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Where to Eat Now
Step out of that comfort zone. From local staples to area newcomers, these 25 restaurants are pushing boundaries, embracing darn good and often innovative cuisine.
Photo by Chris Kessler

A Cream city corner, the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower visible from the threshold. Diners thread inside the door. A breeze of clingy dresses, dandy bow ties and crisp button-down shirts whistles past. The excitement, visible in their eyes, is mirrored by the hostess.

Braise Restaurant is the new toy, the Walker’s Point establishment that’s caught the sunlight of a mild spring day. Does it direct or reflect what diners want? I’d say both.

Braise’s slow food mantra is on the radar. But the topically relevant cuisine is not its only allure. Restaurateurs pondering Walker’s Point as a model of (early) success in a gritty, urban neighborhood – Second Street, in particular – will find encouragement. Not that there aren’t other businesses with deeper roots than Braise – the ghostly glowing storefront of Shaker’s Cigar Bar, the behind-the-bar cooking wizardry of Crazy Water. The street is a diverse continuum of offbeat bars and restaurants, rounded out by commercial ventures in tattooing, yoga, upscale kitchen fixtures, carpeting and artisan chocolates, among other rogue enterprises.

Back on the front stoop of Braise in late winter, you can almost make out the new “radically green” Clock Shadow Building several blocks south. Beyond environmental efficiency, it houses a cheese factory and the retail shop for Milwaukee-born Purple Door Ice Cream. It’s a neighborhood in transition, the glorified grit before the gentrification. What better entry is there to a story that extols local restaurants than an evolving neighborhood? Dig in.

Butcher Blocks
Some of the best dishes are coming from restaurant kitchens that butcher their meat in-house.

Hinterland Erie Gastropub
Paul Funk has never participated in the slaughter of a pig. In 2002, the Racine native left the Midwest for Colorado, then headed to Wyoming and short stints in the south of France and Florence, Italy. But the opportunities offered in Wyoming stuck with him. They were in restaurant kitchens committed to food gathering in its most basic forms – gardens, pigpens and pastures.

Two years ago, Funk arrived in Milwaukee looking for work but didn’t cast his net wide. “There were basically two restaurants on the list,” he recalls. One was Hinterland, and he haunted the bar (he says) until they agreed to hire him. Funk, now 32, was initially brought on for a finite period of time, but his skills and enterprising nature helped turn a monthlong gig into a full-time job. His agility – not to mention zealousness – with the knife led to his current position as Hinterland’s resident butcher.

Funk, who handles all things charcuterie at Hinterland, is among an elite group of local chefs doing in-house butchering to not only use the straightforward “choice” cuts, but everything else as well, making sausages, pâtés, rillettes (which bear a resemblance to pâté), head cheese and cured meats.

“Contemporary American” is the vague umbrella term for the Hinterland kitchen’s craft, yet it doesn’t do justice to the game and fresh fish (sensitively and skillfully handled), the seasonal stashes of goods (ramps to asparagus to verpa, similar to morel mushrooms), and a growing list of things that originate in the whole pigs they buy from Wisconsin farms. The catalog of creations that the spoils go to includes hot dogs and brats, porchetta (boneless pork roast), English pork pies, pork chops, scrapple made from the kidneys, noodles from the skin, fat for gnocchi and so on. Wasting it would be incongruous and disrespectful to both the animal and the person who raised it.

Proponents of in-house butchering argue that it’s cheaper in the long run for the restaurant to buy whole, but only if the chefs are proficient at breaking down the animal. Hinterland would like to expand the restaurant’s butchering to lamb and beef, executive chef Dan Van Rite says, but the size of the kitchen places limits. You wouldn’t know it looking at the menu, which is reprinted often. Recent awesomeness: wood-fire grilled elk New York strip steak with beluga lentils, maitake mushrooms and huckleberry reduction; and Oregon steelhead with fiddlehead ferns and grilled spring onions. Entrées $30-$43. (222 E. Erie St., Suite 100, 414-727-9300)

Sanford Restaurant
Every few weeks, the chefs at Sanford have a delivery that unites them for a pragmatic purpose. The lamb carcass in their care comes from Delavan-based Pinn-Oak Ridge Farms, whose animals are raised on a grain-based diet devoid of hormones and antibiotics. Chef de cuisine Justin Aprahamian is ready with his boning knife, meat saw and cleaver. It’s the time for skill and efficiency, not creativity.

First, Aprahamian and his sous chefs break down “the primals” (back legs and shoulders) from the carcass, which is already, hauntingly, missing its head. From there, they turn to the delicate task of removing the meat from the neck. The steps continue until every part is extracted and set aside for a specific purpose at the restaurant. Aprahamian uses the ribs and belly on a recent tasting menu. Meat from the neck is cured to make coppa, a heady cold cut similar to prosciutto. The lamb shanks become a filling for ravioli; the bones, one of the foundations for a sauce. Nothing goes to waste.

In the soft, serene light of the elegant 55-seat dining room, blades and butchering are not on anyone’s mind. Servers unobtrusively scrape crumbs off an ivory tablecloth, and the courses seamlessly unfold. Conversation is muted. Expectations are high, and they are met. Spring menu highlights: grilled duck breast with olive dumplings, charred ramps and romesco sauce; and roasted lamb shoulder and braised lamb cannelloni with sheep’s milk, morels and spring peas. Entrées $33-$36. (1547 N. Jackson St., 414-276-9608)

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