We would have never eaten at Ishnala if it were not for the temporary disaster at Mirror Lake yesterday. We were planning on a quick sandwich at a reasonable burger place in The Dells after our long day poking around. We’d gone to the old ruins of a cottage my parents used to own in Rock Springs, a 150 year old cottage swallowed up by the big flood of 2008. I planned to do no more than get out of the car and reminisce melancholy, but I soon find myself scaling the sandstone cliffs behind Guy, brandishing the camera and scanning the ground for poison ivy. And then a herd of deer comes rushing by. Exhilarating. Rushing from, we will discover later on our drive, the general direction of the Big Cat Sanctuary, where rescued lions and tigers roar from their cramped chain link cages. Incongruous in rural Wisconsin. For now, we remain on the bluff for a while, looking wistfully down at the footprint of the ghost cottage.
We pick ticks from Guy in the car–luckily they prefer him– and head to Mirror Lake. Five bucks buys us an hour to poke around, and we find the grounds to be lovely enough make us wistful for tent camping. We are having a wistful trip, and the truth is we want to buy hilly land and build a log cabin with a puncheon floor, but we get ahead of ourselves, and here we are at the campground. There is a wooded amphitheatre, a calm beach resplendent with tadpoles, twisting trails, gorgeous birds everywhere. The place is teeming with life; it could swallow us whole. I must keep in mind, though, that school has not let out yet for children, and the wildlife may be forced to beat a quick getaway from the main areas of the state park when the human deluge begins in earnest. Mirror Lake State Park, is, no matter what, just lovely.
We are raving about Mirror Lake in the car as we head out for our sandwich dinner, and are nearly to our sandwich shop when I notice that my wallet is nowhere to be found. Pull over. Tear the car apart. Shake out pants. Shake out jackets. Check the glove compartment 47 times. Did I leave it in the Ranger’s Station? Guy asks. NO! I know it was in my hands in the car. I KNOW…shit, you aren’t supposed to keep your social security card in your wallet, but mine’s in there, and ALL of our cash, and credit cards and my drivers license! Guy says he’s got a debit card so we can just cancel mine. NO, NO, remember, we took it all out in cash yesterday?!
I have eleven dollars in my back pocket. I slowly resign myself to going back to my parent’s new cabin, where we have been staying, to eat oatmeal for dinner and go to bed in a black depression. I’m certain someone will steal my identity and has already charged the credit card to the limit on Culver’s cheese curds and “gentlemen’s clubs.”
We head back to Mirror Lake State Park to report what must surely have been a theft, though we also reserve the hope that I’ve left the wallet in the ranger’s office. I’m speeding. Guy is telling me not to speed. I’m denying speeding. I slow down and accept my new life, identity stolen life. How bad can it be? How very bad can it be? The sun will still rise.
Guy has jumped from the passenger seat and sprinted to the ranger’s window to ask when I realize the driver’s console has a second underneath part when I flip it open without thought and see, among the pens and old receipts, my darling wallet! I extricate Guy from his ranger conversation, and we readjust our reality. It hurts. Neither of us remembers burying the wallet in the console. Maybe the thief did! We screech to a halt again to check the insides, no everything’s there.
Strange thing with situation stress is that when the situation abates, the stress remains. It needs curing. How to cure it? I don’t know, but food is a way. I’d seen a sign for Ishnala Supper Club as we were speeding back to Mirror Lake just moments ago, and I had been seeing signs for the place since I was four. But I’d never gone. It is time.
The reason I’d never gone, I would soon find out, is because Ishnala is above my lifelong price bracket, but this we did not know as we follow the long and winding driveway to the place. Ishnala is set within the Mirror Lake State Park confines, and it’s about three miles from the main road to the restaurant, the entire curving way full of ferns, birch, oak, deer, ravines. It’s like an palate cleanser for the mind, pre-dining preparation.
Outside the restaurant is exhibited a Winnebago canoe over a hundred years of age, which was found filled with stones and sunken in the lake near the restaurant. Frank Sinatra croons from outside speakers, and there are replica tee-pees on display. The lake reflects smoothly, and the combination of all of these things should feel like a horrible flea market, dirty types of cultural appropriation, but somehow it sidesteps that. Ishnala was established as a supper club in 1953, and maybe it’s the unawareness of the fifties that clings to it allowing the mashup to work.
