It’s Saturday night and the only reservation time I can get at Buttermint is 5 p.m. Even at this early-bird hour, diners stream through the door of the new Shorewood finer-dining establishment. In another hour, there’s not a seat to be had, and I don’t think that’s just because it’s new.
Finer, as described by co-owner/executive chef Joe Muench (part of the group that runs Maxie’s, Story Hill BKC and Blue’s Egg), is fun, offering “endless opportunities to have a dining experience, not just an eating experience.” Muench is also referring to little service extras like an intermezzo (a palate cleanser between courses; here, a tiny cup of juice) and the small tin of house-made buttermints given to diners at meal’s end.
Midway through my meal, I cast my gaze around this modern-meets-retro dining room (think midcentury modern chairs and slatted wood room dividers) and see diners looking more relaxed than they have in what seems like ages. The very social nature of dining that was lost for a couple of years feels like it’s coming back. Atmospherically, Buttermint is growing on me, too. On my first trek there, the music was a bit loud and oldy-moldy and the servers overenthusiastic, but the next time, they get the ambiance right: the comfortable-decibel sounds of vintage jazz, the servers attentive but less obtrusive, the feel, like 21st-century “Mad Men.”
The menu – which they’re calling reinterpreted continental cuisine – is really a modern, often-changing take on European cuisine inspired by the 1960s. Entrées feel like bona-fide productions, with generous portions, rich sauces and no shying away from starches. This is a meal made for slowing down and lingering. And it should begin with the clean, crisp flavors of the raw bar – either a half-dozen East Coast oysters (with their complex, salty brine, $18) or a plate of crudo, composed of hiramasa (pristine, sushi-grade Japanese yellowtail) plated with juicy satsuma orange, minced apple, ginger and mint ($15). Should you feel like a cooked appetizer, the okonomiyaki – a fluffy Korean pancake topped with smoky steelhead trout – offers marvelous umami flavor ($14). I’d call it a menu essential, along with the fried delicata squash salad ($12).
The entrées certainly qualify as “experiences,” such as the rich seared Arctic char ($27) with chanterelle cream sauce and crispy smoked pork lentils I’m still thinking about. The pan-roasted elk loin ($40) with a dark, meaty black currant bordelaise sauce, tea-steeped barley and creamy candied sweet potatoes feels like a return to the opulent meals of the 1990s – a trip I’m happy to make. And a nightly special – a creamy, flaky Great Lakes whitefish ($29) – reminds me how under-appreciated this fish is in this part of the state.
Desserts have a retro-modern feel as well, and the Messy Romanoff ($9)– strawberry compote with hunks of crisp meringue, white cake “croutons” and a light molded berry custard – melds old and new deliciously. It caps off a fine – or rather, finer – evening that feels, well, normal.
4195 N. OAKLAND AVE. | 414-488-2587
Hours: Tues-Sat 4-9 p.m. Happy hour 4-6 p.m. Weekend brunch to come.
Prices: Raw bar $9-$15; appetizers $9-$21; salads $11-$13; main courses $16-$46
Service: Amiable, conscientious
Reservations: Highly recommended