A Cream city corner, the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower visible from the threshold. Diners thread inside the door. A breeze of clingy dresses, dandy bow ties and crisp button-down shirts whistles past. The excitement, visible in their eyes, is mirrored by the hostess.
Braise Restaurant is the new toy, the Walker’s Point establishment that’s caught the sunlight of a mild spring day. Does it direct or reflect what diners want? I’d say both.
Braise’s slow food mantra is on the radar. But the topically relevant cuisine is not its only allure. Restaurateurs pondering Walker’s Point as a model of (early) success in a gritty, urban neighborhood – Second Street, in particular – will find encouragement. Not that there aren’t other businesses with deeper roots than Braise – the ghostly glowing storefront of Shaker’s Cigar Bar, the behind-the-bar cooking wizardry of Crazy Water. The street is a diverse continuum of offbeat bars and restaurants, rounded out by commercial ventures in tattooing, yoga, upscale kitchen fixtures, carpeting and artisan chocolates, among other rogue enterprises.
Back on the front stoop of Braise in late winter, you can almost make out the new “radically green” Clock Shadow Building several blocks south. Beyond environmental efficiency, it houses a cheese factory and the retail shop for Milwaukee-born Purple Door Ice Cream. It’s a neighborhood in transition, the glorified grit before the gentrification. What better entry is there to a story that extols local restaurants than an evolving neighborhood? Dig in.
Some of the best dishes are coming from restaurant kitchens that butcher their meat in-house.
Hinterland Erie Gastropub
Paul Funk has never participated in the slaughter of a pig. In 2002, the Racine native left the Midwest for Colorado, then headed to Wyoming and short stints in the south of France and Florence, Italy. But the opportunities offered in Wyoming stuck with him. They were in restaurant kitchens committed to food gathering in its most basic forms – gardens, pigpens and pastures.
Two years ago, Funk arrived in Milwaukee looking for work but didn’t cast his net wide. “There were basically two restaurants on the list,” he recalls. One was Hinterland, and he haunted the bar (he says) until they agreed to hire him. Funk, now 32, was initially brought on for a finite period of time, but his skills and enterprising nature helped turn a monthlong gig into a full-time job. His agility – not to mention zealousness – with the knife led to his current position as Hinterland’s resident butcher.
Funk, who handles all things charcuterie at Hinterland, is among an elite group of local chefs doing in-house butchering to not only use the straightforward “choice” cuts, but everything else as well, making sausages, pâtés, rillettes (which bear a resemblance to pâté), head cheese and cured meats.
“Contemporary American” is the vague umbrella term for the Hinterland kitchen’s craft, yet it doesn’t do justice to the game and fresh fish (sensitively and skillfully handled), the seasonal stashes of goods (ramps to asparagus to verpa, similar to morel mushrooms), and a growing list of things that originate in the whole pigs they buy from Wisconsin farms. The catalog of creations that the spoils go to includes hot dogs and brats, porchetta (boneless pork roast), English pork pies, pork chops, scrapple made from the kidneys, noodles from the skin, fat for gnocchi and so on. Wasting it would be incongruous and disrespectful to both the animal and the person who raised it.
Proponents of in-house butchering argue that it’s cheaper in the long run for the restaurant to buy whole, but only if the chefs are proficient at breaking down the animal. Hinterland would like to expand the restaurant’s butchering to lamb and beef, executive chef Dan Van Rite says, but the size of the kitchen places limits. You wouldn’t know it looking at the menu, which is reprinted often. Recent awesomeness: wood-fire grilled elk New York strip steak with beluga lentils, maitake mushrooms and huckleberry reduction; and Oregon steelhead with fiddlehead ferns and grilled spring onions. Entrées $30-$43. (222 E. Erie St., Suite 100, 414-727-9300)
Every few weeks, the chefs at Sanford have a delivery that unites them for a pragmatic purpose. The lamb carcass in their care comes from Delavan-based Pinn-Oak Ridge Farms, whose animals are raised on a grain-based diet devoid of hormones and antibiotics. Chef de cuisine Justin Aprahamian is ready with his boning knife, meat saw and cleaver. It’s the time for skill and efficiency, not creativity.
First, Aprahamian and his sous chefs break down “the primals” (back legs and shoulders) from the carcass, which is already, hauntingly, missing its head. From there, they turn to the delicate task of removing the meat from the neck. The steps continue until every part is extracted and set aside for a specific purpose at the restaurant. Aprahamian uses the ribs and belly on a recent tasting menu. Meat from the neck is cured to make coppa, a heady cold cut similar to prosciutto. The lamb shanks become a filling for ravioli; the bones, one of the foundations for a sauce. Nothing goes to waste.
