A meal to remember: Fifth anniversary brings couple to Bayfield

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Joan Neeno, Special to The Gazette
Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Five years ago, I married a foodie.

Richard can recite chefs and restaurants the same way many guys talk quarterbacks and NFL teams. He has stacks of cookbooks, and he thinks making a gourmet dinner for 12 is fun.

I grew up thinking all great dishes started with a can of cream of mushroom soup. Richard introduced me to a whole new world—so much so that I thanked him for getting me to try blue cheese and duck in our wedding vows.

When it came to celebrating our fifth anniversary, it only seemed right that food would play a central part. We saw a TV story a couple of years ago about Wild Rice, widely regarded as one of the best restaurants in the state. It's in Bayfield, sitting in the woods along Lake Superior.

A six-hour drive for dinner? Sure, why not?

Night was descending as we drove down the winding lane—with signs that said “23 is fast enough”—to Wild Rice. A large, outdoor fire was visible on the expansive deck near the entrance. It was too damp and chilly that night to sit outside, but it was a welcoming sight.

The restaurant has an unusual Scandinavian design with several long, low buildings with high-pitched roofs that are attached by glass corridors.

You walk along a long wooden walkway that crosses a pond and provides a glimpse of Lake Superior. When you enter the main building, the first thing you see is a 20-foot-tall wine “cave” encased in glass. Behind that is a glimpse of long walls of windows, elegant tables and a soaring, beamed ceiling. To the far left is the kitchen building, also encased in glass so you can watch the chefs at work.

On our first visit, we took a left into the building that serves as a bar for drinks and appetizers. Richard ordered his favorite, a Sazerac ($12), a classic New Orleans drink made with rye and absinthe. I tried the Johnny Drum Old-Fashioned ($12), made with bourbon. For a fine dining restaurant, the cocktails and wine were reasonably priced.

The bar was gorgeous. Panels of art glass, lit from below, lined the top. The back bar consisted of more colored glass, shaped into glowing tree branches. A long, modular sofa at the end of the room invited lounging.

Colorful artwork was everywhere, which isn't surprising because the owner, Mary Rice, is a professional artist as well as a restaurateur. Considered the unofficial “queen of Bayfield,” the 73-year-old owns two other restaurants in the city and is known for being, well, a bit wild. She was there both nights we visited, sharing stories and playing host. She created much of the restaurant's artwork.

That evening, we ordered the La Belle Fois Gras Two Ways ($19), which was skimpy and disappointing. Later, we realized it was served one way—someone in the kitchen goofed up. I liked the crispy sweetbreads ($17), rolled in Marcona almonds and pumpkin seeds and served with a lobster, carrot and daikon salad in miso vinaigrette. The contrast of the nuts, meat and sour elements was nice. Richard, however, was unimpressed.

The cheese plate ($14) contained a generous assortment of cheeses and wild-rice almond bread. Surprisingly, only one of the cheeses was from Wisconsin.

The Alsatian Tarte Flambee with bacon and truffled shiitake mushrooms ($17) was the best of the lot—a thin, light pizza with caramelized onions, crème fraiche and spicy greens.

For our anniversary dinner, we had the full experience.

Richard started with a smoked salmon salad ($17), which melted in your mouth. I ordered the creamy wild rice soup ($12) with smoked chicken and Granny Smith apples. The chicken was ground fine into the creamy broth. The smokiness balanced beautifully with the sour crunch of diced apple. Our server, who was extremely professional and attentive throughout the meal, brought us the recipe when we asked about the broth.

For entrees, Richard chose the sauteed halibut served over a mushroom ragu ($39). It was sauced with a surprisingly light concoction made with Spanish chorizo. The mild fish, mushrooms and sauce were beautifully balanced. Richard was a happy foodie.

I ordered bison tenderloin ($44), cooked medium rare and served over creamy polenta with a blue cheese fondue. Five years later, a great meal still comes down to the blue cheese, and I remain grateful. I had never tried bison before, so that, too, seemed like a good way to celebrate five years with a foodie. The bison was lean, tender and ridiculously flavorful.

For dessert, Richard ordered the warm pecan and wild rice cake with vanilla bean ice cream and de leche sauce ($14). I ordered the banana and dark chocolate cake with salted caramel ice cream ($13). Both were as good as they sound.

Overall, the experience was exceptional as it should be for that kind of money. I enjoy the food more at Milwaukee's Sanford. And Madison's L'Etoile has the friendliest, most thoughtful service on a consistent basis. As for Wild Rice, I can't think of a more beautiful setting to share a special occasion dinner.

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