When the weather outside is frosty and your credit card bill prevents you from jet-setting to tropical climates, you can still escape the city with a weekend getaway to Lake Geneva. The Wisconsin resort town’s allure ranges from lakeside inns to charming local restaurants to an annual Winterfest event with a national snow sculpting competition. While we didn’t stick around for specially carved igloos, we did check out the local sights and eateries. Here are our Cheeky picks for a wintry visit to Lake Geneva.
In real estate, they say location is everything. Bella Vista Suites nailed this particular axiom, with a prime spot perched at the edge of Geneva Lake. Even in the midst of winter, you can still attempt a walk by the water… just don’t forget to pack snow boots and a parka. Unlike other properties in the area, Bella Vista only offers suites, a spacious upgrade from traditional hotel rooms. There are nine different layouts so you can indulge with an in-room Jacuzzi tub or fireplace, depending on your suite of choice. And speaking of indulgences, check out their Bliss spa for a massage, facial or body treatment. At $75 for an hour-long massage, it’s practically a steal compared to downtown Chicago spa rates.
We’re spoiled in Chicago. The restaurant options are almost endless and we’re surrounded by first-rate chefs, some of them happy to be holding a few shiny stars. But lo and behold, Lake Geneva is also home to inventive, upscale dining with cuisine that exceeds a few of our lofty expectations.
At the Grand Geneva resort, a sprawling estate with hundreds of rooms and a magical display of holiday lights, Executive Chef Robert Fedorko oversees a staff of 65 cooks and eight sous chefs across the property’s nine restaurants, including Ristoranté Brissago and the Geneva ChopHouse. He chatted with Cheeky about everything from Iron Chef to training for an Ironman.
CheekyChicago: What is your culinary inspiration?
Robert Fedorko: My wife and my family by far. I have a six-year-old daughter and soon to be 20-year-old daughter so you don’t have to look very far to see what influences them when they dine and I look to them for inspiration, along with my closest friends and how they like to eat. It’s a strange thing being a food and beverage person, but when I look at trends and fads and how they translate – and how they can apply to my business – I have to look at them from a non-food and beverage perspective. I see food one specific way because I’m involved in it every single day. But the average person doesn’t see it from my eyes so I need to see it from the guests’ eyes. People are exposed to food and culinary [fads] now every single day.
Cheeky: What do you think of food-themed TV shows and do you watch them?
RF: It’s one of the questions I get asked frequently, “What food shows do you watch?” When people ask those questions, you have to be up to date on it and I like to ask them, “What do you watch?” You learn about their attitude towards food and their food knowledge. I try not to watch too many food shows because when I get a chance I’m off of work and by then you want to disconnect from food. If I watch a show, it engages me back into cooking and gets me all riled up. I think, “Why are you using that pan?” “Why are you doing that?” I think Iron Chef is great. Chopped is one of the most fun to watch and I like Top Chef Masters.
Cheeky: What it’s like to be the Executive Chef for the Grand Geneva?
RF: It’s challenging, it’s stimulating, it’s ever-changing. When I got to Lake Geneva (17 years ago), it was a summertime destination only. With the resurrection of the Playboy Club into the Grand Geneva, that turned it into a year-round destination. A rejuvenation of the spa, golf course and culinary program helped turn around Lake Geneva. There are events going on all year round that are drivers for the town. The summertime speaks for itself – it’s a playground for Chicagoans. In October, there are Octoberfest weekends and the holiday season drives a lot more business. There’s a Lake Geneva wine festival in the fall. February brings the national snow sculpting championship. There’s always something going on now in Lake Geneva or coming up. It’s a perfect destination year-round.
Cheeky: Why do you think Lake Geneva is a great dining destination?
RF: Brissago is the number one rated restaurant on Open Table in the state of Wisconsin. 38,000 people voted and 109 restaurants were in the category. Our ChopHouse finished number nine. We’ve worked very hard to establish ourselves at the resort as a destination for great dining. In town, Tempura House has great sushi, Simple Café is a good spot, Ryan Braun’s just opened if you’re looking for a place to take a large party or have a casual dinner. Sprecher’s is a brewery that just opened a restaurant and pub in Lake Geneva. There are a lot of great places to eat. We have a lot of little gems.
Cheeky: What are your favorite dishes from the Grand Geneva restaurants?
RF: At Brissago my favorite is the Spaghetti con L’aragosta Lemirandi – guitar string pasta with butter poached lobster. I named it after my wife. At Brissago we’re known for our calamari, handmade tortelli and we rotate every season. The wood burning pizzas are fantastic. I had the veal chop last week and it was fantastic – right on the money.