Inside, everything is wood and stone and windows, but not like one of those new log cabins for sale along the Dells strip, no this is like Bedrock, the town of Bedrock. Quite. A stuffed and snarling bobcat peers down on me while I wait for Guy to use the restroom. Just to the right of the cat is an old pump organ. Every table, and I mean every single one, has a view of the lake, and yet the view is horizontal; it’s like you are peering out from your cave. Gorgeous.
The hostess informs us that we have ten minutes before our table is ready, so we make our way past the great oval bar, the likes of which you could easily imagine Fred and Wilma visiting on their anniversary. Fred dancing “The Twitch”. We enjoy the outdoor seating and then make our way down to the lake’s edge. It’s simply beautiful with sandstone cliffs, reflective dark water, and darting swallows. No other restaurant exists within the park; this is unique, and that’s a good thing.
I don’t care if the food is horrible, I hiss, it’s worth it to sit and look at this lake. Guy agrees, and we head in for our seats. Upon receiving the menus, our concern becomes less the quality of the food and more whether we can afford to eat ANYTHING for dinner here. The young waitress is training another, younger, waitress, and the one in charge expertly describes the lovely specials, suggesting we try the dinner for two–rib eye steaks and lobster tails with grilled asparagus–for ninety-nine dollars. She also suggests a forty dollar bottle of wine. The menu is made up of 1950s steakhouse standards, good solid foods that Frank S. himself might have enjoyed. People are ordering cosmopolitans and Pink Squirrels, and not to be trendy, no this place has not changed since 1953. It’s a bit of a time-warp. And it’s got is original swank still.
Well, we have budgeted for sandwiches. We ask for two glasses of water and more time with the menus. We ARE going to be that pain in the ass couple, aren’t we? Should we just go? No. No, we should not. I didn’t spend all those years mindlessly watching Rachael Ray eat cheaply across the country for nothing!
When the servers reappear, I honestly blurt out that weren’t going to be having a meal but rather a few appetizers, that we hadn’t planned for a “fancy dinner” whatever that means. Strange things sometimes come out of my mouth. We select breaded duck strips with a handmade honey mustard sauce and bruschetta at ten dollars a piece. We figure we can enjoy these and then grab our sandwiches after all, later, as we will surely be hungry. When they retreat, we ravage the cheese and cracker tray; it’s free.
The bruschetta arrives lovely, and very generous. The sliced ciabatta is perfectly toasted. Truly, it’s the best brushetta I’ve had. The duck strips are not simply glorified chicken tenders but a very different and richer sort of thing. Subtle and really satisfying. We find ourselves quite full after our appetizer dinner, and our servers are attentive and kind. They are gracious despite our ordering neither wine nor entrees and despite what must have been the shocked looks on our faces when we opened out menus. We appreciate this non-snobbery.
Deciding against later sandwiches, with a flourish, we ask to see the dessert options. There’s been a gorgeous and massive chocolate mousse seen floating to table after table, which probably spurred us both to seek dessert, but dairy is my enemy so I opt for the salted caramel crunch cake and guy selects the cheesecake with a chocolate crust and raspberry drizzle. We each have a cup of coffee, too. Guy nearly goes for the Pink Squirrel, transfixed by the name, but pulls back at the last moment. My cake is the most delicious cake, the, and I can’t believe it, most transportive, ethereal piece of cake I’ve ever had, and believe me, I’m experienced with cake. Guy says his cheesecake tastes like sugar velvet. The coffee is good too.
Be the time we leave, our servers, once a bit like skittish does, are hanging out at our table asking Guy about London and discussing lactose intolerance with me, a condition they also suffer from, and how much worse living in the Dairy State? The main server says she takes a pill every day so that she can eat dairy because going cheese-less here is not possible. She scrawls the name of the pill she takes on the back of a cheque for me to take along.
They hope we come back next visit, and so do we. We tip them well, knowing the tab would generally have been higher, but with frugal folks like us, well, let’s just say we fully enjoyed Ishnala and did it for a pre-tip tab of 46.00. We were just as happy as if we’d popped for the big old steak and lobster, but really, happier. No buyer’s remorse.
When we leave, we have a hard time finding the road out in the dark, but a big fat raccoon leads the way, and we go home happy as high-priced lake clams.