely turn to Jason’s cookbook in hopes of finding the perfect family recipe to share with the group.

“Our group is a testament to food bringing people of different ages and backgrounds together,” Maria says. “We all come from different industries and grew up in different places. Our common thread really is the food.”

Baked Brie (serves 8)

8 oz. brie wedge or round
½ t. cinnamon sugar
8 oz. egg wash
12 oz. puff pastry sheet
8 oz. mixed berries

Unwrap brie and sprinkle both sides with half of the cinnamon sugar mixture. Cut the puff pastry sheet to appropriately cover brie, using the wrapping paper as a guide.

Prepare the egg wash by mixing a large egg with two ounces of water. Stretch pastry and brush the egg wash on one side. Place brie onto brushed surface of pastry and wrap it completely, careful to seal all seams.

Seal with a touch of flour and turn over onto sprayed wax paper so that smooth surface is showing. Brush the entire surface with egg wash and sprinkle with the rest of the cinnamon sugar.

Cut a decorative pattern out of excess dough using a knife or cookie cutter, dredge it in flour for contrast and lightly press onto surface. Bake at 450° until golden brown, about 20 minutes.

Carefully transfer to a serving plate and surround with fruit and berries. Serve with water crackers. Recipe by Jason D Tuzinkewich.

It’s early afternoon, but Rod and Julie Huth are already busy in the kitchen readying their assigned dishes—baked brie and a rustic triple-corn chowder. While Rod is the regular family cook (he even owns an authentic chef’s coat he sports in the kitchen), preparing dishes for the gourmet group is a team effort. Rod takes the lead, giving Julie tasks such as dicing a red pepper for the chowder. As the couple cooks, they reminisce over past gourmet cooking experiences.

“One time, the dish I was making started on fire,” remembers Rod, who explains how baking corn syrup for a dessert garnish turned treacherous. “You have to be really careful with corn syrup and heat.”

“Don’t worry,” Julie jokes. “It wasn’t even necessary to call the fire department.”

Julie enjoys the experiences and memories her involvement in the group provides, but there are some perks she didn’t quite expect.

“You look at people and what they do, and form an opinion about them,” says Julie, who works as an accountant. “But then they invite you into their home and you realize ‘Oh yeah, they’re normal just like us.”

At a home nearby, Bob and Pat Giroffredi, the group’s resident rule-breakers, are also at work in their kitchen. But these rebels take a different approach.

“When I’m cooking I do my thing and when he’s cooking he does his thing,” Pat explains. “The meal is where we come together.”

This couple prefers the divide and conquer method. Pat takes ownership of the polenta bread and Bob tackles the orange and olive salad, but not without making a few improvements.

“We aren’t supposed to make any changes to the recipes,” Bob admits. “So we’ll call them little tweaks.”

Bob added fresh basil to the salad, substituted kalamata olives for black and topped it with some feta cheese to liven things up.

“I thought the original recipe was a little plain,” Bob says. “This salad was begging for cheese.”

Bob’s Orange & Olive Salad (serves 4-6)

1 small red onion, sliced into paper-thin rounds
5 large navel oranges
1 jar kalamata olives, coarsely chopped
Fresh basil, chiffonade cut
Feta cheese, grated

Vinaigrette
1 T. red wine vinegar
1 T. tarragon vinegar
4 T. olive oil
Reserved orange juices
A splash of water
Spices to taste: Kosher salt, black pepper, parsley, oregano and Beau Monde

Peel the oranges, trimming away all the white pith. Slice into ⅛-¼” rounds. Overlap orange slices on serving platter or individual plates. Place onion rounds over oranges, keeping ring intact (one round per serving). Season with salt and pepper.

Scatter olives on top and sprinkle lightly with feta cheese. Drizzle with prepared vinaigrette and finish with a touch of fresh basil. Recipe adapted from The Italian Country Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper.


Over in Fremont, the aroma of roasting butternut squash is wafting out of Marvin Murphy and Ruth Ann Heeter’s galley-style kitchen. While the squash is roasting, which will later be served with balsamic vinegar, the couple puts the finishing touches on their pear dumpling dessert.

Marvin uses a basic knife to core the pears, which came from a tree in their yard.

“They do make coring tools, don’t they?” he asks. “That would be helpful next time.”

Sometimes recipes can be tricky, but that’s half the fun says Ruth Ann, who keeps all the recipes from past gatherings in a database for later referencing.

“They aren’t all difficult,” she says, “but they do take a little time in the kitchen. It makes it way more fun to do it together.”

Besides bringing the group together, there’s something about tackling a difficult recipe as a couple that forms a strong bond.

“In relationships, it’s easy just to go your own way,” Ruth Ann says. “This forces you to spend time together, even if you fight.”

Marvin and Ruth Ann pack up their dishes now nearing completion to finish at the Van Laanen’s where the rest of the couples are waiting. When the last couple arrives, the party officially starts.

That evening, the Van Laanen’s kitchen is overflowing with people reheating and assembling their dishes, providing preparation anecdotes along the way. Julie reveals she had a hard time finding an ingredient, Corn Nuts, at the grocery store (we take this as a good sign). Bob admits his salad recipe may have been slightly, ahem, adjusted while Maria opens another bottle of wine to refill anyone with an empty glass.

There’s something comforting about the chaotic buzz in the house—think your aunt’s Thanksgiving dinner—that lends a sense of anticipation for the meal to come. As soon as one dish is out of the oven, the next one is in. At least the meat is resting. Soon enough, it will be time to sit back, relax and enjoy the good food with good friends.

— FC

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Gourmet Group Guidebook

The group offers up some tips on creating your very own gourmet gathering.

Chemistry: Finding the perfect participants will ensure a recipe for success. Heeter encourages partnering with a diverse group of people, not necessarily your best friends, to keep things interesting as long as the vital components are there. “Both parties really need to enjoy cooking. Find the right couples and you’ll be good for years.”

Consistency: Frequent gatherings allow the group to marinate. Van Laneen suggests setting the framework for regular get-togethers to keep foodie friends fresh. “It’s nice to have the frequency, because then you get to keep building on things,” she says.

Clarity: When planning a menu, working with a theme can help narrow down what may seem like endless options. Deciding on the entree first will ensure a well-balanced meal. “This month’s theme was ‘holiday’ so we started around the main course and worked our way out from there,” Van Laanen says.

— FC

17th Annual Golden Fork Awards

Diners of the Fox Cities have spoken and the results are in for our 17th Annual Golden Fork Awards showdown. This year we saw new winners emerge, old stand-bys prevail and a few upsets occur. It wouldn’t be a seventeenth year without a little drama, right?

Read on to find out which restaurants reign supreme with curbside eats, Italian appeal and the best burgers.


The Good Life

The Fox Cities has a long-celebrated ethnic heritage with Dutch, Polish, German and Irish roots, but when it comes to our taste buds, we crave the flavors of Old World Italy. This year’s top-winning restaurants reflect our penchant for pasta, prosciutto and beyond.

The coveted Best New Restaurant award (along with five other first place Forks) goes to Bella Vita Ristorante in Appleton. The Italian eatery also picked up Best Ambience, Best Chef Team and Best Wine List, as well as first-place ties for Best Waitstaff and Best Cutting-edge Cuisine.

The restaurant, located in the former Black & Tan Grille within Copperleaf Hotel, opened to the public on April 22 of this year with only eight business days separating the switchover. The time was spent strictly on construction, says general manager Kevin LeClaire, who attributes their Best Ambience win to the interior updates. To brighten the space, walls were texturized, new light fixtures added and partition walls knocked out.

LeClaire also designed a ceiling-high wine cabinet complete with library ladder in the restaurant’s bar and lounge area to display their winning selection of wines.

“We offer a vast selection of exceptional wines and this is a great conversation piece as well as fully functional storage,” he says. “Now this space seems more like a lounge than a bar in a hotel lobby.”

Bella Vita’s executive chef Dylan Maass celebrates his third consecutive year of a Best Chef Team win. (The previous two years were awarded for his position at The Seasons.) He helped develop Bella Vita’s concept of serving elevated Italian cuisine with an edge by requiring locally-sourced, fresh ingredients and making many items in-house, right down to the mozzarella.

