The Iron Horse Hotel’s new restaurant, Ash, expands on the old-new trend of hearth cooking.
Five years ago, Fortune Magazine covered a “trend” then gaining traction – cooking over a wood fire. It was a one-eighty-degree turn from the high-tech craze chefs were embracing. This “new” approach goes back to the basics, and while it took a little time to find Milwaukee, Birch + Butcher is doing it, and now the Iron Horse Hotel as well.
In place of the hotel’s Smyth restaurant, hotel owner Tim Dixon – along with consultant JVR Group (formed by the owners of DanDan) – created hearth-based Ash.
Befitting a concept that requires high heat and constant attention, this primal cooking source is located right in the dining room. It lends distinct, robust flavor to foods and the sweet, smoky aroma is a sensory experience for diners before their dishes even arrive.
The transition from Smyth to Ash was about softening the room with changes including custom mirrors and warmer lighting. With a DJ-made musical playlist, this is a high-decibel room with a lot of chatter and movement.
This type of meal requires building – a few small plates with one large (meat, fish, pasta) along with a side. The highest-ticket menu item, “Just for 2,” features a meat choice – like succulent short ribs – served with lettuce cups, sauces, fry bread and vegetables ($40-$70) to make “sandwiches.”
JVR’s approach is quality ingredients prepared without too much fanfare. Culinary director Matt Haase spent a lot of time working with the hearth cooks to reinforce the message of simple, well-made food that evolves with the seasons.
The custom-made hearth – whose flames are fed oak and ash logs – was built to accent versatility so that delicate items placed on higher shelving are more subtly flavored. Potatoes and salad greens are among the few things that don’t touch the hearth. You wish they could. While you’re deciding where to begin, tee off with the grilled edamame sprinkled with Middle Eastern za’atar ($6). You’ll be licking your fingers until the venison tartare arrives. This meaty small plate of tender chopped loin served with grilled rye is like a fancified cannibal sandwich ($12). As unsuited as it sounds, it goes smashingly with the grilled avocado daubed with onion spread, diced bacon and cheddar and served with grilled sourdough ($8). If you can imagine an avocado that tastes like a twice-baked potato, that’s what you have here. Also worth sampling is the pork belly and squash salad, with scallion relish and cooling spiced yogurt ($12).
Transition to “large” plates with the crusty, Prime bavette steak, marinated in soy-ginger ($25). It’s so good with the smashed fingerlings in umami mayo ($6). To complete the meal, add the smoked cauliflower crowns with romesco sauce ($8).
They take effort to eat, but don’t let that stop you from ordering the head-on prawns with chile butter ($26). Just twist off the head and suck out the meat. Winter comfort is found in the bacon-wrapped rabbit loin with confited rabbit leg, sweet cherries and a smidge of mustard ($27). It’s rich but lean.
Haase says cooking on a wood fire is the ideal way to train cooks, because they can’t rely on stove controls. It also might herald the dining mood of this year – hearty minimalism. And I daresay Ash is just what the Iron Horse Hotel needed, more than 10 years into its life.
Iron Horse Hotel: 500 W. Florida St., 414-374-4766
Hours: D Mon-Sat; Br Sat-Sun
Prices: Small plates $6-$12; large plates $22-$55
Service: Attentive, affable, quick