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Lately I’ve been getting this baffling question from John (and Jeanette) Q. Diner: “Isn’t the Milwaukee restaurant scene pretty much the same from year to year?” While it’s true you’ll see some familiar names on our top restaurants list – isn’t stability a good thing? – change is always in the air. Remember when Mexican […]

Lately I’ve been getting this baffling question from John (and Jeanette) Q. Diner: “Isn’t the Milwaukee restaurant scene pretty much the same from year to year?” While it’s true you’ll see some familiar names on our top restaurants list – isn’t stability a good thing? – change is always in the air. Remember when Mexican dining amounted to Acapulco and Conejitos? And you had to drive to Chicago for Indian food? Now you need to pore over your Mexican choices (it’s daunting out there), and you can practically pick a side of town and find an Indian restaurant. Locationally, the dining news is Downtown, urged on by new residential developments. Pretty bars-cum-restaurants are serving fusion cuisine and offering their own take on hip eats like flat-iron steaks and Cuban sandwiches. You’ll read about the most promising ones here.

May is traditionally the month we offer our biggest dining package of the year. That means we tell you where to go, what to eat and which table to reserve. It gives you a lot of useful information in one place, so you can do the most important thing: get down to the business of eating.

The Top 20

Crazy Water
A few months ago, owner Peggy Magister told me “imaginative bar food” wasn’t the restaurant’s M.O. anymore. Sure enough, while Peggy (sometimes her look-alike sister, Lynn) continues to cook in a tiny spot behind the bar, the place has gone elegant on us (adding linens, softening the artwork and lighting) and has consequently grown more comfortable. Peggy’s sauces roll onto the tongue; robust and chatty with lacy undertones of spice, they hog the attention. Do try the fresh fish (sweet-spicy Arctic char with clove-red wine reduction is memorable) and breathtaking flat-iron steak with nutmeg potato casserole. Entrées $14-$26. 839 S. Second St., 645-2606.

Dancing Ganesha
The reality is that diners have standbys, and thoughtful restaurant owners need to keep their existing customer base happy while reaching out to new clientele (sounds a lot like the magazine business). So Dancing Ganesha owners Usha and Ami Bedi maintain the swinging pendulum with the regular menu (of appetizers, curries, vegetarian dishes) and the whip-smart nightly specials list. Creativity comes in buckets here. A ginger-seasoned leg of lamb wrapped around fresh asparagus was one of chef Usha’s best winter specials. Entrées $8-$25. 1692-94 N. Van Buren St., 220-0202.

Il Mito
What I like about “The Myth” (the restaurant name in English) comes flooding back each time I’m here – the sort of accessible menu (owner Michael Feker’s code name is “Medriatic,” a splice of Mediterranean and Adriatic) that is so easy to fall into. Options like New York strip over a crisp fried potato cake and pork loin under a fontina-prosciutto crust are knockouts. I love the pastas, too, some as low as $10. Entrées $9.95-$23.95. 605 W. Virginia St., 276-1414.

Restaurant Hama
“Inventive” is everyday stuff here. Yes, there’s the obligatory menu of sushi, sashimi, tempura et al, but I like to see the kitchen work. What’s new and fab? A Japanese shrimp pancake – a crisp-soft carb delight of noodles, eggs, shrimp and zucchini served with Osaka sauce – and the stately salmon filet wrapped in spinach and rice paper, then lightly pan-fried. Desserts are always a thrill – chocolate crêpes filled with white chocolate mousse and topped with raspberry sauce, banana fritters with vanilla custard, coconut snowballs, oh my. Entrées $12-$25. 333 W. Brown Deer Rd. (Audubon Court), 352-5051.

There’s good news for anyone missing Sandy. The chef/co-owner is back in the kitchen, and he’s done with that silky and sultry tasting menu. Chef de cuisine David Swanson left last February, bringing Sandy and spouse/partner Angie D’Amato back into the restaurant (Coquette Cafe’s opening five years ago pulled them away into other segments of responsibility). Sandy’s plan is to simplify the menu, bring it back to an à la carte format, and charm you all over again with options like skate saltimbocca with walnut and arugula spaetzle and char-grilled lamb loin with spiedini-crusted lamb ragu. Entrées $24-$29; four-course seasonal menu $39. 1547 N. Jackson St., 276-9608.

