Dining          Events          A&E          Style          The Daily Mil          Blogs          Photos          Guides          Magazine
Dancing with Wolves
With a somewhat esoteric name, the successor to the old Roots Restaurant goes from inventive “ta-da” dining to casual, simple grazing fare in a mere six weeks.

Wolf Peach's wood-roasted salmon.
Photo by Chris Kessler

It’s not often that a restaurant name elicits an explanation longer than a paragraph and touches on topics ranging from the Spanish explorer Cortez to werewolves and witches. The tale of the restaurant opening is much simpler.

In mid-September, Roots Restaurant and Cellar called it quits. It seemed out of the blue, but things had been brewing for a while. Once the farm-driven concept went belly-up, the building’s owner, Tim Dixon, stepped in and staunched the bleeding with a new concept, keeping chef Dan Jacobs and most of the staff. Dixon settled on a cuisine in sync with the new 6,000-pound wood-burning oven installed on the northeast side of the restaurant. Rustic, roasted cuisine, much of it small-plate-style (most in the $10s and under). All it needed was a name to wrap it all up with a bright red bow. Something as catchy as … Wolf Peach.  

You Say Tomato
Wolf Peach gets its name from the tomato, but where does it get its food?
German folklore contains tales of witches using tomatoes to make werewolves. “Wolf peach” is the English translation for a German word for tomato (wolfpfirsich). Cortez brought tomato seeds back to Europe during the early 1500s, although Renaissance botanists apparently misidentified the fruit as a member of the poisonous nightshade family.

Dixon turned his concept around in six weeks, reopening shortly after Halloween – which jibed nicely with the magical tone of the lore. The biggest change from an interior standpoint is the oven. Dixon had this dominant contraption installed next to the kitchen, which also was opened up to offer a better view of the chefs’ work. The liquor bar was originally plopped in the middle of the dining room. It’s been moved next to the oven and kitchen, so not only can you drink with your cronies, you have the warmth of the oven and synergy with the barkeeps and kitchen hounds.

Roots didn’t quite have that – at least Dixon doesn’t think so. He believes it had evolved into a special-occasion place. He was attracted to the idea of a “casual, interactive meal,” which leads to “selling more booze,” as he puts it. The small plates that define Wolf Peach’s menu and the tables with heavy, soft-leather upholstery might just do that – encourage people to linger and keep the bill mounting. Tables of varying sizes – including communal stammtisch master tables – were added to both restaurant levels. There were more changes, too: crystal-like chandeliers, darker walls hung with canvases commissioned from local artists, and mismatched flea-market plateware.

Neither Dixon nor chef Jacobs wanted to lose Roots’ connection to local ingredients, its near-constant fluctuation of menu items and overall from-scratch approach. Because there are no courses, per se, it frees up the chefs, servers and diners to think of a meal as free-flowing. Order what sounds appealing, but don’t worry about its order. It will meet you the moment it’s ready. Jacobs built the three menus – lunch, dinner and brunch (offered Saturdays and Sundays) – with the bearing of someone who doesn’t cook to impress, just feed others well. He has said from the beginning that Wolf Peach would not be a pizza place. The irony is that putting in a wood-burning oven that bakes chewy, amoeba-shaped crusts with killer charred, pillowy edges builds an audience for rustic European pizzas ($8-$13). And when you see a pie pulled from a little cave of fire with a foot-long wooden paddle, it makes you want to queue up for your own taste of rustic Ee-taly.

But Wolf Peach is a mixed breed. It’s not Italian. It’s definitely not German. Dixon talks about simple, peasant-style food conducive to the alcoholic beverage. This is it. While lunchtime is the straightforward path of sandwiches, salads and pizzas, dinner takes a few swervy turns. Bone marrow, for instance. Not expected, especially in the form of a handful of large femur bones piled alongside caramelized onions and hunks of homemade, herb-brushed focaccia, sourdough and a crusty whole-grain bread ($8). As a spread, marrow has the pasty consistency of Crisco and a sweet, nutty flavor like nothing else. To some, it’s an acquired taste, a dense, somewhat underappreciated food. Interesting, and served in this form, there is plenty of the bone tissue to go around. 

A salad could come at any point in the meal. I like the way kale is combined in a fresh green salad – not sautéed and served in a wilted state. Raw kale is crisp and very firm, delectably unexpectedly tossed with sliced radish, beets and toasted cashews in a lime vinaigrette ($9). This is what a winter salad should be.

Not without fawning, I mention the squash mezzaluna – al dente squash-filled raviolis topped with blue cheese, walnuts and warm oil ($12). It’s the sun breaking from the clouds after relentless overcast.

How could you not follow this with a pizza? That is full-on sunshine. Really, the pizzas are sterling – the best, it seems to me, is topped with homemade lamb sausage, goat cheese, leek, fennel and scallions ($13). When the oil from the sausage dribbles onto the plate, you’ll find a scrap of anything – bread crust, an index finger – to scoop it up.

When the menu ventures into large plates, it does so without too much fuss. Just lots of flavor. The wood-roasted, tomato-glazed salmon is a medium-rare filet, fleshy, pink and almost creamy inside, served over a stew of cooked beluga lentils ($22). The top of the fish is drizzled with a thin, garlic emulsion, with barely a trace of pungency. Another large plate is much louder – chicken breast and thigh meet a link of rich, oily lamb sausage in an unexpected paprikash. The sharp, acute effect of the paprika-laced red pepper sauce helps soften the chicken, breaded and a trifle dry ($20).

Owner Dixon says he thinks diners are shying away from bombastic, break-the-bank dinners and gravitating to this more grazing style of eating out. It’s an interesting comment from the developer of the Iron Horse Hotel, home of the substantial, not inexpensive Smyth Restaurant. But he turned a shuttered space around quickly, without dumping the staff. Sure, it’s about turning a profit. But I’ll drink – and eat wood-roasted pizza – to that.

You must login to post a comment. Login or Register

MOST Viewed
Milwaukee's Best
POSTED 5/6/2014

School of Sauce
POSTED 4/2/2014

The Color Purple
POSTED 6/17/2014

MOST Commented
Milwaukee's Best
POSTED 5/6/2014

Trial By Curry
POSTED 4/2/2014