By Sean P. Johnson
The annual Golden Fork Awards give our readers an opportunity to recognize and reward the chefs and restaurants creating great Fox Cities dining experiences. The ballots have been counted and the results are in. What FOX CITIES Magazine readers are rewarding this year are those culinary experiences that challenge their expectations for presentation, flavor and style. Congratulations to the restaurants that have emerged as favorites, and we look forward to the new dishes and combinations both winners and emerging challengers will treat us to in the coming months.
Fox Cities Food Culture Grows Bold
Beth Baer admits she’s a tough customer to please when it comes to dining out.
“The Usual” is not part of her repertoire, says the Menasha resident, who also has culinary school in her background. She seldom heads out just to grab a bite. Instead, she is always on the lookout for a unique dining experience.
“If I can make it at home, there’s no reason for me to go out,” says Baer, describing how she looks over a restaurant and its menu. “I’m looking for the wow factor. Show me something that I have not seen before.”
If the 2013 Golden Fork awards are any indication, the chefs and restaurants making up the Fox Cities dining scene are rising to the challenge. FOX CITIES Magazine readers gave the highest accolades to establishments daring to show culinary moxy by stretching the boundaries for taste, presentation and atmosphere.
Restaurants such as Carmella’s: an Italian Bistro(seven Golden Forks), Zuppas (four Golden Forks), The Kangaroost (Best New Restaurant) and Cena (Best Butting Edge Cuisine) were often described as “creative” or “unique” by readers casting ballots. Certainly, long time favorites such as Mary’s(Cooking Most Like Mom’s), George’s (Best Steak) and Fratello’s (Best Waterfront Dining) did well. The voting also revealed Neenah readers with strong loyalties to their local establishments, resulting in five taking home Golden Forks this year.
Yet, it was the restaurants willing to challenge diners with creative dishes while providing responsive service and a distinctive atmosphere that attracted the most attention.
“I think people are looking for something that will be of value, something that does not fall short of their expectations when they go out,” says Nicole DeFranza, co-owner of Carmella’s, which picked up its fourth consecutive Golden Fork for Best Overall Restaurant. “We have a lot more people coming to this area from other areas and we are seeing a much more diverse food culture develop.”
Which could certainly account for one of the up-and-comers that stood out in this year’s Golden Fork balloting. Osorios Latin Fusion finished as the runner-up in seven categories.The restaurant has been open less than a year.
Katie Unke, an Appleton resident who dines out at least once a week, was disappointed Osorios didn’t take home at least one of those Golden Forks.
“When I first went there, I was not quite sure what to expect,” says Unke. “They really like to experiment and it turns out great.”
Osorio co-owner Kim Finnell took the second place finishes in stride, citing more established competition. She attributes the restaurant’s rapid rise to the chef team’s ability to create thoughtful entrées, as well as diners’ willingness to try unfamiliar combinations.
“On a first visit, we see that folks like to play it safe a little bit,” she says. “On the next visit, we see they are willing to push the boundaries and try things.”
That emerging spirit of dining adventurism is what keeps restaurant owners, general managers and chefs constantly shopping for new ideas.
The team at Carmella’s always has one eye on the cooking shows and the other in cookbooks and magazines scouting for new ideas, DeFranza says. Often, great ideas come from visits to other restaurants when traveling.
“It could be a completely new idea, or something that sparks us to build in a dish we already have,” she says. “We are always looking.”
Those creations are just what diners such as Unke and Baer are searching for.
“We are starting to see some restaurant’s come up with some pretty diverse dishes,” says Baer. “We need more of that in the valley.”
Carmella’s: an Italian Bistro
The accolades keep piling up for Carmella’s: an Italian Bistro. For the fourth consecutive year, the Appleton eatery received the nod for Best Overall Restaurant in FOX CITIES Magazine’s 2013 Golden Fork Awards.
That tops a list of seven Golden Forks for 2013, one more than co-owners and sisters Nicole and Kristen DeFranza collected in 2012. Carmella’s continuing popularity validates the sisters’ vision of providing patrons a distinctive dining experience with the atmosphere and nuances you would expect sitting in their home kitchen.