“Everything here is very artisanal,” Maass says. “We take classic dishes and bring them to a new level of freshness and quality. We are always looking for new and better ways to prepare food you can’t make for yourself at home.”

To stay ahead of the curve and encourage diners to repeat visits, the menu will change with new dishes being added and others eliminated on an ongoing basis. LeClaire believes a dynamic menu will keep diners craving more, with the current menu already on its second revision.

“The menu will rotate. We are going to continue to evolve by looking what’s on the  market, what’s available and how we can improve that,” LeClaire says. “The key is trying new things.”

Italian Invasion

This year proved to be the battle of the Italian stallions, with Bella Vita Ristorante and Carmella’s: an Italian Bistro taking first or second place in seven categories.

For the second year in a row, Carmella’s in Appleton receives the Golden Fork Award for Best Overall Restaurant and this year it’s also the restaurant pulling in the most awards to boot.

In addition to the Best Overall Restaurant nod, Carmella’s brings home a whopping seven Golden Forks: Best Presentation of an Entrée, Best Waitstaff (tie with Bella Vita), Best Cutting-edge Cuisine (tie with Bella Vita), Best Seafood, Best Dessert, Best Salad Entrée and Best Italian. What better way for the young restaurant to celebrate their 2nd birthday this November?

Owners and sisters Nicole and Kristen DeFranza claim to be best friends, and judging by the way they finish each other’s sentences, we believe them. They attest their relationship is one of the reasons Carmella’s has been such a success.

“Nicole and I think it’s a dream come true to be together in this,” Kristen says. “We each have our strengths. Where one of us lacks the other picks up.”

According to Nicole, their awards for presentation and cutting-edge cuisine go hand-in-hand.

“If you’re putting something on a plate that looks exciting, it will be exciting. Presentation has become super important over the past couple years,” she says. “That and our commitment to the local food movement is what keeps us cutting-edge.”

When it comes to their recognition in the dessert category, all accolades go to pastry chef Kari Mueller, for whom the triumph is especially sweet.

“We’ll never stop trying to be the best we can be,” Nicole says. “We will always strive to give people the best possible experience.”

New Kids on the Block

Sometimes when something significant occurs, breaking the rules is necessary. While in the past FOX CITIES Magazine has featured only the notable first place winners, this year we decided newbie restauranteurs Jay and Kelly Barnes, owners of Kangaroostaurant, deserve some love.

In the two short weeks that Kangaroostaurant was mobilizing munchies and the Golden Fork polls were open, the Fox Valley’s newest food truck managed to pull into the runner-up spot for both Best New Restaurant and Most Vegetarian Friendly. A pretty impressive feat if you ask us. (So is a food truck having more than 300 Facebook friends before they even had the truck, but that’s another story.)

“It’s very humbling to know all the people who are rooting for us,” Kelly says. “In the beginning it was our friends and family who were behind us, but now it’s the entire community.”

It’s obvious that Kangaroostaurant, with their emphasis on “Fast, Fresh, Local” fare, is more than just a contagiously-happy colored truck. Their menu options offer up eats with some serious curb appeal, especially for vegetarians. From the black bean and portabella burger to the legendary “sloppy roo,” options abound for those of the herbivore persuasion.

“If I were inviting friends over for dinner, I would naturally have a vegetarian option. This is just an extension of that,” Kelly says. “We’re trying to make everyone feel that this is the place for them.”

King of Caffeine

At Seth’s Coffee in Little Chute, java is not just a morning necessity, it is a ritual. The pour-over brew method that has made Seth’s Coffee famous may not be as speedy as your run-of-the-mill brew, but the resulting cups of liquid gold have rocked Fox Cities’ coffee culture.

“I don’t care about anything in my business more than the coffee,” says owner Seth Lenz, who feels that his Best Cup of Coffee Golden Fork award is the highest honor. The two-year-old shop is also the runner-up for Best Café.

After traveling across the United States and Europe all in the name of business research, 24-year-old Lenz built his shop around offering guests the latest and greatest coffee experience.

So what is Seth’s secret for the perfect cup? The ceremonial process starts with in-season Intelligentsia beans (coffee is a fruit, after all) which are ground fresh for each customer, then brewed at a perfect 209 degrees using the pour-over method — a brewing technique where water is poured over one serving ground-filled filters in a continuous stream that maximizes flavor extraction.

But at the risk of sounding corny, Lenz admits it’s the love that goes into preparing each cup that sets him apart. (Did we mention even the mugs at Seth’s Coffee were handmade by Lenz’s wife, Kate?)

“Your coffee is made by somebody who cares, every time,” Lenz says. “Because my staff cares as much as I do, we never have bad cups of coffee.”

Balanced Nutrition

Located in a centuries-old building in downtown Appleton, Harmony Café brings home the Golden Forks for Best Café and Most Vegetarian Friendly for the second year in a row.

Fox Valley Team Leader at Harmony Café, Craig Reinke believes a successful café needs a welcoming, all-inclusive environment staffed with friendly baristas who offer individual attention to each customer. It just so happens Harmony has all these things in spades.

Serving up free-trade organic Peace brand coffee and an endless array of fresh bakery items, Harmony Café is all about the good vibrations. Compassion and diversity is the name of the game, even when it comes to the eats.

“Initially we had a smaller vegetarian menu, but we got lots of feedback from Lawrence students and YMCA members looking for healthier options,” Reinke says.

After cooking, tasting and sampling for more than a month (can we help next time?), the Harmony team added eight new vegetarian and vegan options to the menu. Named in homage to the side street adjacent to the cafe, the Durkee Street Wrap — a spinach tortilla stuffed with hummus, black bean salsa and sprouts — has been one of the best sellers.

The epic menu is sure to satisfy any appetite, a true testament to the eclectic clientele that Harmony serves.

“We are here for everyone — teenagers, college students, business professionals, even the nuns from the church down the street come in frequently,” Reinke says. “To say we have a diverse clientele is an understatement.”

Seriously Stacked Sandwich

The sandwich seems like a simple concept, right? Pile some protein and produce between two slices of bread and suddenly sustenance becomes a neat, little portal that doesn’t require a single utensil.

But to Carl Sanderfoot, chef at New York Deli in Appleton, the sandwich is so much more than a convenient plate-to-mouth delivery system, it may just be an art form.

His creativity with traditional lunchtime fare made the New York inspired deli the winner of this year’s Best Sandwich and runner-up for Best Gourmet Dine-In Deli.

In honor of their namesake, New York Deli offers a wide selection of traditional sandwiches, hoagies and grinders including the popular Classic Reuben — sliced corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut with 1,000 Island dressing on dark rye. Seasonal favorites, like the anticipated fall turkey cranberry sandwich, keep things even more interesting (and customers salivating).

Sandwiches at the seven-year-old sandwich shop are constructed on Quaker Bakery bread and filled with Boar’s Head brand of premium deli meats and cheeses, which Sanderfoot sells by the pound to those who want to try their hand at sandwich artistry.

As innovative as Sanderfoot gets with his own experiments, sometimes simplicity hits the spot.

“Every once in a while, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is just delightful,” he says.

Patty Plethora

There are simply too many burgers in the Fox Cities for only one winner. First place Forks for Best Burger go to Fuddruckers in Appleton and Ground Round Grill & Bar in Neenah. Tying for the runner-up position are Cinder’s Charcoal Grill in Appleton and Mihm’s Charcoal Grill in Menasha.

At both first-place establishments, when it comes to constructing these mouth-watering morsels, the customer knows best.

With over 35 years in the burger business, Ground Round offers guests the opportunity to customize The Ground Rounder with an assortment of toppings that include sun-dried tomato pesto mayonnaise, onion tangles and applewood smoked bacon. Try any burger on a grilled pretzel roll and you may never go back.

At Fuddruckers, guests are also encouraged to play with their food, or at least their hamburgers. Choose from predesigned speciality burgers or hit the produce bar and pile your 100 percent All-American prime-cut beef patty with dozens of toppings and sauces.