In the soft, serene light of the elegant 55-seat dining room, blades and butchering are not on anyone’s mind. Servers unobtrusively scrape crumbs off an ivory tablecloth, and the courses seamlessly unfold. Conversation is muted. Expectations are high, and they are met. Spring menu highlights: grilled duck breast with olive dumplings, charred ramps and romesco sauce; and roasted lamb shoulder and braised lamb cannelloni with sheep’s milk, morels and spring peas. Entrées $33-$36. (1547 N. Jackson St., 414-276-9608)
Although going on 10 years in the making, Braise arrived at the right time – Walker’s Point is bubbling with restaurant activity. Domino rows of buildings in the neighborhood show age and decline, but not all. Some reflect the steely enthusiasm of entrepreneurs eager to bring them back. The metamorphosis of Braise’s late-1800s building is all the more impressive because of its old/new dynamic (Mason jar pendant lights and lots of reclaimed wood). The look could hardly be a more suitable canvas for the cuisine, which puts into practice owner/chef Dave Swanson’s slow food creed. The menu changes often and depends on what’s in season. The image of a bounty of roasted, braised, grilled, seared farm-raised savoriness spread out on tables made of recycled bowling-lane wood has taken the new restaurant-craving public by pitchfork. With a rooftop patio/garden and Braise’s culinary school yet to come, this could be the summer site of sweet content. Entrées $6-$24. (1101 S. Second St., 414-212-8843)
Bosley on Brady
Close your eyes. Envision screened porch doors, scorching hot sand, colors of circuslike vividness. You can almost feel the Key West sunlight on your face, right? Bosley’s dining room conjures up a warm, convivial Keys feeling that spreads into the bar and that rousing crowd of happy hour customers. But wait, why are you really here? The knockout lineup of seafood creations – brown sugar salmon to seared U-10 scallops. Entrées $19-$38. (815 E. Brady St., 414-727-7975)
Why should a restaurant that led the steakhouse craze in the mid-1990s – the era of “Seinfeld” and grunge music – cross your radar? Milwaukeeans like meat, food that covers the plate and getting what they pay for. Eddie’s is not a cheap date, but for a reliably cooked cut of beef – be it filet or N.Y. strip – you won’t find better. Entrées $21-$46. (8612 W. Watertown Plank Rd., 414-771-6680)
Seated near the fireplace, barn-wood walls on each side, a Jake’s filet close to your chest, a mouthful of obligatory fried onion strings, a person might need a datebook reminder: Is it 1967 or 2012? Both. Co-owner Jake Replogle understands the balancing act that is this middle-age restaurant: the classics (like rumaki, left) alongside the new and noteworthy (spring lamb with garlic scape and mint pesto). If you’re not up for a heavy meal and multiple dollar signs, the casual Charred Lounge, just off the bar, does fresh oysters, BBQ duck wings, the J Burger and more. Entrées $22-$45. (21445 W. Gumina Rd., Pewaukee, 262-781-7995)
Roots Restaurant and Cellar
Winter presents challenges for menus reliant on seasonal ingredients. But even in that “dormant” time, this one radiates the warmth of a lush growing season. That’s what sends me to Roots, even if just to eat pulled pork nachos in the Cellar while gazing out at one of the best skyline views in the city. Daniel Jacobs, Roots’ executive chef of less than a half-year, fits in well and should be rocking out the spring menu right about now. Entrées $20-$36. (1818 N. Hubbard St., 414-374-8480)
A woman in a sea of men. Jan Kelly’s James Beard Award nomination this year – making her one of two females on the Best Midwest Chef semifinals list – was the deserved result of 30 years in the business. Just as writers dream words, I believe Kelly dreams menu ingredients. Using local products isn’t enough. At her Washington Heights digs, she gives them a personality. Entrées $14-$24. (5921 W. Vliet St., 414-479-0620)
The arresting runway model of an interior, the hostesses in décolletage-bearing ensembles, Umami is very much about visual impressions. And chef Justin Carlisle’s plates are a beautiful fit. The 33-year-old has a culinary background in Asian fusion – a past gig was executive chef of Madison’s Restaurant Muramoto – and he’s doing some of the finest work there since chef Dominic Zumpano left. Unexpected flavors are intricately knitted together. Examples: an art house version of king crab rangoon; and Kobe sirloin with turnip, nuoc mau (Vietnamese caramel sauce), red sorrel and peanut custard. Entrées $15-$35. (718 N. Milwaukee St., 414-727-9333)
Le Rêve Patisserie & Cafe
Tosa is not a place to waste time thinking about where you’re going to eat. There aren’t many good choices downtown, one reason this field of Francophiles is busting at the seams on weekend nights. Another is because they do a mean steak frites and duck two ways. Not to mention the citron tart – killer. Entrées $18.95-$25.95. (7610 Harwood Ave., 414-778-3333)
