Monday, August 17, 2009

Sensory Overload, Part 2

The food at Road America was horrible, really. Don't go to the track and eat. The people you see eating? They're desperate individuals clamoring for any semi-edible substance.

Well, ok... not really. In actuality, it's good. Really, really good. I just don't want the word to get out because the lines will get long.

The numerous food stands are run by local civic organizations, so it's in their interest to make the food worth eating and they succeed. In that whole sensory overload department, it fills in the gaps where the track ends. The smell of burgers, chicken and brats cooking over massive grills fills the air near every stand. The smoke curling up into the air provides a guide to the source of that delicious scent. Step around to the counter and the menus range from fresh cheese curds, which I ordered with apparently enough southern accent to entertain the locals manning one stand, to burgers to something called a "Walking Taco." Anything with that strange of a name I had to try. One Doritos bag filled with crushed chips, some sort of meat concoction, cheese, and salsa later I will admit, it was money well spent. Fresh roasted corn dipped in melted butter, homemade ice cream cookie sandwiches, grilled brats; it was all the makings of county fair food, with a bit less of that "we'll deep fry anything" approach that dominates in the south.

Outside of the track, we went to Elkhart Lake (remember, population just over 1000) for some amazingly good meals. The Paddock Club was probably one of my favorites with their fresh made pasta, fantastic beef fillet and Panna Cotta so good I ate every last bite and might have licked the plate were I not with a group of friends, and in public. Another evening, we had dinner at the Back Porch, literally on the restaurant's back porch overlooking Elkhart Lake. The sunset view was beautiful and while we tried cheese plates most everywhere this one was probably my favorite. I'm guessing that the wait staff heard "what kind of cheese is this one again?" few too many times so they got creative on the plating with a handy paper diagram (see photo.)
I'm also admittedly no connoisseur in the adult beverage department, but the Grape Martini at Seibkins as well as the Key Lime Martini at Back Porch were excellent ways to finish the fun day.

After about four days of cheese at virtually every meal, my body made it very clear that I was going to have to either slow down chowing down on the cheese or toss someone else the keys to the golf cart and walk around the track if I had any hopes of curtailing the artery clogging that was occurring at an alarming rate. Our group opted for a view of Lake Michigan at Seabird in Sheboygan after the races ended Sunday evening. I have to admit, it was the one place I was a bit concerned might not be good given the lack of patrons at the time, but it wasn't bad at all. The Phyllo Triangles were good as well as the roast half chicken. I think after four days of exceptional cuisine, I might have even been a bit burned out and in need of a no-frills meal or just some my own cooking.

During our last day there, we found a little local place called Restoration Gardens near Kohler. As much as I enjoyed the previous restaurants, this definitely was for the locals, which is my kind of place. There I had one of the best cinnamon rolls and a fantastic grilled apple & cheese sandwich. Yes, more cheese, but I had taken the previous day off from my cheese quest. I also sampled Hank's Root Beer which I will look for on restaurant menus; it was some of the best root beer I've ever tasted. It pairs surprisingly well with cinnamon rolls too. Who'd have thought it? (Those who know me well know I really don't drink sodas, and for the rare occasion I do, it's usually root beer. Thus my approval of Hank's is extra high praise.)

We also made a stop in at Craviere, a Kohler area chocolatier that displays chocolates in cases reminiscent of a fine jewelry shop. Prices tend to match the display, but one taste and the price really becomes "who cares?" The dark mountain toffees were a fine example of their chocolate without breaking the bank and the rare facets were just as delicious as they were elegant to see. It was just another stop that brought on more sensory overload, but still in a good way.

We also found something strange about Sheboygan. On Monday, the town shuts down. When we noticed the lack of traffic and the grand total of about four restaurants open, it made us wonder what was happening. Our waitress at local upscale pizzeria Il Ritrovo that evening confirmed that the streets are rolled up on Mondays. Speaking of Il Ritrovo, they serve wood-fired oven pizzas topped with some peculiar combinations. Seeing firsthand my ham & egg pizza topped with a fried egg struck me as a bit odd at first, but being my adventurous self, I couldn't resist. It was worth it too. Just don't ask for Pepperoni, they do not serve something that utterly common.

I can't complain about a single meal for the whole trip which rarely happens. I guess the breakfast at the hotel was a bit lacking in choices, but it was the standard complimentary continental breakfast fare. There were a couple of nights that it took a bit past our reservation time to get seated. One restaurant sent its full-bellied patrons up a long, steep staircase just to get out of the place. So if I really wanted to find fault, I am sure I could dig in and think of some fine details that were overlooked somewhere. Sometimes though, I think why bother to tarnish the memory of such good eats? I think these will stay as just that, good food in a good little town that welcomes its guests with full plates of food.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Sensory Overload, Part 1

Sitting in my hotel room in Wisconsin and having never been to any sort of automotive racing other than a few times as a teen watching the Demolition Derby at the local county fair, I really can't say I knew what to expect.