“It gets the guests interacting with making their own food,” says Ryan Reader, general manager at Fuddruckers. “We cook the burger to their desired temperature and they have fun putting on whatever they like.”

But don’t underestimate your creation’s carrier. The freshly baked buns protecting your beef (or buffalo, elk, veggie patty or wild boar) may be the best part of it all.

“We bake our buns on site every morning,” says Dana Reader, marketing manager at Fuddruckers. “It’s really a big part of the burger and boy, oh, boy does it smell good in the morning.”\

Dinner and a Show

Fox Cities restaurants offer diners more than just delicious grub. If you’re in the mood for some tunes during dinner, you won’t find them in short supply. This year Fox Citians couldn’t quite decide which venue they preferred for Best Live Entertainment While Dining, so they chose two Appleton restaurants: George’s Steakhouse and Cena.

Cena’s bar manager Brian Leslie says the Valley’s location offers unique opportunities for musical happenings.

“We are in the pipeline from Milwaukee and Chicago to the Twin Cities, so acts coming through look for one night to book while touring,” Leslie says. “With the Lawrence Conservatory, we are rich with musicians in the Valley. The calibre of talent in an area this size is almost surreal.”

Located on College Avenue, Cena’s year-round Saturday night entertainment ranges from jazz to country to early punk. Leslie books eclectic acts from across musical genres, but acknowledges that jazz nights really draw the crowds.

“We select acts based on what will fit with our atmosphere,” Leslie says. “It’s nice to have music that’s not disruptive to the dining experience.”

According to Leslie, while live music enhances the overall dining experience, it also supports the community and local businesses. Diners will come for the music and stay for a drink or explore the rest of the “Ave” after the encore.

At George’s, patrons enjoy their meal set to classical jazz standards before moseying over to the area’s only piano bar for something a little more energetic. Every Friday and Saturday night, George’s piano bar entices listeners around the 125-year-old nine-foot Steinway Grand piano in the lounge. Local musicians perform everything from Sinatra to synth-pop, with a side of sarcasm, until the wee hours.

Whether you are singing along to the eclectic tunes at George’s beloved piano bar or toe-tapping to some of Cena’s jazz, live entertainment offerings in the Valley will keep you satisfied all weekend long.

That sounds good to us!

—FC

The Cook Book

Three local chefs dish on what back-of-the-house careers are really all about

Culinary civilians don’t often get the opportunity to grill their favorite chefs about life in the kitchen, what it takes to make it big in the cutthroat culinary world or the politics of restaurant hopping, even though they have plenty to say on the matter. It seems that those who feed us, intrigue us.

To find out what the kitchen heat truly entails, we sat down with three local top chefs who don’t mince words. 

Movers and Salt Shakers

At a downtown Appleton coffee shop on a late summer afternoon, Paul Heintzkill, executive chef at The Kensington Grille, Peter Kuenzi, executive chef at Zuppa’s Cafè, Market and Catering, and Dylan Maass, head chef at Bella Vita, discuss their past lives as coworkers, which colleagues are rolling sushi where and who’s left the restaurant scene altogether. Listen to these three culinary big-hitters and suddenly the dining scene feels really small.

Heintzkill, for one, wasn’t born reducing port wine and cutting vegetables brunoise (French for “ a very small dice”). Ask him, or any chef for that matter, and he’ll say his success is due to ongoing education, hard work and the right connections.

A chiropractic college drop-out, Heintzkill returned to the food industry which had helped pay for his schooling in the early 1990’s. After graduating from New England Culinary Institute in Vermont and working several restaurant jobs around the country, the De Pere native returned to the Fox Cities looking for work.

A chance meeting with Peter Kuenzi, who was executive chef for The Seasons at the time, gave Heintzkill the “in” he needed.

“I went to eat at The Seasons and Peter came out to ask how our food was,” Heintzkill recalls. “We started talking and he said he was looking for someone. I gave him my resume a couple of days later and I was hired [as a sous chef] not long after.”

In the chef world, networking isn’t about khakis, business cards and happy hour. When crunch time starts at 6pm, that’s not an option. Networking happens a little more subtly, but with stronger gustatory impressions: a chef’s strongest networking tool is the food he prepares. A visit to another chef’s restaurant is one way business connections occur, a fact to which Heintzkill can attest.

“If a chef goes to eat at a restaurant they should be honored, because we could make what we’re eating for ourselves at home. They know we can,” Heintzkill says. “But it’s supportive and good to see what other chefs are doing.”

Bella Vita’s executive chef, Maass, has made industry connections that helped him advance from his early days as a restaurant dish washer. Having climbed the ladder at establishments such as Timber Lodge Steakhouse, Buttes des Mort Country Club, Cannova’s Pizzeria and IL Angolo, Maass knows first-hand how working with the right people can provide not only vital experience, but a little more job security as well.

“I’ll keep in contact with chefs that I’ve worked with,” the 30-year-old says. “You can always call up your buddies in the industry and they’ll find something for you to do.”

The reality is that’s how most chefs secure jobs, by calling old coworkers and seeing what’s available.

“You don’t see a lot of [chef] jobs posted,” Heintzkill says. “A lot of it is what and who you know.”

Birds of a Feather

Not uncommonly, when a head chef moves on to a new restaurant many of his former coworkers; front and back-of-house staff included; follow suit.

“It’s pretty common in this industry. If the staff likes you, when you go to a different job you usually take a good portion of the staff with you,” says Kuenzi. “Whether it’s right or wrong, it’s a matter of creating a comfortable working environment.”

From a staff point of view, the head chef has the power to set the tone of a restaurant’s work environment. A calm, clear-headed chef makes for a more pleasant work experience than, say, a Gordon Ramsay in the kitchen.

Maass points out that given the amount of hours a chef spends with his staff (anywhere from 50 to 70 hours per week), when the right team forms, it’s nearly impossible to let go.

“When you work well with someone it’s kind of like a dance. You learn to dance with someone and when you go to another kitchen it’s nice to have a dance partner you can rely on,” Maass says.

Heintzkill sees the same chef teams working together time and time again at different establishments. Being no exception, Heintzkill points to the latest example of this phenomenon which he experienced personally with the August opening of The Kensington Grille.

“One of my friends, Scott Sams from Carmella’s, called me up and said ‘Hey you got a position? I really want to work with you again.’ It was easy for me to say yes, because I had worked with him for three years at Riverview Country Club so I knew him and his skill sets,” Heintzkill says. “I took him in a heartbeat.”

From the outside looking in, it seems that the constant movement between restaurants among chefs might result in some hard feelings on part of the restaurants being left in the dust, but apparently all is fair in love, war and restaurant hopping.

Kuenzi sees the occasional change of scenery as career growth for which no apologies should be made. Leaving one restaurant for a position with more responsibility is simply professional advancement to be applauded.

“Some [chefs] are more ambitious. When I was younger I wanted to accomplish things by a certain age and I would move jobs when I needed to in order to accomplish those goals,” Kuenzi says.

And it’s not just restaurant employees who follow their favorite chefs, customers do too — Kuenzi’s strong food groupie following gave him the confidence to open Zuppas in 1999; Heinzkill’s reputation for good eats has kept his restaurants full and customers satisfied throughout his career.

“People ate my food at other places I have worked and know that I make quality food,” Heinzkill says. “I earned it.”

Recipe for Success

These rock star chefs prove that networking your way up from the dish pit to executive status is possible and while the culinary field isn’t for the faint of heart, it has immense rewards (more than just some seriously tasty end-of-night leftovers).

They may say they are regular people just trying to earn a buck, but it’s hard to overlook that these chefs are three of the lucky ones who have turned their passion into careers: their eyes light up when discussing which local produce suppliers offer the best microgreens and the most impressive hydroponic tomatoes (chef tip: when it comes to gardeners, trust those with dreads); their dinner plans put yours to shame (Morel mushroom risotto and perfectly seared cuts of beef, no joke); they work upwards of 60 hours a week not because they have to, but because they feel personally responsible for every dish that leaves the kitchen.

But tenacity and networking aside, a good chef really only has to be two things, according to Heintzkill.

“Organized and insane,” he says with a smile.

