New Kids in Town

photos by Dan Bishop Last summer, a restaurant called Good Life opened on Humboldt Avenue, a few steps from a cluster of upscale condos along the Milwaukee River. Aptly named, the place has a Caribbean focus, yet is hip, a relaxed place to chill out. It has the feel of a gentrified neighborhood hangout. Just up the street is Bayou, a loose – and chic – take on Cajun/Creole and Southern food in a mod setting. It’s becoming increasingly common for new restaurants to pop up in such close proximity. The Third Ward and Walker’s Point are particularly hot zip…

photos by Dan Bishop

Last summer, a restaurant called Good Life opened on Humboldt Avenue, a few steps from a cluster of upscale condos along the Milwaukee River. Aptly named, the place has a Caribbean focus, yet is hip, a relaxed place to chill out. It has the feel of a gentrified neighborhood hangout. Just up the street is Bayou, a loose – and chic – take on Cajun/Creole and Southern food in a mod setting.

It’s becoming increasingly common for new restaurants to pop up in such close proximity. The Third Ward and Walker’s Point are particularly hot zip codes for new restaurants. In a quiet section of National Avenue east of First Street, Peter Sandroni and three partners run the fledgling tapas restaurant La Merenda. Sandroni says right after they bought the building, local developer Tim Dixon released his plans for housing and retail on a 4.4-acre site near La Merenda.

Timing is everything, it would seem. A mile or so north of Sandroni’s Fifth Ward place, a Turkish restaurant named Tulip could be open in the Third Ward as you’re reading this.

We cover new restaurants every issue, but this is the first time we’ve taken a magnifying glass to the entire newbie scene. That’s because so much is happening.

To be a diner right now means endless possibilities. To be a restaurateur means competition beyond your wildest dreams. This year, the city swelled to include more varieties of ethnic cuisine (Ethiopian, Brazilian, Belgian/Dutch), as well as other venues doing Japanese, Italian, French and American food.

Meanwhile, the high-end national chains (Fleming’s Prime steakhouse, Devon Seafood Grill) finally made their big attack, particularly in the suburbs (see sidebar, page 61). These places are masters of the ultimate feel-good dining experience. There’s something about them that makes a person feel so important. Like during my visit to Fleming’s in Brookfield. As we left, every employee we passed thanked us profusely – the servers, the greeters, the valets, the manager (who warmly shook my male dining companion’s hand). But the allure of the chains is their novelty, which, like any trend, will eventually run its course.

Why is our ground so fertile these days? New residential and retail development in the city is fueling a restaurant boom in parts of Downtown and the South and East sides. This is a major time for openings, but many restaurant owners point out, it’s not happening without consequences. The seemingly untouchable Joe Bartolotta closed his Downer Avenue ristorante earlier this winter, and Kevin Sloan couldn’t keep five-year-old Sol Fire alive. Sloan’s tightening his belt and concentrating on his Third Ward business, The Social. And shortly before we went to press, Michael Feker announced the demise of his Walker’s Point restaurant Il Mito. Some restaurateurs say this is just the beginning – that for the market to adjust to the growth, other restaurants will fall in the months to come.

Not all of the new places are aimed at sophisticated palates, but they are offering more variety and excitement. It’s become a “buyer’s market,” an exhilarating time to be a diner. I’ve got 25 restaurants to tell you about – from tiny ethnic joints to big-bucks chains. All of them are out there trying to prove they’ve got what it takes to succeed. Will they? Time will tell. Take a look at the newest and some of the coolest restaurants in town.

Cafe Hollander:
Belgium, the Netherlands, frites, white ale. What’s not to like? With the distinction of being the only business in the last half-year to open on Downer Avenue, Cafe Hollander earns an award for that alone. The Diablos Rojos ownership group made this two-level spot bigger and more urbane than in its previous incarnation as Gil’s Cafe (the exposed brick and hardwood floors came with). And while Downer is not the sensation it was during the days of The Coffee Trader, a packed Hollander on a Saturday night makes you think it could be that way again. The problem is the same one that plagues the Diablos’ Trocadero – great atmosphere, just OK food. But it is fun to dip frites in something other than ketchup – flavored mustards and mayos, ranch dressing, Thai peanut sauce. Around the things that sound sort of European – Flemish beef
stew, chicken leffe (cooked in ale) – there’s a casual American frame of burgers, cheese plates, BLTs, pizza Margherita and more. $8-$24. 2608 N. Downer Ave., 963-6366.

