It’s just food. He – or she – is just a chef. And you are just a diner. It’s all true, but behind many restaurant creations is intention – a soulful rendering that rings true and personal to the person who created it. Consider the words of Umami Moto’s Justin Carlisle. When he approaches a dish, whether a chowder (as you’ll find in this story) or a main course of salmon, it’s “all about flavor profiles for me. I close my eyes and get a picture in my head of what [this dish] is.”
Carlisle isn’t a traditionalist. He doesn’t particularly like the term molecular gastronomy. But aside from inventiveness, playfulness and intelligence, he brings an impressive level of food science to his cooking. And because he’s trying to get at the comfortable flavors and textures of a dish, in unexpected ways, the 33-year-old knows about satisfaction.
This is a story wholly centered on satisfaction. Perhaps more than any other time of year, we look well beyond the conception of food as fuel to dining that bolsters our souls, that finds the bull’s-eye of what-we-want-now-ness. Just as Umami’s Carlisle reaches for methods that surprise and gratify, even a fairly simple mac and cheese – from Walker’s Point’s cozy Triskele’s – shows a level of sophistication that raises it beyond ordinary. So rather than a been-there, eaten-that comfort food story, this is about local chefs dressing up comfort but keeping the tone right for rolling up your sleeves and hunkering down.
→Mystery is inherent in a serving of shepherd’s pie. Because the majority of it is buried inside a crock, a mountain cap of whipped potatoes keeping the shredded beef, carrots and peas contained ($12.95). Don’t doubt the power of the Dublin ’tude at County Clare (1234 N. Astor St.).
→The ordered look of Thomas Hauck’s plates runs counter to that typically messy, couch-potato feel of short ribs, the kind of dish to eat while wearing Sansabelt pants. Hauck brings symmetrical – and satisfying – order to his short ribs with parsnip puree, rutabaga and beets, candied shallots and bordelaise sauce ($26). An engagement to be had at c.1880 Restaurant (1100 S. First St.).
German Chocolate Pie
→You’d think Bay View’s Honeypie has done every kind-o’-pie in tarnation, given its name. But still, chief executive pie-maker Val Lucks finds more. Take the German chocolate pie, inspired by the 1950s-era cake. The flaky, fluted crust is a natural platform for the custard filling doctored up with chocolate, pecans and toasted coconut. Whole pie: $26. Slice: $4.50. (2643 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.)
Ravioli di Funghi
→A gilded Trump Tower may personify opulence, but it’s not edible. The next best thing is … the homemade mushroom-filled ravioli at Tenuta’s (2995 S. Clement Ave.). The palm-size, al dente pillows are piled beneath a sweet, smoky, rich-as-Donald Trump Marsala cream sauce brightened with spinach and sun-dried tomatoes ($16). Bellissimo.
→A powdery tingle of snow. A Crosby-Bowie duet. What are these day-boat (hand-caught) scallops doing to me? Setting center stage for a wintry mix of seared bivalve mollusks, squash puree, roasted Brussels sprouts, pickled apples and manically marbled Mangalitsa pork ($35), a trademark ingredient at Carnevor steakhouse (724 N. Milwaukee St.).
Portuguese Shellfish Stew and Maple Speck Toffee Pound Cake
→If Justin Aprahamian were a clothing designer, he’d be John Paul Gaultier tempered with a little Calvin Klein. The Sanford Restaurant chef de cuisine just doesn’t go the subtle route. Which is why his Portuguese shellfish stew ($34) is all fall hues, spiky edges and angles, shells, tails and sausage hunks bobbing to the spicy tomato-broth surface. After allowing yourself to stew, the beer baron of desserts calls in its most persuasive voice. The cake – infused with maple, toffee and speck (an Italian ham) – comes with a rhubarb preserve as well as bourbon and barrel (yes, as in wood) ice cream ($10). (1547 N. Jackson St.)
→Jan Kelly is doing a little thing she calls bison-stuffed poblano chile ($22). But the name hardly captures the blissed-out nature of this newbie offered at Meritage (5921 W. Vliet St.). The centerpiece – a roasted, cornmeal-crusted poblano pepper – is stuffed with bison carnitas, tomatillo sauce and Chihuahua cheese. Piled around it are the chilaquiles – tortilla strips cooked with bison chorizo, cheese and red sauce. Topped off with some queso fresco.