Try practicing rawism (aka, eating uncooked, unprocessed, organic food) in a Milwaukee restaurant. You won’t find anyone who speaks your language unless it’s at this strip-mall tribute to fresh produce. Manna’s current chef, Bill Phelps, comes from a background of cooking red meat and approaches preparing vegetarian/vegan cuisine with the same intensity and inventiveness. Smart? Brilliant. Entrées $13-$17. (3815 N. Brookfield Rd., Brookfield, 262-790-2340)
The sweetest table in this dark, wood-laden old Teutonic bar isn’t really a table. It’s the far left side of the bar, perfect for two eagle-eyed diners (watch out, bartender; we can see you). That little behind-the-bar kitchen produces so many good plates that it’s easy to get too attached. Therein lies the one issue: The menu doesn’t change often enough. Still, when I’m here, there’s no other place I’d rather be. Entrées $20-$29. (839 S. Second St., 414-645-2606)
Enter this portal to the past with a growling stomach and a plastic-less wallet (it’s cash only). The onetime Schlitz tavern (check out the cool vintage globe that’s over the bar) exists in another time, and that’s exactly why you’re here. The food tastes like there’s a Serbian mom in the kitchen because there is – Patricia Radicevic. Beyond stuffing yourself silly on beef burek, chevapchichi (sausage), stuffed cabbage leaves, beef goulash and roast suckling pig, there’s the simple joy of taking in the scenery – eavesdropping, too – from your seat at an old Formica table. Lucky you if 89-year-old co-owner Branko is in the house and in a storytelling mood. Entrées $13.50-$22.50. (2414 S. Saint Clair St., 414-481-7530)
Pig roasts in winter, fries smothered in barbecued pork, animal heads mounted on the walls. Over this storefront spot’s three years of life, its homage to meaty Midwest cuisine has evolved from messy sandwiches to nightly entrées with a sophisticated home-cooking vibe. Not incongruous, I’m telling you! The reason I keep coming back to this pie- and pork-loving hipster haunt is that it always surprises me. A nice cassoulet of duck confit, braised pork and andouille? A Kobe skirt steak with spaetzle, Brussels sprouts and hedgehog mushrooms? Amazing. Entrées $11-$20. (2643 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-489-7437)
On A dead-end road dotted with watering holes, vacant lots and a boxy new apartment building, La Merenda is a flare in the midst of an uncultivated Walker’s Point corridor. How does it manage to be one of Walker’s Point’s busiest restaurants? For starters, there’s really not a dud in that seasonally changing (local farm-supported) menu of 25 or so small plates. Dining with a group of friends? Party at La Merenda! It’s the only menu I know of that has Spanish empanadas, Argentinian beef with chimichurri sauce, free-raised veal spiedini, and Chinese five-spice-rubbed pork belly. News? Owner Peter Sandroni’s side project this summer is to change one of the nearby vacant lots into a patio. Small plates $3.50-$11. (125 E. National Ave., 414-389-0125)
Buckley’s Restaurant & Bar
It’s not much, but it’s enough. The dark-blue room that’s dominated by an antique wooden bar (owner Mike Buckley brought it from New York City) started with a whisper in 2007 and has come out howling. That’s thanks to former Osteria del Mondo chef Thi Cao, who adds finesse and flair to pastas, basic sandwiches and entrée salads. Entrées $19-$29. (801 N. Cass St., 414-277-1111)
Mason Street Grill
The kitchen counter, a thick block of marble, is where you might catch the imposing figure of executive chef Mark Weber cooking on the line. Despite a fairly formulaic – and huge – hotel restaurant menu, the grounding force is Weber, whose previous life as a seafood restaurant owner shines in underwater options from fried surf clams and fresh stone crab claws to oysters from both coasts. Entrées $9.75-$49.50. (Pfister Hotel. 425 E. Mason St., 414-298-3131)
It’s one of the smaller restaurants on this list – an L-shaped dining room with chocolate walls and a tiny kitchen. Even so, the kitchen produces two handmade pastas and leans on traditional, elegant Italian fare like veal osso buco. Owner Brian Zarletti is ready to retool the menu, and barring the flight of the pasta puttanesca, I’m ready to see the path he takes. Entrées $11.95-$32.95. (741 N. Milwaukee St., 414-225-0000)
Pastiche Bistro & Wine Bar
South of the action at Lincoln and Kinnickinnic (the site of Alterra Coffee’s almost-open mega cafe), chef Mike Engel is leading a cassoulet-and-coq-au-vin charge on Bay View. Pastiche is the working person’s French restaurant. Most of the entrées cost less than $20; portions are more Milwaukee-sized (très grand) than French. With a Monday-night mussels deal to boot, this place can be slammed, but there are few better values in town for quality French. Entrées $12-$24. (3001 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-482-1446)
No Boredwalk Empire
Joe Bartolotta’s “Big Six” commands crowds. These are the reasons that should keep you coming back.