Cheeky: What are your favorite things to do in Lake Geneva?
RF: The beach and the water is fantastic – can’t beat that in the summer. I’m a runner and triathlete – I’m training for an ironman right now – so there are great activities like the Lake Geneva marathon, state park running races, Lake Geneva triathlon and big foot races. I’m an outdoors person so I certainly get involved in the road and the water. I train one to two hours every day – I need the balance of alone time and family life.
It’s a challenge not to eat well at Ristorante Brissago. In fact, good luck getting bad service, a lousy table or a disappointing cocktail. Instead you’ll be greeted warmly and escorted across an upscale candlelit dining room, welcomed with a toasty bread basket and enticed by an Italian-influenced cocktail list. If you’ve never sipped sorbet, now is the time. Order the Sgroppino Martini, a tart liquid treat of prosecco, vodka and lemon sorbet. It’s winter white, sparkling and a worthy substitution to dessert.
It would be a shame to miss the wood fired pizzas, especially the chicken with roasted peppers, pesto and goat cheese. This is pizza with pedigree – flour imported from Italy and double ground before evolving into homemade dough. The server might enthusiastically recommend the calamari and there’s a reason – unlike the familiar fried circles dipped in red sauce, Brissago’s are lightly battered in corn flour and served with red and green peppers in a basil-lemon vinaigrette. Crunchy and irresistible, they might ruin your appetite for any other version.
The restaurant takes pride in their pasta and it showed in the rich capellini with white truffle and King crab. While seafood often plays second fiddle in these dishes, the buttery strands were full of flavorful crabmeat. It’s certainly not a light plate, but definitely a satisfying splurge.
The diners of Brissago run the gamut from young families to small parties, but there’s something distinctly romantic about the restaurant. Everyone can appreciate the menu, but couples might savor the experience most.
Steakhouses aren’t in short supply in downtown Chicago, but the Geneva ChopHouse brings the best of our red meat Meccas to the table. Sizable portions and bold flavors dominate, with a baked potato that might rival the size of a large clutch. If you’re into massive spuds, the ChopHouse is your spot.
The restaurant complements the food – low lighting, plush red booths, soft piano music and uber-attentive waitstaff with a penchant for heavy wine pours (no complaints – keep the pinot noir coming). A beet salad with goat cheese, walnuts and a mustard-horseradish dressing was a solid spin on the popular dish. Sure the 18-ounce bone-in ribeye was well-cooked and satisfying, but the sea bass was the undisputed winner of the table. Light but flavorful with a thin crust and flaky white interior, it was fish at its finest. Served atop pesto and a tomato puree, it was a Christmas-colored culinary treat. The baked potato – encrusted in sea salt and rubbed with olive oil – was the quintessential steakhouse side. For dessert, the rich chocolate mousse cake topped with berry syrup was suitably decadent and best shared.
While the ChopHouse doesn’t traverse new culinary ground, they’ve certainly mastered the terrain of what a traditional steakhouse should be.
Best Brunch in Town:
Don’t let the name fool you… Simple Café is anything but basic. The brightly colored breakfast and lunch oasis features lime green chairs, yellow walls splashed with orange accents and floor-to-ceiling windows; calling it cheery is an understatement. The staff is eager to serve and every diner is equally eager to eat… for good reason.
The menu states, “We are committed to using locally grown, seasonal ingredients as much as possible, creating familiar foods with inventive twists.” Their localvore mentality is the foundation of a fresh, flavorful menu that features everything from frittatas and French toast to burgers and grilled cheese and tomato soup.
The seasonal harvest frittata arrived as a colorful medley of vegetables on an oversized spinach tortilla. Overnight oven-roasted tomatoes, crispy quartered potatoes, diced avocado, zucchini, roasted red peppers, creamy goat cheese and spicy salsa blended to savory perfection.
The only thing better was the butternut squash, sweet potato and tofu hash. It might not sound like squash belongs side by side with tofu in a hash, but somehow these ingredients meshed like PB & J. It was an inspired combination, pairing the lightly sweet, cubed butternut squash with crisp tofu squares, scrambled eggs, zucchini and green onion.
For brunch lovers, this dish is worth the two-hour drive and you can stick around for lunch anytime after 11 am. Next time, I would linger at Simple Café for both meals and then beg them to stay open for dinner.
For more information on Lake Geneva, visit www.lakegenevawi.com.
And if you like the idea of a getaway, check out our Cheeky Girls’ Guide to Wine Country!
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