“The menu is really unique,” says Katie Unke of Appleton, a regular visitor to Carmella’s. “The waitstaff is just amazing and they are really good at explaining what things are and how they go together.”
Nicole DeFranza also attributes the restaurant’s success to the passion and work ethic of the staff, from chefs to waitstaff to the owners themselves.
“We are a family that‘s really passionate about what we do,” DeFranza says. “That makes for better follow through in every facet of the restaurant.” It’s a passion that keeps them from getting complacent, she says.
Indeed, after the initial excitement of learning Carmella’s had won, DeFranza wanted to know the categories where Carmella’s finished second. Now, she has goals for 2014.
Best cutting-edge cuisine
The phrase “cutting edge” can mean a lot of different things. To Cena general manager Brian Leslie, cutting edge means having a dedicated bunch of people working for him and letting them do what they do best – create one-of-a-kind, unconventional dishes.
“I really go by the phrase, ‘he who manages least is he who manages best,’ ” Leslie says. “I worry about the price, but as far as the creative aspect, that goes to [head chef] Colton Roberts and his crew.”
Roberts takes traditional classics and tweaks them to add different influences and create original dishes, Leslie says. For instance, he will take the dark meat of a chicken and tea-smoke it, then mix it with gorgonzola cheese and spinach – something different from most traditional preparation. Chad Leder, a regular visitor, says the plates at the downtown Appleton restaurant always have a great presentation to them, and he enjoys the simple, intimate atmosphere and the quality of service.
“Though their menu is not extensive, the selections change seasonally and they use fresh, local ingredients in unique ways,” Leder says.
Best bar & grill
Greene’s Pour House
It’s not everyday you find a hangout your mother approves of.
Al Solowicz managed to find just the place in Greene’s Pour House, located in downtown Neenah. Whether it was the atmosphere, menu, courteous staff or the combination, Greene’s earned the rating “mother approved.”
It also earned the Neenah establishment the 2013 Golden Fork for Best Bar & Grille.
“I actually wish I could hang out there more,” Solowicz says. “We just have great experiences when we go there. The food is great and when you walk in you always see a familiar face.”
Owner Bobby Greene attributes the success of Greene’s to several things, from a menu more diverse than a traditional bar & grille to unique weekly specials. The bottom line, he says, is the award validates a simple principle: take care of the customer.
“My staff knows more than 80 percent of their customers by name,” Greene says. “We enjoy being here and getting to know them.”
Best new restaurant
The chefs behind the Fox Cities favorite food truck have settled into a permanent location, and local diners are loving it.
Though chasing the truck is a lunchtime thrill, owner Kelly
Barnes says Kangaroost can offer things Kangaroostaurant cannot: a place to sit, for starters, as well as plated fork and knife dishes as opposed to soups and sandwiches.
“We want the Kangaroost to feel like a place where people gather, not just to come and eat, but to have meetings, or catch up and get coffee,” Barnes says of the Kaukauna eatery.
Brunch is especially popular at the ‘Roost, scoring an additional Golden Fork for Best Brunch.
A dedication to creating homemade food from local ingredients also draws people to Kangaroost. It’s what brings fans like Geri Justinger back.
“Knowing where my food comes from is very important to me,” Justinger writes. “There are not a lot of restaurants in this area focused so keenly on local/fresh ingredients.”.
The winds blew in Weathervane’s favor as this new Menasha restaurant picked up the Golden Fork for Best Breakfast.
Owner Pat DuFrane attributes Weathervane’s success to a solid business plan, staff that go out of their way to give customers a pleasurable dining experience and a dedication to cooking with fresh, quality ingredients.
“I know I can’t do everything, so I stick with what I’m good at, which is breakfast and lunch,” DuFrane says.
Weathervane aficionado Liz Williams says that her whole family enjoys visiting the restaurant because it is a “complete experience”.