Riviera Maya:
Here’s an instance of a restaurant evolving out of another. The owners of (hard-to-pronounce) Xel-ha on Lincoln and Howell closed their tiny Mexican restaurant and moved it a half-block away, next to the Boulevard Theatre. They also changed the name to sound a bit like a resort. And to be sure, the interior of Riviera Maya is larger and more comfortable (there’s a banquette strewn with plush pillows) and offers added wall space for colorful Mayan art. The menu includes what Xel-ha was known for – the big-bunned tortas filled with meat, refried beans, guacamole and cheese; and moles (sauces) made from various seeds and peppers (tomatillo, almond, chocolate-peanut) and served over chicken, steak or pork. Plus, a few new casserole-type dishes for vegetarians. As before, prices are affordable: $8.95-$13.50. 2258 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 294-4848.

A lot of hibachi shrimp and Asiana’s Green Bay Packer maki rolls will have to support this 11,000-square-foot restaurant, a sister to the Southridge Mall-area Japanica. Past the indoor koi pond, there’s a voluminous main dining room, sushi bar, several ornamental private tatami chambers and a teppanyaki room for meals cooked right at the table. The menu is mostly Japanese, but not all of it. A few breezes waft from China and Thailand. The sushi is what I’d come for, not the average Chinese dishes. If you like Thai curry, they have a very good panang (coconut milk-based) curry, but none of the Thai dishes have any warning about spiciness. Smart choices, amongst the Japanese items, are the hot or cold appetizers – fried soft-shell crab or seared pepper tuna – and the immaculate cuts of sashimi (raw fish). $10-$35. 1198 George Towne Dr., Pewaukee, 262-695-3888.

Il Mito Enoteca:
Passion. Restaurateur Michael Feker is all about it, and it’s what every restaurant needs. Feker’s passion started at Sixth and Virginia, with seven-year-old (and now closed) Il Mito, and spread briefly to include a South American restaurant on Jefferson Street called Los Mitos. (It lasted just a year.) Now he’s in Tosa, running Il Mito Enoteca, a dark, wood-accented Italian wine bar (that’s where the Italian word “enoteca” comes from) that doubles as a restaurant. The menu reminds me of Il Mito’s – the hearty gnocchi/risotto/osso buco turn. And this idea that dining should not put you in the hole financially. The pastas – capellini with garlic and tomatoes, risotto in beef tenderloin sauce, luscious pumpkin raviolis with sage butter sauce – are under $10. Portions are sensible, not excessive. By-the-glass wines are one price – $5.50. The Enoteca is a popular Tosa place on a Saturday night, and I understand why. $7-$18.95. 6913 W. North Ave., 443-1414.

Mason Street Grill:
It was the most high-profile opening of the last half-year. After closing Celia, the Pfister’s fine-dining restaurant located inconspicuously in the basement, the primo hotel came back with a well-planned replacement by last fall (this was after scoring former Watermark owner Mark Weber for the position of food and beverage director). The grill, located in far more desirable street-level digs, is casual for some diners, lavish for others. You can plop down at the kitchen counter or bar and have a burger or Cobb salad washed down with a beer. Or you can do it up right with a 21-day dry-aged New York strip and an $80 bottle of bubbly. I took few exceptions with the food, but the servers were just too green. I hope that will be fixed. $9.75-$48.50. 425 E. Mason St., 298-3131.

