MOREL OF THE STORY: Charcuterie board and duck confit with pheasant sausage. Photo by Chris Kessler.
The view is not an issue at Morel. The open floor plan keeps in sight the chefs’ bandanaed heads, bobbing up and down the line in gray logoed T-shirts. The best seat in the house (my opinion) is at the kitchen “counter” – essentially the left side of the long liquor bar. The chefs, including proprietor Jonathan Manyo, waver between the stove and work stations. For a diner, it’s the warmest seat in the house (which also accounts for the sheen on our faces). Trout sizzles in a stainless steel pan. A line cook plates beef cheek, pouring the juices over the meat as steam curls up from the pan. The bartender slides a cheese board to a patron sipping whiskey across the concrete-topped bar.
The 37-year-old owner has invested a great deal of time and money into his Second Street venue, which once housed the Loft Ultra Lounge. It wasn’t a turnkey operation, but a project three years in the making. Walker’s Point was Manyo’s second choice for a location (after Bay View), but the growing cachet of Second Street doesn’t give this space second-class status.
Manyo is doing some interesting things here and using the appropriate, if hackneyed, lingo for 2014: “farm-to-table.” After the late-July opening, the menu – which is set only for as long as the markets and his own creativity dictate – felt more indicative of fall. (Morels’ short spring foraging season accounts for their absence on the menu.) Starters included pork belly with cauliflower, corn and oyster mushrooms in a pork jus ($10). Among the main courses was a lamb shank with carrots, potatoes and chard in a paprika-laced lamb jus ($26).
The bar program echoes the familiar strain of craft cocktails and beers and carefully chosen wines. The interior is a knockout amalgam of concrete, reclaimed wood, stainless steel, subway tiles, industrial lighting and tasteful art. An errant sock monkey, wearing a shirt that reads “Kiss the Cook,” rests on the kitchen counter.
The kitchen had little trouble delivering, with a few exceptions, richness and robust flavors. Manyo, who studied culinary arts and dietetics (at California Culinary Academy and University of Wisconsin-
Stout, respectively), shows a fancy for all manner of meat. House-made charcuterie on the board one evening included a thick wedge of headcheese, pheasant terrine, and intensely seasoned, thin-sliced pastrami (along with grilled bread, mustard, and house-made pickles and preserves, $16). Another night, the lamb entrée switched from shank to loin, merguez (a spicy lamb sausage) and bacon. Yet another main was duck confit (meat preserved in its own fat) partnered up with a link of smoked pheasant sausage ($22).
Use the commanding view at the bar for direction on what to order. Oblong flatbreads spread out on the flat-top command my attention. They’re flat, oily breads that remind me of Indian roti. Here, the warm, delicate pieces come with burrata (a jiggly fresh cheese similar to mozzarella), kale, currant preserves and a flecked variety of wax beans called dragon tongue ($12). The plate marries nicely with some greens – the cabbage salad with walnuts, apple, blue cheese and chunky bits of pancetta in a red wine vinaigrette ($8).
A neighboring diner studies a black hunk of meat crackling in a sauté pan. The server identifies it as beef cheek, answering the diner’s quizzical look with, “It’s like short ribs.” Not quite. The cheek is
literally the facial cheek muscle of a cow. Generally known as a lean, tough cut that becomes tender with long, slow cooking, the cheek set before us – served with spaetzle, tiny Brussels sprouts, and an inch-thick slice of bacon – is almost buttery-smooth in texture, bite after bite ($22).
The duck confit is not nearly as tender. We fight to remove meat from the bone. It’s better to concentrate on the smoked pheasant sausage and polenta on the same plate.
If the only fish on the menu is lake trout – and it was, early on – that’s not a bad thing. The thick, meaty char ($20), as it’s also known, absorbs the prodigious pan juices and then some. It centers the plate with seasoning help from crispy bits of garlic, bacon, sorrel and spigariello (a leafy Italian green).
At the far end of the kitchen counter, closest to the prep kitchen, a chef plates cold dishes and desserts. A stout cake comes up. Our blackberry-rhubarb clafouti ($8) is next in rotation, served in a ramekin. Some clafoutis are cake-like while others are similar to pudding. But the texture of our clafouti is less like pudding than a soup. In contrast, the wedge of cheesecake, made with goat cheese, is mild, slightly tangy, and appropriately light ($8).
The prospect of a long sweater season hovers, and it’s time to tighten the belt. That’s restaurant-owner credo. This neighborhood has flourished since Crazy Water’s pioneering entry in 2002. Today, Walker’s Point is the roost for not just restaurants but breweries, cafés and a distillery. Which of them have that elusive “what it takes” to succeed? ■