Keepers of the Flame

In the last month, I’ve eaten Pavarotti’s weight in food. No, I’m not asking for sympathy or Jenny Craig. I’m just, well, sharing. Call it a (sometimes unenviable) occupational hazard. For many years, we’ve chosen May as the month to reflect on dining, remarkable dining, in our town. New places are opening all the time — the trend this year is steakhouses — and conversely, some spots are hanging it up, too. In fine-dining circles, for instance, Celia at the Pfister ended its almost-5-year run a few months ago. What’s amazing to me, though, is the consistency of our top…

In the last month, I’ve eaten Pavarotti’s weight in food. No, I’m not asking for sympathy or Jenny Craig. I’m just, well, sharing. Call it a (sometimes unenviable) occupational hazard.

For many years, we’ve chosen May as the month to reflect on dining, remarkable dining, in our town. New places are opening all the time — the trend this year is steakhouses — and conversely, some spots are hanging it up, too. In fine-dining circles, for instance, Celia at the Pfister ended its almost-5-year run a few months ago.

What’s amazing to me, though, is the consistency of our top restaurants scene (you’ll notice several repeaters). But isn’t that what we should expect from the culinary equivalent of a masterpiece? Woven into our randomly arranged list are Bosley on Brady, bringing leopard print and Key West-inspired cooking to the East Side, and Holiday House, one of the top reasons to spend a night in the Third Ward.

All of the best new restaurants opening in the last year are within a mile or so of each other, in the stretch from the Third Ward to Downtown to Brady Street. The renovation of the city is also helping fuel a renaissance in dining, which is just what you need to create more masterpieces.

The Top 25
Read ’em and eat.

Barossa The menu at this Fifth Ward restaurant/bar is “green” – organic lamb and salmon and free-range chicken – and it’s no detri-ment to be a vegetarian or vegan when you dine here. And choices veer from the clichéd. For instance, this winter I had the dynamite poussin, a succulent slow-cooked whole chicken in vin cotto (“cooked wine”) sauce with pine nuts, figs, capers and olives. For dessert, you might find warm apple upside-down cake with crème fraîche or poached mango with fresh coconut and a crisp -chocolate haystack. Try finding that on Highway 100. Entrées $11-$30. 235 S. Second St., 272-8466.

Crazy Water Whether it’s co-owner Peggy Magister or one of her staff, -whoever’s searing and sautéing at Crazy Water is visible through the restaurant’s front window. Cooking back to back with the bartender gives Crazy Water its hook, but the place would be nothing without Magister’s hot-to-trot menu. After a late-winter trip to Puerto Rico, she got Latin happy with the menu – but just a little. New dishes since that trip, all of which meet my approval, are sautéed empanadas with goat cheese and sun-dried tomato filling, hanger steak with chimichurri sauce and lemon- and parsley-crusted halibut. That long-running flat-iron steak with cherry sauce is a winner, too. Entrées $18-$28. 839 S. Second St., 645-2606.

Zarletti In lieu of cooking school, you can educate yourself in the culinary arts and open a restaurant, eking out a plan for how it’ll look and what’ll feed your audience. Brian Zarletti has done that. As with the South Milwaukee café he owns with his wife, Mari, Zarletti is the product of Brian’s look-twice renovation skills. This winter, his hands were busy again, on the rehab for the couple’s new flower and gifts shop in Whitefish Bay. At night, he’d whip back Downtown to cook at Zarletti, open since 2004. It’s a terrifically hectic schedule, but Brian is a perfectionist. In recent months, the restaurant menu has included a different homemade ravioli every week. I had an unexpectedly uplifting dessert ravioli with mascarpone and chestnut purée filling and butter-rum caramel sauce. Here’s a great way to dine with a friend – share everything: the “three beginnings” appetizer (toasted bread with a trio of spreads), pasta aglio olio (garlic, red pepper and fresh basil) with sautéed shrimp, and osso buco (veal shank) with saffron -risotto. Entrées $11.95-$28.95. 741 N. Milwaukee St., 225-0000.