La Merenda:
Tapas bars aren’t so unusual anymore. But there is something special about this two-month-old in a tucked-away, former woodworking shop on National, east of First Street. In one visit, I had a Mexican salad, Colombian fried plantains with guacamole and salsa verde, vegetable couscous from North Africa, an Indonesian shrimp/coconut milk dish reminiscent of a Thai curry, and jerk lamb chops with sweet potatoes, courtesy of Jamaica. The menu features 21 hot and cold appetizers from France, Peru, Thailand, Indonesia and even the U.S. Two married couples manage different parts of this business. Colombia native Sonia Sandroni (whose Milwaukee-born husband, Peter, is executive chef) is the source for the marvelous fried plantains. The owners have so far avoided the thing that can make a tapas restaurant hard to swallow – the cost. The prices and portions are very fair. $4.50-$10. 125 E. National Ave., 389-0125.

Buckley’s Kiskeam Inn:
Mike Buckley’s family, two generations back, came to America from Kiskeam, a city in County Cork, Ireland. Buckley moved from the East Coast to Milwaukee a long time ago, but hasn’t lost the coastal dialect. Or the charm that made his previous bar, Buckley’s, a Riverwest haunt during its 1980s heyday. The bar owner is back, his adult sons in tow, running a proper Irish inn (white linens and bistro dishes) in the former Lakeside Inn. Buckley, fastened in white apron, has a warm smile that begins and ends in the eyes. He’s transformed Lakeside from antiquey B&B to classy, and yet casual, restaurant – one that now has a heavy wood bar that, like him, is from back East. The inn’s food isn’t very Irish, and it isn’t exactly bar food, either. They have mini Kobe burgers, crab cakes, grilled veggie panini, Cobb salad, ribs, a 10-ounce rib eye and chicken saltimbocca, several of which were uneven when I visited back in February. $8-$24. 801 N. Cass St., 277-1111.

Good Life:
When condos started sprouting up along the Milwaukee River north of Downtown, the logical next step was commercial development. Urban neighborhoods with a density of housing need some haunts – everyday places – within walking distance. Last fall, when bar-restaurant Good Life opened, it was too late in the season for alfresco dining. This year, the patio will be open, and while this is just East Side Milwaukee, the Caribbean spirit in the air will mix well with the Midwest humidity. The food and friendly vibe are strong. Co-owner DJBrooks, known more for his own vibe (playing drums in bands like defunct Citizen King), is often behind the bar; his wife, Cassie, keeps the flow in the narrow dining room, a warm wood-meets-cool-steel dichotomy. The menu is island-inspired and not too long or intricate. Its best tastes are pretty simple – pan-fried veggie cakes with cucumber aïoli served as appetizers, and the Trinidadian “shark and bake” sandwich that combines wonderful textures and flavors (warm flaky fried whitefish; cold lettuce, tomato and cucumber; sweet mango salsa; and creamy mayo, all loaded inside a piece of flatbread). $8-$17. 1935 N. Water St., 271-5375.

Kou You:
If you’re coming from the west, you won’t see this small sushi place with a half-dozen hibachi tables until you’ve whipped past it. Tucked in the back of an Elm Grove strip mall, beyond a foyer where live lobster and crab crawl around in a tank, is the unassuming Kou You. Hibachi tables will bring in customers who’d otherwise never come within feet of raw fish. Sushi – goodsushi – will attract a different crowd. And the sushi is pretty good. Presentation is important, and everything is arranged with artistry. The menu is standard Japanese: a huge affair featuring sashimi sold à la carte and in combos; many varieties of maki rolls (the mango roll – tempura shrimp with mango sauce – is a delight); and cooked entrées such as teriyaki, tempura and comfort-food creations like the rich battered chicken with walnuts. $10.95-$36.95. 12900 W. Blue Mound Rd., 262-789-8383.

