Does Lupi & Iris Live Up to the Hype?

From its tony decor to its riviera-inspired cuisine, Downtown’s newest restaurant brings culinary excitement to our city.

I’m with a friend at the new Lupi & Iris, and being the social butterfly that he is, he’s spotted some diners he knows. They finish before we do, and on their way out they swing by our table, glowing from a full meal. One of them pulls my friend into a side hug and says, “This is so good for the city!” She means this particular restaurant, yes, but also the sense of recovery this place signals, after two very rough years. I’m excited about restaurants again, and Lupi & Iris is part of the reason. 

To start, this Downtown restaurant, co-owned by former Bartolotta Restaurants executive chef Adam Siegel and architect Michael DeMichele, is beautiful – and comfortable. To get to the main dining room, you pass the horseshoe zinc bar and a glass-enclosed wine room. One of the nights I’m there, the dining room is full but doesn’t feel crowded. Window screens on the Mason Street side of the building lend a sense of privacy. And perhaps more importantly, to me anyway, the wave-like acoustic ceiling baffles help reduce the noise level.

Wood-grilled swordfish steak with Romesco sauce, charred asparagus, olive oil potatoes and lemon; Photo by Marty Peters

Both owners are on-site during my first meal there. I love seeing owners working the room, and it’s usually a good sign. From my seat, I watch them in their respective domains: Siegel, dressed in his white chef’s coat, working the line in the open kitchen, and a suited DeMichele drifting here and there, canvassing the crowd. The service is a little awkward – the staff is still learning the ropes but exudes hospitality in a warm, thoughtful, Bartolotta Restaurants way. Still, barring a few minor missteps, this is the best experience I’ve had in a new restaurant in too long. 


 

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Siegel, who won the James Beard Award for best Midwest chef in 2008, says the menu is a culmination of his cooking career in the States and abroad. His focus on the French and Italian rivieras is where Lupi & Iris has a niche. 

Both of my first orders – wood-grilled calamari ($19) and goat cheese tart ($17) – have tweezer-plating perfection. The rings of squid are folded into a simple, lusciously fresh salad of Belgian endive, chickpeas, prosciutto and tomatoes, mingling hints of lemon, mint and sea salt. The one issue here is the texture – the squid is slightly rubbery. The tart, however, is as smooth and creamy as custard, supported by a tender short pastry crust and the subtle enhancements of tomato confit, smoked trout and French pesto. 

Nougat semifreddo dipped in chocolate and topped with pistachio crème, honey tuile and crushed pistachios on a chocolate cookie; Photo by Marty Peters

The pastas, offered in appetizer and main course portions, highlight traditional creations from the Liguria region of Italy’s northwest coast. There’s the trofie, which are hand-rolled twists served with a Genovese (basil) pesto, potato, string beans and fresh Parmigiano Reggiano ($16 and $29). Another delectable nod to coastal Italy is the corzetti – coin-shaped pasta (made with a stamp) served with a fresh, feathery-light walnut sauce, fresh Parm and the mildly sweet, earthy flavor of fresh marjoram ($17 and $30). It’s so simple but so elegant. 

The restaurant’s wood-burning oven works its magic on many of the main course meat- and fish-based dishes – but the flavors are beautifully restrained. The char-roasted veal chop ($55) is a great example – suffused with a very fine, ethereal smokiness. It marries effortlessly with the caramelized anchovy and garlic, grilled broccolini and nutty-brown roasted fingerlings. The oven also turned out a supremely tender, juicy grilled swordfish ($35). Olive oil mashed potatoes, charred asparagus and a Spanish romesco (charred red pepper and tomato) sauce complete this excellent package. 

The rich, buttery pine nut tart ($12), topped with poached apricot and lemon ice cream, is a delectable, graceful ending – polished but not overdone. That’s also an apt description for this cultured spot that’s more than a great dining experience. After a few years of not knowing when or if we can move forward, it just feels important for Milwaukee. 


Lupi & Iris

777 N. VAN BUREN ST. | 414-293-9090

Hours: Lunch Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Dinner Sun-Thurs 5-9 p.m., Fri-Sat 5-10 p.m.; Brunch Sun 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

Prices: Pasta entrées $26-$62

Service: Welcoming, attentive, but a bit uneven

Reservations: Recommended


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s August issue.

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.