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The doyenne of Milwaukee dining presents her picks for the city's 12 most innovative and delectable new spots.

But first… we turn the tables on our beloved dining critic with an up-close look at the women behind the words:

Note: This is not Ann Christenson! (or is it???); Photo by Kenny Yoo

Ann-cognito

I first got to know Ann Christenson as a disembodied voice chiming out from the other side of a fabric-covered cubicle wall. She was and is the senior editor and dining critic at this magazine, and I was a lowly assistant editor. Over that wall, I heard her talk through her not-quite-ready-for-print thoughts on a new restaurant, as she formulated her opinions. I heard her calling chefs to find out what spice gave their chicken dish its zing. And I heard her patiently field complaints from unhappy chefs – maybe their restaurant wasn’t included in a roundup, or Ann had lamented the humdrum pork in a review. She even fielded calls from readers looking for recommendations: “Where should I take my wife for Valentine’s Day? But no seafood, and there had better be parking!”

Not everything I heard was strictly business. There was a period when she talked to her father, whom she took care of in his final years, on a daily basis, offering gentle assurances that everything was all right. And nearly every morning, the noise of her spreading jam on her toast, clinking her butter knife on the jam jar and ceramic plate with vigor marked the start of the day.

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I spent five years on the other side of that cubicle wall, and during that time, I came to know Ann personally as well as professionally. Yes, we had a face-to-face relationship too, but what I overheard through my inadvertent eavesdropping had a different, deeper resonance. It was only as I wrote this story that I realized this is how a chef, restaurateur, or Milwaukee Magazine reader knows her, too. There’s no face to the name, no mental picture to pair with a review. Somehow, this native Milwaukeean has maintained her anonymity for the 23 years that she’s been covering Milwaukee’s dining scene, making her the longest-serving anonymous dining critic in this part of the state.

She wasn’t always a critic, though. In 1991, shortly after her graduation from Marquette University and a brief stint as a freelance newspaper writer, Editor-in-Chief David Fryxell hired her to be the magazine’s full-time fact-checker, the lowest carving on the totem pole. Full-time fact-checkers, says then-Senior Editor Jim Romenesko, were rare in those days, but the magazine was lucky to have one.

Fact-checking was Christenson’s life for those first four years, and she brought to it the same fastidiousness that characterizes just about anything she undertakes. The internet hadn’t yet reached the magazine’s Buffalo Street offices, so with her neck cradling the handset for hours, she’d call sources to double-check every fact in every story in every issue of the magazine.

In 1995, Editor-in-Chief John Fennell suggested to Christenson that she take a stab at a small dining review. She started out with cafes and diners, places that Willard Romantini, who was dining critic at the time, wasn’t interested in critiquing. So Christenson took these assignments and threw herself into them. It was a process with a steep learning curve – she’d grown up with what she calls “American convenience foods” like casseroles and bakes, and she’d never worked in a restaurant. 

Because of this deficit, Christenson knew she had to become a student of the craft. She took cooking classes, read cookbooks, traveled to cities with exciting dining scenes, and began cooking regularly at home. It was the best way she knew to become an expert in food stories at a time when the other editors at the magazine each had their own writing specialties. Dining could be hers, she figured, with encouragement from Fennell. “I knew she was reliable,” he says. And he needed someone with dedication. After all, dining coverage was especially important to the magazine’s readers – and its bottom line.

The Association of Food Journalists (AFJ), a national group of professional food critics and writers, has ethics guidelines for critics, and Christenson ticks all the marks. Be as anonymous as possible. Use a different name to make a reservation, and pay with cash or a credit card with a different name. Don’t have photos of yourself on the internet. Wait until a restaurant gets its feet wet to review it, and go back multiple times to give it a fair shot. Christenson adds two of her own rules: Don’t use a notebook at the table (an easy tell), and don’t critique the food to dining companions.

Most importantly, declareth the AFJ, critics should strive to act like the average diner – the person that represents what should be the critic’s first priority. “The only person you’re writing for is a reader,” Christenson says.

But that can mean the restaurants she writes about don’t always love what she has to say. Christenson is explaining this to me after I remind her of a call from a restaurateur who was particularly miffed that his restaurant wasn’t listed in a roundup of burger joints. As I recall it, she explained to him her research process – it involved eating at dozens of burger restaurants all over the metro area and considering more than a dozen factors that make up each dining experience – and that her story represented the best of her research. This was not comforting to the owner. “It’s not an easy conversation to have,” she says. “But … I have to be honest and say, well, this is the reason I did that.”