The Elm Grove Inn
Owner Mark R. Doweiko signed on to a life of high-brow cuisine when he took over Nico Derni’s inn almost three years ago. The Diver scallops and seared tournedos are realities he can’t avoid. What he can do is add the unexpected. Voilà: “The World’s Fare,” a separate, few-months-old dinner menu of lower-priced classic American dishes with an Elm Grove Inn twist. He has roasted veal meatloaf, turkey stroganoff, chicken fettuccine with prosciutto and sage cream and a fresh, super interpretation of sauerbraten, substituting wild boar for beef. If you’re just feeling like stuffed filet of sole, well, he can service that need, too. Entrées $13.95-$40. 13275 Watertown Plank Rd., Elm Grove, 262-782-7090.

Osteria del Mondo
These days, life is more complicated for owners Marc and Marta Bianchini. They have two young children and are running another restaurant on Milwaukee Street (casual, sunny Cubanitas; see page 51), open since last fall. But Osteria is theirs and theirs alone. There’s really nothing else in town for top-of-the-line Italian fine dining: spaghetti with a cognac crab sauce, spinach pasta with veal ragu, Strauss veal scalloppine, U.S. Prime filet. Entrées $17-$24. 1028 E. Juneau Ave., 291-3770.

Coquette Cafe
Former Sanford sous Andy Schneider (with his “incredible Zen demeanor,” says co-owner Angie D’Amato) has been head chef here for a year. He’s helped erase my ambivalence about the food – good in some ways, but… The novel monthly “Coquette’s Travels” menu evens out the classic feel of many of the staple choices: succulent half rotisserie chicken moistened with rosemary jus, bacon-wrapped Strauss veal meatloaf and Rushing Waters sautéed trout with lemon and capers. Entrées $10.95-$20.95. 316 N. Milwaukee St., 291-2655.

You’ve encountered this metaphor before – of the chef as performer and the diners his/her audience. It brings dining down to a central human connection and level of trust you won’t find in Chainsville. The statement, “I’ll only eat wild boar at so-and-so’s restaurant” becomes “I’ll only eat boar made by so-and-so.” The trust people have in a chef like Riversite’s Tom Peschong is power. He knows his sources. He’s worked this stage for 14 years, and he’s still in top form. Steaks, fish, chops – I’d have no hesitation ordering anything here. Entrées $25-$35. 11120 N. Cedarburg Rd., Mequon, 262-242-6050.

Eddie Martini’s
Steak – it’s not just for breakfast anymore. Beef is holding strong and so are steakhouses like Eddie’s, which are good for far more than steaks. Sure, you can get a nice filet (two sizes) and a winning New York strip (au natural or au poivre), but there’s also good seafood (ahi tuna to sautéed marlin), chops and, yeah, humble chicken. Don’t miss a run-in with dessert either. Entrées $18-$39. 8612 Watertown Plank Rd., 771-6680.

Ristorante Bartolotta
It’s Downtown Tosa’s compulsory Northern Italian place and one of the first (locally) to hone the art of tag team service in the mid-’90s. Owner Joe B. hasn’t messed much with his firstborn – no massive expansions or menu switcheroos. That’s good. People know they can come in and find the fried calamari and the roast game hen with caramelized Brussels sprouts. In the spirit of perfect pairs, not too long ago the restaurant started a “dinner and a movie” tag team – Bartolotta and the village’s Rosebud Theater. You have a choice of two dining seatings at the restaurant, before or after seeing a cool food movie like Big Night at the cinema. Entrées $15.95-$28.50. 7616 W. State St., 771-7910.

Last fall, Gourmet came out with a mini best restaurants guide. Milwaukee isn’t commonly picked up by the magazine’s radar, but it found us and, among other destinations, a “buzzing” place called Tess. Partners Joe Volpe and Mitch Wakefield bring the best vibe here since Miro’s 15 years ago. The bar has developed into a hangout of lively drinking people. In the small paprika-colored dining room, faces are softened by candlelight and white bistro ware. Chef Volpe doesn’t overemphasize a thing, although you see how much goes into every dish as you deconstruct it. Exemplifiers: beef tenderloin with Maytag blue cheese and pan-seared prosciutto-wrapped grouper. $14-$23. 2499 N. Bartlett Ave., 964-8377.

The servers are toes-on, and that “flavors dance” spiel owner Marcus Corp. uses in its advertising shows up in dishes like a coriander-crusted salmon with gnocchi, lamb chops with juniper syrup, and roasted plums and beets and strawberries Celia set aflame on a portable cooktop next to your table. What’s new: chef de cuisine Jovan Djokovic, former executive chef at Tula’s, who has brought more vibrancy here than I’ve seen in a good year. He’s working with many staple dishes but has given them more fire. However, entrées aren’t as generous as we’ve grown to expect in Milwaukee; in fact, the lamb I enjoyed lasted four bites. Size matters. Entrées $17-$32. Pfister Hotel, 424 E. Wisconsin Ave., 390-3832.

