Mike Engel can see everything. Manning the sauté station in his restaurant kitchen, he looks up at his son, Andrew, working the grill. The cold station guy can’t escape his gaze, either. In a white smock as recognizable as a doctor’s lab coat, the 48-year-old Engel crosses the threshold between kitchen and dining room. He steps onto a throw rug and the heat dissipates, the light softens. Heads turn to see the chef’s smile, framed by a salt-and-pepper beard, as he stops at their table and asks about their meal.
Two years ago, Engel was entrenched in a different kitchen scene altogether, running the dining operations for a private Lake Country club. He had none of the headaches of running his own restaurant, but none of the joys, either. And he’d come to crave them. Smart people don’t go into the restaurant business expecting to become Wolfgang Puck. Engel, whose seasoned cooking career includes Metro Bar and Café and a couple of been-and-gone restaurants in Delafield, is many years matured from the starry-eyed young entrepreneur. His new Pastiche Bistro & Wine Bar– located in a 1910 corner storefront in Bay View, amid bars like Palm Tavern and Lee’s Luxury Lounge – had some construction delays before opening in March, but Engel seemed to take it in stride.
The months he spent strolling with his girlfriend through pockets of Bay View – absorbing its past and yearning to be part of its future – are beginning to pay off, if not in currency, then in charm. On a warm night in early May, the door to his place is propped open. Engel’s inspiration for the colors of the bistro’s walls was, understandably, butter and red wine. For the restaurant decor in toto, he went with dark-stained wood, rooster-patterned curtains and small, framed prints. I sense a muse in France, although the owner has only been to that country in spirit. “I live vicariously through my food,” he admits.
The menu comes together with that same spirit of surrogacy and resistance to nose-up-in-the-air-ness. The word “pastiche” – French for “hodgepodge” – was originally meant to describe the menu. In particular, a mix of Mediterranean cuisines, as in French, Italian and Spanish. But as things have evolved, the menu has become decidedly French. French onion soup, escargot baked in garlic butter, salade niçoise, trout amandine and steak frites, to name a few from the moderately priced roster. But the beauty of having your own place is you can add an oomph of Italy or sprinkle of Spain whenever you want.
When a meal starts at Pastiche, it starts with nibbles. The server delivers little dishes of Marcona almonds and tiny green and purple olives. They’re an effective amuse bouche (an hors d’oeuvre meant to whet the appetite) with a Tempranillo or even Chenin Blanc (from the wine list leaning toward Spanish, French and Italian labels). You will start pondering what’s next. A plate of country pâtés, perhaps? This won’t disappoint in quality or quantity. It is generous slices of three chunky pâtés (duck, chicken, and pork and truffle) served with cornichons, coarse-grain mustard and crisp crackers ($7.50). For something deceptively lighter, the shrimp de jonghe is a lemony, breadcrumb-topped crustacean crusade featuring the sort of garlic-butter bath tailor-made for the sopping of crusts of bread ($10.50).
The term “salad” is believed to derive from the Latin word “sal,” which translates to “salt.” (That progressed to “salata,” which means “salted things.”) This couldn’t be less applicable to the subtly composed greens in a bowl of haricot verts salad or cucumber and chèvre. The former mingles field greens with crisp French green beans, toasted hazelnuts and juicy tomatoes with a light crème fraîche-red wine vinaigrette ($5.95). Creamy goat cheese clings to mesclun leaves in the chèvre salad, tossed with tomato and sweet, crunchy cucumber ($4.95).
The pork mignons and salmon Bordelaise are as different from each other as Coco Chanel and Nicolas Sarkozy, but (on an early visit) both came with (and this is one quibble) uniform sides – piquant rosemary roasted potatoes and delicate asparagus shoots. The salmon’s balanced sauce hints of licorice (from the tender fennel) and rich soil (subtle leeks) in its red wine-shallot sauce ($17.95). The pork mignons are not as petite as I’d expect from the name, but generous cutlets of seared tenderloin (the texture exactly as the name suggests) in a mild, smooth sauce made from Meaux mustard ($18.50).
Preparing the French classic cassoulet is a laborious process that involves making duck confit and slow-cooking the white beans, but the results can be fantastic. There’s a lot of love in this version of cassoulet ($15.50), as well as a lot of meat; along with duck, there’s pork shoulder and smoked pork shank, sausage and lamb. The crock that arrives is like a magic bowl from which the rich meat just keeps escaping. A very primal meal and easily enough for another sitting.
If there’s anything more colorful on the menu than the tagliatelle with shrimp and scallops ($17.75), I haven’t found it. Engel makes the ribbon-like noodles from scratch, serves them a bit al dente and heaps them in olive oil and garlic. The shellfish absorb the gossamer-like flavors of lemon and fresh basil.
I’ve eaten more caramel-like tarte tatins (and the puff pastry base for the apple tart is a trifle dry, $5.95), but Engel’s girlfriend Angela offers up, to my palate, one of the better desserts – a billowy, meringue-topped lemon tart ($5.95). The shortbread crust cushions a thin, creamy layer of lemon curd. Squiggles of thick caramel sauce add a final hit of sweetness.
Engel has segued into weekday lunch, a pasticheof dinner entrées (in smaller portions) and additions (such as quiche, a few sandwiches, an omelet, etc.). This is another opportunity to connect with the neighborhood. Bay View may be a modest area, but its denizens surely know good food. If a restaurant could succeed by virtue of its owner’s drive and joie de cookingvivre, Pastiche has no better chance in town.
Pastiche Bistro: 3001 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-482-1446. Hours: L Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-2 p.m. D Mon-Thurs 4-9 p.m.; Fri-Sat 4-10 p.m. Half-price appetizers Mon-Thurs 4-6 p.m. Prices: appetizers $3.95-$10.50; salads $4.50-$10.50; entrées $12.50-$22.50; desserts $5.95-$9.50. Service: welcoming, enthusiastic, knowledgeable. Dress: Maybe a beret. Nah, too pretentious. Credit cards: M V. Nonsmoking. Reservations: accepted. Handicap access: Call first.