Snails never fail. The succulent escargots at Joey Gerard's.
Photo by Chris Kessler
Summer sausage is my Proustian madeleine.
The slices are stacked in a bowl on the three-tier Lazy Susan. I chew slowly, gazing absently at the palm frond-patterned carpet, reminiscing about long car rides years ago – while my father white-knuckled the steering wheel, my mother doled out sausage sandwiches from an insulated picnic basket, and we counted the out-of-state license plates on the highway.
That’s powerful stuff. The supper club, that defining dining establishment of the rural Midwest, thrives on nostalgia. Joey Gerard’s, has that in droves. The Greendale supper club run by Bartolotta Restaurant Group debuted in late August, followed by its twin in Mequon’s former Riversite. (The latter location should be serving brandy Old Fashioneds and steak Diane as you’re reading this.)
Joe B, or should I say Joey G – “Gerard” is owner Joe Bartolotta’s middle name – nailed the time warp down to the minutiae. Each table is given the obligatory relish tray (with Green Goddess dressing), a basket of Parker House rolls, and crackers and breadsticks wrapped in cellophane. Raw beef and onions, Merkt’s cheese balls and chicken Kiev are a few oldies that made the menu cut. That green, palm frond-patterned carpet supports the sprite steps of Bartolotta servers dressed in white coats and black ties. If there’s any doubt what era they’re conjuring, just eyeball the walls, adorned with black-and-white reprints of bouffanted and ducktailed Hollywood celebs. It makes me want to powder my nose in the little girls’ room.
Supper clubs of varying quality were part of my upbringing. Iceberg lettuce salads, Ma Baensch’s creamed herring (a holiday staple for my parents; avoided like bedtime by their offspring), deviled eggs, sardines, beef stroganoff. All were foods favored by my parents, who drank gin martinis and played bridge. It never occurred to me, at a tender age, that this was a style of cuisine, certainly not one worth repeating. But I have changed my tune. Was it the summer sausage? Maybe.
Baby boomer Joe Bartolotta donned his fedora for the launch last year of The Rumpus Room, a gastropub inspired by a bar his father owned in the late 1950s. He’s digging the midcentury vibe. And why shouldn’t he? I hear that once the volley of ideas for Joey G’s menu items began – broasted chicken to prime rib, the Saturday night special – the enthusiasm was downright contagious. I can feel that in the food. It’s fun and flecked with a “Mad Men”-fueled energy.
Let’s start with the relish tray. Sure, it’s just assorted crudités – carrot and celery sticks, black olives, radishes, and bread and butter pickle slices. It comes with a tart, tarragon-laced Green Goddess dressing. Simple, but it’s all in the details. And they are on that tray. The rotating Lazy Susan gets nice play on the menu. Of the four versions ($10.95-$18.50), the Badger is a ticket back to my childhood, fortified by pickled beets, smoked trout, deviled eggs, cubed cheddar and Gruyere, broccoli slaw and sliced marble rye bread. Oh, and Braunschweiger! Liver sausage on rye – that is the cat’s meow.
The apropos “Lazy” tray has a quelling effect. It is the ultimate appetizer. But it’s not the only one. If creamed chipped beef ($6.95) doesn’t flip your wig, the most lovely little shells should do it. A half-dozen escargots (snails) arrive ($9.95), scrumptiously nestled inside their shells, letting the garlic, parsley butter and breadcrumbs soak in. They’re delivered with their own tongs and two-tined fork, perfect for extracting the firm, springy snails from their spiral shells.
With the rich, bubbling-hot appeal of a casserole, the shrimp DeJonghe ($10.75) makes the basket of Parker House rolls extra useful. Once the firm, savory jumbo shrimp are gone, the dredges of crispy garlic breadcrumbs spiked with Dijon mustard cannot go to waste.
Somewhere in the kitchen sits a Josper oven, a stainless steel contraption that broils steaks, chicken and the like at a toasty 800 degrees. The servers crow about it in their spiel about the steaks, and it certainly created a dynamite, satisfyingly singy crust on a tender, well-seasoned filet mignon ($25.95). With a pat of blue cheese butter, it was killer-diller, as the cool cats would have said.
Tangy capers and lemon-white wine sauce send the veal into true piccata territory ($22.95). The tender, delicate cutlets are draped over a pile of sautéed spinach. It’s a relatively light dish compared to one of the best items on the menu – beef Wellington ($32.95). Sort of the Russian nesting doll of nostalgia dishes, this cocoon of puff pastry reveals a layer of liver paté, which leads to a hunk of tenderloin cooked on the well-done side, but still juicy and flavorful.
Once you enter the time warp, you sign yourself up for dessert. You’re full? Not a good excuse. I had Baker’s Square flashbacks from the pie of the day one evening – French silk ($5.95), a thin, flaky crust topped with a layer of chocolate mousse, then a layer of whipped cream. Perhaps better was the German chocolate cake, blanketed with gooey coconut frosting, which most know is what makes the cake ($5.95).
The Bartolottas have piled on extras – happy hour retro drink specials, family-style menus, nightly specials like liver and onions, and a Joey G’s persona that lives on not one but two sides of town. That’s a big investment in tradition. But tradition is right up a Milwaukeean’s sleeve.