Elliot’s Bistro
Native Frenchman Pierre Briere has had almost two years to add to his hat collection, displayed whimsically on the walls. He’s created a French framework of classic, cream-laden dishes with no direct local competition. It’s neat to watch white-smocked Briere flaming your steak au poivre (or cherries jubilee) just inches from your table and making charming comments in his heavily accented English. He keeps us happy with beef à la bourguignonne, duck cassoulet, cuisses de Grenouille (frog legs), crêpes Suzette and other French enigmas. Entrées $10-$32. 2321 N. Murray Ave., 273-1488.

Lake Park Bistro
Reminder: This is Adam Siegel’s show now, not Mark Weber’s, who left Lake Park in late 2002 to prepare for his own restaurant – off-Brady Street’s Watermark. Coming into the bistro mid-act, Siegel has had two roles – impression-maker and preserver of the status quo. Both are important. What has evolved is the opportunity to order classic dishes (the bouillabaisse and entrecôte de boeuf), daily offerings (coq au vin or salade niçoise), modern interpretations (Provençal lamb chops, duck prepared two ways) and prix fixe choices. It makes for a happy everyone. Me, I’m a sucker for the delicate rainbow trout in a lemony thyme beurre blanc. Entrées $16.50-$29.95. 3133 E. Newberry Blvd., 962-6300.

River Lane Inn
This is the other half of Jim Marks’ seafood dominion and a perennial presence on our list. Head chef JoLinda Klopp took over when Karla Fisher left the field more than a year ago, a move you know Marks wouldn’t have made without long, hard thought. One of my favorite appetizers ever is the mustard-crusted medium-rare ahi tuna with wasabi fish roe. Fresh fish like bass, grouper, halibut and salmon are pretty tried and true. Note: I’d love to see Marks lighten up the interior. Entrées $17.95-$23.95. 4313 W. River Ln., 354-1995.

Three Brothers
Spend a night in this dreamily lit old Schlitz tavern under the spell of a handsome older man in a beret (co-owner Branko Radicevic) and the world may seem different afterward – not so inauthentic and homogenous. This is the Radicevic family’s life work – building memories that center in the heart and stomach. What they do best: chicken paprikash, goulash, burek, sautéed chicken livers and a brilliant Serbian salad. Entrées $10.50-$15.50. 2414 S. St. Clair, 481-7530.

Dream Dance
Former chef de cuisine Brandon Wolff is at the Bartolotta-owned Bacchus now, bringing a new name to town – 33-year-old Jason Gorman, whose 15-year career has jumped from Atlanta to Dallas to Lake Geneva. The menu has kept some of its original items (venison Rossini, NY strip with horseradish potato gratin, trio of beets salad), while giving Gorman room to play with others (the filet is grilled instead of seared and served with subtly flavored potato-blue cheese cylindrical “strudels”) and make his mark with still more (red snapper with eggplant-sausage spoonbread timbale and romesco sauce). Concerts at Northern Lights Theater keep the dining room busy – busier on a recent visit than I’d ever seen it. The food was strong enough to warrant placement here, but the tag-team service was less polished than I’d expect to see coupled with prices like these. Entrées $26-$39. In the Potawatomi Bingo Casino, 1721 W. Canal St., 847-7883.

Pacific Rim
Bob Phoungphol, the restaurateur best known as owner of The King & I, splits his time between his Downtown Thai place and his toddler Asian fusion joint around the corner. Except for a (I hope) flukey recent overcooked deep-fried halibut, Pacific Rim is hanging in there, offering dishes you won’t get across town. Walnut chicken with red and yellow pepper sauces and pan-seared grouper in spicy coconut milk sauce are longstanding faves. Presentation is lovely and portion sizes are very agreeable. Entrées $14.95-$35. 830 N. Old World Third St., 277-8100.

Mr. B’s: A Bartolotta Steakhouse
The steakhouse continues to be a good investment for the Bartolotta Restaurant Group. Could it be the heavy protein concentration in an Atkins-friendly time? Related issues: the stabilizing presence of executive chef Brent Perszyk and the sturdy menu of steaks (filets, rib-eyes, NY strips with succulent sauces), seafood (shrimp scampi to grilled swordfish) and Italian specialties. For fans of decadence (isn’t everyone?), Mr. B’s offers a $54.95 Kobe rib-eye, the foie gras of steaks. Entrées $16.95-$36.95. 17700 W. Capitol Dr., 262-790-7005.

The promising openings of the last year.