This mid-2011 opener broke new ground for Bartolotta Restaurant Group. It’s the group’s most casual sit-down joint to date, centered smack dab in the middle of the city’s busiest spot for the performing arts. With diners needing to get in and out, the pace has to be quick, and it is. Drop in for a burger and a craft beer. Settle down for a cocktail and some pâté and cheese, followed by a rib-eye steak. Inspired by the steampunk design aesthetic – a movie set-like mix of Victoriana, techno-fantasy and diesel engines – Joe B. chose moody wall colors and antique light fixtures (casting a gaslight glow), and enough dark wood to outfit an Irish pub. Eagan’s, the predecessor at this address, had lost its identity. Rumpus, not as raucous as the name but still lively, has brought much-needed energy back to Water Street. Entrées $16-$36. (1030 N. Water St., 414-292-0100)
A few years ago, Joe Bartolotta tried a short-lived experiment, putting the Bacchus liquid lounge menu in the hands of the classic cocktail-conjuring dudes behind Milwaukee’s Bittercube. That project chiseled away a little of Cudahy Tower’s demographic stereotype. Still, I wondered if this St. John’s Knits of local restaurants would forever skew “mature.” Maybe not as long as there’s the porterhouse-for-two – the date-night delicacy served family-style in a cast-iron skillet – that compelled a few Gen Y couples one evening to sit like conjoined twins and feed each other. This Bartolotta offers the most sophisticated experience, one that best exhibits the talents of James Beard Award-garnering chef Adam Siegel – foie gras with candied kumquats, Strauss lamb duet and, yup, that shriek-worthy porterhouse. Entrées $24-$89. (Cudahy Tower, 925 E. Wells St., 414-765-1166)
Joe B. and philanthropist Mike Cudahy went well beyond the Nantucket fish shack template. They built a bright white complement to the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Calatrava addition, which is visible through the windows. And what can compete with that daytime view of an indigo Lake Michigan speckled with sailboats? Menu-wise, the seafood towers from the raw bar are the reason I come here. Entrées $14.25-$67.95. (550 N. Harbor Dr., 414-395-4900)
Mr. B’s: A Bartolotta Steakhouse
Moving two years ago from a buried little house in Stonewood Village to spacious stand-alone digs made a huge difference. The dining rooms are no longer cramped and circuitously linked. The changes seem to have given the kitchen staff a new reason to rattle the cooking cages. If you think of this place only for steaks in a wood-fired oven, open your eyes to the Italian fare, including bruschetta, chicken saltimbocca and Sicilian steak. Entrées $17.95-$74.95. (18380 W. Capitol Dr., Brookfield, 262-790-7005)
It’s hard to push past classic Bartolotta Italian creations – beef carpaccio, fried calamari, Tuscan roasted chicken. But you should. Standards are there for a reason, but longtime Ristorante kitchen head Juan Urbieta’s three-course seasonal menu wins every time. Why? It’s unexpected and playful. Entrées $20.95-$36.95. (7616 W. State St., 414-771-7910)
Lake Park Bistro
It’s been many years since this magazine pictured a youthful-ish Joe Bartolotta seated at a wooden picnic table outside Lake Park Pavilion, his soon-to-be ballyhooed white wonder. They’ve done foie gras and Dover sole à la Meunière a million times over. Where do you go from there? The Menu du Chef, which cures menu boredom with updates every few weeks. Entrées $21-$52. (3133 E. Newberry Blvd., 414-962-6300)