Sabor Brazilian Churrascaria:
“Sabor” is Spanish for “flavor.” This restaurant, open since last summer, is based on a concept where diners are served at the table by Brazilian gauchos carrying meat on a spit. Diners pay a fixed price for unlimited quantities of two courses – a salad/antipasti buffet and the dozen fire-roasted meats the nattily-costumed cowboys slice and serve right at the table. Gimmicky? Absolutely. But you might be surprised, as I was, by the quality of the food. (You might also be amazed how the clothes that used to fit you suddenly seem to have shrunk.) There’s no sense in being judicious when you’re paying one price, right? Vegetarians, take note. You can simply have the buffet for $32.50. Buffet and meat course: $44.50. (For lunch: $14.50 for one course or $28.50 for both.) 777 N. Water St., 431-3106.

Think of the Milwaukee River as our version of the Louisiana bayou. It’s a bold statement, but then, this is about inspiration. The Big Easy inspired brothers Robert and William Jenkins to open this stylish restaurant last year along a stretch of the East Side that’s become very interesting to condo developers. (Previously mentioned Good Life is a half-block away.) Bayou is not a Cajun/Creole cliché. The interior is modern Danish, without a thread of Mardi Gras beads. So Hank Williams singing “Jambalaya” isn’t the sonic fit here, either. The flavors from the kitchen are milder and more nuanced – not food that’ll make your hairline sweat. There’s a handsome blackened redfish with sweet mango salsa, savory sweet potato pie entrée for vegetarians and elegantly dressed seafood gumbo. $16-$30. 2060 N. Humboldt Ave., 431-1511.

The Ethiopian Cottage:
Your eating utensils are your hands. You sit on conventional wooden chairs, but the table, called a moseb, is a large colorful woven basket with a woven lid. The server removes the top and places a round tray of food inside it – a thin, slightly sour-tasting pancake called injera, topped by various stews (beef, chicken, lamb or vegetable). The technique is to use pieces of injera to pick up hunks of the stew. It’s incredibly freeing to eat this way. Co-owner Yigletu Debebe is the host (his wife, Almaz M. Bekele, does the cooking) in this friendly strip-mall restaurant that opened in February. My favorite dish is the chopped beef in a thick gravy seasoned with berbere (a spice mix that includes fenugreek, red pepper and cardamom). Ditching the utensils is a great break from our traditional way of eating. $9.25-$13.50. 1824 N. Farwell Ave., 224-5226.

Last year, Marcus Corporation completed its overhaul of the old Wyndham Hotel. The changes included replacing the Kilbourn Cafe with a hip restaurant. That would be Kil@wat, which has a menu designed by restaurateur/consultant Marc Bianchini, of
Osteria del Mondo fame. From a looks perspective, the restaurant is big-city hot. From the standpoint of food, there are no rules. No “appetizer, entrées and desserts,” per se. You order from categories named “Spark,” “Synergy” and “Ambient.” Within them are Thai meatballs, shrimp beignets, Caesar salad, braised short ribs, and others. This isn’t fine dining. It’s fundining. $12-$34. Intercontinental Milwaukee Hotel, 139 E. Kilbourn Ave., 291-4793.

It’s an interesting contrast – the intrepid primary colors inside this Latin American restaurant and the dull gray of the West Allis neighborhood surrounding it. That makes Antigua a sanctuary. Co-owner Citlali Mendieta, whose parents are the heart and soul of El Rey Sol on Forest Home, uses her family’s restaurant as a springboard. A few of Rey Sol’s popular dishes are at Antigua – the mild cochinita pibil (shredded Yucatan-style pork) and chiles en nogada (pork-filled poblano peppers with a cold walnut sauce). And like El Rey Sol, this restaurant serves a complimentary appetizer – a small mango-cheese quesadilla with potato croquette. A nice touch. From the fairly small menu, try the stuffed poblanos or salmon with seed-flecked blackberry sauce. $12-$16. 5823 W. Burnham St., West Allis, 321-5775.

A few years ago, restaurateur Karl Kopp talked about opening a restaurant on King Drive. It came to naught, but the Bronzeville building he had in mind changed hands. Locals Corey and Lamonica Smith (developers who’ve rehabbed some 100 properties in Milwaukee) decided to open their own lounge and restaurant there, giving it a unique name that rhymes with “posh.” There is style to burn in this space. (The steel details are a trademark of local firm Flux Design, which handled the interior.) The dining part is a mix of Southern (darn-good fried catfish and spaghetti) and casual sit-down food (BLT, club sandwich, pork T-bone, chicken Alfredo). This is a great boost for, as some are calling it, “Downtown North.” $7-$23. 2213 N. Martin Luther King Dr., 265-5950.