The whole thing was an experience like no other. Just taking in the four miles of road course tucked into the Wisconsin countryside with wooded areas scattered about, the setting was peaceful. Out of nowhere, the roar of a 1970's era racer would arrive followed promptly by a view of the car and it's pavement-focused driver. For the car buff, the photographer or even just the outdoorsy type, it's a bit of nirvana. If you happen to be a bit of all three like me, it's a bit of sensory overload. What to see, do and absorb first?

I started off by doing the track touring. It's an opportunity for those like me who wish they had a third of the mental connection the seasoned track drivers do with their automobiles. Despite having an experienced friend who in another life must be a driving instructor in my passenger seat, the first couple of laps were a little unnerving. The next thing I know, it's time to exit the track as the allotted 50 minutes or so had already zipped past, almost as fast as the blur of Ferrari's that had roared by me two laps ago. For some reason, I didn't mind so much being passed.

The rest of the first day my husband and I spent exploring the track and trying to stay warm and dry. Who knew that Mother Nature would bring weather so cool that it was challenging 104-year record low temperatures? Thankfully, the group we were with had rented several golf carts to get around the paddocks and various vantage points. I can't begin to imagine how they went to this event for years and didn't have any small transportation like the golf carts. Somehow they can't seem to remember how they did it either, other than to say they were smacking themselves for not renting the carts all those years prior.

Over the next two days, the weather improved and we would spend time roaming the track, watching the Morgans, the Ford GTs and GT40s, the Ferraris, Porsches and so many other fascinating cars make lap after lap around the track. There simply wasn't a bad vantage point. Race photographers didn't gather in one media area, they moved about various places around the track as did I with my once "big" lens that seemed to shrink in the presence of the pros and their monstrous lenses.

That was the "Road" of Road America, and I could go on for days about the collection of cars. Things I'd only read about and seen in photos were there for me to admire, photograph and admire some more. Car lovers beware, this place will take you in and not let go.

I might have been taken in by the sights, sounds and even smells, I didn't forget the tastes too. Those are up next...

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Cheese and Vintage Cars

My husband has always been a car nut, and unlike many other car guys, his enthusiasm hasn't been hampered by an anti-car wife. It's quite the opposite. Being married to him only encouraged my own interest in cars.

Being the car guy he is, my husband has been a faithful subscriber to Road & Track magazine for around 20 years or so. This means every time we've moved the collection of magazines has been migrated to its next home. Considering that every month the number expands, I don't relish the next move. Though I do think it might be a strong motivator for hiring a moving company.

For years we've read about the vintage races in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin at Road America. The Road & Track Concourse d'Elegance showing off all the classic Jaguar E-types, the old Astons, the Morgans... it sounds like a little slice of heaven on earth for the gas powered engine obsessed. After reading about this event for so long, this spring we finally connected with friends who've been going to the races for a number of years and they invited us along. How could we say no?

Thankfully we didn't say no and just a few weeks ago made the trip northward to Wisconsin. After a short overnight stay in Illinois on the way at a typical interstate-side "bland box" hotel we met up with our friends and headed toward the land of cheese and cars. On the way I couldn't decide which appealed more, the cars or the copious amounts of cheese I intended to consume. Whenever it came up conversation that we were traveling to Wisconsin for vacation, I was met with these puzzled looks almost always followed by "What's in Wisconsin?" After about the seventh time I had an answer ready to go. "Vintage car races, along with lots of cheese and cooler weather." That seemed to satisfy even the beach-bound crowd.

After seeing the size of Elkhart Lake, I found out why our group had chosen a hotel in nearby Sheboygan. Elkhart Lake, population 1021, has a limited number of hotels that are very much catered to the weekend race crowd that comes in a few times a year. They're limited in quantity and for the most part priced from slightly above average to prices that would cover the cost of an economy car for a family of four.

Our hotel was a Sleep Inn, and it's the first time I have stayed in one of that chain. The rooms were typical of a basic room, with furniture that could use a bit of updating. Overall though, they were pretty spacious and had a vast expanse of desk space so it was easy to drop off the stuff we'd collect over the trip and leave it for organizing and attempting to cram into the car at the last minute.

My first morning in the hotel, I fumbled into the bathroom, half-awake. I crinkled my nose and coughed at overpowering smell of cigarette smoke. I know my husband pretty well and I felt pretty safe assuming that he hadn't slipped into the bathroom for a quick few puffs (he definitely does not smoke.) The front desk attendant explained to me that the hotel has an air system that circulates the air throughout the entire hotel on a set cycle. It was the "entire hotel" part that posed the problem; ten rooms on the top floor were smoking rooms, and despite our room being on the bottom floor, it still permeated the bathroom as though an employee took their smoke break in there. Supposedly I should have been thankful that our room wasn't above the pool, the chlorine smell was considerably potent in the 2nd floor rooms. Either way, I think its pretty inexcusable with a modern hotel and should be on the hotel owner's priority list of problem areas to fix post haste. Beyond this faux paux, the hotel had an adequate continental breakfast and an extraordinarily friendly staff that rivaled southern hotels in hospitality with their sincere willingness to help.

Next stop we're off to the races and I'll elaborate on my attempts to "OC" or over-cheese at dinner every night.