East Coast purists eat their raw oysters au naturel – without benefit of Tabasco, red wine vinegar or grated horseradish. To conquer, simply release the little mollusk from its shell with the tines of a fork, raise the shell to your mouth, slurp and softly chew. There’s no shame in downing it with the closest available cocktail. And beyond the pleasures of the palate, consider the aphrodisiacal benefits.
At Harbor House, the successor to the lakefront’s weirdly iconic Pieces of Eight, I see many signs of raw consumption. However, the room really throbs with something else – raw energy. The place hums with movers and shakers, while the service staff charges through the room like crewmen on a ship under the watchful eye of its captain, co-owner Joe Bartolotta.
Beset by controversy over the use of this land, Bartolotta and entrepreneur Mike Cudahy forged ahead to build a “showcase” restaurant for Milwaukee, as Bartolotta calls it. Both had cogent ideas for the architecture of the space, and Bartolotta was smitten by visits to the watery colony of Nantucket. The partners came to an agreement, gutted the old Pieces and set about creating a mini Cape Cod in Milwaukee. In addition to replacing windows and building a new deck, Cudahy added a public walkway along the lake.
Like the fresh oyster – 1,500 of which left the kitchen per week in that first month of operation – the restaurant has a clean, uncluttered look dissimilar from other Bartolotta establishments (and now there are 11 of them, including catering facilities such as Pier Wisconsin and Mitchell Airport restaurant Nonna Bartolotta’s). The stark-white walls and ivory-marbled bartops, pale subway tiles and enclosed banquettes convey the fish-house theme, but there’s still the obvious Bartolotta brand here, in its elegance and sophistication.
Combine all that with a lakefront location, and diners are really responding. Seventeen years after opening Ristorante Bartolotta in Tosa, Bartolotta says the barrage of diners at Harbor House even took him by surprise. In the restaurant’s first month, the staff limited the number of reservations accepted, held back on offering food and drink service on the patio, and refrained from starting lunch service until mid-September. And looking at the Wisconsin restaurants most booked by the online restaurant reservation service OpenTable.com, Harbor House took the top slot in early August (followed by two Bartolotta siblings).
“I’ve seen the same people five, six, seven times [in the first few weeks],” says Bartolotta. “It’s like their ‘discovery.’ They want to show it off.”
Getting a table at this siren of seafood is a little like trying to get a ticket to a Lady Gaga concert. The Bartolotta brand name has been golden, particularly at its big-name establishments – Lake Park Bistro, Bacchus and Mr. B’s steakhouse. Expectations for Harbor House have run especially high, fueled by the high-profile partnership of Bartolotta and Cudahy, and the restaurant’s location. The prime lakefront site drew criticism for its intended purpose – whether as a restaurant or, in an earlier proposal, as the home of UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences. And despite the restaurant’s nearly $3 million facelift, there’s no guarantee the partners will be able to extend the lease beyond its 2018 expiration. Bartolotta, though, is confident his latest addition will become “part of the fabric” of the community, based on his years of experience in the city.
So how is the dining experience here?
On two different visits, I found some dishes were good, but others missed that requisite bang. The intense dynamics of the 250-seat dining room – filled with copious wait and kitchen staff – certainly complicate the experience.
In preparation for the opening, Bartolotta needed to hire a huge staff. Forty percent of waitstaff was hired with no service experience, according to Bartolotta. While they were friendly, some of the servers were green.
Harbor House’s head chef, Carlos DeLeon, is not new to this restaurant empire. A native of Mexico, DeLeon moved his way up the ranks of the Bartolotta echelon, most recently running the catering at Pier Wisconsin. One of his talents, his boss acknowledges, is organizing and managing – crucial skills in his new position.
Harbor House doesn’t serve a compact little menu. It’s complex – combining options of mass appeal with more exotic pleasures – and will change often. That means the seasonal softshell crab ($25.95) would have a short-lived presence on the menu. That’s one of the thrills of a seafood menu – offering the season’s best at its freshest. (Carnivores will find plenty of turf options, including filets, Strauss veal and a char-broiled burger.)