Palmer’s Steak House:
I ran across this term recently: locavore. It basically means embracing the local cuisine. That cuisine could be anything as long as it’s part of the culture. Steaks, for instance. Folks in these parts love their steaks. Since early last summer, Palmer’s has been drawing people from all around Lake Country. Like its sister restaurant in Milwaukee, the PorterHouse, this isn’t a stylish steakhouse. The furniture is practical, not decorative. In the larger of the two dining rooms, there’s a stone fireplace. Though there’s seafood, chicken, ribs and chops on the menu, the locavore is going for the steak (beast of choice: the bone-in rib eye) and baked potato, and if the diner is reallyhungry beforehand, the pillow-like fried eggplant strips. They’re so worth it. $12-$45. 122 E. Capitol Dr., Hartland, 262-369-3939.

Chez Jacques:
Yeah, so this business isn’t exactly new, but it has gone through a significant makeover. Owner Jacques Chaumet had a small bar-restaurant he called Jacques’ French Cafe over on First, just north of Allen-Bradley. His lease ended last year and several months passed while this new location (painted yellow, with blue trim) went through the process of becoming eclectic-Bohemian. The front door opens to the bar. From there, two doorways lead to two dining rooms, plus one more dining room in the very back of the building. The common thread is the tile floor and bric-a-brac, the predictable photos of French landmarks and the music conjuring up Paris. Chaumet, a native Frenchman, hired Michel Koenig, a chef of some local repute (Mo’s, Milwaukee Hilton), to direct the kitchen. Jacques is now open every day – long hours, breakfast all the way to dinner. I remember the tasty sandwiches (tuna, ham and cheese, roasted veggies with feta) wrapped in waxed paper, and they’re still there. The menu is fancier in the evening, with bouillabaisse, canard roti à l’orange (roast duck), beef bourguignon, whitefish Provençale. I’d rather have a simple dish, like chicken crêpes or basil-scented baked goat cheese with toasted slices of baguette. $10.95-$23. 1022 S. First St., 672-1040.

Developer Bob Lang’s 38-room luxury hotel has a restaurant named for its owner, Andy Ruggeri (who also owns a bar and another restaurant in Delafield). Andrew’s displays an impressive collection of colonial antiques – objects that look fitting when a server brings to the table a roast duck with Marion blackberry Beaujolais demi-glace. Andrew’s, the menu steered by executive chef Dean Schmitz, is a refined place. You will see salmon pan-seared with morels and caramelized pearl onions; roasted veal tenderloin alongside Granny Smith apples and Calvados cream reduction. In visits I’ve paid to Andrew’s in the year it’s been open, I’ve seldom been disappointed by the food. Service was the problem – the bane of Lake Country. $25-$37. 415 Genesee St., Delafield, 262-646-1600.

Jose’s Blue Sombrero:
The DeRosa Corporation (owner of Eddie Martini’s and the Chancery restaurants) opened its first Jose’s in Racine in 2001. The Brookfield location followed last November. The big thing at Mexican restaurants right now is the guacamole cart – for tableside prep of the popular green dip – and Jose’s keeps its servers busy mashing up avocado with a mortar and pestle while you watch. The servers prepare the guac to your specifications, and with the ingredients there for your inspection, it’d be hard to find a fresher dip. It’d also be hard to find a far-West Side restaurant serving better basic Mexican food. The interior has a terra cotta and cobalt blue complexion, evoking the land south of Texas. Good items to sample: pork in spicy tomatillo sauce and carne al pastor – chile powder-laced steak served with stewy black beans. $5.95-$13.95. 20371 W. Blue Mound Rd., Brookfield, 262-432-6667.

Ann Christenson is Milwaukee Magazine’s dining critic.