Highlighting a restaurant’s strengths and painting a picture of its atmosphere make up the bulk of her reviews. Her descriptions transport you to her memory bank, where you feel her nostalgia for a fish sandwich, or her glee over a lobster roll. Her criticism, sometimes sandwiched between praise, is matter-of-fact. The chicken may be overcooked, but the succulent potatoes save the dish. The fish might be a bit pedestrian, but at least it isn’t dry. With the help of a food dictionary, she weaves levity into each review. Dining out should be pleasurable, and reading about it should be, too.

Overall, she tries to keep published reviews to places she can recommend. You have to be “tactful when presenting the negative,” she says, and tact should trump cleverness. “In my earlier years of doing this, I would overstep my bounds,” she says. “And you can really hurt somebody.”

To her, restaurants represent the dreams of their owners, and passing a judgment on them isn’t something you do lightly. This point is raised by chef Peggy Magister, who has owned Crazy Water in Walker’s Point since 2002. Restaurant reviews can make or break a business, she says, and it’s hard to not take the criticism personally. Being left out of roundup stories – best pizza parlors, best new restaurants or best fish fries – can have just as much of an impact on business as being included, she says.

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Despite this, Magister says, “I’m a little biased because I like Ann,” though she’s never actually met her in person. “I have no idea what she looks like.” So why does she like her? Christenson reaches out even when there’s nothing particularly newsy going on, she says, something other critics in town neglect to do. “I feel like she knows what she’s talking about.”

When I ask her what she’d do if she recognized Christenson, or any other critic, dining at her restaurant, her answer surprises me. Yes, she’d treat them differently if she knew they were reviewing her. “Anyone would!” she says.

But the critic identity game is changing.

Before her days as editor of Gourmet, New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl came out when in 1993 she dined both anonymously and later as herself at one of New York City’s most exorbitant restaurants to see if she’d receive different treatment (she did). The Los Angeles Times’ late Jonathan Gold – the critic Christenson most admires – came out in 2015. And New York Magazine’s Adam Platt came out on the cover of the magazine in 2013, looking as if he still had mixed feelings about it all.

Straying from anonymity, longtime media columnist Romenesko says, has a lot to do with social media and the growth of online review sites likes Yelp. No one with a Facebook profile is really anonymous anymore. (Christenson is on Facebook, but her profile is visible only to friends and family – and even still it is devoid of any photos of her.) Plus, he says, critics are being encouraged to build a sort of brand around themselves, and participate in events that account for an increasing amount of revenue for publishers.

Despite the changing landscape, Christenson says she has no plans to identify herself. Maybe it’s a bit of her stubborn streak (a former editor’s words), or her dedication to those guiding principles laid out by the AFJ. What she does make clear, though, is something she reminds herself of often while performing her job: It’s not actually about her at all.

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“I can’t ever forget I’m representing Milwaukee Magazine,” she says, an outlet she thinks has been a “driving force” in the local dining ecosystem since Betty and Harry Quadracci bought it in 1982. It’s where she’s grown up, where she found and honed her craft. After nearly three decades, much of magazine’s authority today is owed to her own. Still, with every phone call she makes, every meal she eats, and every story she writes, she remembers that reviewing restaurants is an “incredible responsibility.”

“I take that very seriously.”


And now… in no particular order…

No. 1 Birch + Butcher

The wood-fired hearth in the heart of Birch & Butcher’s kitchen allows cooking at different elevations – grilling at a lower level, roasting at mid-level and cold-smoking on the top level. Owner Miles Borghgraef (pictured above) says the cooking temp is about 800 degrees, but “we’ve gotten it as hot as 2,000,” hot enough to melt gold. They use Dutch ovens to roast meat and bake breads in the hearth. A year in, Borghgraef says, they’d roasted over 4,000 pounds of parsnips (a trademark dish) and smoked over.

 459 E. Pleasant St.
414-323-7372
Main dishes: $17-$49


A year has passed and the brand-spanking-new luster may have worn off of Birch + Butcher, but “polishing and honing” are as important as ever, owner Miles Borghgraef explains. “Every two months we have a major epiphany” about the hearth, the wood-fueled cooking apparatus that dictates a majority of what goes on the plate – breads and vegetables to meats and fish. One of the latest revelations Borghgraef names is how he and his cooks start the hearth fire. With a hair dryer. The first few months, they would blow on the embers. That changed when they moved to fans that emit fresh oxygen. “At seven months,” says Borghgraef, “It was, ‘Forget those silly fans! Let’s do the blow dryer.’” And that was that. 