Dancing Ganesha Ordering from DG’s nightly specials is like getting in the back door of the Louvre. The regular menu is a great intro to Indian cuisine, including appetizers so good they should be trademarked (my fave: meat samosas with cilantro chutney), mild curries and vegetarian thalis, i.e., a selection of dishes. But even head chef/co-owner Usha Bedi will tell you the fireworks come from the specials. Case in point: a pork chop stuffed with paneer (Indian cheese) and dried fruit, served with pineapple chutney. You can’t beat puréed mango with vanilla ice cream for dessert, unless it’s fried plantains layered with custard-like cardamom-laced yogurt. Entrées $10-$20 (specials run in the $20s). 1692-94 N. Van Buren St., 220-0202.

Tess I like coming early to this little corner bistro to awaken myself to the calm. The slowly swirling ceiling fans and walls the color of red fall leaves do more for me than a Valium would. Chef/co-owner Joe Volpe is spending less time at Tess since he opened Holiday House, his sophomore effort in the Third Ward (see “The Latest Arrivals,” page 61). But he can afford to. The 3-year-old restaurant is in good hands when he’s not there. Tess has a dilly of a menu, a great mix of fish, a little beef and pork and vegetarian food, priced fairly. Before I get giddy on grilled tamari and maple pork tenderloin and blackened tilapia with crab/black bean relish, I have to eat a Rocket salad. The arugula and blue cheese, Roma tomatoes and candied walnuts meld into one big zesty, pungent, sweet bed of insane goodness. Mussels in cilantro-entwined coconut milk broth with warm bread make a finger-licking-good starter. Entrées $14-$26. 2499 N. Bartlett Ave., 964-8377.

Roots Time can only help the cause of sustainable farming. Cedarburg farmer Joe Schmidt, co-owner of this Brewer’s Hill restau-rant, is the source of much of the menu’s green ingredients. For example, fruit trees and bushes he and partner/executive chef John Raymond planted a few years ago are beginning to bear fruit this year. That’s like winning the lottery for Raymond, who brings inge-nuity and joy to his cooking. To wit: fortune cookie-crusted scallops with black tea risotto. Raymond uses local Rishi tea in that risotto and sources close to home as much as he can. The Roots farmers’ market will be back this summer, benefiting from the farm’s – and the owners’ – evolution. And if you’ve ever craved a Mojito that makes your taste buds float up to the clouds, head down to Roots Cellar for cocktails made with cut-your-own mint. Entrées $16-$36. 1818 N. Hubbard St., 374-8480.

Osteria del Mondo Eleven years ago, Marc Bianchini was on our top restaurants cover. His place was new, he was in his -early 20s and fine-dining Italian food in Milwaukee never tasted -better. These days, the restaurateur and his wife, Marta, have Milwaukee Street’s Cubanitas, and Marc is the consulting chef for recently opened steakhouse Carnevor. There’s no denying that his first love is -Osteria, which still scores, especially with entrées. I’ve never been -disappointed with Osteria’s risotto (the blue cheese and Brussels sprouts version was al dente and delectably creamy), and veal saltimbocca cinches a delicate union of salty prosciutto and the wet-ground flavor of fresh sage. Entrées $26-$36. 1028 E. Juneau Ave. 291-3770.

River Lane Inn Imagine yourself on a school playground, a kid surrounded by the best toys – kick balls, hopscotch, jungle gyms, slides. You’ve got the pick of them all. Apply that to a chef like -River Lane’s JoLinda Klopp. She works with her favorite toys – fresh fish flown in from Boston, herbs sprouting up in the restaurant’s garden. Klopp manages a regular menu (whose salmon and sand dabs are comforting to the regulars) and a chalkboard of special goodies. Things can only get better for the chalkboard and you as the weather improves. The day I talked to her, Klopp had just gotten in a shipment of Arctic char, which that night would be baked en papillote (in parchment) and served with a -Meyer lemon sauce. On my last visit, I made a slow, satisfying passage through crabmeat-topped king salmon and Cajun black bass over lobster hash. Entrées $18-$23. 4313 W. River Ln., 354-1995.

Mr. B’s Steakhouse Stonewood Village is turning into a ghost town. Vacant buildings dot the grounds, but Mr. B’s is a holdout. The restaurant is kind of a cross between Bartolotta’s Tosa Italian and a steakhouse. It’s casual and rustic inside, and the menu offers a few Italian dishes – bruschetta, pastas. But you can’t get away from the beef. You wouldn’t want to. A wood-roasting oven flavors all of the best things – hand-cut chops; salmon and swordfish glistening and coated in crispness; bone-in steaks, which are -ridiculously expensive but juicier and more flavorful than their boneless counterparts. I used to be all about the sauce with my beef here. Now it’s a simple topping of melted Maytag blue cheese. Entrées $18.95-$69.95. 17700 W. Capitol Dr., 262-790-7005.

