Small though it is, Michigan's "Lost Peninsula" boasts two waterside restaurants, side by side, ostensibly as alike as the proverbial two peas in a pod: Webber's Restaurant and the River Cafe & Marina. Both have docks and decks on the broad lower reach of the Ottawa River; both front on Edgewater Drive; both offer predominantly, but not exclusively, seafood meals, and both count largely on warm-weather customers, closing for extended periods during the winter months.
Webber's was reviewed two weeks ago, and today, with summer just around the corner, it's time to tell you about the River Cafe. After all, it makes sense to be familiar with both, for if the wait at Webber's is too long, you can always try next door, and vice-versa.
The seafood offerings on the River Cafe menu include basic lake fish: whole pickerel when available, broiled or breaded and deep-fried (the broiled is certainly preferable) and laced with a lemony sauce. Pickerel fillet is regularly available, again prepared as you wish. And, of course, fresh lake perch figures prominently among the dinners, though if you're not very hungry, the perch sandwich - fried fillets with tomato and lettuce on a kaiser bun - is a real bargain.
Missing from the table-top menu (it's a paper place mat as well) is the whitefish for which the cold waters of Lake Superior are famous, but it does appear among the chalkboard specials so often as to almost be a regular entree. Do pay attention to that chalkboard by the hostess station, by the way, for some attractive variations. One recent evening it was a rainbow trout, delicious even though a bit too intensely grilled.
Seafood comes from salt water as well. Along with those offerings that appear among the specials, there's a "New England bucket," literally a heavy bucket for one or two, filled with a delightful mix of rock lobster tails, king crab legs from Alaska, and mussels, along with tender red skin potatoes and corn on cut-down cobs. The menu also suggests shrimp and frog legs, and among the appetizers, king crab, oysters, and mussels.
Speaking of appetizers, there's bacon-wrapped shrimp with a bit of pineapple thrown in, but a real winner is the generous serving of quartered hearts of artichoke, breaded and deep fried, that are served with a ranch dip that's a perfect match.
Red meat eaters need not be reluctant to share a River Cafe dinner with seafood fans. On weekend evenings there's a hearty slab of tender standing rib, and if you're early enough maybe you can even get it rare; mine was a distinct medium. Another reservation concerned the horseradish, which was about as tame as you could ever find it. A New York strip, at either 12 or 16 ounces, is another alternative, as are pork chops. Again, the night the rainbow trout graced the list of specials, it was offered alongside a crown roast of pork, a fillet of tilapia, and lamb chops.
Still, a seafood kitchen is to be regarded warily when it comes to a dry-land entree, so to speak. Broiled breast of chicken with mushrooms and artichoke hearts, the menu said, was served in a light lemon-wine sauce. All the promised components were indeed on the plate, but the breast of chicken had been cut up (before or after broiling?) into half-inch cubes, far too dry to be resuscitated in the truly light sauce.
The bar is a separate but not a distant room, and the sounds of TV athletic contests as well as boisterous hail-fellow conversation along the winding bar tend to lap over into the principal dining room. Is the River Cafe a watering hole with a mildly ambitious kitchen or a restaurant with a popular sailors' bar? Only in summer, over dinner on the deck, is it plainly the latter.