The hearth also is the vehicle for discovery. “I’ve been digging deep,” he says of his experimentation, even using a “red-hot” poker to finish off an apple brandy cocktail. Briefly inserting it into the drink “causes it to boil violently, caramelizing the sugar. … We see [the hearth] as a tool that allows us to grow.” Heartier plates have come to the menu this fall, dishes that keep a meat or vegetable as the focal point, accompanied by a bright, defining sauce or rub and the spark coming from fresh herbs and a finishing oil. Nothing is crazy hard. They let the ingredients speak. Such as: coriander spare ribs with orange and chile, wild hare rillette with apple and fennel, and beef tartare with mustards and shoestring potatoes.

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No. 2 Mistral

Mistral’s halibut with green garlic hummus, pickled cucumber, cherry tomatoes and pumpkinseed oil. Photo by Chris Kessler.

Tapa-style dining took off here 11 years ago when La Merenda threw down its first global small plates menu. From Odd Duck to Balzac Wine Bar, mix-and-match, couple-bite dining has dug its heels in. And in general the “starter” or appetizer side of restaurant menus has ballooned, while “shareable plate” is replacing the tired, less sexy term “entrée.” Differentiating from the pack has required concept tweaks, whether working in unexpected ingredients or wrapping it all in whimsical packaging.

2473 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.
414-539-6469
$8-$24


In the copious Avalon Theater kitchen, a cook may be hand-breading chicken tenders for movie-goers while another plates pork crepinette with braised lacinato kale and bacon gastrique for a diner seated inside the Avalon’s intimate Mistral, a breath of fresh sea air. For an observer, it’s a wild duality; for executive chef Joe Schreiter, it’s perfectly normal. But the location gives it a certain hidden gem status. When bitter weather descends, don’t expect Mistral to counter it with heavy plates of food. Schreiter explains his unorthodox approach to winter menus (incorporating small plates and larger shareable ones) and the advantages of being housed in an entertainment complex of sorts.

For a true review of Mistral
(of course written by Ms. Christenson), click here!

 

Joe Schreiter. Photo by Chris Kessler.

MilMag: This time of year, we tend to see heavier sauces and dish preparations. Your philosophy is different. How so?

Joe Schreiter: I try not to go “obvious.” I like light, brighter flavors in winter. playing with different vinegars, acids and verjus [a high-acid juice made from unripe grapes]. An example would be a new dish – branzino with curried squash, a tomato consommé from tomatoes we grew and processed (giving it a summer vibe), plus pickled mustard seed aioli and fried capers.

MM: How is that style woven through the menu?

JS: The rabbit cacciatore is very hearty but, at the same time, light. We braise the rabbit in tomatoes, add an aromatic vermouth, and finish with a verjus. We also use a white balsamic vinegar to finish the vegetables. And we like to use vinaigrettes wherever we can, like the harissa vinaigrette on the ahi tuna [with Tunisian brik, a filled phyllo pastry].

MM: Is your approach to the movie theater menu different from that of Mistral?

JS: You don’t think of a movie theater having everything from scratch, but the pizza dough is just as important as the pork consommé [used at Mistral]. We grind brisket and rib-eye for the theater burger, and grind up popcorn for the breading for our chicken tenders. What’s cool is you can get octopus at Mistral before a movie and pepperoni pizza at the Avalon. It’s the perfect date night.


Small tips for small plates

A how-to for this casual, sharing style of dining

Order 2-3 per person. If your dining partner does the same, you have 4-6 dishes to try.

Be open to new flavors. Try at least one thing you’ve never had before.

Savor the bites and relax into a flowing delivery style, not rigid courses.


No. 3 Snack Boys

Photo by Chris Kessler.


814 S. Second St.
414-509-5975
$3-$10


This self-effacing small-plate bar that embraces both tiki drinks and Burt Reynolds wouldn’t have worked in 2007 or maybe even 2012. Fine dining is an impermeable genre, but the trappings associated with it (formal dining rooms, dress codes), whether they’re stereotypes or not, have fueled a movement toward more relaxed dining spaces, where you wear what you want and the food doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Enter Snack Boys, which combines levity with earnest ingredients. The plates change often, with specials popping in and out. The menu highs are comforting (tater tots with caviar), plant-headed (warm buttered radishes with goat cheese, fried green tomato slider) and a little fussy (housemade ricotta cavatelli with beef ragu, whole roasted salmon head tacos). “Fun with small plates” could be the motto. Or “high-brow stoner food.”

