The trouble with restaurants in Milwaukee, a West Coast transplant says to me, is that they’re too bright. Literally. Dim the lights and you’re on your way to ambiance.
The transplant isn’t saying anything new. Three of the partners behind the shadowy Balzac, the Brady Street area’s new production — a wine bar with a “minimalist” restaurant (“small plates” rather than full meals) — has been down on that idea for years. By now, Mike Eitel, Leslie Montemurro and Scott Johnson should be used to seeing their names together. In the last decade, Hi Hat Lounge, Trocadero and Eitel’s Nomad have to an extent defined what is cool in Milwaukee. Eric Wagner, the fourth partner, was part of the restaurant group behind the Twisted Fork and area Qdobas. They have enough street cred that when people associate their names with a business, it can only be good for the business. “These kids know how to do the marketing, as well as the ,” says real estate developer -Julilly Kohler, Bal-zac’s landlord.
The interesting thing about Balzac is how quickly it came to be. Watermark Seafood, its predecessor in the Passeggio space, closed in June because, owner Mark Weber explained, he didn’t have the funds to keep it going. Two months later, Balzac’s sidewalk seating — facing its sister, Hi Hat, across Arlington Street — was filling its purpose. The partners took a dark approach to the interior (19th century realist novelist Honoré de Balzac, the bar’s namesake, was known for capturing the seamier sides of French society), covering it over in chocolate paint and scarlet brocade upholstery and closing up the open kitchen but keeping the bottles visible. The “cozy wine grotto,” as Eitel described the bar/small-plate dining cyno-sure while it was still in utero, takes wine drinking seriously without taking itself too seriously. The partners hired sommelier Brian Miracle (could the business not benefit from such an optimistic name?) to design and implement the wine menu. An Oshkosh native who bounced from a 10-year sojourn in Milwaukee to, most recently, two years in Chicago, Miracle left his job with -Robert Kacher -Selections, a touted importer of French wines, to be Balzac’s friend to the grape connoisseur.
Miracle’s M.O. is pretty simple: challenge people, convince them to try something new (“You probably won’t recognize a lot of wines” at Balzac, he says, much to my delight). With Miracle’s menu, it’s easy to do. The certified sommelier says he will tweak the menu weekly. At last look, he was up to six wine flights — themes range from “Red Red Wine” to “Tiny Bubbles of _Joy” (three sparkling wines — a terrific companion to the panna cotta). Wines from the old world (France, Italy, Spain) and new world (United States, Australia, New Zealand) are here. And Miracle isn’t just behind the scenes choosing how to stack up the “Interesting Reds” — he’s there almost every night. He might be behind the bar, swishing something around in his mouth and spitting into a bucket. You might get a server who, prodded for suggestions, will say, “I’ll send Brian right over.” And he appears, to give tips and trivia. Two wines Miracle is -crazy about are Ojai Sauvignon Blanc (Santa Barbara) and Domaine Grand Veneur Côtes du Rhône Villages “Les Champauvins” (Rhone, France). Miracle says he will rotate the by-the-glass offerings to keep the menu fresh. And to set a sampling mood, some wines are available in tasting size.
Isaac Seal joined on to orchestrate the wine’s companion — a mélange of appetizer-size dishes. His plan is to stay seasonal, making menu changes in three-month intervals. The menu is separated into sections: “prelude” offerings like marinated olives, small plates (referring to portion size), -pâtés, cheese plates and desserts. On the late-summer menu, the cheeses were artisan-made Wisconsin varieties; future menus may have European offerings as well. Seal, a former chef at Sauce, also creates nightly specials like scallop pesto linguine.
There’s no preferred order to choosing a nibble here. But to me, there is a process that feels instinctual — order the smallest nibbles first (the prelude offerings), then move to cheese and/or pâté, a small plate and finally dessert. Subtract one or two “courses,” depending on how hungry you are.
If you take the prelude as your beginning, you can order individually ($2-$4) or have the tasting plate ($12), which includes all of them: sherry candied almonds, a warm hunk of French bread with herbed butter, cubes of mild though expressive Spanish manchego cheese wrapped in sheets of smoked ham, three kinds of marinated pit olives and -cremini mushrooms sautéed in garlic. The stew of flavors takes the edge off of the peppery Grenache, one of the featured -glasses in a “Red Red Wine” flight (-Artazuri -Garnacha, from Navarra, Spain).
The cheeses are matched with varying accompaniments. If it’s an Italian cheese, marinated tomatoes and pistachios might join it. My picks are an earthy Gruyère ($7) and an unexpectedly keen, Brie-like “Les Frères” ($6), both served with fresh fruit, candied walnuts and toasted baguette (unfortunately, too thick and crisp to enjoy). The 5-year-old cheddar is a cheese to chew deliberately, taking in the sharpness gradually ($7).
Some of Balzac’s small plates are like tiny entrées. The tenderloin filet au poivre, in a rich, intricate sun-dried tomato/porcini mushroom demi glace, is mellowed by the dense pile of whipped Yukon gold potatoes ($11). The most thoughtful melding of texture and taste is the seared duck — slices of medium-rare breast and roasted turnip with snappy wilted arugula in raspberry balsamic syrup ($9). Alongside the wines avail-able here, the small plates set a dining pace of their own. You unconsciously decelerate and savor. This holds true for the tuna carpaccio with pea shoots (like peppery sprouts) and green apple compote, which has a sorbet consistency ($9). The pace of nibbling feels like a glorious release from the common “race” of eating.
Many of Balzac’s plates have elements of satisfying sweetness — candied nuts, vinaigrettes, fresh fruits — but there’s still a place for dessert. Seal garnished his panna cotta — a firm, vanilla bean-flecked custard — with raspberries, green grapes and wafer-thin slices of radish ($6). I doubted the radish until experiencing the pungent flavor of the root against the cream’s soft sweetness.
Just as the flavors here train diners to slow down and be discerning, Balzac sets out to train Milwau-keeans to approach wine and its accouterments differently. Maybe there’s something to that “dark” ambi-ance.
1716 N. Arlington Pl.
Hours: Tues-Thurs, Sun 4 p.m.-12 a.m.; Fri-Sat 4 p.m.-1 a.m.
Prices: preludes, small plates $2-$12; pâtés, cheeses $5-$9
Service: attentive, helpful
Handicap access: ramp in the rear
Nonsmoking section: yes
Credit cards: M V A DS