A few years ago when this magazine was evaluating the area’s raw bars, it was an easy task. There weren’t many. And that’s still true. But this restaurant takes East and West Coast oysters seriously. A separate raw menu is one of the first things to appear at your table, and the servers tout it. A dozen oysters ($2.25 each) or top-neck clams ($1.25 each) might be intimidating, but the itty-bitty seafood sampler ($24) breaks it down into twos – a couple of oysters (we had beautiful Moonstones), clams, crab claws, boiled shrimp and ceviche served in a clamshell. I may have been mesmerized by the stunning view of sailboats dotting our azure Great Lake, but with every bite, the sea seemed closer.
The cooked appetizers were a mixed success. Meaty inside and crisp outside, the Maryland crab cakes came with a solid, tangy rémoulade ($11.95). The baked oysters with leek cream ($11.95) sounded fabulously old-school – something to wash down with a Tom Collins while watching “Mad Men.” And these bivalves were creamy. They simply lacked flavor.
The best attribute of a bowl of steamed mussels is often the broth. How can dipping bread into a seasoned, shellfish-infused broth be anything but pleasurable? And this tomato-broth affair, with echoes both sharp and sweet, was delectable, as were the sturdy mussels ($12.95).
A seafood bisque should be thick and smooth – a bowl of uncommon richness. I was surprised at the thin consistency of Harbor House’s shellfish bisque – shrimp, crab and lobster combined ($6.95 and $8.95). The clam chowder, though, was stellar – satisfyingly thick, well-seasoned and plump with potatoes and clams ($4.95 and $6.95). Of the salads, I can’t argue with the runny yolk from a fried egg enriching the dressing on my leek, frisée, asparagus and roasted potato salad ($10.95). Pure mingling goodness.
San Francisco is known as the birthplace of cioppino ($28). The Harbor House rendition of this seafood stew has a solid tomato broth (not a marinara sauce like I’ve often seen) with clams, mussels, squid, large scallops and shrimp – all firm, but not rubbery.
The Wisconsin trout Almandine is a classic beauty ($24.95). Brown butter makes this rich fish even richer (if that’s possible). Toasted almonds are the key finish. Roasted potatoes and sautéed haricot verts (French green beans) make it a meal. However, the sautéed halibut filet ($31), its golden crust a contrast to the milk-white center, falters a bit. With the leek, arugula and parsley broth, it’s a light dish, but the fish is too dry.
Amid these bigger productions, the Maine lobster roll – generous chunks of lobster in a light mayo-based dressing – tricks out a simple, sturdy hot dog bun. Placed in a torrent of crisp fries, this is a marvelous sandwich ($21.50).
As the sky darkens outside, you become more aware of the austere paleness of the room. Something to ponder during nibbles of dense, creamy crème caramel, the best of the desserts I ordered ($6.95). As for the vibrantly colored sorbet trio ($6.95), I like the combination of tart passion fruit and tangy orange, but the sticky-sweet pomegranate arrives so melted, it’s almost in liquid form.
Bartolotta is a dutiful parent whose evenings have been spent tending to the new arrival. He’s an influential patriarch of Milwaukee’s dining scene. But even he acknowledges that at some point, “You gotta let the baby walk.” Even if it stumbles a bit in its first steps.
Harbor House: 550 N. Harbor Dr., 414-395-4900. Hours: Mon-Thurs 5-10 p.m.; Fri-Sat 5-11 p.m.; Sun 5-9 p.m. Prices: raw bar $1.25 for top-neck clam up to $75 for Grand seafood tower; appetizers $6.95-$13.95; soups $4.95-$8.95; salads $6.50-$22.95; sandwiches $9.95-$21.50; entrées $9.50-$52.50; desserts $6.95. Service: Working out the kinks. Dress: the gamut, really. Ask me about the cowboy hats and fringed halter tops. Handicap access: yes. Credit cards: M V A DS. Reservations: recommended.