“The food is fresh and not processed tasting. You can tell that the food is cooked to order,” she explains.
To accommodate its growing population of adoring fans, Weathervane is expanding its space from 54 seats to 90, and adding a weekend breakfast buffet.
Best traditional pizza
Cranky Pat’s Pizzeria & Pub
Owner David Earle credits Cranky Pat’s 2013 Golden Fork for Best Traditional Pizza to doing what its always done: provide excellent product and the best service.
Located in Neenah, Cranky Pat’s has been a Fox Cities pizza favorite for close to sixty years.
What makes it stand out? Earle says, “Sticking to what we know: good quality.”
The pizza certainly reflects that quality, the atmosphere is friendly, and the live music adds a special touch.
Favorite hidden gem
Stone Cellar Brewpub
Stone Cellar Brewpub prides itself on using fresh, local and organic products.
That is what Tim Rhodes, culinary professional at Stone Cellar, says keeps loyal customers coming back.
The menu for the Appleton establishment reflects that mantra, featuring items from locally raised, grass fed beef burgers to lemon and asparagus ravioli from RP’s Pasta in Madison.
“It’s a great place to sit outside after a long day of work and enjoy a few of their specialty brews, says regular patron Emily Morehart. “The waitstaff is always responsive and friendly, the food is great, especially the pizza!”
Stone Cellar shares the Golden Fork for Favorite Hidden Gem with Basil Cafe.
Best asian food
GingeRootz Asian Grille
GingeRootz co-owner Doris Ng attributes this year’s Golden Fork for Best Asian to their variety of menu items and the good service behind them.
GingeRootz offers a wide selection of Asian cuisine, from customer favorite Crystal Shrimp the more recent addition of sushi.
“We offer a new spin with our signature roll,” says Ng.
A new spin on old favorites seems to be the theme of the food at GingeRootz, located on Ballard Road in Appleton. Each dish has notes of familiar favorites in Asian food, but with an unexpected touch that makes it stand out.
Best noodle dish
Basil Café, the sleeper hit of Fox Valley restaurants, received the 2013 Golden Fork for Best Noodle Dish, as well as sharing the Golden Fork for Favorite Hidden Gem.
From the outside, the gray, windowless building in Appleton gives no indication of the warmth, hospitality, and mouthwatering food waiting within. Yet everyday, adventurous new customers venture inside.
General Manager Larry Chomsisengphet says a commitment to quality sets Basil Café apart from other Asian restaurants in the area that may have a similar dish on on the menu.
“There are places that do pho and other noodle soups, but again, what sets us apart from everyone else who does it is how much love and time and effort goes into cooking our dishes,” Chomsisengphet explains. “So with our pho, we slow boil it for ten hours before we serve it everyday. We hope that the time and love and labor we put in shows in the food, the ambience, and everything else.”.
Best business lunch
Quick service and creative, high-qualify menu items have made Zuppa’s a favorite for the business crowd to grab a fast power lunch.
Peter Kuenzi, chef/owner of the Neenah restaurant, says they try to have fresh and new ingredients prepared each day for their menu.
“Basically, [if people come to eat] every day or a couple times a week, they would always have something new,” Kuenzi says.
Ben Gorges, a regular patron, says you don’t have to wait 30 minutes at a table to get your food, yet, it is not fast food.
“In the end, it is a great place to get in and out quickly while still having a meal you can be proud of,” Gorges says.
Best cup of coffee
Seth’s Coffee & Bake Shop
When it comes to the all-important morning jolt, Seth’s Coffee & Bake Shop in Little Chute stands at the top of the hill in the Fox Cities.
Winner of the Golden Fork for Best Cup of Coffee, Seth’s keeps customers coming back with the care it takes in every step leading up to that first sip, says owner Seth Lenz, from selecting quality beans to achieving the perfect water temperature for brewing.
It’s all about customer satisfaction.
“Our coffee-enthusiast customers are the one thing we couldn’t do all this without,” he says.
Rebecca Turchen, Sara Stein and Susannah Gilbert contributed to this story.