It was a perfect Friday evening over the July 4 holiday weekend and everyone wanted an outdoor table at the Edgewater hotel’s new Boathouse restaurant.
Many were sitting patiently on the rock landscaping of the lakeshore walkway, but my group of four snagged a large, comfortable, semi-circular booth on the second floor that appeared to be the last table inside the two-story restaurant.
The atmosphere is faux-nautical and we would have had a great view of Lake Mendota, had it not been obstructed by other diners.
The four specialty cocktails all sounded good, but the Boathouse cooler ($8), a gussied-up gin and tonic with cucumber, turned out to be somewhat of a letdown. Next time — and the Boathouse is worth going back to for a few things — I’d like to try the grapefruit margarita, made with fresh grapefruit.
There are a dozen beers on tap, each with its Wisconsin hometown listed underneath. All except Bud Light, where underneath it says “Not WI.” You’ve got to like a menu with a sense of humor.
The four of us were rather humorless after a half an hour had gone by with no sign of our appetizers. When we asked about them, you could tell our very friendly server had forgotten to put in the order. She came back promptly with the chips with guacamole and salsa ($6) that we ordered.
One tablemate thought the guacamole was straight from a Trader Joe’s box, but I gave it a little more credit. I liked both the guac and the semi-watery salsa, but we all agreed it was shabby to serve the two dips in little plastic cups. It would be easy to upgrade that.
Another tablemate plucked a hair from the tortilla chips, but didn’t make a big deal of it.
The table was unanimous on the quality of the fried cheese curds ($8), which came out in short order after we asked. They had their own gooey personality with a light, flaky batter, some of which ended up in the bottom of the basket for some reason. They were absolutely fantastic, and a reason to return. I liked how they were served with two sauces, a traditional ranch, and a Sriracha mayo.
“As down as I was on the chips, is as up as I am on the curds,” said one companion.
The German-style brat ($8) was another high point, juicy, with a soft, fresh pretzel bun, sauerkraut, onions and brown mustard. The sausage quality was the best I’ve had in a long time and the fixings really enhanced it.
The Waldorf chicken salad sandwich ($8) with grapes and walnuts on overly supple light wheat bread was a near miss, overwhelmed by mayonnaise.
Sandwiches come with chips, or fries for an extra $2. One friend ordered the fries, but his brat came with chips instead. He brought it to our server’s attention and she quickly returned with a basket of fries that could have fed the whole table. The thin fries would have been better if they hadn’t been doused with Old Bay Seasoning.
There are two soups on the menu, and both are worth getting, especially the clam chowder ($6).The New England-style chowder was thin, heavy on the potato, with clams that were unusually tender. The gazpacho ($4) was nice and thick and had a bit of a bite. I liked it, but a friend said that it felt like eating salsa with a spoon. “I could dip chips in that,” he said.
My daughter ordered the “burger jr.” ($5) and it was certainly a junior portion — almost comically small. It came with chips. She held it up to laugh at it, but had no complaints about the taste.
The wait for our main courses was nearly as long as our wait for the starters, and the problem may lie in the hassle of getting food from the first floor to the second. Installing a dumbwaiter could help.
There’s also the fact that the restaurant was extremely crowded and still working out kinks since its May 23 opening.
Ed Dorman, the Edgewater’s director of food and beverage, called the night we visited, July 3, a crazy night. “We had twice as many people as we expected on property,” he said.
The hotel, dramatically renovated over two years, opened its elegant Statehouse restaurant last September to mixed reviews. Unsurprisingly, early opinions of the Boathouse are also varied, judging from reports from friends and colleagues.
The Boathouse had no desserts when we visited but does now, Dorman said. We were told to go upstairs to the Edgewater’s Icehouse in the hotel’s plaza area. It offers upscale concession-type food and had plenty of fun dessert options, including fried pie.
It’s also wise to go to the Icehouse to use the washroom. The Boathouse, which is in the building across from the main hotel, has just a single-occupancy restroom, which is inadequate for a restaurant that seats 50 on its terrace and another 50 inside.
I left somewhat mixed on the experience, but my companion who ordered the chicken salad sandwich was more critical. “There were so many things wrong with that meal, I don’t know where to begin,” he said.
Said my other adult companion, “You can’t beat the view, but the food has a ways to go.”