—FC

EXAGGERATED Eats

Your invitation to the Clean Plate Club.

 

There’s a surging fascination with ingesting an outstanding quantum of food thanks to  television shows like Adam Richman’s “Man v. Food” on the Travel Channel.

 

For those of you who haven’t seen it, the challenge might go like this: take on 100 towering ounces of prime rib and take home a T-shirt and bragging rights, but not before getting your picture taken for the Wall of Fame.

 

Restaurants north, south, east and west of the Fox Cities are putting a spin on comfort cuisine and goading diners to gorge on extreme portions of food –– some even pulling out the stop watch. If you have an appetite for enormous helpings, these food challenges will leave you wishing you didn’t!

 

It’s a Girl, It’s a Boy… It’s a Burger!

 

The challenge burger at Timeline Saloon & BBQ in Bonduel (about 30 miles northwest of Green Bay) is a whopping seven pounds, about the average weight of a newborn baby. 

 

And a baby is exactly what Timeline Saloon owner Steve “Doc” Hopkins considers his Harley-centric business. Having celebrated its one-year birthday on April 1, the saloon has grown to become a bouncing, lively bar and grill.

 

The restaurant concept orbits around Harley history, hence the passing of time reference in the name.

 

As much time as he’s spent nurturing the business, there’s nothing like the time a diner spends consuming the 24 ½-inch-long, seven-pound cheeseburger. It is also topped with lettuce, tomatoes and onions and seared with a stainless steel plaque that brands TIMELINE into the top of the chuck.

 

“As I was building the restaurant, all these ideas kept coming to me,” Hopkins shares. “I had a basic idea of what I wanted to do (for a challenge), but never imagined it’d turn out this way. It's a big chunk of meat!”

 

Plopped on a bun that’s two feet long and served on a 28 ½-inch plate, it joins a helping of fries and coleslaw for a complete challenge.

 

The gargantuan patty is prepared on a charcoal grill, which is found in the middle of the restaurant. The bricks used to build the grill are from the house that Doc’s wife, Rhonda, grew up in. A cornerstone that was set in the top of the house and dated 1903, when the house was built, is ironically the same year Harley Davidson established. The square stone was given a new home in the grill structure as well.

 

Actually older than the restaurant itself, (Doc devised the challenge before he opened for business) the burger is still the reigning champ; no one has been able to bury it.

 

“One guy got three inches to the end and hit a brick wall,” Hopkins says.

 

If a diner can put it away in one hour (and is able to fend off a food coma), the $45.99 challenge is paid for and the victor gets to board Hopkins’ 10-person, seven-engine, 3,500-pound motorcycle for a photo and schedule a time to take a spin on it with Doc. 

 

Another supreme burger can be found at Route 15 Sports Bar in Greenville. Weighing in at four pounds, The Zeus Challenge must be polished in an hour.

 

Owner Jim Wabiszewski, who bought the place in September 2010, says his friend and previous owner of the bar created the challenge. Wabiszewski notes that he’ll be revamping the menu but Zeus will prevail.

 

“What’s hysterical is the bun this thing sits on,” he says. “That’s what does a person in!”

 

The bun measures a whopping 10 inches in diameter, but the burger components are assembled with rhyme and reason. Only two people have finished it.

 

“There was a time when I’d worked all day long and started to think I could eat the whole thing,” Wabiszewski says, laughing. “Yeah right!”

 

Go Out on a Limb

 

Seven miles west of Winneconne is Haase’s Supper Club in the unincorporated community of Borth. But its location isn’t as important as what it’s serving.

 

In true supper club fashion, Dan Natrop and his wife, Laura, serve four choices of prime rib on Saturdays, the biggest weighing in at 105 ounces. While not an official food challenge, the roast of repute is a regular favorite.

 

“[Customers] try to eat it, and then they eat it the next day and probably the week after,” he says.

 

If that isn’t enough, each prime rib order comes with a choice of potato, soup and salad, rolls, relishes and hot bread.

 

Looking north, Black Otter Supper Club in Hortonville also woos diners with its roast. It offers two challenges: the Super Cut Prime Rib, which weighs in at 116 ounces, and the Extreme Cut Prime Rib, which defies traditional dinner plates at 160 ounces. 

 

The club’s website reports that in the seven years that the challenge has existed, only three people have finished the Extreme Cut, which stands taller than a bottle of A1 Steak Sauce. 

 

Pizza Poundage

 

The human stomach is a muscular, elastic, pear-shaped bag that lays crosswise in the abdominal cavity. It is about 12 inches long and 6 inches wide with a capacity of approximately two pounds.

 

So what’s the organ to do when confronted by Italia Pizza & Pasta’s 30-inch pizza challenge? For one hopeful, it was several trips to the bathroom.

 

“He would get up to use the restroom and come back for more,” explains owner Matteo Sollena, Sr. “It took us a while to realize he was going in there to get rid of what he already ate!”

 

Sollena and his son, Matteo Jr., have been hosting the challenge since they opened their doors in Appleton three years ago.

 

The aforementioned contender failed the challenge, but two young UWFox Valley students defeated it about a year ago.

 

Required to select a minimum of three toppings from a list of eight, the winning duo downed a jumble of pineapple, Canadian bacon and pepperoni. While pineapple was a special request, other offerings include sausage, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, and green or black olives.

 

Today, they are still the only two to have finished, although Matteo Jr. says a couple individuals come in each month to try it. 

 

Breakfast Breaker

 

The forecast calls for mostly eggy with heavy gusts of potatoes, torrential hash browns and several inches of pancakes. Overflowing likely.

 

If, that is, if you order the seven-pound Tsunami Challenge at WeatherVane, downtown Menasha’s new breakfast and lunch bistro.

 

Pat DuFrane and his wife, Julie, opened the doors on May 2, and, being big fans of Richman’s “Man v. Food” show, created a challenge to catch the attention of breakfast banqueters.

 

The dish delivers a six-egg omelette (with 14 ingredients, including four types of both meat and cheese), a “pyramid” of toast, and a pound each of hash browns and buttermilk pancakes. In a matter of speaking, the omelette folds and rolls like a tsunami to be about three inches tall and a foot long.

 

Pat explains that when the eggs and omelette ingredients hit the grill top, it pools out to be about two feet in diameter.

 

If a challenger can clean the plate in 30 minutes, the breakfast is free. If not, be prepared to fork over $19.99!

 

Sundae Supreme

 

If any sundae deserves a cherry on top, it’s the 36-scoop sensation at Zesty’s Custard in Allouez.

 

Owner Janelle French (with Ted Sieman) says that 36 scoops of custard (Zesty’s specialty and made fresh every day) amounts to about one gallon.

 

You’re probably thinking, “Piece of cake! Give me a gallon of Edy’s ice cream and a Woody Allen flick on a Friday night and that stuff is history.”

 

But custard and ice cream are very distant cousins.

 

The difference between custard and ice cream is in the amount of air that is blended into the mixture of ingredients. Ice cream may have an overrun, the process of blending in the air, as large as 100 percent, meaning half of the final product is composed of air. The lesser amount of overrun in custard explains the thicker consistency. The high percentage of butterfat and egg yolk also gives frozen custard a thick, creamy texture and a smoother consistency than ice cream.

 

Now, add your choice of a sundae topping, two cookies, one waffle cone and one regular cone, whipped cream, cherries and sprinkles. If you’re feeling it, add some nuts.

 

“We give people an hour to complete the challenge,” French says. “Most of the time someone gets 15 minutes into it and they hit a wall.”

 

French was also inspired by the popular Travel Network show.

 

As of May, no one had clobbered the challenge yet. The first custard conquerer, will win a T-shirt that says, “I Survived Zesty’s Frozen Custard Challenge,” a $15 gift certificate for Zesty’s and, of course, bragging rights. The victor’s mugshot will also be featured on the back wall of the restaurant.

 

“I would say if you want to do it, order the half gallon first and gauge how it is,” French recommends.

 

A third Zesty’s location in Suamico opened in May, making it the second Zesty’s site to offer the challenge. The location in De Pere is only open April-September. 

