Thomas Hauck pokes his head out of the kitchen and smiles as a set of diners walk to their table. Hauck – dressed in a white smock, his head clean-shaven – looks the part of a chef. Although not a well-known name in the local restaurant scene, Hauck is a Wisconsinite by birth whose cooking gigs in Washington, D.C., and France (as well as a short spell at Milwaukee’s Mason Street Grill) helped pave the way for c.1880 (nicknamed “Circa”), his new Walker’s Point restaurant.
|Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki/Plate Photography
The building, which dates to the late 1800s and stands within eyeshot of Braise on Second Street, has undergone a substantial overhaul since it stopped serving pizzas under the name Marchese’s Olive Pit. History is, aptly, the theme of the interior. Hauck’s old photos and maps hang on the walls. A mural above the bar depicts Milwaukee’s City Hall and Walker’s Point in the 19th century. The rustic wood tables and wooden chairs with rush seats fit the warehouse/aged look. The hanging light fixtures with long loops of cord add the feel of a workroom. And yet, it’s elegant.
Of his menu, Hauck says it is in a rather constant state of tweaking to keep it on a seasonal track. And to be sure, my server one evening in May describes the menu as determined by the first spring vegetables – ramps, carrots, sorrel, mache, beets. The back of the menu lists the farms in Wisconsin and beyond that supply meats, eggs, produce, edible flowers and the like.
“Some combinations will seem like they don’t go together,” the server says of the appetizers and entrées, “but they do.” It’s an observation that, in the end, seems only partly true. The crab-avocado salad with pink grapefruit, dandelion greens and pickled onion ($11) is a very pretty, precise layering of ingredients that mostly meld together, but for the too-sweet citrus nectar at the base. The components of the foie gras appetizer ($18) – a delicate piece of seared foie gras with rhubarb gel, and a small vessel of foie gras mousse topped with cardamom foam – appears modern and alchemical. Assorted pickled vegetables (fennel, ramps) drape the plate’s rim. The problem with this work is its lack of integration. With all this richness, the flavors and textures should satisfy. They don’t.
The most enjoyable part of the trout ($24) is the two thick, moist filets, the skin left on both sides. Placed deliberately askew nearby are carrot ribbons, soft stalks of bok choy, halved fava beans and crisp sheets of prosciutto. I look down at this plate, but it could be hung on a wall. It’s that arresting. Other plates are visually arresting, too – their surfaces painted with high-intensity colored sauces and the other components artfully deconstructed. But some stop short of flavor congruity.
And yet, I appreciate Hauck’s ambitiousness. If there’s a geographic fit for c.1880, it’s here in Walker’s Point, this growing mecca of industrious fine dining. How different will things be when we revisit c.1880, the floors bearing the imprint of more visitors?