Elliot’s Bistro The hardest-working chef/promoter in town might be Pierre Briere. The bistro’s owner has Happy Hour twice a day, teaches French cooking classes and offers different prix fixe meals three nights a week. I was amazed at the crowd on a subzero night a few months ago. A harpist strummed near the entrance while Briere did his theatrical flambés (to which diners turned virtually in unison). I was pinned at a back table, which turned out to have an advantage – a precious cart of French cheeses was stationed near me. I remember the salads being more generous in the past, but the breads have improved. Staying marvelously the same is the steak au poivre, the peppercorn cream sauce daring me to sop it up with hunks of bread. Chicken in lemon Parmesan sauce and beef bourguignon will also dare you to loosen your waistband. Entrées $7.95-$25.50. 2321 N. Murray Ave., 273-1488.

Eddie Martini’s Milwaukee has a lot of steaks, and it’s going to get more. As early as May, we’ll see a Brazilian steakhouse called Sabor. And Capital Grille, a national chain, is slated to open Downtown this summer. Can we support them? Eddie’s has its steady clientele of West Side docs from the medical complex, and the steaks are still a carnivore’s carnival. The menu doesn’t keep diners guessing, but lately, I’ve found some new things, the best being a duck breast appetizer the kitchen folks smoke on the premises and serve with blueberry compote and a caramelized onion tart. Entrées $23-$39. 8612 Watertown Plank Rd., 771-6680.

Ristorante Bartolotta Last summer, Joe B opened a second Ristorante Bartolotta – on Downer Avenue. The Pizzeria Piccola experiment there failed, but the substitute sit-down Ristorante is nestling comfortably into the neighborhood. The terrific Juan Urbieta, who’s been exec chef in Tosa for four years, oversees both locations. The new Downer restaurant hits the Bartolotta rustic-Italian high spots – seared shrimp with rosemary-scented chickpea sauce, crisp-skin roasted hen with Brussels sprouts, a different risotto treasure all the time, pappardelle with duck ragu, and panna cotta (a gelatin-like custard) for dessert. Because after all this richness, sometimes it’s nice to have something light. But only sometimes. Entrées $17.95-$34.95. 2625 N. Downer Ave., 962-7910, and 7616 W. State St., 771-7910.

Restaurant Hama The Japanese fusion restaurant is spinning some new tracks. Maki Madness (all-you-can-eat maki rolls for $30) has been running on Monday nights since winter. And a traditional chef’s choice dinner, Omakase, is every Thursday. The six-course meal is $40-$50 per person and might include toro maki wrapped in soy paper, halibut sashimi on a bed of greens, salmon risotto and Belgian chocolate mousse. And the kitchen specials are so appealing, I never feel like eating tempura or teriyaki. Bring on the charred maguro with greens and sweet onion dressing, lobster quesadilla with wasabi cream sauce, “spicy Cajun Asian -salmon Caesar” salad (repeat this after me), peppercorn-spiced tuna with wasabi and ginger and turtle sundae crepes. Or any dessert, -really. Hama = yumma. Entrées $13-$22. 333 W. Brown Deer Rd., 352-5051.

Riversite This Mequon restaurant has earned a spot on our list ever since it was spotlighted in this magazine’s “What’s Hot in 1990” story. (The only other restaurant from that story still operating is Sanford.) Pretty impressive, huh? Tom Peschong is a French-trained chef who cooks from his heart. Simplicity and appreciation for the quality of the food are what come through. Not a lot of highfalutin techniques and ingredients. Now, when the earth comes through with its seasonal gifts – from soft-shell crabs to morel mushrooms – Peschong is the dude I’d want to bring out their best features. Fresh fish, like his panko-crusted walleye with lemon beurre blanc, is stunning. Last winter, I had one of my favorite lamb entrées – chargrilled loin with a delicate cranberry orange jus. Entrées $25-$35. 11120 N. Cedarburg Rd., Mequon, 262-242-6050.

