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Quizzically named Meraki tries to distinguish itself on the city's uber-drag for hot restaurants.

Meraki’s take on salad nicoise. Photo by Chris Kessler.

Meraki’s take on salad nicoise. Photo by Chris Kessler.

Nesting in the center of this opulent-looking plate are the most ravishing pickled vegetables and fruits, in shapes round, oblong and square, with a burnished color palette of purples, yellows and greens. There’s okra, Brussels sprouts, carrots, even Asian pears and blueberries. The brine on one of them is floral, the next is sour, another hot. This is our pickling plate ($7) at Meraki, a late-2014 arrival to Second Street in (where else?) Walker’s Point.

It’s a small thing – pickled veg – and yet its culinary history as a method of food preservation is centuries old. And it symbolizes the rather unusual restaurant name. If a chef leaves a “piece” of himself in the cuisine, that’s what is known in modern Greek lingo as “meraki.”

The moniker and other factors about Meraki are not quite, by design, mainstream. Along with his wife-partner Malissa, Chad Meier, the former opening chef at Blue Jacket just a few blocks away, wants diners to embark on an adventure. The template for this bold experiment is a little building that bears little trace of the Allen-Bradley union headquarters it used to be. It is one space quixotically separated into three: a crisp, clean bar framed by standing tables and an upholstered couch; the 10-seat “chef’s table” that faces the open kitchen; and the main dining area with two half-circle booths on the opposite side of a more social grouping of banquettes. It sounds too disparate to work, but as the soft gas-lamp-like lighting filters through the rooms, it feels dreamily attractive, a steampunk-Victorian/modern-industrial aesthetic.

Meier, a 31-year-old Brookfield native and onetime architecture student, comes across as the antithesis of the fiery chef-owner, describing the importance of play in the kitchen. That’s one of the reasons the menu changes often. Meier’s intention, in offering plates like elk spiedini ($15) and bacon-wrapped hare tenderloin ($26) from an early menu, is for the cuisine to be a form of entertainment. The menu is as quirky as an electro-futuristic light fixture. It may be more unconventional than approachable, and back in February, some of the combinations fell flat.

Meier’s classic training at the Culinary Institute of America-Hyde Park is on demo in details like the sauces. In its first incarnation shortly after opening in December, his prawns with black rice and bok choy ($24) started with a savory tomato-based sauce. In late winter, a honey milk sauce the texture of crème anglaise coated the pale shellfish, which was undercooked and speckled with candied macadamia nuts.

The kitchen’s playful mood is no more apparent than in a thing called oysters squared ($11), given life by sous chef Kristen Schwab. Pickled oysters in the half-shell plus salt-and-pepper oysters join pickled oyster mushroom salad and fried oyster mushrooms. Complicated? Indeed. A little radish, trout roe and seaweed salad topped off the sour and salty, the snapping crispness and springy tenderness.

The bar at Meraki. Photo by Chris Kessler.

The bar at Meraki. Photo by Chris Kessler.

The menu breakdown uses the terminology “share,” in sizes small and large. But that doesn’t mean small needs to preface large. The differences are quantifiable, but order any way you like. The hot bread ($10) – a doughy, focaccia-like carb baked to order – was as good a place as any. The idea for it started when Meier acquired the small, cast-iron pans. The toppings change; our chewy, finger tip-singeing loaf was loaded with pesto, roasted peppers, pecorino and garlic.

If one focused on the buttery tuna crudo (the Italian word for sashimi), the nicoise salad ($10) was flawless. The other elements – purple potatoes, crisp asparagus tips, roasted beets, pickled Brussels sprouts, lemon vinaigrette – lacked cohesion even though they were piled together on the plate.

From one of those early menus, the black cod ($27) was a Japanese miso-fueled dose of lightness. The flaky, feathery skin-on filet lounged in an airy pond floating with pea shoots and edamame. Another night, the flat-iron steak ($24) took a slow route to our table, the medium-rare slices of tender meat shrouded by a crimson gash of sauce. The most interesting thing about that beet bordelaise was its color; the least, its waning flavor. But the chewy barley, charred onion and blotch of onion soubise (a cream sauce) added texture, though subtle flavor.

Despite some lapses in execution, desserts are treated with as much whimsical experimentation as the savory plates. The best of those sampled, cookies & milk, featured warm, doughnut hole-like balls of fried cookie dough, milk ice cream (as it was described), a condensed milk sauce and cookie crumbles ($6).

Meraki opened just as winter began its brittle descent. It’s surrounded by restaurants – Braise, Crazy Water, AP Bar & Kitchen, and more just a few blocks north and east – that attract urban dwellers and suburban explorers. Is Meraki conceptually different enough from its competitors to hold its own here? The temperate months will make that clear.

[mark]Meraki[/mark]

939 S. Second St., 414-897-7230. Hours: Tues-Sat 5 p.m.-close. Prices: Small shares $7-$11; cheese and charcuterie $6-$9; large shares $8-$26; desserts $6-$8. Service: Friendly; bounces from attentive to not. Dress: Frock coat, corset, derby hat, etc. Credit cards: M V A. Handicap access: Yes. Reservations: Accepted.

‘Spirit of Adventure’ appears in the April, 2015, issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
Click here to subscribeor purchase a copy on newsstands at one of 400+ locations throughout Wisconsin.

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