For a profile on our illustrious dining critic Ann Christenson, click here to check out this article by Claire Hanan

No. 4 Moxie

An appetizer order is up for the two banquette seats next to us. A plate of marinated tomato bruschetta. Fresh basil, bright yellow and red tomatoes tossed in vinaigrette and sprinkled with fresh Parm on toasted Tuscan bread. Simple. Gazing enviously at that bruschetta, my dining companion exclaims loudly, “Wow! That looks amazing!” The serious-looking man digging into the bruschetta lights up. “Yes,” he responds, grinning. “It’s wonderful.” In that moment, a bustling dining room  owing in drinks and warm plates of elevated comfort food becomes just a bit smaller and more personal. That’s the feel inside this warm, narrow dining room, the bar opposite banquette tables.

 


501 E. Silver Spring Dr.
Whitefish Bay
414-204-8980
$18-$45


Tamela Greene & Anne Marie Arroyo. Photo by Chris Kessler.

It’s not surprising that co-owner Tamela Greene specialized in “customer experience and programming” during her 17 years at Harley-Davidson, where her wife/business partner Anne Marie Arroyo worked in management. They say customer feedback is key to shaping the Moxie experience, and that includes the menu. “Community” is a driving force for the couple. They’re committed to Whitefish Bay, which is also their home. Branding is pivotal as well. The word “moxie” suggests savviness or gumption. This place has struck a chord with diners, and it has those comforting plates to thank for it. Moxie excels at hearty soul-satisfying plates like roasted or sautéed  sh (the daily salmon, a highlight) and pastas including short-rib Bolognese rigatoni. And there are enough starters offered here – brandied liver pâté to great flatbreads topped like you would a pizza – to make an excellent meal out of them.

New to me: Blue Star Cafe

 


1619 N. Farwell Ave.
414-273-9744
$1.50-$9


UNDER-THE-RADAR restaurants can be revelatory discoveries. Blue Star Cafe is one such. Open since 2012, but not fully discovered by me until recently, the welcoming, modest space is a hot spot for wonderful specialties from owner Alia Muhyadin’s homeland of Somalia. Her son, Amoud Warsame, shows his dexterous cooking skills with crisp sambusa pastries (like Indian samosas) filled plentifully with beef, chicken or vegetables; the smoothest, lightest hummus you’ve ever had; and customizable platters with a choice of meat, fish or plants and a base such as basmati rice, malawax (a sweet Somali crepe) or angel hair pasta.

Best bet at Blue Star: The fragrant, rich “kay-kay” (fried pieces of flatbread) topped with tender goat meat.

Alia, left, and her son Amoud. Photo by Brock Kaplan.

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No. 5 Pizzeria San Giorgio


838 N. Old World Third St.
414-276-2876
$20-$30


Why: Located next door to (sibling) Calderone Club, it’s the city’s only certified Napoletana pizza joint. Following strict certification rules, San Giorgio aces its pies, giving them requisite charring, the gentle San Marzano tomato sweetness and just-melted fresh buffalo mozzarella.

No. 6 Asian Papayoyo

Why: Unassuming and friendly, this little locus just west of Marquette U offers a baller lineup of Malaysian specialties, including beef rendang curry, roti canai (a flaky pastry, served with curry) and tofu mee rojak, a noodle salad with sweet-tangy dressing. Malaysian cuisine is a dazzling potpourri of influences from India to Western Europe.

2040 W. Wisconsin Ave.
414-935-1111
$5.25-$14.75


No. 7 Hungry Sumo Sushi Bar


2663 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.
414-595-9656
$7.95-$16.50


Why: The neighborhoody little Bay View storefront handles fusion and traditional equally well – from steamed pork buns to super white tuna with ponzu and jalapeño, and from drunken noodles to tekka don (rice topped with sliced tuna, radish and nasturtium).

No. 8 Third Coast Provisions

Third Coast Provisions landed on tony Milwaukee Street, all marble, gilded sleekness. A brother to Merriment Social, Third Coast homed in on an untapped focus –  sh and seafood, with a nod to the Great Lakes. It quickly hit its stride, turning favorites like lobster potholes into trademarks. Not sure where to begin your dining quest here? Try these lively food/drink pairings.

724 N. Milwaukee St.
414-323-7434
$14-$67


The top three provisions from Third Coast Provisions

Photo by Chris Kessler

1. Tuna crudo with San Joaquin cocktail

Jalapeño and aji amarillo pepper “heat” the fresh, raw fi sh. A bright, balanced match for this playful infused-tequila cocktail.