Lake Park Bistro One of the distinctive parts of this restaurant is the choice of where to sit. Ever tried the bar for dining? The bartenders need to master waitstaff territory, like boning a Dover sole entrée (it’s tricky), as well as make martinis. What’s up with the “kitchen” table? Sit here, a single table nearest the prepping stations, and you’ll see what everybody’s ordering before they get it. And that romantic east room? Everyone wants to sit out there – romantic lighting and view, a little more fleshed out seating-wise than in the main room. A fall trip to Paris lingering in my thoughts, I want to eat everything from the charcuterie plate (featuring pâté, sausages, truffled liver mousse) and chevre chaud (flat-leaf spinach topped with warm baked goat cheese, pine nuts and roasted tomatoes) to lamb loin with stewed lentils and the fish that turns magically to butter, Dover sole. For dessert: frozen hazelnut mousse or warm chocolate biscuit. Entrées $17-$38. 3133 E. Newberry Blvd., 962-6300.

Pacific Rim The best seat in the house is… every seat. I don’t look around at the décor inside 3-year-old Pacific Rim. I keep my eyes peeled on the kitchen and my place setting because the entrées are like a lineup of beauty contest winners. Owner Bob Phoungphol’s nearby Thai restaurant, The King & I, is what gave him the street cred to do a minority-in-Milwaukee cuisine he calls Pan-Asian/Western fusion: roasted tamarind duck with lychee, kiwi, bok choy and spinach; seared ahi tuna in yellow pepper and red chili sauce with wasabi cream; grilled shrimp and scallops on a rosemary skewer in saffron cream sauce and beet vinaigrette. I was blown away by all of them. What constitutes a Pan-Asian dessert? Celestial banana and passion fruit crème brûlée. Entrées $18-$40. 830 N. Old World Third St., 277-8100.

Milwaukee Chop House As the blanket of beef spreads over Downtown, I keep wondering who’s going to fall. This steakhouse seems to have its head above water. But business can always be better, wherever you go. That’s why you can now get a Chop House meal to go. Yup, curbside steaks. Call in your order after perusing the online menu and pull up to the entrance. There’s designated parking in front. They call this carryout experience “ChopChop.” Recommendation, eating in or out: crab cakes with poblano pepper remoulade and mango-avocado relish, filet mignon either au poivre or with red wine sauce, potato-crusted sea bass, grilled veggies with citrus vinaigrette and a dessert that’s half a carrot cake – I’m only exaggerating a little. Entrées $18-$36. Hilton Hotel City Center, 633 N. Fifth St., 226-2467.

Bacchus Detractors of Joe -Bartolotta’s fanciest – a dining room defined by its leather booths and square lamps – say the waitstaff needs to relax. Three servers (per table) trying to make an impression can get a little tedious. Are three really necessary? Probably not, but sometimes it’s nice to be pampered. Enter Adam Siegel. Executive chef at sibling Lake Park Bistro, Siegel also took on the respon-sibility of managing Bacchus’ kitchen last year. And not long after, he rolled out a new menu, adding a steaks, sides and sauces section. Not enough? The “conservatory,” a new glass-enclosed seating area, may be open as this magazine is hitting the racks. This restaurant is so big city that sitting in the dining room gives me the buzz (who’s over at that table?) I get in New York or -Chicago. The salads (baby beet), apps (foie gras, diver scallops) and desserts (Meyer lemon tart, banana split) are excellent. The entrées, including those expensive steaks, could be better. But I know the talent is there. Entrées $19-$42. Cudahy Towers, 925 E. Wells St., 765-1166.

Coquette Café Earlier this year, Sandy and Angie D’Amato opened Harlequin Bakery in the lobby of their French bistro. The baking is done elsewhere in the building, and the bakery is growing bigger still as it moves across the lobby into a more prominent spot. But taking on this enormous task has enabled the D’Amatos to bring the bread baking in-house for -Coquette and Sanford, their Jackson Street restaurant. It’s made 7-year-old -Coquette more of what it is – a reliable Third Ward bistro (although service is spotty). The look of the place is right – warm, just stylish enough. Love the batards (crusty, torpedo-shaped loaves) wrapped in wax paper. Love the grilled hanger steak with pommes frites and sautéed trout in lemon-caper sauce. And like the niçoise salad, but they should warn you about those tiny -olives with pits. Entrées $10.95-$18.95. 316 N. Milwaukee St., 291-2655.