 

While competing in a food challenge may seem less intimidating, perhaps, than jumping off a bridge head first whilst being tied to a 250-foot cord, these mega meals are challenges no less and Fox Cities restaurant owners are waiting for someone to step up to the plate.

 

—FC

A Foundation for Good Food

Historical spiels on the buildings in which we dine.

 

You don’t have to head to a museum for a history lesson on the Fox Cities. Instead, plan to take a tour of some of the most interesting bygone buildings while dining out. Whether you’re stopping for a bite while running errands downtown or going out of the way for an epicurean escapade, voyage through the past while enjoying a delicious repast at these six restaurants! 

 

Avenue Antiquities

 

After spending several decades as a shoe store, followed by stints as a dress shop, pharmacy and salon, the building that formerly hosted local favorite Don’s Restaurant & Bakery has been home to Menasha Grill since 2000. 

 

Owner Charlie Cross was originally attracted to the building because the adjacent alleyway reminded him of the Old French Quarter in his native Louisiana. He was also interested in the lifestyle of living above his place of work.

 

The building was originally a double duplex, with two apartments upstairs and 

two businesses downstairs. While previous owners have made many changes over the years, including making the downstairs into one area, the outside of the building has remained much the same and the apartments are still intact.

 

The structure was built in the 1880s in “balloon style,” meaning the supporting wall timbers run the height of the building from the ground to the very top and the floor and ceiling joists are all interconnected by pegged joints.

 

The most visible reminder of the building’s age is a small but distinct area of the original wainscoting above the door that leads to the basement.

 

Cross says the historic look and value of the building always made him imagine having a café outside the restaurant, a project that is currently in the works.

 

Much like Menasha Grill, Cannova’s Pizzeria & Italian Cuisine, located just a short drive away in downtown Neenah, follows a long line of businesses in a historic setting.

 

According to Dave Dexter of the Neenah Historical Society, the first business to open in the High Victorian, Gothic-inspired commercial space built by Fred Tippens and Henry Sherry was William O. Nelson’s Nelson Jewelers in 1883.

 

McCarthy Jewelers followed in 1946. Since then, the building housed George’s Photo Center in 1961, Camera Exchange and The Camera Spot. S&R Tile and Carpet Spot took over the space in 1972, followed by Classcycle Inc. in 1979. Grandmother's Garden moved in from 1986 to 1993, when Main Street Music opened. The musical tenants continued with Different Drummer Gift Shop in 1999, followed by Sweet Pea Gift Shop in 2001.

 

The variety persevered when Debbie and Kyle Rasmus set up Cannova’s, which was originally founded as a grocery store, pizzeria and tavern in 1921 in Freeport, Illinois. Debbie, who is part of the Cannova family, and Kyle opened the Neenah location in late 2005.

 

While the décor is warm and modern, there are still some visible remnants of the building’s long history on Wisconsin Avenue. Visitors who stop in for the Sicilian steak or homemade lasagna enjoy aspects of the original Victorian design from tin ceilings to hardwood floors.

 

Kyle says that even though operating in an older structure means having to make concessions with regards to space, the charm of the building makes up for it.

 

“The authentic turn-of-the-century feel helped us in creating ambiance and a good warm feeling,” he says. “People love stopping in and they don’t want to leave.”

 

Providing that historical feeling in Appleton, Cena restaurant resides in one of the city’s oldest buildings sandwiched in College Avenue’s chain of storefronts.

 

Constructed in the 1880s, the building was designed by Oshkosh native William Waters, the premier architect of the time. In addition to a block of buildings along the avenue, Waters is also known for designing Appleton’s  Hearthstone Historic House, built between 1881 and 1882, and Oshkosh’s Grand Opera House in 1883.

 

Since its inception, the building has housed many companies central to the Appleton community. In its earliest years, the space served as home to a prominent construction company, Langstadt-Meyer Co. Following that stint, various candy shops, including Bowlby Candy Co., occupied the building from 1945 to 1963.

 

One of Appleton’s most reputable retailers of the time, Ellenbecker’s Furniture, moved into the space in 1963 and stayed for a decade. But in the last 20 years, the building has been home to a variety of restaurants, including Subway, Peggy’s Cafe & Catering, Sirocco’s Mediterranean Tapas and, today, Cena.

 

While much history can be found within the walls of a building, there is also much to be discovered about the history of the people inside.

 

A tie from past to present lies within Bob Rueckl, owner of Rueckl’s Photography Studio. Rueckl was the owner of Peggy’s Cafe, which occupied the space from 1997–2005.

 

“Transforming the building from a Subway into what we envisioned was more effort than we had guessed,” Rueckl explains. “It is narrower than any other downtown building which made it an extreme challenge to fit a kitchen, seating and a bar.”

 

Cena’s current bar manager, Brian Leslie, has been the constant of the building for many years. Beginning with his service at Peggy’s, Leslie continued his work for Sirocco’s and now Cena.

 

“A lot of work went into this building,” Leslie adds. “All of the woodwork is newly installed and only the exposed brick wall, tin ceiling and lead glass storefront windows remain as original.”

 

A number of owners passed through the space, but Rueckl reflects fondly on his time at 125 East College Avenue.

 

“It was a challenge that worked out to be a good restaurant and a busy place,” he says.

 

Brewing Backstory

 

From downtown destinations to a traditional pub setting, Stone Cellar Brewpub and Restaurant is situated in the distinctive Between the Locks building, which has overlooked the Fox River for the last 150 years. It is the oldest continually running brewpub in the state of Wisconsin.

 

When father and son restauranteurs, Tom and Steve Lonsway, took over the business in 2004, they changed the name to Stone Cellar Brewpub and Restaurant (formerly Dos Banditos).

 

The Lonsways joined a long line of brewers serving the Fox Cities out of the Locks building. The brewery was established in 1858 by a German immigrant and canal worker Anton Fischer, making it the first brewery in Outagamie County.

 

In 1860, Fischer Brewery was sold to Carl Muench, who kept the brewery much as it was but added on the outdoor beer garden, which is still a popular spot for al fresco dining today. 

 

After a fire in 1884, the structure was rebuilt and continued brewing. It changed hands again in 1918 when George Walter's Walter Brewing Company bought it. Prohibition laws closed the establishment a year later but they were back in business when the 18th amendment was repealed by Wisconsin in 1929.

 

Incidentally the Walter Brewery Company had a second location at the time on Walnut Street, at the site that now houses the Appleton Police Department.

 

Under Walter's direction, the brewery introduced a mild, light lager called Adler Brau (German for “eagle beer”). This brew soon became a popular local favorite until the 1970s when the Walter Brewery ceded to competition from national breweries and closed its doors.

 

The building was remodeled into the Between the Locks mall in the late 1970s but the brewery reopened in 1989 as Adler Brau Brewery & Restaurant.

 

The Lonsways were attracted to the traditional English pub-like atmosphere of the space, with the rough-hewn walls serving as inspiration for the restaurant’s name.

 

“One of the toughest things we had to do was come up with a name,” Steve Lonsway says. “A lot of breweries are in bright, brand new facilities but we don’t have that luxury, and we needed to let people know what to expect. Stone Cellar seemed like a perfect fit.”

 

Rebuilding the Past

 

Like the Lonsways, Dave Klister, owner of Plum Hill Café, was also interested in keeping a classic feel with his restaurant.

 

He and his late wife, Vera, affectionately known as “Beep,” purchased the historic Dodge Street building in 2004 in order to evolve Beep’s Back Door Oven––the bakery Vera had run for three years.

 

The culmination of their efforts is an artisan café popular for its plum-themed interior and charming character.

 

In 1883, the building served as a livery stable and boarding house. From there it transitioned into both a rooming house and private residence. The building was crumbling into disarray when Klister happened upon it. But despite its disheveled state, Klister saw promise in the space and began a long journey of reconstruction and renovation.

 

“The goal was to restore the building while being conscious of its architectural history and to blend the additions harmoniously,” explains Klister.

 

To do so, he removed, cleaned and replaced 12,000 bricks that had been created in an 1880s wood fire kiln.

