Photo by Chris Kessler
In a speech five years ago in our nation’s capital, Mayor Tom Barrett decried the term “Rust Belt” to describe our city. No, our city is on the “Fresh Coast,” Barrett argued, referring to the ever-present Lake Michigan shoreline. Others prefer “Third Coast.” What’s a more reassuring image than our seemingly limitless mass of fresh water?
Perhaps this – the sight of a pitched-roof building, four sides of reclaimed barnwood and blue paint as rich as the Royal Baby’s bank account.
Neighboring trees and edifices may block your view of the Great Lake from Walker’s Point restaurant Blue Jacket, but the nautical aura is as potent as if the lake were just outside the raised garage doors. Owners Tom and Laura van Heijningen, newcomers to restaurateuring, have conjured that Great Lakes mystique. Tom is a former marina manager and an avid sailor. And only two things seem aesthetically amiss at Blue Jacket, an old-fashioned term to describe a Navy seaman: The building is not perched on a pier, and street parking stands in for boat slips.
The calming flow of the exterior blue color scheme threads inside to the walls. The interior surfaces are connected by more reclaimed wood, and here and there, a bit of Great Lakes-themed artwork. The dining room is such that from any seat – at the bar, a booth or table – diners can turn and see everyone around them: the nattily dressed bartenders slinging gimlets and sliding old vinyl onto the turntable; servers breezing past carrying wooden boards piled with cheeses, smoked fish and artisan meats.
Although the van Heijningens knew the style of food and drink they wanted to serve, consultants pitched in with the nitty-gritty of menu creation. Karen Bell (chef and owner of Third Ward butcher shop Bavette) helped raise the mast on the menu of snacks, “planks” and plates. They include house-pickled vegetables with deviled eggs ($6), poutine with Clock Shadow Creamery cheese curds ($12), kettle chip-battered fried smelt ($9), and duck-mushroom meatballs with polenta, asparagus and a poached duck egg ($16). There isn’t a parfait glass of shrimp cocktail or rogue crab cake sandwich made mostly of filler, not seafood. “Local” and “sustainable” can easily veer into pretentious, but when I pop a tender, chip-battered smelt in my mouth, it goes down without much pomposity.
When the owners brought in the Bittercube guys – who make a wholesale line of bitters – to style the cocktail menu, they excluded Captain Morgan from the vernacular. But aquavit, port, lemon, bitters and seltzer are very much in, and comprise the “Sling of Sorts” cocktail.
Vim and vigor made up for smooth sailing (how can I not use this pun?) in the first month or so of service. And Blue Jacket’s chef, Chad
Meier, has been refining and adding to the menu. I like the idea and execution of pretty towers of pickled vegetables and poufy, slightly pungent deviled eggs. Here, they’re more polished than at an old-school supper club. The delicate smelt ($9) with thin-sliced orange (also battered and fried) is brilliant. One bowl, served with harissa aioli, isn’t nearly enough.
Poutine is to Quebec what brats are to Wisconsin. But gravy, fries and cheese curds can get tiresome. Meier tops his frites with roasted carrots and Brussels sprout leaves; pickled chiles; and curds that stretch like warm taffy ($12, $14 with a poached egg). You add as much mushroom gravy as you like. A menu best.
The sirloin steak ($20) arrives in the odd state of overdone outside and too undercooked inside. Neither the caramelized onion nor the blue cheese can save it. But the scallops ($20) are luminous – fragile mollusks seared to a sorghum color and served over pureed snap peas with fresh arugula, sheet-thin sliced radish and wheatberries.
What I love about living near water is the constancy of our lake. We battle whipping wind and blinding snow, and the lake carries on. I’m excited to watch the seasons change from inside this homage to our watery wonder.