And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for. As soon as Joe Bartolotta announced that he was taking over the old Boulevard Inn space, you knew it had to be a major addition to his empire. It’s major major. We swanned in on a Friday night at the end of the first week, and Joe B. was proudly chatting up the crowd while scores of staff (and I mean scores) worked the room. Joe’s Chicago chef/brother Paul made the rounds as well. The old red wall/French poster art look is so gone. In their place are cream and tan walls, mirrors, square sconces, leather banquettes and a 16-foot floor-to-ceiling wall of wines (Bacchus is the Roman god of wine). Three servers micromanaged our table but brought some stunning dishes. Of the best: Jerusalem artichoke soup; salmon in herb sauce; venison Rossini, the marriage of an exceptional filet of venison and buttery foie gras (a signature of executive chef Brandon Wolff); and ruby red grapefruit crisp. My concern, as with any high-priced restaurant, is value. The petiteness of some dishes (tuna tartare appetizer, beet/goat cheese salad) made me question that. Are you listening, Joe B.? Entrées $17-$38. Cudahy Towers, 925 E. Wells St., 765-1166.

If running a restaurant were just placing food in front of diners, we’d have a lot of great restaurants. The Zilli family, owner of Waukesha’s Grandview Inn, works on the diner/restaurant relationship (they often mail thank-you notes with freebie coupons to customers who fill out comment cards) and seem genuinely interested in making your experience better, food to service. The menu hits more often than misses in these ways: barbecue braised pork shank and Floribbean grilled grouper. Entrées $10-$29. O’Donnell Park, 931 E. Wisconsin Ave., 727-5555.

A good start for Milwaukee Street – if it really intends to become a with-it dining and imbibing zone. Last fall, Osteria del Mondo owners Marc and Marta Bianchini opened their second restaurant, an homage to Marta’s ethnic background. You know how buttoned-up the atmosphere is at Osteria? You can loosen the tie here. Better yet, take off the tie, turn up the music, groove up the décor and start your meal at the bar. Hearty home kitchen-type choices: shredded beef, roast pork, Cuban sandwiches, fried plantains (tostones) and yucca fries are good places to start. Sandwiches, entrées $4.50-$11.95. 728 N. Milwaukee St., 225-1760.

Vivo Urban Grill
It’s now, it’s wow. Tyler Peyton and Al Balda, the partners who banded together their experience (at places like Harry’s Bar & Grill and Rock Bottom) and their instinct for cool did a top-to-bottom slice and dice of their share of the John Ernst Cafe space. Now it’s two floors of contempo design and mood-enhancing color with seating for 99, a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef and a menu that clears hurdles. Nice surprises are the spring roll-like crab and papaya sticks; pork tenderloin with rich, rich mac and cheese; and a discerningly prepared paella. Dinner $7-$21. 600B E. Ogden Ave., 283-0045.

Watermark Seafood
Lake Park Bistro gave Mark Weber chef-celeb status. Now on his own and doing an almost exclusively seafood-based menu, Weber is possibly the most visible chef in the city. He’s opened up the kitchen so he can see diners from every vantage point. Softer and less noisy than previous tenant Vinifera, Watermark has worked through the early service kinks so diners can keep their attention focused on what matters: the food. There are many great options: fried buttermilk-battered surf clams, Korean barbecued yellowfin tuna, grilled cobia in spicy marinara sauce, a dynamite lemon soufflé tart. Entrées $16.50-$24. 1716 N. Arlington Pl., 278-8464.

Jackson Grill
The menu doesn’t waste time: no appetizers – just entrées and quick-read extras like twice-baked potatoes. Owner Jimmy Jackson (offspring of the late Ray, whose steakhouse was a Blue Mound Road fixture) is having a love affair with upscale supper club food. The retro quarters – the bar and tight-squeeze dining room are ever full – don’t offer even a wisp of intimacy. That’s okay. Portions are too big for anyone to care. Steaks (a swell, immense flat-iron) and pastas (chicken Marsala with Portobellos and bowtie pasta) are the muscle here. For dessert, choux pastry and custard meet to form giant, blissful cream puffs. Entrées $16-$31. 3736 W. Mitchell St., 384-7384.

The best thing about the Manolo Blahnik of stylish restaurants is not the food. Some selections may be too contrived for Milwaukee’s palate (chicken with wild mushrooms and steer tenderloin with Asiago potatoes were far better than the seared scallops and wild mushrooms over radiatore pasta, topped with a runny soft-cooked egg), but the transformation of what was a choppy space called Jolly’s is startling – delightfully startling. For me, it all comes together in the scrumptious Skylight Room, a dining area delivered into temptation by a dramatic centerpiece bar. Savor apps and drinks in here or dessert and coffee. Entrées $18-$48. 7754 Harwood Ave., Wauwatosa, 431-1444.