The renovation of the Cudahy Tower restaurant attempts to change the perception of fine dining.
Reminisce is what we sometimes do at restaurants. And during the course of a recent dinner at Downtown’s Bacchus, that’s just what my dining companion and I are doing. Anyone remember Fleur de Lis? It was an over-the-top, fabric-heavy French spot that occupied these digs in the 1980s and ’90s. Also, the old Boulevard Inn – one of the city’s then top-rated venues – spent time in this elegant, multiroom space inside Cudahy Tower. The location has always signaled a chichi dining establishment.
The interior revamp and menu freshening that prompted this revisit was in the works well before co-founder Joe Bartolotta’s passing in April of this year. Like Ristorante Bartolotta in Wauwatosa, whose face-lift was done to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Bacchus has undergone its first major change since opening, honoring its 15th year in business. Milwaukee’s Kahler Slater architecture – whose projects range from restaurants at the Mayfair Collection, which the Bartolottas managed until 2017, and local hotels, including the Westin and Hilton – oversaw the design changes, which include new lighting, flooring and seating, plus new artwork throughout the space. The bar is what you first lay eyes on at the entrance, and it provides the biggest contrast. Brighter and more in line with a contemporary, youthful aesthetic, it now has an expanded marble bar top, recessed lighting and wood floors covered with marble-tile inlays. Despite the tag-team servers and a wall of bottled wines, the dining room, where ’90s pop music piped through the sound system, feels more casual.
The changes are in keeping with Joe’s vision for Bacchus, says his brother and business partner Paul. Joe wanted the restaurant, Paul says, to be “for all occasions, not just special” ones. That is the battle every fine dining restaurant faces: Success depends on broadening the audience and filling those tables on average weeknights. For that reason, brightening the bar and lightening the overall mood does makes sense.
The cuisine continues to fly at the fine dining level of sophistication. And to the menu, executive chef Nick Wirth has added some neat touches – a $55 three-course menu of popular Bacchus dishes, along with an $85 six-course tasting menu – and heightened the seasonality of the regular menu, which offers some exceptional dishes.
The menu does have entry points if you’re a budget-minded diner who is not too hungry. Between first courses ($15-$23) and entrées (from $36) are “middle” courses ($11-$15), which make a satisfying smaller meal for one or part of a two-person shareable meal. Of those, the roasted pear salad ($13) might be my favorite of the season. The ingredients are perfectly integrated, from the sweet, roasty sliced pears to the slightly bitter endive to the wonderfully pungent and creamy Penta Crème blue cheese. The risotto ($13) – made with creamy, comforting roasted butternut squash, smoked bacon and nutty Marieke Gouda cheese – is a marriage of complements.
But let’s backtrack a moment to the first courses. If there is one playful yet dignified plate on the menu, it’s the foie gras French toast appetizer ($23). The rich, tender, seared foie melts into the slice of brioche French toast. Topped with a smidge of Honeycrisp apple compote and drizzled with bourbon barrel maple syrup, it has the aroma of the highest of high-end breakfasts. It’s wonderful. Completely different but just as enjoyable, the charred octopus ($17) is given an apt Middle Eastern preparation, a delicately charred flavor with uniform tenderness. I make every bit of crisp fried chickpeas, smoky hummus, preserved lemon and sharp Calabrian chile oil count.
Of the main courses, seared duck breast ($38) with candied cranberries, butternut squash and braised kale hits the bull’s-eye of comforting, wintry textures and flavors. And with the glazed color of caramel, the quintet of seared sea scallops ($36) manages to stay beautifully tender inside. I dunk each piece in white wine butter sauce and savor them with the acorn squash puree, purple cauliflower and rich, smoky hunks of pork belly bacon. Probably my favorite, because of the meld of Asian condiments, is the tender, medium-rare Wagyu flat-iron steak with togarashi rub ($49), carrot-ginger puree, charred shishito peppers and spicy, seafood-based XO sauce, native to Hong Kong. The plate is pure umami.
What I like about Bacchus’ rebirth menu is the heightened mingling of flavors. And that extends to the dessert menu’s amaretto cake: a spongy, crisp-topped almond cake enlivened with mulled wine-poached pear, mascarpone cheese and cardamom ice cream ($10). These dishes “feel” like Bacchus, special occasion restaurant or not.
Main courses range from $36-$120
925 E. Wells St. | 414-765-1166