Aria Café and Bar at Saint Kate hotel
139 E. Kilbourn Ave.
HOURS: daily B, L, D
PRICES: main plates $15-$45
SERVICE: casual, friendly and a bit green
On my first visit, a leather banquette next to one of the room-dividing blond bookshelves served as my comfortable throne, in close view of Tom Berenz’s centerpiece-making painting, Picnic. Also drawing visual attention are photographer Lois Bielefeld’s realistic portraits of Milwaukee life.
Creative expression isn’t limited to picture frames. The menus aim for accessibility and comfort (blueberry granola pancakes, Reuben sandwich, braised short ribs) with some elegant attention to plate presentation. Diners can dig into Neapolitan pies at Saint Kate’s Proof Pizza, tap and nitro cold brew coffee cocktails at The Bar, and sparkling wines at Giggly. But when your appetite doesn’t need a stylish fix, just a satisfying one, Aria fits the bill. And so far, it fulfills that role rather well.
We christened brunch with beignet-like pastries as tender as brioche and generously stuffed with a wonderful vanilla cream ($5 each), followed by the croque madame ($14) and roasted chicken Cobb salad ($15). The best part of the madame is the Gruyère cheese crisp placed under the gooey knife-and-fork sandwich, adding a crunchy antithesis to the fried egg and respectably rich bechamel. Aria’s Cobb salad has some smart, delicious touches, too – pulled chicken, two earthy deviled eggs, peppery arugula and crisp baby cucumber.
My dinner visits showed promise as well. The evening menu will have a seasonal tone, with some staple items. Caramelized Brussels sprouts departs from its specter of healthiness thanks to the candied bacon and creamy garlic remoulade – a good, roasty-rich starter ($9). A lighter departure is the sushi-grade tuna poke with toasted sesame and a crisp wonton ($15). The pristine tuna here shines. There was a time when I seldom ordered chicken in restaurants. (Those pedestrian, overcooked birds!) But chicken gets more respect these days, if nothing else, it’s cooked with care.
And I like the hotel’s offering ($24), the skin of this bone-in breast crisped and dredged in a sweet-spicy coating. Cut into the skin and it releases a stream of juice – good sign. The vegetable slaw is a light, crisp, vinegary accompaniment. Short ribs ($27) are like soft pot roast, with just enough (not too much) fat for flavor and texture. Aria’s is tender but could have richer flavor. The best part is the seared coating, which you need to dip into potato-leek mash (I’d love more of it) along with the crisp bacon-glazed haricots verts. The Marcus Corp.-owned hotel could not get away without including its sentimental (Marc’s) Classic Big Boy burger ($15) – pure Americana inside a sesame seed bun. You’ve got the two thin beef patties, iceberg lettuce, tangy Big Boy sauce, American cheese and the middle layer of bun. This creation is a big boy, to be sure, and nostalgically delicious ($15).
Aria melds the hotel’s vibrant visual personality with a culinary take that strives for familiarity and comfort. It’s all about approachability here and in that, the restaurant is off to an encouraging start.