 

The gallery room floor is the original from the 1883 building and the flooring on the second level was salvaged from a local school gym. Even when additions were constructed in 2007, Klister made certain that as much character as possible was retained from the original building.

 

Now, as Plum Hill grows, the restaurant still remains true to its roots.

 

“In the beginning, it would have been much easier to tear the building down and start from scratch, but we wanted to keep the history alive,” says Klister. “That still is, and always will, be our mission.”

 

Paper and Provisions

 

For diners hungry for more than historic ambiance, the Atlas Coffee Mill & Café is housed in the same building as several exhibits that cater to history buffs.

 

In 1877, the Kimberly-Clark Corporation purchased a sawmill along the Fox River from the Whorton brothers, two of Appleton’s original pioneers. This sawmill was the first building located on the site that now houses the Atlas Coffee Mill & Café.

 

The next year, Kimberly-Clark founders realized the budding promise of paper production and decided to tear down the original sawmill and construct a paper mill on their new land to begin the Atlas Paper Company. The company pioneered the use of ground and mechanic pulp, establishing the first in a long legacy of accomplishments achieved in that location.

 

In 1881, the Vulcan Mill was built adjoining Atlas in order to expand the company’s output. The following year, the Vulcan Mill joined the Appleton Paper and Pulp Company and the Hearthstone House as the first buildings in the world lit by waterpower.

 

Tragedy struck in 1888, when the original Atlas Mill burned down. The company’s paper pioneers, however, were not to be stopped and the mill was rebuilt just five months later.

 

The true rebirth of the Atlas Paper Company came in 1907, when it became the sole property of the Kimberly-Clark Corporation. The Atlas Mill went on to serve the paper industry until Kimberly-Clark donated it to the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame in 1999.

 

Due to this gift, the Paper Industry Hall of Fame was given a home and, in 2005, it opened its doors. The next year, the Outagamie County Historical Society bestowed their Historic Preservation Award upon the Atlas Mill for maintaining the city’s history.

 

The Atlas Mill is still upholding its papermaking history today. Inside these walls are the Atlas Coffee Mill and Café, The Mill Boutique and Art Gallery, Paper Creations, The Paper Discovery Center and Paper Industry International Hall of Fame.

 

A news reporter in 1878 predicted the following about the Atlas Mill: “The foundations of this building are being laid with the intention that they will serve the interests of coming generations, and this object in view is a sign of real progress.”

 

This prediction has come true not only for Atlas, but for all of these buildings. With restaurants in such interesting historic spaces, dining options in the Fox Cities serve food for thought along with delicious meals. 

Food for Thought 2011

Our yearly review of the dining scene.

Say you want pizza… for lunch… and you’re at the office. You’re about to face a series of decisions based on one simple craving: Who serves pizza, within a reasonable distance, and do they deliver? How do you want it made and with what toppings? Then you have your dietary demands: Suzie says hold the cheese and Greg is a vegetarian.

Why is it, that when it comes time to decide what we’re craving and where to eat it, we’re stumped?

Turn “stumped” into “stuffed” by studying our annual recap of the Fox Cities dining scene. This is Food for Thought.

Start of Something New041 Madhouse

With a name suggesting confusion and bedlam, you’re not sure what to expect before wandering into The Madhouse Grill. Perhaps the name implies that diners are rushing like mad to get their mitts on one of the restaurant’s specialties, like the Cabernet-Cherry Lamb Burger.

Having just opened in downtown Neenah’s historic Marketplace building in January under owners Dan Grady and his wife, Jennifer Weiler, the restaurant serves contemporary American with flavors of international cuisines.

The menu includes American favorites, such as hand-cut French fries, potpies and burgers, and Mediterranean fixtures, like tapas, falafel and pecan encrusted lamb T-bone. Recently, grilled pizzas were added to the menu.

Since the location had once been home to restaurants like Big Tomatoes, Luna and Zuppas, Grady recognized the need to revitalize the place. He added a rounded bar built by local contractor, Dreambuilders, and barstools made by an Amish furniture maker in central Wisconsin.

Executive chef Bryan Maves took the location into serious consideration and noted there wasn’t a sit-down restaurant serving brunch or American-spun dinners in Neenah. “If we’re full on the weekends, we even offer diners the chance to eat from our menu at Bogart’s (Wine Bar) next door,” Maves explains. “It helps us both.”

Bogart’s specializes in wine and whiskey, the latter piquing Maves’ interest. He hopes to work with the wine bar in the future to create a Scotch-inspired dish.

Every day but Sunday, the restaurant serves brunch from 10:30am–2:30pm in addition to the lunch menu. Grady recommends the smoked prime rib and egg sandwich, bananas foster French toast or corned beef hash and eggs.

The menu is dotted with several smoked salmon entrées, all made easy with what Maves calls his “new best friend”—a smoker in the kitchen.

A few doors down from Madhouse Grill is downtown Neenah’s sweetest addition, Cherry on Top Ice Cream Shop. From scoops and sundaes to shakes, malts and floats, the parlor covers all the bases, including whipped cream and its namesake, a cherry on top.

To most, there’s nothing thought provoking about a burger. To Marc Waltzer, owner of Appleton’s Wild Truffle, they are a top priority at his second Fox Cities restaurant, Serious Burger. It is scheduled to open May 1 in the old Po’Boy Sandwich Co. space on Mall Drive in Appleton.

Giving diners the ultimate burger experience, the restaurant will use all-natural meat, artisan Wisconsin cheeses, Nueske’s bacon, Manderfield’s-baked brioche hamburger buns and handcrafted sauces, such as truffle ketchup and roasted garlic aioli.

He says the restaurant will build on the demand for refined foods. Trendy is the style of taking popular, simple foods––like pizzas and burgers, in Waltzer’s case––and enhancing its likability with other favored ingredients.

For example, the Steakhouse Burger will be garnished with wood-roasted crimini mushrooms, caramelized balsamic onions, Swiss cheese, the “Serious” signature steak sauce and topped with sunny side up egg.

“It will be no different than Wild Truffle,” says Waltzer. “Knowing my customers and knowing what we’ve been able to do with the pizza business... I think we can do the same for the burger side of the business.”

Aside from high-quality meat and high-end ingredients, guests will enjoy a low-key setting necessary for chasing a bang-up burger with a hand-spun milkshake!

In January 2010, pizza and pastimes coalesced to form Stevi B’s, an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet targeted at children and families.

Owners and Appleton natives Jason and Kelly Buchinger were looking for a franchise business to open in the Fox Cities. Inspired by the old Appleton favorite, Shakey’s Pizza, the Buchingers settled on Stevi B’s because it is a younger, smaller chain (the Appleton location is the 41st in the county). Stevi B’s has 11 pizzas, four desserts and a salad bar on the buffet at all times.

Besides the standard sausage, pepperoni and cheese pizzas, the signature creations are all the rage. The Cheeseburger captures the attention of burger lovers with the help of marinara, mustard, ground beef, pickles and copious amounts of cheese. The Loaded Baked Potato, Chicken Fajita and Macaroni and Cheese are also pleasers.

Bring the clan in for the Sunday night buffet where kids eat for 99 cents after 4pm. The pizza makes the game room seem like the added bonus––well, at least to the adults!

In 1988, Greg Gorgolis opened his first Niko’s Gyros in Waukasha. Ten years later, a second location opened in Oshkosh. Then in August 2010, he opened his third in Appleton.

After his parents emigrated from Greece to Milwaukee in 1970, his dad worked as a chef. Running a restaurant comes naturally to Gorgolis, and he lets the food speak for itself.

Serving gyros, Italian beef and sausage, Chicago-style hot dogs, pita sandwiches, Cajun fries and even honey-drenched baklava, Gorgolis says that his prices are the biggest draw. Except for two or three items, everything on the menu is under $5. “Value is a big selling point,” he says. “A sandwich should have a stack of meat in it!”

041 BennigansBuilding anew on Mall Drive, Bennigan’s is known for putting an Irish twist on American favorites.

The pub-like restaurant is charming the retail neighborhood with its warm and friendly atmosphere and stands out with a list of 18 tap beers.

