Daily Herald

From the north

Made-from-scratch fare brings Wisconsin taste here



Posted Thursday, September 07, 2006

"It's a Wisconsin tavern that's somehow slipped below the border!" said my cheesehead husband, born and reared in a small town northwest of Milwaukee.

Indeed, Steitz's Resort on Bluff Lake feels a lot like Hathaway's, a long-vanished Badger State hangout still revered in our family's memory for its fried perch and congenial atmosphere, as well as any number of similar rustic establishments gracing country corners throughout Illinois' northern neighbor. (And by some standards, I guess, Antioch might as well be in Wisconsin.)

Steitz's has been a Chain O'Lakes institution since 1938, when John and Elsie Steitz opened their lodge on Bluff Lake. To begin with, the Steitzes offered boating trips, hunting tours, tobogganing in winter and, of course, a bar. Over the years, as the business passed from father to son, it expanded to include a marina and an RV park.

When current owner John Steitz III took over in the late 1980s, he began to serve a Friday night fish boil and fish fry during boating season. As the surrounding neighborhood has filled in, Steitz's Friday feed has grown to a full menu of made-from-scratch fare offered for dinner Wednesdays through Sundays year round, and lunch on the weekends.

A deck overlooking Lake Bluff provides pleasant dining during clement weather. Inside, the dining room reminds me of my in-laws' lakeside cottage: rough, knotty pine walls chockablock with old fishing rods and reels, farm equipment and tools, a collection of pocket knives, antique outboard motors and other implements, all looking more like they've been stashed out of the way rather than hung as ornaments. Unlike the faux decor at kitschy city restaurants, this is the real deal, assembled over decades. The adjoining bar is full of black-and-white photos of Steitz ancestors and historic scenes of the resort.

At the dining room's center, a bright blue plastic salad bar holds torn iceberg lettuce and a large selection of chilled fresh veggies, pickles, olives, potato salad, cheeses, dressings and other accouterments to go with it. To one side, you'll find a tureen of the soup of the day, ready for self-service, and an old Bendix wringer-washer holding sliced bread in plastic bags and bowls filled with still more salad toppings.

All dinners come with soup, the all-you-can-eat salad bar and your choice of potato. For another $2, you can upgrade to a respectable French onion soup, rich allium-spiked beef broth capped with a gooey lid of baked-on cheese.

If a mounded plate of salad stuff seems too healthful to start out with, the appetizer list presents plenty of deep-fried goodies. You can try out most of them in the $15.95 sampler platter, a heart-stopping heap of good and cheesy stuffed jalapeno peppers, excellent onion rings, fried mushrooms, fried cheddar cubes, mozzarella sticks and chicken strips, sized to share.

The cook's a dab hand with the deep fryer, as becomes amply clear with the fried fish that's the mainstay of the menu. Choose from Canadian perch, walleye, catfish or blue gill, lightly hand-breaded in a coating that tastes like cornmeal, and served in heaping platefuls. Carefully cooked to a crunchy, nongreasy exterior and moist flaky interior, the delectable perch would do any Wisconsin tavern proud, though I like the sweeter-fleshed curls of walleye even better. A couple of hot, crusty hush puppies garnish the plate.

If fried food's not for you, the walleye also comes broiled, as does the catfish, or you can try the boiled haddock that launched Steitz's as a dining destination. Or sample sauteed walleye cheeks over pasta with garlic and mushrooms, a kind of Great Lakes-Italian fusion. Steitz's also serves stacks of steaming snow- and king-crab legs, Dungeness crab claws, fried frogs' legs and several preparations of shrimp.

Options for landlubbers include rib-eye, filet mignon and New York strip steaks, as well as center-cut pork chops and, on Saturdays, Steitz's signature garlic-speared prime rib. Baby back ribs and fresh fried chicken fill out the entree menu, plus one oddity - a spaghetti dinner the menu claims is a secret recipe from Germany. This turns out to be linguine covered in a hearty meat sauce that makes me think the cook at my high-school cafeteria must have had similar origins. A pile of garlic bread accompanies it.

Lighter appetites can get the fried perch or boiled haddock in a basket with fries and a roll instead of full dinners. Steitz's also offers sandwiches, including fried or broiled pork tenderloin, rib-eye steak with sauteed peppers, onions and mushrooms and -pound single or double burgers. A chicken sandwich comes in your choice of fried, flame-broiled, teriyaki, lemon pepper or barbecue.

The bar menu bears John Steitz III's promise: "If I don't have your favorite liquor, tell us, and it will be here next time. Within reason." (My husband considered testing the bar's Wisconsin leaning by ordering a brandy old-fashioned sweet but was dissuaded on the grounds that Korbel brandy hardly posed a challenge.) The bar offers about a dozen wines by the glass, with Sutter Home and Yellow Tail prominent on the list, 18 bottled beers, 27 whiskeys and more than 40 vodkas. When the weather cools, they'll be pouring house-made hot buttered rum.

Sweet-toothed diners must tough it out, however - Steitz's serves no desserts, except now and then when they dish out complimentary strudel.

• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. Our aim is to describe the overall dining experience while guiding the reader toward the menu's strengths. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.

Steitz's Resort on Bluff Lake

25400 W. Bluff Lane, Antioch, (847) 395-4050, www.steitzs.com

Cuisine:

American, with an emphasis on fish and seafood

Setting:

Authentically rustic lakeside tavern full of memorabilia

Price range:

Appetizers $2.95 to $15.95; sandwiches $6.95 to $12.95; entrees $9.95 to $28.95

Hours:

3 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays; 3 to 10 p.m. Thursdays; noon to 10 p.m. Fridays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays

Accepts:

Visa, MasterCard and American Express; no reservations

Also:

Free parking; outdoor seating on deck overlooking the lake; children's menu available; German fest with fireworks on Sept. 16