→Texture is everything in beer-cheese soup. You want thick. You want creamy. You want the name of this creation to ring true. What could be more Sconnie? 8-Twelve MVP Bar & Grill’s beer-cheese soup ($7) is more potatoey than cheesy (that’s fine!), studded with chopped carrots and onions. The Milwaukee touch is Riverwest Stein beer, which imparts a caramel maltiness. The final touch is a handful of toasty homemade
croutons. (17800 W. Blue Mound Rd.)
→If heat starts creeping up your neck upon the first spoonful of bouillabaisse, consider it the Provençal effect. Marseille, to be exact. Not just any shell-feesh stew, this classic – treated with the respect it so deserves at Tosa’s Le Rêve Patisserie & Café (7610 Harwood Ave.) – catches some rays with its saffron broth, speckled with fennel and garlic, not to mention prawn, mussels, scallops and other available seafood ($21.95).
→It’s wild all right – a square fortress of lasagna ($14) surrounded by a moat of Bolognese sauce. The server muscles this plate to the table, heaving a sigh as it lands on the place mat. Going in with a fork is no surgical maneuver. It spills clumpy ricotta, the chunky partnership of pork and veal, and sauce – a seemingly endless trench of beef Bolognese. Wild Earth Cucina Italiana (Potawatomi Bingo Casino, 1721 W. Canal St.).
Beef Short Rib Bourguignon
→A bourguignon pays tribute to the French region of Burgundy, known for its striking and spendy wines. The silky sauce of a bon bourguignon – beef stock, red wine, onions, mushrooms – should be as deep as the roots in a Burgundy vineyard. It is at Pastiche Bistro & Wine Bar (3001 S. Kinnckinnic Ave.), where monsieur Mike Engel pairs it with haricots vert and mashed potatoes ($21).
→You’ve seen one lobster chowder; you’ve definitely not seen Umami Moto’s (718 N. Milwaukee St.). Executive chef Justin Carlisle’s interpretation is off-the-charts different. The soup’s nuances are there – eloquent in flavor, succulent in texture. Just deconstructed when it arrives, parroting a sculpture from the Museum of Modern Art. Take in the contents of the bowl before the server pours in the broth. Cured shellfish, potato puree, freeze-dried corn, lobster consommé all artfully arranged ($9). A feat.
→Crazy Water’s looking more fly than ever. Why? Owner Peggy Magister repainted, replaced the light fixtures, reupholstered the chairs and refinished the wood tables. But she’s kept some things, too, including the mood-lifting Niman Ranch flat-iron steak with frico caldo (a libertine cake of wafer-thin sliced potato), blue cheese fritters and a port wine balsamic demi-glace ($26). (839 S. Second St.)
Venetian Mushroom Dumpling
→You know what a Venetian mushroom dumpling looks like? Not what you’d expect from the applicably named Odd Duck (2352 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.). And not something you’ll want to share. This savory bread puddinglike production benefits from maple syrup, wild mushrooms inside, and the butter and/or cheese served on top ($7).
→Family meals at … Hinterland? Pretty much nothing is off-limits for the enterprising chefs in this Third Ward gastropub. Eating, drinking and talking with friends while plates are passed is dining sans the chichi. Dan Van Rite and Paul Funk – executive chef and sous chef, respectively – have worked as private chefs at ranches where “80 percent of the meals were family-style,” Funk says. “I kind of miss that.” The Wednesday-night three-course family menu is offered for a minimum of four diners. (Reservations 24 hours in advance, please. $30-$50 each.) Part of a menu for December: roasted chestnut salad with cranberries and bulghur; house-made ciabatta with whipped Hinterland Luna stout pork butter; and a whole smoked duck with grilled Toscano kale and creamy chevre polenta, sautéed duck liver and maitake mushrooms (222 E. Erie St., Suite 100).
→Butter chicken (aka, murgh makhani) delights by the mere name. But this is no butter-drenched dish. The sunrise-colored sauce owes its supreme smoothness to a mélange of tomato sauce, yogurt or cream, and butter. Then there’s the complex thread of spices, a prominent showing coming from the C’s of the alphabet – cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, chile. Found in delectable form, basmati rice included ($13), at May-ura Indian Restaurant (1958 N. Farwell Ave.).
Baked Mac and Cheese
→The best part of mac and cheese? The crusty bits on top ($12.50-$16.50). Because it needs crusty bits. Triskele’s (1801 S. Third St.) version has plenty of them – golden toasty breadcrumbs scattered across the top of a nest of noodles covered in a winter mantle of creamy gluttony. You make it all the richer by choosing up to three kinds of cheese – goat, Gorgonzola and aged cheddar. (All three, I say!) Extra protein? It’s up for grabs. Opt for chicken breast or Polish sausage.