2. Wild Alaskan halibut and the nostrato cocktail

Firm, flaky, mild fish, pumpkin gnocchi and delicata squash meld smoothly with the citrusy, Amalfi lemon gin-based drink.

3. Chargrilled oysters Rockefeller with Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc

The crusty, broiled classic slides down gracefully with this juicy, fruity wine.

No. 9 Stella Van Buren

Photos courtesy of Stella Van Buren

Hotel dining rooms have the responsibility of being your every-meal restaurant – breakfast that sets the tone for the day, power lunch with heavy hitters, tie-loosening happy hour, dinner with the parents, weekend brunch with bloody-slinging pals. This is true, I’d argue, more than ever. The diner is just as likely to not be staying at the hotel. That said, The Westin’s Stella has a come-hither style that’s modern but not precious, a comfortable pair of shoes you can wear with everything. Nailing it all requires a seasoned leader (which it has in chef Zach Espinosa, formerly of Bartolotta Restaurants) and menus that  re on all cylinders. Stella has a pretty firm grip on everything from lemon ricotta pancakes to a prime burger, from spaghetti and meatballs to a dry-aged, bone-in rib-eye.

 


Westin Hotel
550 N. Van Buren St.
414-847-5622
$14-$46


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No. 10 Strange Town

A NEW TREND? Eating meatless is not a new lifestyle choice, but the plant-based (vegan) dining style has penetrated the mainstream. Trend-watchers predicted a green diet to lead what’s hot in dining in 2018. I predict it’ll also put down roots. Plant-based is not just the land of meat substitutes and pedestrian salads. The demand is high for delectable, satisfying meals because this is a lifestyle choice, not a fad. Smart chefs who keep experimenting – that’s where this is heading.

 


2101 N. Prospect Ave.
414-885-0404
$4-$12


Photo by Elizabeth Cecil, courtesy of Strange Town

The little Euro-touched café with a tiny kitchen that works beyond its limitations made one of the biggest splashes of 2018. It defies the notion that vegan dining should be faux interpretations of dishes that naturally taste better with meat. Co-owner/longtime vegan Andy Noble works closely with his cousin/exec chef Mia LeTendre to create clever, delicious plates using plants of all kinds (including sea vegetables) and riffing on Italian, Asian and Indian cuisines. Noble is a DJ and owns a record shop in Riverwest, meaning the vibe is very chill, the drinks progressive (orange wines, kombucha on tap) and the playlist diverse and sweetly unconventional.

No. 11 Celesta

Photo courtesy of Celesta

 


1978 N. Farwell Ave.
414-231-3030
$7-$15


A two-block walk from Strange Town, Celesta approaches plant-based dining with a more mainstream lens. Chef/co-owner Melanie Manuel makes a turkey club sandwich with housemade seitan, a buffalo tofu sandwich and a Southern plate including mac and cheese and Southern seitan. But she is a flavor magician who knows her sauces and dressings and makes her own ricotta cheese. Her arancini (fried risotto balls), niçoise salad and constantly evolving taco plate make green dining approachable, fun and modern. Three cheers for her thoughtful, cosmic-inspired redo of the old Abu’s corner space.

No. 12 The Diplomat

In the year and a half since this breezy, modern successor to Bosley on Brady moved in, chef/owner Dane Baldwin has nimbly guided it through what seems like a natural progression. He relaxed the small plates shtick and, responding to diner feedback, added several banner large-format plates that fall under the entrée category. From the get-go, dishes like trout with pickled dilly beans and tonnato (a tuna-anchovy sauce) show the way he blends flavors (and achieves the balance of acid, salt and fat).

815 E. Brady St.
414-800-5816
$6-$33


The Diplomat and its chef/owner Dane Baldwin. Diplomat photos by Will Skaggs.

Standout plates: corn grits with pancetta and soft egg, tagliatelle with Bolognese ragu, duck breast with farro and mole, and the peanut butter pie.

Key to success: Diners, there’s a good chance that the owner prepared the very creation placed in front of you. “Everywhere I go, I seek out opportunities to cook on the line. It gives me the chance to think,” says Baldwin, who leads by doing everything he asks his chefs to do.

The Diplomat decor: Influenced by owners Dane and Anna Baldwin’s love of midcentury modern design, it has diverse touches like painted stencil walls, abstract art (above the banquette) by MKE’s Timo and the sliding door in the bar covered with black-and-white photos.


“Best New Restaurants 2018” appears in the December 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop or find the October issue on newsstands, starting Dec. 3.

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