Umami Moto Dreamsicle dessert. Just a sample of what might be served at Downtown Dining Week.
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
Let’s go with Dickens on this one. Downtown Dining Week is all at once a tale of two cities, the best of times and the worst of times. At least in a way. The cadre of restaurants give the eating public a great glimpse at the grandeur that awaits should they dive head first into food tourism. On the whole, most restaurants’ wait staffs, chefs, kitchen crew and management bring “it” better than perhaps they should. They do so all in the name of getting more enthusiastic dinners – all for an undervalued prix fixe. In my anecdotal research with general managers, owners and executive chefs, it seems to work. “About 20 percent come back,” one exec chef told me. Not bad odds in the restaurant world.
The whole seven days could be seen as a sort of sampler platter of the Downtown culinary scene, all in a tight lunch hour time limit for 10-30 bucks. What’s not to love? That’s the best of times part. Add to that a few restaurants that offer the same largess for less on their dinner menus as well, and happy days are here again, only later that evening.
What has always brought me ire is what my restaurant friends go through during Downtown Dining Week. Though everyone in the industry throws on their “Magic marker smiles and marches out to serve” (as a veteran server I waited tables with used to say every night), most restaurant staffs view Downtown Dining Week the same way ballet companies all over America view The Nutcracker: It’s a great entry point to an great art form. It helps keep them in the black for the rest of the year. It yields a bunch more converts every year. And for many, this is their one annual experience of the better dining/ballet sort. But it gets a bit exhausting, and the prices have to be cut to bring in the volume. As one chef told me, “We love it, all the new faces, etc., but my staff a works twice as hard for the same amount of money, and some of the people that come out are just not keen on what we are trying to do. I just buy a bunch of beer and hand one to everyone after every shift, because they definitely earn their ‘Miller time.’”
I am not trying to inveigh Downtown Dining Week in the least. My foodie bubble is not that opaque. Having something of this sort, with so many restaurants participating, is actually a treasure. So, just as it is a treasure for any city to have their very own ballet, we should celebrate the people that make it possible a bit more. That’s all.
On a frequent basis, when I am out doing my part to be a food tourist in our town, fellow dinners ask me where else I like to eat. It’s a compliment to be asked, and though I usually say at my mom’s, I thought I would throw in my recommendations for Downtown Dining Week this round.
This newbie to the scene is one of my favorites for a few reasons – the décor being one. In my mind, this is the first restaurant Flux Design has done that doesn’t look like a collection of recycled ideas from previous projects. This Third Ward restaurant sets the scene without trying too hard. The Shack is running their four-meat platter in a slightly smaller scale for $20 instead of the usual $27. This is what I always get when I go regardless of what week it is. Pulled pork, pulled chicken, sliced brisket and their house-made sausages. I am a nice kid from the Midwest; I don’t know BBQ except to say that I think Smoke Shacks tastes great with their house sauce on it. I do however know sausage, and should Smoke Shack ever decide to mass market their house made sausages, Usinger, Klements and Johnsonville should be very, very concerned because they are incredible. (332 N. Milwaukee St., 414-431-1119)
What Chef Justin Carlisle is doing with seafood, foams, and in-season vegetables is probably illegal in some states, and certainly outlawed by the Vatican. (Jokes.) His prix fixe dinner is quite frankly better than it should be for the price, and in many ways, that is spirit of Downtown Dining Week.
His chilled pea soup is sublime – a perfect summer dish. But the real menu payoff is the salmon entrée with charred eggplant and summer vegetables. Carlisle first creates charcoal out of the eggplant skins, then steeps that crazy eggplant charcoal in oil, then emulsifies that oil into an eggplant puree. Pair that with salmon and in-season grilled vegetables. Umami moto? Yeah, just a bit I would say. (718 N. Milwaukee St., 414-727-9333)
Beta by Sabor
Chef Mitchell Ryan Ciohon and his work at Beta is perhaps the most undervalued thing happening right now in Milwaukee’s Downtown dining scene. He is offering his Beta menu for lunch, which is normally only available after the hours when sensible people start cocktailing. His pork belly sliders ooze Dr Pepper pan sauce – yes, you read that correctly – and are silly good. The savory waffles and chicken thighs with apple whisky syrup makes me hum Lynard Skynard songs and picture Auguste Escoffier. Weird, but I like it. To my mind Ciohon shows his real finesse in his house made jams. His tomato example is a home run. Go, get the small plates, enjoy, and repeat. (777 N. Water St., 414-431-3106)
The Rumpus Room
There are a couple of reasons to check out the offerings at Rumpus Room this – three of which are Wisconsin in nature. Firstly, the Strauss Veal in the Veal Meatloaf. The Strauss’ have been key pioneers in the veal industry’s “fair raised/free grazed” movement. They are a Wisconsin family business still based here. From veal we go to cheese, but not just any Wisconsin sort. The Carr Valley Beer Cheese Soup is what I would like to have fed to me as part of my last meal should I ever have to walk the green mile. Sid Cook, the master cheese maker of Carr Valley, has won more awards than any other cheese make in North America. Yeah, the soup will be good. Also, chef Andrew Ruiz of Rumpus Room is using a great soft mozzarella from Crave Brothers. They are a Wisconsin third generation dairy farmer family and juggernauts in sustainable farming on an industrial scale. Their story is inspiring, their cheeses rock. Chef Ruiz and crew are doing two really smart things. Including the Cuban sandwich, their top selling item on the sandwich menu, and including it in the DDW
prix fixe menu is great. However, one better is the vegetarian offerings on both the lunch and dinner menus. Gastopubs aren’t exactly known to be bastions of vegetarian eating inclinations. Nice to see Rumpus is inclusive of several types of eaters. (1030 N. Water St., 414-292-0100)
*Listen to Kyle Cherek discuss restaurant week Wednesday at 8 a.m. on 88.9.