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Harbor Inn deck
Perhaps the best view offered from any restaurant in our area, the Harbor Inn overlooks the West Lake.
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Harbor lobster crepe
The lobster crepe appetizer
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Harbor wedge salad
Unique wedge salad
By Jim MacQueen, Food & Wine Editor
I first discovered the Olde Harbor Inn in our Portage Lakes District about 20 years ago. There are a lot of reasons why it became one of my favorites, not the least of which is that it offers by far the best dining room view of any restaurant in our area. In addition, it is really 3 or 4 restaurants in one. There is a formal fine dining seafood restaurant on the main floor, but there is also an informal bar and grille, a waterside Marina Bar & Grille that is somewhat pretentiously billed was the “Key West” of the north, and a private club, all of which are served by the same kitchen.
While I like going there for the view, the food has also been consistent and reliable. During those two decades, I am pretty sure the Harbor has had at least three owners. However, most of that time, the kitchen was run by Executive Chef Clayton Cundiff, who was a bit of an underground star in the area. Clay was very good with seafood, salad dressings, soups, and had an affinity for some unusual game dishes. He was one of the first to put some emphasis on presentations, and overall, I would rate his work on the fine dining aspect as very solid. Of course, the fact that he had to also turn out a burgers, chicken wings, and shrimp menu for the dockside bar and grille meant there were some compromises in the kitchen, but I can't find fault. The umbrella crowd got what they wanted, as did the white tablecloth people one floor above.
Recently, however, Cundiff has moved on, and the new Executive Chef is Michael Ferris. In fact, lots of changes over this past summer have seen Stephen Burroughs take over the ownership, and general manager Thom Davis also departing. I've made three visits since these changes, and the current menu is still built around Cundiff's recipes, although they are adding in some new dishes on an almost weekly basis. From my experiences, I would say that nothing has really changed so far as the quality of either the food or service is concerned.
One of my favorite appetizers remains on the menu, a lobster crepe filled with big chunks of shellfish, mushrooms, and a sweet corn sauce that provides just the right salty counter-point. A couple of other first rate appetizers are the mussels in tomato/garlic/basil/Chablis broth, and their own shrimp cocktail of butterflied poached shrimp with house made creole sauce. For those who like to make meals out of small plates, I also have tried the lamb “loli-chops” and the lobster rolls, a take on a traditional New England favorite.
Soups and salads include a lobster bisque, French onion soup, and a signature roasted eggplant/cream of mushroom, a nice twist on the iceberg wedge with white French dressing, a warm goat cheese with strawberries, a Caesar, and a wonderful Gorgonzola with mixed berried, candied walnuts, and a raspberry vinaigrette. The old Cundiff recipes kept the flavors very pure, and let the fresh, locally sourced ingredients shine through. I would say the new staff has a tendency to be a bit more heavy-handed on seasonings, but in some ways, I like a touch more salt, pepper, and sweetness.
Feeling adventurous, I tried the wild boar tenderloin, a carryover menu item which I wanted to taste again because I'm not sure the new chef will keep it. Boar can be a bit gamey, but I've always felt the balsamic, red peppers, and wild mushers played down this characteristic in this version. I also tried the double-bone pork chop, brined in molasses, and served with apple rum chutney and sweet potato fries. I think this is one of the two best dishes on the dinner menu, with the char-grilled pork countered by the sharply sweet chutney.
The other dish I really like here is on the seasonal menu, so it may be gone by now...char-grilled sea scallops served with pear-bacon-cabbage hash and brown butter spatzel. This is another one of those salty-sweet combinations that this kitchen seems to balance off so well. I also tried the excellent Yukon gold crusted walleye with roasted sweet corn sauce, but here I felt they actually did over-salt the sauce, and it over-powered the nutty fish. A bowl of shrimp linguine with garlic, chili flakes, fresh olive oil and house made pasta was full of flavors, and a bit of a hot kick at the end of every bite.
Since the Harbor Inn bills itself as a seafood restaurant, and was in fact named the best seafood restaurant in 2009, it is not surprising there are a number of other entrees built on sea bass, salmon, crab, lobster and trout. There are also a couple of tempting steaks, a roast chicken, and a duck breast offering. Several of these entrees are also offered on the value-priced lunch menu, along with a wide range of burgers, and a few more salads.
There are only a few desserts offered, but all of them are made in-house. Try the raspberry linzer tart or the Grand Marnier crème brulee. Chocolate lovers will prefer the chocolate polenta torte with both milk and white chocolate decorations.
The Olde Harbor Inn is located at 562 Portage Lakes Drive, on the north shore of the West Reservoir. There is plenty of parking directly in front, and across the street in a gravel lot. There are a lot of free boat docks down at the water's edge, which is one story down from the main dining room. The outdoor deck is open from mid-spring to very late summer. Here is a link to the restaurant's web site where you can keep track of seasonal offerings, entertainment, and special events: