Don't think "traditional French" when you're dining at the Third Ward's Fauntleroy. In fact, leave your preconceived notions at the door.

Any time you can have dishes served on a tower, make it happen.

On my first visit to Fauntleroy, the three tiers of hors d’oeuvres holding five bite-size creations – chicken liver éclair, escargot in a fried, battered shell, buttered radishes, gougère pastries and chorizo-stuffed olives ($2-$3 each; $9 per person for all five) – is the first order to arrive. The presentation charms, and each bite is meant to whet the appetite in the manner of an amuse bouche.

“Just pop each one in your mouth,” says the server. Promptly ignoring her instructions, I bite into the olive, sending juice and chorizo spurting, in movie scene perfection, across the table onto my friend’s crisply pressed dress shirt. The server, glancing over from another table, howls along with us. A thumping Led Zeppelin song, from the restaurant’s playlist of 1970s rock, drowns out our laughter.

Buttoned-up, Fauntleroy is not. Just like at this reinvented French place’s unconventional older brother, the Chinese joint DanDan, diners should readjust their culinary expectations. “The Dans” (owners Dan Jacobs and Dan Van Rite), along with Fauntleroy chef de cuisine Blair Herridge, don’t embrace tradition in its strict sense.

In a competitive dining scene, it is crucial to find a niche. But does Fauntleroy’s offbeat take – in a space mixing deco elegance and bed-head 1970s rock star chic – work? I think it’s getting there. Just like at DanDan, it’s better not to get hung up on labels.

Fauntleroy

316 N. Milwaukee St., 414-269-9908

HOURS: Lunch Tues-Fri, Dinner Tues-Sat

PRICES: Dinner entrées $18-$30

SERVICE: Knowledgeable, friendly, laid-back

RESERVATIONS: Recommended, especially weekends

fauntleroymke.com

Grilled beets; Photo by John Sturdy

Duck confit and duck heat salad; Photo by John Sturdy

Chicken liver éclair; Photo by John Sturdy

As this magazine went to press, Fauntleroy rolled out its winter menu, putting some items from its opening menu (such as the great slow-cooked salmon with potatoes Paillason) to bed. I charged back in for cassoulet with house-made sausage, crispy confited duck leg and confited lamb over cannellini bean ragout – rich and meltingly tender ($30) – and the vegetarian winter squash tagine with green harissa, pistachios and couscous ($18). The sweet-spicy aura of Moroccan clay pot tagines comes through but with a lighter twist. 

Fauntleroy’s trout Veronique and tower of hors d’oeuvres ranging from chicken liver éclairs to chorizo-stuffed olives; Photo by John Sturdy

Many of the better plates remain, such as French onion soup made with a deceivingly meaty vegetarian broth ($8); Lyonnaise salad of nest-like frisee tossed with crisp-salty pork belly, crouton and a soft egg ($12); a mousse-like foie gras torchon served with toasted house brioche; and the tail- and skin-on grilled trout Veronique ($24). Under the browned layer of skin is a delectably oily, tender fillet in a bath of buttery cream sauce. It’s finished with sweet green grapes, chewy puffed wild rice and nutty Japanese beech mushrooms.

I ordered steak frites ($26) on two occasions because the crusty, chargrilled flavor was unusual for a hanger steak, which Fauntleroy’s is. The Dans were inspired by a restaurant in South Beach, Florida, which infuses its hanger steak with “a flavor you can’t quite figure out,” Jacobs says. That describes this steak, which wasn’t as dry on the second visit and better matched the full-bodied peppercorn cream sauce.

Bread service is a “thing” here, and it’s worth the carb investment. The basket of eggy brioche, crusty baguette and beer rye stands tall alone or with whipped butter.

Pastry chef Jaceleen Latin-Kasper spins tradition with her opera torte ($12) – hazelnut dacquoise meets coffee mousse and lemon curd. But you may never remember it once you have her “Strawberry” ($9), a deconstructed berry bomb of moussy sherbet, meringue, pickled fruit and crunch. It’s sensational.

Big brother DanDan takes a similar, boho approach and has proceeded to get better and better. I suspect the same to happen here. Vive La French…ish.

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“Riviera Revisited” appears in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop or find the issue on newsstands, starting Dec. 31.

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