Monday, May 10, 2010

Dining Out On The Lakefront


One must try very hard to find truly fine dining in northwest Indiana without crossing the Illinois border. I say that because maybe, maybe I have been jaded by having dined in the very finest establishments in Manhattan, Chicago, SoCal and San Francisco on business trips. The best part is that all those fine dinners were funded my employer and clients for over twenty years.

Saturday happened to be my Mom’s 80th birthday and Sunday was Mother’s Day. The family consensus weeks ago was to forgo the traditional Mother’s Day house party/cookout at one of our homes and gather at a local restaurant on Saturday afternoon instead. Mother’s Day would be just another Sunday this year and Saturday would be the special day. I’m good with that.

The chosen establishment was the same place we celebrated Dad’s 80th birthday last July called The Lighthouse. It’s was recently built from the ground up as a full service restaurant and banquet facility in what was (in my book) a dead resort area located about 60 miles south of Chicago known as Cedar Lake, IN.

Cedar Lake is a large cut off pan shaped lake with a consistent depth of 5-15’ and no subsurface structure other than weedlines. The shoreline is mixed, some level land with many hills surrounding it, beyond that all is beans and corn. The lake was a remote resort playground in the early 1900’s for wealthy professionals and industrialists. It was a place where a day of boating, sailing and swimming at a private lakeside resort area were simple pleasures in life that were well out of reach for most working families who were restricted by urban public transportation.

In my early high school years I had spent some time in Cedar Lake. My girlfriend Mayrann’s family owned one of those small private lakeside cottages. Her dad was the wealthy owner of a foundry and their full-time residence in my hometown of Munster IN was a considered a mansion, complete with a five car garage. Their summer cottage on Cedar Lake was just the opposite, a modest four-room structure with a walk-out basement built into a hillside with an enclosed boathouse on the lake. They had all the fun water toys to go with it.

Cedar Lake in the late 60’s gained the reputation of being quite polluted. The proliferation of small cottages and even full-time residences near the lake created a sewage problem, big time. With no sewers and thousands of leaky personal septic systems the lake absorbed human waste seepage. Because Cedar Lake was shallow without any inlet or outlet and no artisan spring to feed it the lake literally became a stagnant sh!thole.

Eventually the wealthy weekenders went away, property values plummeted and a lower class of folks moved in. They were poor and had no regard for upkeep of their structures, outdoor landscaping or personal hygiene and didn’t seem to mind living on the polluted lake. Without any local government or homeowner organization to enforce sewage compliance it only became worse for the rural lake. For years nobody paid it any attention because there was a larger problem in the densely populated northern Lake County area where steel industries were closing, jobs were disappearing and urban blight was on the rise. Sad, but true.

Locals referred to the Cedar Lake area as “Cedartucky” or "Lake Minnisewer".

It’s a guess but a about a decade or so ago the lake community was outfitted with a centralized sewage system. Good luck, I thought.

A few years ago some nouveaux riche locals decided to invest heavily in Cedar Lake. Why not? A rural, somewhat secluded local resort lake within 60 miles of Chicago should be able to sustain regentrification if the pockets were deep enough. Soon, luxury condos sprung up and there were buyers. This one is a four unit condo building with each unit going for slightly over $350,000.

A wealthy local hotel and entertainment magnate built a few McMansions on the shore for himself and family. The lake was becoming attractive again. One problem remains, fancy luxury condos are accessible only after driving through the hold-out remnants of Cedartucky.

Old, small, unpainted shacks on tiny lots with overgrown vegetation still exist in relative abundance today. Think “Deliverance”…seriously! But it appears that Cedar Lake is probably a good investment should one desire a nearby resort lake to retreat to in the future. It can only get better.

I said all that so I could say this.

The Lighthouse Restaurant helps Cedar Lake regain respect as a resort attraction in a big way. I don’t do restaurant reviews here at LITGM so excuse me if my first attempt is a bit jaded.

After passing a few of those luxury condos and dilapidated shacks Lighthouse is a welcome sight on the lake. The nautical theme is not overdone as New England Red Lobster cliché but that of a Midwestern resort lake close to the urban sprawl similar to Lake Geneva to the north in WI.

There’s a lot of teak and a bar shaped like an old wooden ChrisCraft inboard runabout. The theme highlights these old runabouts from the 50's. Historical photos occupy space on the bright walls with tall ceilings. The entrance is inviting with a small waiting area but our 4pm reservations got us in before the diner rush. Still, the place was full and considering they seat 200 that’s a healthy mid-day crowd for any restaurant even on a Saturday.

