While watching champion Na Yeon Choi and her pursuers negotiate the homestretch of Blackwolf Run at last week’s U.S. Women’s Open from my home back in Nevada, I couldn’t get one nagging thought out of my head.
“We sat right up there for dinner,” I kept saying to my wife.
“Boy, was that food great,” she kept saying right back.
“Up there” is the dining room that hovers above the double green comprising the 18th holes of both the River and Meadow Valleys courses; one nine of each made up the Open’s championship circuit both this year and in 1998. The evening I ate there with my family during a four-day visit to Destination Kohler, the sun was setting beyond the deck where a raucous group of guys recounted their rounds between hoists of cold beer. As I slipped outside to take a quick photo of the blazing solar farewell while down below, groups continued to make their way down the River Course’s wicked final hole until dark. It was two weeks before Open time and the place was alive with activity.
I returned to our windowside table just in time for the first course of my meal — Blackwolf Run’s famous corn and sausage chowder, one dish that Executive Chef Rick Boyer can’t bring himself to rotate out. The resort’s regulars wouldn’t abide it; same deal with the spinach and poached pear salad, which my wife — a greens guru from way back — pronounced one of the best she’s ever had.
Then came the entrees: Spicy Honey-Glazed Smoked Double-Thick Pork Chops stuffed with pistachio, caramelized apple and Wisconsin blue cheese (of course) for me; Caprese Lobster Pasta for one daughter, a special not-on-the-menu
Vegetable Napoleon for the other; and Grilled Lemon-Garlic Salmon for my wife. I don’t know if the corporate sponsors at the Women’s Open sampled the same fare or brought in their own menus, but I hope it’s the latter. Several meals into our diverse and delectable excursion into Kohler country, this could have been the high point. Had there been any low points, that is.
Not that Boyer, who spent seven years as Executive Chef at the swanky Biltmore Resort in Asheville, N.C., before digging into his new Upper Midwest gig this past April, is anywhere near satisfied. Like most culinary artists he loves a challenge and sees the American Club’s well-established menu as just that.
“I want to make ‘Destination Kohler’ ‘Culinary Destination Kohler,” he told us over a beautifully rendered lunch array of personal pizzas, salads and sandwiches at the newly remodeled Cucina, an Italian showcase in the resort’s Woodlake shopping center. “I always concentrate on three things: Freshness, simplicity and execution.”
Case in point: Cucina’s Panino al Tacchino, roast turkey breast with perfectly crisped prosciutto, avocado, onion, tomato, provolone and arugula on a pretzel roll. Impossible to leave a bite behind — same with the Pizza Margherita, Insalata con Salmone and Panino Caprese with house-made Mozzarella, arugula and basil pesto on Tuscan bread. Everything fresh and as locally sources as possible, another Boyer benchmark. “We bake all our own breads and pastries, use Midwest corn-fed beef with bison going on the menu soon,” he added. “And walleye is the local fish here, so we feature it in several dishes. We’re constantly working with local farmers to find out what they can get us, and when.” Toss an onside greenhouse into the mix and Kohler is as self-sufficient as big-stage resorts get.
The local-source mantra extends to every corner of the American Club-Whistling Straits complex’s dozen eateries, right down to the quick-casual fare at Take 5 Café inside the resort’s impressive Sports Core Heath & Racquet Club to the Four-Diamond-rated Immigrant Restaurant in the American Club’s main lodge, which serves European-style dishes like Poussin and Veal Sweetbreads in six rooms distinctly decorated to reflect the native countries of early Wisconsin settlers — France, Germany, England, Denmark and Netherlands. Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Room showcases hearty Midwestern fare (house-made fig sausage or bison carpaccio, anyone?), while the resort’s most popular casual outlet, Horse & Plow — which will soon undergo a spruce-up in décor — keeps golfers and other guests happy with a wide selection of beers on tap and linchpin menu items like the Jigger Burger (porter cheese, bacon and richly sweet Jigger Ale onion jam) and the Sheboygan County Double Brat, a version of which is also served up the road in the tavern at Whistling Straits.
Then there are the Cheese Curds, deep fried and served with ranch dressing, which are as deadly as they sound, in the best possible way. One order didn’t do it for us, and even a quick tornado warning couldn’t rouse us from our Horse & Plow booth as a thunderstorm raged outside. We stayed put, dug into order No. 2 and stayed happy. Then came the entrees — Jigger Burger with a side of Three Cheese and Beer Soup for me (cardiologist be damned), various salads and “small plates” for the ladies — followed by a coffee and ice cream in the Greenhouse, a delightful spot next to the lodge’s lush courtyard where I could picture a Victorian couple taking high tea (which they still do here, too).
Note to self: Next time at the Horse & Plow, try the house-made popcorn (buffalo blue cheese or bacon-cheddar-jalapeño sound good), maybe the chicken pot pie, definitely the Pork Belly “Buffalo Wings.” Comfort food done right, surrounded by big screens splashing sports. Hi-def heaven indeed.
We danced out way through other delicacies, right down to the daily “free” breakfast buffet in Inn at Woodlake — a hacker’s favorite — and the sinful-meets-healthy fare at Craverie Chocolatier Café (where exquisitely detailed and beyond-delicious chocolates are created daily) for the gals while Dad grabbed a quick post-round brat and beer at Whistling Straits.
But of all the lovingly prepared fresh fare coming out of Boyer and crew’s kitchen, we saved the most memorable meal for last, and it’s pretty much off the map for the general public. To get a reservation at River Wildlife — an honest-to-God log cabin ensconced in dense woods a couple of par 5s from the River Course, down a winding road and a lovely footpath — you’ve got to be a resort guest or purchase a special day pass. Once seated in one of its intimate dining rooms (including a couple of lofts tucked away in the rough-hewn timbers), the rustic-yet-modern magic starts rolling out on earthenware plates: A Pheasant BLT on toasted Tuscan bread; Backwoods Beefsteak served open-faced with mushrooms, bacon, ontions, tomato, lettuce and cheese; a Smokehouse Cobb Salad topped with Wisconsin blue cheese and cider maple vinaigrette; a “Hinterland Grill” of sausages, chicken, sauerkraut, cheese and remoulade … down-home cookin’ with imagination. Sit next to a window in summertime and you’ll most likely catch a bevy of colorful birds going at a feeder just a few feet away; close your eyes and you might find yourself back at some childhood vacation haunt where sleeping on the porch was always an option — though chances are, the cooking wasn’t nearly this good.
“I really push our chefs to push themselves, be creative, expand their boundaries,” Boyer said. They certainly expanded our palates during our all-too-brief stay at Kohler. And if this is just the start of what Boyer aims to do, look out. The man’s got game.
Vic Williams is Publisher of Fairways + Greens Magazine, a Madavor Media publication. He has written hundreds of stories for the magazine since its inception in 1997, on every subject under the golfing sun. A California native, he lives and works in Reno, Nev.