The baby back ribs, Monte Cristo sandwich, hand-battered fish and chips and Guinness-glazed bacon cheeseburger are just a few fan favorites.

The Appleton franchise is the first in Wisconsin to phase in tabletop kiosks called Ziosks, an appliaction that allows a diner to view the menu, happy hour specials, read USA Today and play games. The device also has a feature allowing diners to pay their bill.

Come summertime, diners can unwind on the outdoor patio that features high-definition flat-screen TVs and a fire pit.

In July 2010, a small but able Asian eatery called Mai’s Deli opened on the corner of College and Memorial in Appleton.

The owner and matriarch, Mai Vang, along with her husband, Fong, and four of her six children, work to serve homemade family favorites, like stuffed chicken wings, year-round.

The wings won over the hearts of farmers market foragers in downtown Appleton long before Mai acted on her dream of opening her own restaurant. She has since gained support of other wing worshippers.

Mai’s also serves egg rolls, pad Thai, vermicelli salad, drunken noodles, green, yellow and red curries, and purple sticky rice.

Also fulfilling Asian fare, Sapporo Sushi in Buchanan delivers sushi by boat. Diners sit at an oblong, “community” counter facing the sushi moat. A server takes drink orders and offers soup and rice, but the moat supplies the sushi staples.

Powered by a sturdy current, the boats circle the counter, each one carrying a few plates of sashimi, sushi or salad at the diners’ disposal. The plates vary in color according to cost (starting at 99 cents); when it comes time for the check, the server simply adds up your stack and hands you the bill.

Just around the corner from College Avenue on Richmond, Tinner’s Sausage & Deli opened in March to serve its meats to the masses. The owners, Dave and Cathy Meyer, have been a food fixture at the downtown Appleton farmers market for almost a decade, selling their Polish and Italian sausages, brats and hot dogs.

In the eatery, a limited menu will also offer pizzas, sandwiches and soup.

Building Boom

Have you noticed the ‘For Lease’ signs on Fox Cities vacant restaurant spaces are disappearing?041 TJ Sushi

The old Grazie’s/Lucky’s Bar & Grill building space on the corner of Kensington and Calumet (Hwy KK) became TJ Thai Sushi and Japanese Steakhouse in November 2010.

The area’s new Asian triple threat draws folks in for three different cuisines: Thai dishes, Japanese hibachi and sushi.

Once a cozy spot for families to enjoy a fish fry or a round at the bar, the interior has been transformed into a calming yet chic lounge. A dim, neon-lit main seating area accommodates those looking for curries and noodle dishes (Thai) and sushi (a large selection different from other Fox Cities sushi sources). The back of the restaurant is the hibachi area including a smaller side room to hold parties up to 30 people.

“Some people come for sushi and sit down in the front room, but then they hear the hibachi going on and say, ‘What’s that?’” says owner Cindy Li, who has gathered about 16 years of restaurant experience while living in both New York and Florida.

The eighth Glass Nickel Pizza Co. location in the state opened in Appleton’s old Friar Tuck’s/Los Compadres building in June 2010. But before you grouch, “just another pizza place,” consider its menu.

The popular local pizza provider serves outgoing specialties such as Lotta Enchilada (creamy enchilada sauce, cheese, chicken, corn, green chilies and cilantro), Border-to-Border (spicy classic sauce, tomato, cheese, pineapple, Canadian bacon and jalapeno) and Chicken Cordon Bleu (honey mustard sauce, fried chicken strips, ham, Swiss cheese).

Along with a build-your-own-pizza option, the pizzeria also features the originals and a few veggie options. Sandwiches, salads, pocket pizzas, pasta, fish and shrimp are also on the menu.

041 PhonsavanSeven months ago, Appleton native Ger Xiong and his brother Tong Ziong opened Phonsavan Restaurant, Banquet Hall and Nightclub, a southeast Asian eatery, in the old Grillin’ Steak House and Lounge space.

Xiong made a few interior changes, which included knocking down a wall to create one big banquet hall suitable for weddings and corporate events. The menu offers traditional Hmong foods, such as egg rolls, pho soup, stir fries, noodle dishes and chicken feet.

Just north, Rancho Azul opened in the old Dafina’s Restaurant spot on Wisconsin Avenue in Appleton.

In midtown Neenah, the old Griddles/Cafe Neenah location reopened as Twin City Diner with new owners Ali Useini and Agron Bekteshi.

Restaurants Revived

A handful of restaurants closed and then reopened with the same name but under new management.

In April 2010, downtown Appleton’s beloved Muncheez Pizza went bust. By August, it reopened with new owner, Paul VanderLinden.

VanderLinden worked as a delivery driver for Muncheez for three years before the shop closed. After leasing the building, he altered the name slightly to Muncheez Pizzeria, and livened up the joint with a coat of fluorescent green paint, new seating and an HD projector to show movies.

Food-wise, he ditched pre-cooked sausage for fresh Italian sausage with better flavor, added a few items to the menu (including beer) and continues to grant free delivery and a free order of “cheezy” breadsticks with every medium or large pizza.

For hog dog devotees, the closing of 1910 Sausage Company was the “wurst,” but it reopened with a new owner in August 2010.

Although the sausages and bratwurst keep the doors swinging at the casual cookery, “dogs” aren’t the only thing you can find between the buns at this diner. Mini burgers and chicken sandwiches, as well as soup, pub pickles and fries are also popular.

It’s always been Italian for one Trasino Park venue. In May 2010, Kerry and Rick 041 GasmansGasman reopened Johnathan’s Italian Bistro. The “all day, every day” $10 bottomless wine deal has been reinstated and a sharp focus has been put on the essence of Italian cuisine: fresh ingredients.

This spring, executive chef Shawn Covill will introduce an express lunch menu to accommodate the busy schedules of mid-day diners.

Some folks might remember when Dorn’s Supper Club used to be Little Chicago Dining & Spirits. After about 35 years of business, Dorn’s closed its doors in October 2010. But Butch Kolosso, owner of Lake Park Pub in Menasha, leased the building and reopened it as Little Chicago in February with plans to stick to the supper club classics of steak, seafood, chops and chicken.

The former co-owner of Dorn’s, Kathleen Friebel, will run the show at downtown Little Chute’s Flying Dutchman (previously Jacks or Better, where Friebel worked for more than 10 years). After a year of intermittent operation, co-owner Gene Kobussen reopened the restaurant in March. A handful of Dorn’s menu items will be revived on the Dutchman’s dinner menu.

Dining Room Revisions

One of the reasons people dine out is to enjoy an experience radically different from their kitchens. The space in which we feast has a profound effect on our dining experience, and several Fox Cities restaurants have made more room.
The Wild Truffle Trattoria and Wine Bar in Appleton opened for bigger business last June after they nearly doubled in size.

041 Wild TruffleBy expanding into the space next door, the restaurant now has dining areas on both sides of a new wine bar. The space that was once the only dining room is now considered the formal dining room and the new section is more veranda-like with big white-bulb lights strung above guests and dark wood accents.

Owner Marc Waltzer installed an additional pizza oven in the new bar area to support the growth. “The new space has really become the appetizer and wine bar area but diners can order off the full menu,” he says.

Outside, the patio increased by 1,200 square feet and now features 20 tabletops under a tent-like roof.

Neenah café Zuppas has debuted The Green Room, an exclusive space for private parties. The 1,500-square-foot room can hold about 40 people for a sit-down event or 50 for an hors d’oeuvres cocktail party.

Owner Peter Kuenzi entertained the idea of an intimate dining room for years as a satellite of the restaurant’s catering business. “We custom design the (catering) menus,” he says. “We want to keep it personal.”

The name choice has many analogies, the main being Kuenzi’s connection to “green” food; he sources local and organic ingredients. He also wants his guests to experience exclusivity similar to that of musicians who enjoy the “green room” before and after a performance.

There’s good news for those flocking to Carmella’s Italian Bistro. In February, they began transforming the old Rapid Refill space next door into a small seating area.“Say there’s a two-hour wait on Saturday; the new area will offer a place for people to linger and have drinks or find a spot they’re comfortable with to have their meal,” says co-owner Nicole DeFranza.

