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Photo by Adam Ryan Morris The $150 million Potawatomi Hotel isn’t an understated structure. On the eastbound lanes of I-94 leading into the city, the curves of Miller Park’s retractable roof ease into view, followed by the bright tower whose “floating” rooftop lights up the word “POTAWATOMI.” A new emblematic piece of our skyline. With […]


Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

The $150 million Potawatomi Hotel isn’t an understated structure. On the eastbound lanes of I-94 leading into the city, the curves of Miller Park’s retractable roof ease into view, followed by the bright tower whose “floating” rooftop lights up the word “POTAWATOMI.” A new emblematic piece of our skyline.

With its trunk-like pillars and LED lighting, the hotel lobby was designed to create the feeling of being in a forest – a nod to the Potawatomi tribe’s Forest County roots. The restaurant Locavore is adjacent to this modern woodland of sorts. Natural light floods through the two-story restaurant windows, making it breezier and brighter than the windowless dining establishments inside in the casino, such as Wild Earth Cucina.
Chef Van Luu – whose last work address was the Third Ward’s Prodigal Gastropub – joined the casino staff to build and execute a menu that embraces Wisconsin. That means incorporating uncommon ingredients like shagbark hickory syrup (served with pancakes on the brunch menu). It also means committing to a seasonal mindset. The fresh tomatoes and sweet corn on the opening menu in August were petering out by late September. Luu doesn’t have an allegiance to any menu item, but he says he’s committed to keeping the menu approachable and reflective of Wisconsin food producers like Clock Shadow Creamery and Pinn-Oak Ridge Farms.
Locavore – a word, now omnipresent in food vernacular, describing someone who eats food within 100 miles of home – presents an intriguing challenge. In theory, it should appeal to travelers, win over herds of gamblers, and draw destination diners who would otherwise land in Walker’s Point or Bay View. In reality, it’s going to take time to do that. But I’ve eaten enough to see promise. 
Luu has cooked at a casino dining establishment before, at short-lived, Vegas-based Restaurant Charlie (as in, the late Charlie Trotter). Also on Luu’s resume is a stint at Lake Park Bistro. His own cooking influences are French and Asian cuisines, and as the menu changes, diners will experience more of that impact. 
The Locavore bar logically faces the hotel’s check-in desk. Just beyond the bar is the dining room, which extends the forest design motif with textured rope and a wall sculpture of hand-glazed ceramic leaves. The colors – red chairs and bright patterned booths, along with colored lighting – suggest an animated vibe. 
On visit No. 1, while a golden-aged couple downed martinis and a young family fed cheese curds to their toddler, we saw what Locavore could do, and do well. First up was Italian egg drop soup (cup $4, bowl $6), known in Italy as stracciatella (or shredded) soup because of the texture of the egg. In Locavore’s well-seasoned broth, tender pork and chicken meatballs bobbed at the surface. It was a wispy-light counterpoint to another “small plate” – three bison sliders ($11) crowned with aged cheddar and applewood smoked bacon, and strewn with house-cut, skin-on fries. This is the thing to eat if you plan to station yourself at a slot machine for five hours without any snacks. 
But that’d mean missing other, worthier proteins. One standout was the grilled lamb chops with mint-basil pesto and blackberry balsamic gastrique ($32). The pesto was pure summer, but the meaty, thick-cut chops were for year-round keeps. At the same time, the roasted Berkshire pork chop (with organic peach salsa and a triangle of fried jalapeno polenta, $26) maintained uniform tenderness. Not surprising, as the premium Berkshire breed means better marbling and flavor. 
The sides and sauces were terrific complements to the meat. That wasn’t the case with some of the aquatic aspects of the menu. The better option was a filet of wild Alaskan king salmon ($28) with bell pepper puree, cipollini onions and sautéed pattypans from the dinner menu. The salmon didn’t fare as well on a lunchtime salade nicoise ($19), which lacked the essential green beans and tomatoes (the menu promised heirloom), but contained the mother lode of mixed greens, along with Kalamata olives, fingerling potatoes and a hard-boiled egg. 
The delicate pan-seared scallops ($30), arranged on a “risotto” of farro (a grain) cooked in carrot juice, took on the unpleasantly earthy flavor of the carrot. And the wheaty farro was no substitute for starchy Arborio rice. 
It’s not surprising that some of Locavore’s menu needs revision. The burden of keeping things fresh will help rid it of the weak spots. In time, the Potawatomi bosses will get to know the hotel’s audience, and that will make Locavore’s job easier. ■

➽ Locavore
Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, 1611 W. Canal St., 414-847-8510. Hours: Daily breakfast/lunch hours 6 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner 5-10 p.m. Prices: Small plates $6-$12; large plates $20-$32; desserts $6. Service: Friendly, a little green. Dress: Gambling attire. Credit cards: M V A DS. Handicap access: Yes. Reservations: Encouraged.
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