If dining is more than mere eating, not just good food well prepared, but congenial service and a comfortable, attractive setting, then the Mon Ami on Catawba Island, east of Port Clinton, clearly ranks among the area's winners.
The dining room is genuine, a gracious survivor from a past age. The rough fieldstone walls are not mere cosmetic veneer, and the massive ceiling beams really hold up the loft and the roof above that.
The building was built by 19th-century grape growers to house their co-op winery and, except for the Prohibition era, it has been associated with Erie Island wines ever since. A warm, welcoming place at any time of the year, its cheerful sparkle of seasonal lights and decorations lends a special charm on a December nightfall.
During the busy summer, many of the waitstaff are college students, earning the next year's tuition. But as classes resume, they leave servers who are a trifle less energetic, perhaps, but mature and experienced. That's the time, too, when you're not likely to need a reservation; the big dining rooms and big kitchen are equal to a good many guests. Yet in my experience, winter or summer, there's never the least hint of urgency to eat up and move on.
With an arm of Lake Erie down at the end of the road - Catawba Island is not quite a real island, but almost - you might expect that the Mon Ami would be primarily a seafood restaurant, but it's not. It's true that among the “Mon Ami Favorites” you'll see a fillet of Lake Erie walleye, sauteed, broiled, or - heaven forbid! - fried, and Lake Erie perch done in any of the same ways. But the menu-writer is stretching a point when the walleye is introduced as fresh, and the perch as freshly caught. According to the Rohr Fish Corp., there is still no commercial fishing in Lake Erie, and trucks still take time crossing at the Detroit Tunnel or Bridge. Even if it takes an extra day to get the fish to the restaurant, I've always found Mon Ami lake fish prepared with a real understanding of how to do it.
Among the house specialties are a plate of sauteed tenderloin tips, two sizes of prime rib, as well as a 10-ounce New York strip and a sizeable filet mignon. I can vouch with enthusiasm for the way the prime rib comes off the roast halfway down the rib. In fact, five of the eight house favorites are beef.
Other entrees include half a roasted duckling and two breast of chicken dinners, one of them listed under “healthy choices.”
Perhaps because a slower season leaves the kitchen crew more leisure, the Mon Ami typically offers four special dinners, not one or two, as other restaurants frequently do. One night, the specials were scallops, spare ribs, a bone-in filet, and salmon. I chose the ribs, though all four, as well as the menu listings, were tempting. The ribs were less than ideal: not very meaty - only partly the kitchen's fault - and so overgrilled as to be dry, and indeed almost brittle on the surface.
All the same, balancing the positives - the dining room, the service, the quiet, get-away-from-it-all setting - against a few kitchen shortcomings, I'll still call the Mon Ami a very good place to eat.
To find the Mon Ami, exit State Rt. 2 onto the State Rt. 53/Catawba Island exit. About a half-mile past the second light, a conspicuous road's-edge sign on the left marks the turn into Wine Cellar Road. From there you can't miss it.
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