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:
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.
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.
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.
“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
459 E. Pleasant St.
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.
No. 2 Mistral
2473 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.
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.
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
814 S. Second St.
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.”
No. 4 Moxie
501 E. Silver Spring Dr.
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.
Best bet at Blue Star: The fragrant, rich “kay-kay” (fried pieces of flatbread) topped with tender goat meat.
No. 5 Pizzeria San Giorgio
838 N. Old World Third St.
No. 6 Asian Papayoyo
2040 W. Wisconsin Ave.
No. 7 Hungry Sumo Sushi Bar
2663 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.
No. 8 Third Coast Provisions
724 N. Milwaukee St.
The top three provisions from Third Coast Provisions
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
550 N. Van Buren St.
Who, when & what
How to navigate the “every” menu
No. 10 Strange Town
2101 N. Prospect Ave.
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
1978 N. Farwell Ave.
No. 12 The Diplomat
815 E. Brady St.
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.