The first-come, first-served area will operate in the front of the new space while the back will be reworked to accommodate for extra baking and kitchen space.

Subtle additions to the outdoor patio, such as a new roof and heaters, will add a few extra weeks to “patio season,” making alfresco dining more comfortable.

Alex Lopez converted his Spanish-Mediterranean Tapas restaurant into Venue, a gourmet burger joint. Shortly after, he started remodeling sister venues Casablanca and currently, Señor Tequilas.

Appleton neighborhood favorite Antojitos Mexicanos received a minor interior facelift.

041 Josef'sJosef’s Gyros Kabob has hopscotched to and from several College Avenue spaces downtown Appleton in the last year. In March, the eatery moved into the old Cafe on the Ave space, which offers two entrances–– a street entrance and another from inside City Center. 

Owner Josef Sattekeh is working to develop a weekend breakfast menu for the farmer’s market crowds.

Notable Noshibles
  • North Appleton’s GingeRootz Asian Grille is embracing the sushi phenomenon with an upgraded sushi menu.
  • The New York Deli is now ladling out homemade soups.
  • Mexican hot spot El Azteca debuted several new menu items and olé-inspiring drinks.
  • Appleton’s Dick & Joan’s is running more pasta specials.
  • Michiel’s Fox Rivertyme Catering is celebrating 20 years of business.
  • Kaukauna’s Plum Hill Café has a new dinner menu including surf’n’turf dishes, ratatouille, shepherd’s chicken potpie and roasted Norwegian salmon filet.
    Neenah’s Ground Round introduced a new vegetarian and gluten-free menu.
Closures
  • Steak Escape, Fox River Mall Food Court
  • Po’Boy Sandwich Company, Grand Chute
  • Toros/Los Compadres, Appleton
  • Meng’s, Appleton
  • Grillin’ Steak House & Lounge, Appleton
  • Tapas, Appleton
  • Oslo’s Scandinavian-American Eatery, Appleton
  • Mi Pueblo, Appleton
  • Cafe on the Ave, Appleton
  • The Charcoal Grill, Darboy
  • Aspen Coffee & Tea, Darboy
  • Savore, Darboy
  • Cafe Neenah, Neenah
  • Wendy’s, Neenah
  • Dorn’s Supper Club, Kaukauna
  • Al’s Diner, Kimberly
  • Someplace Else, Menasha

OUTLAN-DISH!

Debunking the fear factor for foods on Fox Cities menus.

Chicken feetFormer astronaut Neil Armstrong once said, “Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.”

While chow isn’t rocket science, we let the obscurity of certain foods hold us back. Whether it’s a misunderstanding that unfolds after reading about unknown, mysterious menu items or the fact that we eat with our eyes, there’s a prevailing fear factor for fare in the Fox Cities.

We scoured menus for the most unusual deep-fried starters and curious courses to come up with a list of new foods you should try in 2011.

Fry Fearpollywogs

Leap over to Pollywogs Bar & Grill in Kimberly for the deep-fried frog legs. As a kid, owner Steve Vetter recalls he could get frog legs at any place that served fish.

Nowadays, they are AWOL from most bar menus.

Contrary to popular belief, frog legs don’t taste like chicken. Instead, the meat is mild and delicate.

Put the legs to the test during a Friday Fish Fry where they can be ordered as a meal or (for those apprehensive of amphibian) one frog leg comes on the side of a perch, walleye or haddock order.

Eggs, pork-sausage and deep-fried batter are mouth-pleasers on their own, but bundle them together and you get a Scotch egg—a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage, coated in panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried.

Scotch EggThe Stone Cellar Brewpub in Appleton serves the appetizer warm with a side of Düsseldorf mustard, although the traditional British version is soft-boiled and served cold with salad and pickles.

Using free-range organic eggs and local sausage, head chef Brady Ahrens reports a “regular egg following,” selling three to four dozen a week to prove it.

“When people don’t know how something is made, they’re turned off,” Ahrens says. “Many people think [the egg] is great!”

While Wisconsinites love a good brat, the Germans do sauerkraut best. Typically reserving the deep fryer for fritters and powdered sweets, Mark’s East Side deep-fries sauerkraut balls.Marks East Side

Owner Mark Doughtery calls them “a labor of love,” adding that the appetizer is intense to prepare. A mixture of onion, sauerkraut (green cabbage) and secret seasonings are hand-rolled and breaded before begin dunked in the fryer.

Where in the World

The tacos on the menu at Appleton’s Antojitos Mexicanos aren’t something you can order in the fast food drive-thru.

In addition to the traditional steak, chicken and Mexican sausage options, Antojitos also offers pork cheek, cow tongue and beef tripe (cow intestines) tacos.

Antojitos“In Mexico, it’s normal for a taco stand to sell brain, tripe and tongue,” says Fernando Almanza, part owner of the family restaurant. He likens the look of cow tongue to shredded beef since it is often cut up. “I’ve seen kids order the cow tongue tacos,” says Almanza. “It’s the texture that scares people. But once it’s cooked, it’s a little crispy.”

Pork cheek, on the other hand, is a little more fatty. All three meats are first boiled, then seasoned and grilled to order.

“If they don’t like the ‘fear factor’ taco, we won’t charge!” Almanza adds.

Known for its innovative Mediterranean cuisine, downtown Appleton’s Apollon serves Apollongrilled octopus. Owner Stavros Kodis explains that the dark purple color is usually what daunts diners, yet it is the second most popular item on the menu.

“The look and texture is different,” Kodis says. “It’s a tender meat, but not chewy at all.” He adds that the fear for food comes from hearsay or a person’s previous experience with cuisine.

Are You Game?

He says he’s no Anthony Bourdain, but then again, Pat Purtell has no reservations about the wild chuck he recruits for his bar’s menu.

His Oshkosh establishment, Terry’s Bar and Grill, celebrates 34 years this month and he’s still raising eyebrows and sending stomachs somersaulting with his rare burger choices.

Terry'sHe currently serves Kalahari antelope, Himalayan yak, llama, Kobe beef, red deer, ostrich, wild boar, elk and a half alligator-half crocodile burger. His prices—all under $7—make it tempting to taste.

He currently has an order in for hippopotamus, while black bear, rattle snack, kangaroo, kudu (a type of antelope), camel and porcupine have turned up on the menu in the past.

“I grew up in a family that hunted,” Purtell explains. “It wasn't strange to smoke squirrel if we shot it.” He adds that nothing ever “tastes like chicken” and each type of meat has its own flavor. Kobe beef (which comes from the black Tajima-ushi breed of the Japanese wagyu cattle) is a tender, delicate cut and almost melts in your mouth. Llama and buffalo are sweeter meats, while ostrich is a red meat and if loaded up with “the works,” you wouldn’t be able to tell if it was ostrich or a regular burger.

Purtell recommends eating the burgers plain in order to make your own judgements.

In Appleton, Fuddruckers serves buffalo, elk and wild boar burgers. Part of the Fudds FuddsExotic line, the meat is free-range, all natural and antibiotic- and hormone-free.

Owner Trevor Reader puts the wild game burgers into perspective by comparing the tastes and textures to familiar favorites. “If you like venison, you'll like elk,” he affirms. “It's a lean, healthy alternative to a regular burger.”

He goes on to say that boar tastes like your hamburger was cooked in bacon grease while buffalo is low in fat.

Be it fried legs, tongue tacos or crazy chuck, let the grains and tang take you to a place you’ve never been. What are you afraid of?

- - - - - - - - - - - -

The Clean Plate Challenge!

Not so fast! If you thought we were going to run a piece on dubious dishes and not dare you to sample, guess again.

For the months of March and April, throw down the gauntlet and gather the guts to discover new foods at our local restaurants. Choose three of the six foods listed in this feature, clean your plate and be entered to win a $75 gift certificate to Downtown Appleton!

For more details & to register click here.

We double-dog dare you.

— FC

Read about a few locals who had the courage to try the chow in our challenge & blogged about it!

  • Pete Seroogy, community advocate & aspiring freelance writer & photographer
  • Becca Heflin, culinary & hospitality management student at Fox Valley Technical College
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