It’s busy, hectic and loud. This is desirable by some yet avoided by others. For me, I prefer an environment that feels busy when I dine out. Crowds I generally avoid but it feels better knowing others are there because something must be good.

We were seated on the far western side at a table for ten. Lighthouse was smart by building on the eastern shore where a large floor to ceiling window room faced west to the sunset over the lake. Looking outside on a blustery but sunny afternoon we could have been anywhere but Cedartucky. I had a healthy Bombay Sapphire Gibson or two served in a manly, large v-shaped glass, not a martini glass. Works for me. They do offer those trendy drinks ending in “tini” but are anything but a true martini. These days it’s all about the vessel. It's a chick thing.

The menu is traditional with steaks, seafood and chicken. The appetizers were typical bar food kicked up barely a notch. Nothing was special about the apps but they didn’t disappoint either. I made a special attempt to avoid eating too much especially the outstanding warm crusty sourdough bread. My middle may be large but I simply cannot consume the same amounts as before. The after-dinner bloat isn’t worth it anymore.

Some entrees were also offered as “encrusted”. A 12 oz strip steak was encrusted with parmesan, the walleye was encrusted with macadamia nuts. It is what it is. I ordered the traditional 8oz. filet not violated by being encrusted with anything and served alone on a scalding hot white ceramic plate.

My thick 8oz. filet was perfect, just above cold in the center, almost bleeding. This was definitely prime, not choice. It was tender and flavorful as I sliced a few pieces and by resting them flat on the hot plate they continued to cook up to medium rare so slices could be shared with others for a taste. My son’s walleye was good, but the encrusted macadamia nut coating overshadowed the delicate taste of walleye to me. My French fries were a big disappointment. They were nothing more than food service frozen fast food style fries. If they were serous the fries would have been fresh cut and served bistro style with some skin after being fried in a mixture of oil and beef renderings. That would have been a better compliment my prime cut of steak and may have nudged my meal into the fine dining arena.

The prices weren’t out of line at all. My steak was nearly half the price for the same cut served in Chicago chop house joints. The atmosphere was busy, and it has been my experience that restaurants deliver the best product when they are pressured with business although more mistakes occur at that time. If The Lighthouse chef paid more attention to deliver better quality apps and sides I would call this experience very close to fine dining since the meat was awesome. Then again, it’s all about the meat to me.

All in all, The Lighthouse is a very nice place to dine out in northwest Indiana, better than most. My parents, siblings and offspring thoroughly enjoyed it. This new restaurant is a great way to draw people unfamiliar with Cedar Lake into the area for a look see and that I am sure is the intent. I predict success.

I recommend The Lighthouse Restaurant with 2.5 of 4 stars. But remember, I’m jaded.


Dan from Madison said...

Cool, I am going to slap this under the product endorsement category as well. Nice writeup and you are correct, it really is all about the meat.

Did anyone order a ribeye and did they look good?

Paula said...

Jerry at a person from Cedar Lake most of my life and now a local Realtor here I would like to say Thank you for your thoughts. This is a wonderful writing.

Hope you had a great visit here and will come back often

Paula Reno
Astro Relaty

Gerry from Valpo said...

No ribeye on the menu Dan. If there was I would avoid it since the portion would be too large (anything over 8oz.) for me.

You're welcome Paula. It's nice to know that as a native you had no disagreement with my historical perspective. Good luck to you and Cedar Lake. We'll be back.

Chris from Colorado said...

I learned how to sail on Cedar Lake. My Dad's friend built 6 or so 12 foot sailboats, complete with a main sail and a jib. We got one of them. Many a Saturday was spent on that lake. After my Dad had enough confidence in me, I was allowed to go out solo.

I do remember the water not being very clear, but I had no idea it bottomed out at only 15 feet.

Anonymous said...

Never heard anyone refer to it as Lake Minnisewer and I've lived here my whole life. That's completely untrue. Although that's hysterical, some of the residents get very mad when people make fun of the town. Also, the majority of people here have good hygiene. Just because some don't have the means to buy nice clothes doesn't mean they don't shower. You don't have to pay for well water. Don't get me wrong, I do know some dirt buckets. It seems like they mostly reside in the north east side of the town where all the cottages and hotels use to be. From the light house to Hunleys along the lake. Fortunately they have been gutting a lot of homes and the views are getting much more pleasent.

Anonymous said...

Next time don't get the fries. They have the best garlic mashed potatoes. My mouth is watering as we speak(or type) and the sirloin was surprisingly impressive. Tastes as good as the fillet for half the price. I was shocked. My dad got a t, and said my sirloin was way better. When it comes to meat, Mr royal fattness is a pro.