Dream Dance This is the first time I’ve had Dream Dance on the list since Bartolotta Restaurant Group ended its management relationship and chef___Brandon Wolff left for Bacchus. That was more than a year ago. Jason Gorman, a 36-year-old former At-lantan hired to take Wolff’s place, started doing his thing, not worrying too much about his predecessor. It’s not hard to spend $200 a couple at this high-ender, located in the Potawatomi Bingo Casino, yet foodies are only one segment of the clientele. So Gorman is focused on value and making the menu approachable. I had a fabulous meal at Dream Dance during Mardi Gras week. Highlights were rock shrimp-crusted dayboat cod, Strauss veal tenderloin and warm chocolate cake with espresso flan and a tiny Frangelico shake. Gorman’s spring menu will keep the Kobe steaks and pork chop with apple creamed sauerkraut, adding seasonal fish and several new appetizers. Entrées $18-$90. 1721 W. Canal St., 847-7883.

Moceans Every now and then, restaurateur Johnny V calls me. “Ann, you -really need to check out my places,” says the self-promoting Mr. V, owner of Moceans and all of the other restaurants in the Mo’s empire. “Sure, I will. Only I can’t tell you when.” The truth is, my feelings about 2-year-old Moceans have gone from warm to cool to warm again. When it opened, former -River Lane Inn chef Karla Fisher was part of the team. She left, the kitchen staff went through changes, and the food suffered. But Mr. V did some-thing very smart last year – he hired away Andy Stiyer from Eddie Martini’s. The food at Moceans is far better. (Last year, I had fish I could have sworn was served with Rice-A-Roni.) Most of the menu remains fish, but the preparations are hitting some -bases. Hashbrown-crusted orange roughy with truffled crème fraîche and pancetta-wrapped scallops with apple cider jus are dandy choices. Entrées $23-$52. 747 N. Broadway, 272-7470.

Polonez We’re never going to get away from “the style brigade” – restaurateurs who place interior design above the food. Here, at this Polish plum, it’s just the opposite. Aleksandra and George -Burzynski started Polonez in a low-budget space across from St. Josaphat’s Basilica more than 22 years ago, moving to more spacious digs in 2002. I’ve sent people here for the Polish plate (pierogi, stuffed cabbage, Polish sausage, potato pancake) and I’ve sent them for the lake perch fry on Fridays. It’s an institution. Entrées $8.75-$16.75. 4016 S. Packard Ave., 482-0080.

Saffron Indian Bistro Last year, this Brookfield strip mall restaurant was sold to Dr. Laxman Kailas, who owns nearby Taste of India. I’ve worried about Saffron, but things seem to be running okay. The kitchen staff has remained, the daily lunch buffet continues to be a quality spread, and my favorites from the menu are as good as they were a year ago. My cravings here are for butter chicken and chicken -tikka masala and virtually any dish from the South Indian vegetarian section, especially dosai – sheet-thin pan-cakes stuffed with seasoned mashed potato. Entrées $4.50-$18.95. 17395-D W. Blue Mound Rd., 262-784-1332.

Sanford People still nudge me and say, “Come on, is Sanford really that great?” Um, yeah. At Sandy and Angie D’Amato’s 17-year-old firstborn, every detail is memorable. Sanford has a reputation as a place for foodies with deep pockets, and that’s unfortu-nate. With the trend moving toward $40 steaks (side dishes extra) at hip but mediocre restaurants, why not save your money for something really extraordinary? Sanford offers a four-course $49 seasonal menu and $85 seven-course chef’s choice. Choosing each course individually, here’s what I can’t get out of my head from a recent visit: puréed chickpea soup with Mereguez lamb sausage; chargrilled lamb loin with veal ragu -moussaka and avgolemono custard; seared sea scallops and lobster with couscous, lobster fennel broth and walnut aïoli; rhubarb tart with sour cream anise ice cream; and -banana butterscotch tart with banana-rum ice cream. Entrées $30-$37. 1547 N. Jackson St., 276-9608.

Il Mito Marking the restaurant’s fifth anniversary, Il Mito owner Michael -Feker has made some freshening touches to the menu. I’ve often enjoyed meals here, although I can’t remember the last time I saw this place busy. What works about the menu is its twists. Instead of a standard caprese with fresh mozzarella and tomato, the nifty Il Mito salad adds slices of roasted eggplant and zucchini. Squiggles of basil pesto stand in for fresh basil. Also great are the crab cakes, with shrimp and lemon dressing instead of a typical remoulade, and chicken Marsala, using the dry version of the smoky wine instead of sweet. Entrées $10.95-$24.95. 605 W. Virginia St., 276-1414.