The resurrected restaurant’s lake perch po’ boy.
Photo by Chris Kessler
Madness prevails around Turner Hall. It’s a late-fall Saturday, the Milwaukee Bucks are due on their home court in a couple of hours, and the hungry masses are desperate for pregame fuel. Chaos begets chaos. Turns out there’s a dance competition at BMO Harris Bradley Center prior to the Bucks game, so the bar/restaurant is overrun with teens in sparkly leotards and eye makeup visible a mile away.
Every seat at the wraparound bar is occupied. Both dining rooms in this 1880s landmark – the high walls hung with tapestries and painted with murals – are packed. The waiting list is expanding; the service staff looks dazed and unprepared. Diners at the table next to mine rail on the manager about the wait time for food. As event-driven as it is, Turner Hall Restaurant – which reopened in late 2012 after two years on ice – turns tables as fast as any dining establishment near the arena. And to be sure, an hour or so later, the place is clearing out. Servers are scrambling to fetch checks and bus tables.
The gastro beer hall has to do better. Hopefully that will be the case once you’re reading this. In a perfect world, Turner would be the king of event-driven dining. Consider the changes. BMO Harris Bradley Center now runs the restaurant, which made extensive improvements: rebuilding the bar, restoring the woodwork, reupholstering the booths and replacing the light fixtures. In came veteran chef Thomas Peschong – who spent 22 years at Mequon’s The Riversite – to oversee the kitchen, known in the past for Friday-night fish fries. Peschong, who hasn’t worked Downtown since he was the chef at DKC’s Armadillo Grill (located near what’s now Buca di Beppo on Van Buren), nevertheless brings a calm, seasoned approach to the job. After serving 600 fish fries on a Friday within days of opening, he was focused on streamlining and honing. He expected to expand the kitchen staff, then about 20 strong. Peschong took over a mostly decided menu, and while it’s not the pheasant terrine and bacon-wrapped monkfish of his fine-dining days, he’s not giving it any less attention. I found improvements at each meal. The prices, too, are competitive and in line with nearby venues of its ilk.
The Cream City “squeekers,” as the menu calls them, are standard fried cheese curds ($8), except the curds themselves aren’t standard. They’re cheddar nuggets from Clock Shadow Creamery. Breaded and fried, they simply could have been better with more seasoning in the coating, and the accompanying tomato jam was just too sweet. Although more effort could have been put into how the slices were cut and presented, the Milwaukee Sampler ($12) felt completely at home in a beer hall. The stars of the plate – beyond the pickled vegetables, cornichons, coarse-grain mustard and crostini – are three sausages (that day, they were beerwurst, mild summer and pistachio-laden yachtwurst) and three Wisconsin cheeses.
Thin and crispy is how the menu describes its flatbreads ($9). I expect a light bite, less substantial than a pizza. But these move toward durable, on thicker-than-cracker crusts. My favorite layers white garlic sauce with Nueske’s bacon, SarVecchio cheese and caramelized onions.
Au poivre is the fancy name for coating something (generally meat) in peppercorns. It’s a classic burger preparation, and Turner masters it. But a medium-rare burger? The server said I couldn’t have anything rarer than medium, and yet when the burger came, topped with caramelized onion and folded into a telera roll, it was – hah! – medium-rare. The Third Street blue burger – which had almost as much thick-cut bacon and crumbled blue cheese as ground beef – had a terrific char-grilled flavor, but it was also (a not-asked-for) well-done ($10). On my last visit, the fries had lost their thick, flaccid trappings of an earlier meal to become crisp, well-seasoned frites.
Peschong hasn’t bestowed confidence yet on the handful of entrées, and truly, I wonder how many diners will order $22 filet mignon with herb-cognac butter? I have more confidence in the panko-crusted walleye ($17) – a beautiful, tender piece of fish – but I asked for more lemon and capers to amplify the flavor. The 60-year-old chef’s approach for a venue of this size (seating capacity is about 300) is to keep the menu small and slay diners with its quality. Early on, the menu is less focused than it could be, but there are few chefs as proficient as Peschong. A leader matched with a landmark.