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What fits more aptly in a city working to rebrand itself as a center of aquaculture than a modern seafood house?

The owners of marbled and glossy Third Coast Provisions opened their Milwaukee Street space in hopes of filling our area’s dearth of seafood options. Although the restaurant’s name refers to our shoreline, the Great Lakes aren’t the main source of the menu’s fresh catches. In these modern times, it doesn’t matter where you are – fresh seafood flown in daily to the Midwest from the coasts is no sweat.

Third Coast’s partners – Andrew Miller, Cameron Whyte and Sam Emery – left their Chicago roots for MKE and the “culinary renaissance,” as they’ve called it, that it offers. That led to their opening Merriment Social, a breezy spot in the Third Ward for dim sum and inventive burgers. Third Coast can be described as the more challenging undertaking, from the complexity of the menu to the impressive renovation of the space formerly occupied by Carnevor.

Their project involved creating two identities, one of them an elegant but not stuffy main-level dining room (plus intimate mezzanine) to savor lobster pot pie, sea scallops and whole grilled fish. Part B of their endeavor was building a casual, no-reservation-needed subterranean oyster bar to imbibe and slurp fresh shellfish ($3-$3.50 each, or part of a platter, $48) and small plates including chowder fries and lobster roll sliders ($7-$17).

El Tirador oyster shooter. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

This is an ambitious effort, but the payoff is there (though your wallet will feel it). In recent visits, the highs were defined by great shareable items like the chargrilled oysters (three kinds, including the marvelous, charry Rockefeller, with Pernod, spinach, Parmesan and bacon ($23), the lobster “potholes” ($17) – lobster and Dungeness crab poached in butter, herbs and lots of garlic lolling deliciously in the slots of an escargot dish. This decadent concoction is meant to be scooped onto toasted bread. Also among highs are the shrimp and grits ($14). If you’re accustomed to silky, cheesy grits, Third Coast’s version is a departure – no less delectable, just different. The thick, coarse-grained grits are seasoned with vadouvan (a mild Indian curry blend), cilantro, pistachios and fennel pollen – creating an exotic, mellow flavor ($14). The shrimp are meaty and firm, with a welcome little pop.

Need a virgin introduction to raw oysters? Order an oyster shooter, a shot glass-sized cocktail topped with a raw oyster inside a shell ($7-$9). The El Tirador ($8), for example – jalapeño tequila, lime, spiced salt – is a potent drink. Take a sip of the cocktail, then the mild, sweet liquid in the shell, then tip it back and chew or swallow, washing it all down with the last of the cocktail.

In other visits, I’ve sampled everything from the surf and turf ($29) – shrimp-fried spaetzle (delicious and delicately crusted) with rich, tender, well-trimmed short ribs and firm lion’s mane mushrooms – to the whole grilled fish (a flaky, herby striped bass the night I was there, $48). The only misstep was lobster pot pie ($39). Although thick and meaty, the sauce is salty and the thin phyllo top crust doesn’t hold up to a pie made with a flaky pastry crust. 

Third Coast’s braised shortribs with shrimp-fried spaetzle. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

The partners are working to build a separate identity for the downstairs oyster bar. That’s not a far cry from the work locals are doing to rebrand this city as a freshwater mecca. It’s a learning curve. Executive chef/co-owner Andrew Miller says they’re also striving to get Great Lakes fish when possible, saying he hopes to serve smelt, walleye and whitefish this spring. Milwaukee may not be a “seafood town” but it could be angling for that title. ◆

Third Coast Provisions
724 N. Milwaukee St., 414-323-7434.
Hours: Main dining room, dinner Mon-Sat. Oyster bar Mon-Sat.
Prices: Fish, entrées $18-$39.
Service: Friendly and well-versed on the menu and the sources of the seafood.
Reservations: Recommended.


 

‘Fixated on Fins’ appears in the March 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning February 27, or buy a copy online.

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