State's 'favorite supper club' has charm, high prices

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By Joan Neeno, Special to The Gazette
Thursday, July 24, 2014

WISCONSIN DELLS—We have been to Wisconsin Dells more than usual this summer because our son works at a camp. One evening, after having the macaroni and cheese lunch he craved at MACS, Richard and I decided to have a grown-up dinner before heading home.

We wanted to try “Wisconsin's favorite supper club,” at least according to expert Ron Faiola, author of “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old Fashioned Experience.” Ishnala also was recently featured on the Wisconsin Public Television show “Wisconsin Foodie.” It's got to be great, right?

We should have paid more attention to the Trip Advisor reviews, which weren't all glowing. If there were plate ratings for ambiance, Ishnala would get five plates. Unfortunately, the food is average, and the prices are high.

Let's start with the good parts.

Ishnala was built and operated by the Hoffman brothers in 1953. It's located on the edge of Mirror Lake, and you drive through a cheesy Indian-themed gate and down a long, winding road through the woods. The noise of the Dells melts away as you meander under a canopy of old trees to the lodge.

On this particular evening, Dean Martin is crooning through an old-school speaker in the parking lot. That just charmed the heck out of me. It reminded me of my parents getting dressed up on a Saturday night for prime rib.

A small path leads to the lakeside restaurant. It's a dark log cabin with a quirky mid-century modern style. Windows along the side are covered with delightfully old-fashioned graphics of Indian squaws and warriors that have more to do with an illustrator's imagination than reality.

A huge stone fireplace sits to the left of the entrance. Down a few steps is the Arrowhead Bar, a triangular-shaped room with huge windows overlooking the lake. A birch bark canoe hangs over the bar along with the aura of history. Lots of Brandy Old-Fashioned Sweets have been drunk on those stools.

We were seated in the main dining room, which is lovely. There isn't a bad view to be had. If Frank Lloyd Wright had designed a hunting lodge, I'm guessing it would have looked like this.

Our server was a college student who was alert, accommodating and knowledgeable about the menu.

We started with Old-Fashioneds that were made with Korbel ($8.50 each) and snacked on the cheese spread and basket of cheap breadsticks. No relish tray at “Wisconsin's best supper club”?

For an appetizer, we ordered the classic artichoke dip ($10). It came out bubbling hot and cheesy. The blend of cream cheese and pepper jack gave it a little bite, but it was welcome. It also came with a decent supply of toasted bread.

All entrees came with a breadbasket that included cinnamon rolls and a salad with the house mustard vinaigrette. Richard ordered the roasted Wisconsin duck ($28), one of the least expensive entrees. It was served with a sage dressing and a cognac orange sauce.

The duck was well seasoned but overdone. The stuffing was mushy. Overall, Richard said he preferred the Duck Inn's version.

I ordered the filet and jumbo fried shrimp ($38) with a baked potato. The shrimp were indeed jumbo, dipped in a beer batter and fried to perfection. I can't remember the last time I had fried shrimp, but these were good.

The turf side of the plate was less satisfying. The quality of the meat was fine, and it was cooked to a perfect medium-rare. Unfortunately, it was devoid of seasoning. I had to ask for salt and pepper. This might be a supper club standard, but I wish they would take a cue from steak houses that do more with a quality piece of meat.

 The puny baked potato was an afterthought. It would have been disappointing anywhere, but paying nearly $40 for the meal made it worse.

Knowing our budget was blown, we shared an ice cream drink for dessert: the Caramel Canoe ($12). It was big enough for both of us with a nice blend of vanilla, caramel and cinnamon.

With the tip, we spent $150 for lovely ambiance, excellent service and so-so food. A longtime employee of the Hoffmans recently bought Ishnala. I respect him for wanting to honor tradition, but I think he has license to make improvements.

If you find yourself in the Dells, fill up at MACS or Monk's. Let the kids and the sitter go to the water park, and head to Ishnala for a cocktail at the cool bar and soak in the history.

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