Caramel Apple Bread Pudding
→History is kind to bread pudding, a dessert cobbled together centuries ago by a thrifty cook. Pastry chef Kurt Fogle’s flair for weaving flavors makes an entrance on a modern, white serving plate. His apple bread pudding – served at Ryan Braun’s Graffito (102 N. Water St.) – is not the stuff of old English cookery books. The spongy creation suits the season with a simple, not-treacley sweet cider caramel sauce and dense mascarpone ice cream ($6). Luscious.
Strozzapreti With Wild Boar
→Chef Thi Cao combines the delicate, curvy pasta called strozzapreti (Italian for – oy! – “priest strangler”) with a spicy, cinnamon-laced wild boar ragu for this chill-banishing chap ($23). At Buckley’s Restaurant and Bar (801 N. Cass St.).
→A few months ago, Center Street BBQ man Darnell Ashley took his smoky, down-home, southern-fried lovefest to Walker’s Point, where the chicken, fried corn on the cob, mac and cheese, and other sides are doing real fine, thank you very much ($8.99 entrée with two sides). The proof is at Ashley’s Que (124 W. National Ave.).
→Leave a salad out of this compendium? By loose-leaf lettuce, it can’t happen. At centro café, A.J. Dixon tosses autumn-cum-winter into a mess of greens – with dried fruits, shaved fennel, prosciutto and pumpkin seeds – and turns it on full blast with a fig balsamic dressing ($8.50). Take that, winter. (808 E. Center St.)
Boudin Blanc Sausage
→Andouille is perhaps the best-known sausage from ’ousiana, but it’s definitely not the only one. Boudin blanc is a white pork sausage popular in Cajun country. Dave Swanson, whose Braise Restaurant (1101 S. Second St.) menu changes frequently and energetically, is serving his boudin blanc sausage with duck confit potatoes, pickled peaches and cumin dressing ($24-$28). The Cajuns just might be impressed.
→Who’s supper-clubbing tonight? Let’s have a show of hands. Pretty much everything on the menu at Joey Gerard’s is comfort. It’s the defining characteristic of the club. But pressed, I boldly reach for the pan-fried perch with buttered red potatoes ($17.95). Look around the room. Lots of people are thinking likewise (5601 Broad St., Greendale; 11120 Cedarburg Rd., Mequon).
Ouef Mollet Avec Champignons Truffe
→When an egg is soft-cooked in France, it is called oeuf mollet. When the delicate eggs are dipped in crumbs and fried, served with sautéed mushrooms, truffle vinaigrette and crunchy frisee, it is a salad of supreme richness ($14). And a dish I’d eat every day at Lake Park Bistro (3133 E. Newberry Blvd.).
Gingerbread Mousse and Malted Black Forest
→Former Distil chef Matt Haase wears the chapeau of pastry maker at Tosa’s Rocket Baby Bakery (6822 W. North Ave.), where his clever craftsmanship is most beguilingly on display in the regalia rocketing out of the glass shelves – a mousse-pudding-marmalade creation with all the flavors of fall-winter. Pumpkin, cranberry, gingerbread, orange. But wait … there’s also this – a black forest bomb of beauty made of malt crémeux, almond dacquoise, cherry gelée and black forest mousse. ($5 each). Available in limited quantities. Come early.
→The basic riff of jambalaya isn’t lost in a vegetarian version. No sir. The Louisiana Creole origin is still apparent in this rice dish flecked with onions, green peppers and tomatoes. Some cayenne mixed with thyme, garlic and black pepper present the kick. Going meatless is as easy as smoked tofu, spinach, red beans and pecans ($13.95). The place to find it: Maxie’s Southern Comfort (6732 W. Fairview Ave.).
→Coquette Café’s bacon-
wrapped, Strauss veal meatloaf ($18.95) is as good a meatloaf as you can get. The delicate, finely ground veal absorbs the smoky, assertive bacon. A reasonably light porcini mushroom sauce binds the loaf and garlic mashed potatoes. The déjà vu might sink in now, too. The loaf is a longtime staple of the Third Ward French bistro (316 N. Milwaukee St.).
→Pork goulash is a vehicle for deep-red paprika, lending heat and a complex, sometimes sweet flavor. La Merenda chef/owner Peter Sandroni generates heat through a furnace of pork goulash, the pork supplied by Wisconsin’s Maple Creek Farm. It gets the German treatment, served with pickled red cabbage and potato dumplings ($9). (125 E. National Ave.)