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Ole Lake George Retreat
*** 1/2
Out of a possible five

Catch a great fillet at lakeside retreat

It was a fish I had never heard of before, and it was a fish I will not soon forget.

The specials sign at the Ole Lake George Retreat in Fremont said it was simply almond breaded whitefish. But it wasn’t cod or Pollock; it was panga. What is panga? Well, I did some research and found out it is a catfish from Southeast Asian rivers that is also called iridescent shark, Siamese shark or striped catfish.

What I did know right away is that this flaky, mild-tasting fish was one of the best almond-crusted fillets I have had in recent memory. There were slivers of crunchy nuts all over it and the mild breading made them the star. Although not on the menu, the special runs regularly though the summer, and the restaurant also breads tilapia the same way on occasion.

Although there is a lot of fish on the menu, a locally produced land animal provided me with two memorable dishes. The buffalo skewers appetizer and bison burger are made with buffalo meat from Fremont’s Wild Winds Buffalo Preserve.

The skewers held meatballs coated in a sweet barbecue-jelly glaze. They were still pink and medium rare, surprisingly juicy for such a lean meat and were mild in flavor – not at all gamey. The burger was about an inch thick and it was just as juicy as the meatballs. Its flavor was more pronounced than the skewers thanks to some Worcestershire sauce used to season the meat.

I couldn’t have gone wrong with french fries, steak fries or onion rings with that burger as all were prepared by hand. I liked the fresh-cut regular fries better than the steak fries – thinner and crispier, of course – but both fell behind the rings, which were sliced thin and had just the right amount of batter clinging to them. Steve Rodenbeck, who owns the restaurant with Jay Harshbarger, is proud of the way the double-dipping method of applying the batter allows the sweet onions to shine.

Rodenbeck was also pretty proud of the Retreat’s pizza crust, a recipe Harshbarger took from the old Alexander’s on State Boulevard in Fort Wayne. It was thin and cracker-crisp but still a bit chewy in places and was the perfect template for the Hawaiian pizza. It was topped with ham, mushroom, green pepper and just enough sweet, juicy pineapple to give it life since the sauce was rather nondescript.

Employee Carolyn Owens brings some of her family recipes to the place, namely her grandmother’s cheesecake. Made in an Oreo cookie crust, the cheesecake was whipped to be light and airy but still had that delectable rich cheesecake flavor. It was drenched in chocolate and raspberry syrup and could not have been better. Owens also makes the restaurant’s Key lime pie, which was a great second choice, and mixes in other varieties such as pumpkin, which is available now.

Besides the sweet stuff, Owens prepares the restaurant’s homemade salad dressings; of which, Rodenbeck said, the gorgonzola cheese is most popular. I really liked the sweet and sour dressing that came on the Retreat’s fabulous signature house salad – a bed of super-crisp greens was topped with apples, mandarin oranges, dried cranberries, pecans and creamy feta cheese.

Other items I enjoyed were the cod sampler, which featured broiled, beer-battered and breaded fillets and a fish taco, and the seafood-stuffed portabella. The flaky cod was covered in an Alfredo sauce that was even more rich and sinful than the usual pool of butter. The breaded cod was better than the battered, which was too heavy and overpowering, and the fish taco was just OK.

The only things I did not like were the daily special smothered steak and the pan-sautéed tilapia. The toppings for the rib-eye – baked shrimp, gorgonzola and white mushrooms – were tasty, but the steak was too fatty and tough. The tilapia in the “signature sun-dried tomato and garlic sauce” seemed healthy with little or no butter, but the garlic flavor was faint and the tomatoes were tough and chewy and added nothing.

The Retreat really doesn’t have the charming atmosphere most lakeside places have. It sits well off the water, there is no deck for al fresco dining and it doesn’t have big picture windows that make it easy to see how beautiful the glistening water is at sundown unless you are sitting right next to one. It is an old hotel that has been remodeled and added onto since it was built in 1902 with a rustic cottage feel, but it is more function than form in terms of design.

The service during both visits was stellar with employees who were knowledgeable and helpful in making suggestions. One server, however, was inappropriately dressed both times.

Restaurant: Ole Lake George Retreat

Address: 35 Lane 130A Lake George, Fremont

Phone: 260-833-2266

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Smoking status: Non-smoking

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Stuffed mushroom ($9.95), buffalo skewers ($5.95), bison burger ($8.95), tilapia ($12.95), Hawaiian pizza ($13.75 12-inch; $18.75 16-inch), desserts ($4.99)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net, and you can hear Ryan from 3 to 4 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.