It’s taken some time, but the plant-based dining game is evolving in Milwaukee. Just look at the menu at the East Side’s new Strange Town.
The new Strange Town is the latest chapter in a journey, not strange but also not conformist, for owner Andy Noble. The DJ and musician had thought about opening an eating/drinking place, he says, but it was this space – the former Allium (2101 N. Prospect Ave., 414-885-0404) – that acted as a summons.
Noble didn’t want to see the unusual space with the ornate facade (one-time home of Café Brücke and Hartters Bakery) to fall “out of the family.” The bar comes with a charming Euro-like sidewalk patio, copious potted plants and huge windows that frosted up when it was freezing outside. Memories of drinking wine late into the cold night, while the radiators cranked next to him, were worth continuing. Noble and his cousin Mia LeTendre partnered up with a theme that takes advantage of their strengths – Noble’s as a musician and former record store owner, and both partners’ many years of plant-based eating and cooking. Strange Town is a destination for their mindful, unclichéd approach to vegan food (no fried tofu!), wines from naturally grown grapes, and a purely vinyl musical playlist.
The kitchen is limited mainly to induction burners and a convection oven, but Noble sees this restriction as an advantage. They think differently about what and how they cook. Besides varied kinds of veggies, they also use grains, nut-based sauces and sea vegetables (wakami, nori, sea ribbons) to build flavors and textures. The menu of 10 or so items shows vegan spunk. Their take on Italian arancini (stuffed fried rice balls), for example, is unexpectedly rich and “cheesy,” stuffed with smoked cashew cheese and baked ($10). They come with nicely seasoned salsa verde and tomato confit.
When the temperature dipped in November, the partners decided it was time for congee – an Asian “gruel” that often has a meat- or fish-based stock. Strange Town goes for texture and bold, melding flavors with its Thai-spiced quinoa congee with roasted mushrooms, fermented red cabbage, crispy shallot and collards ($12). Comforting without being too heavy. Then there’s what Noble calls the “bushy” Sicilian salad – mixed greens, shaved fennel, cauliflower, pomegranate seeds and Meyer lemon vinaigrette ($10). Here, tart is tempered by sweet, and the veggies keep their crunch. It’s a colorful, simple-ish, tasty winter salad.
Hummus ($9) seems a predictable addition, but the charge of flavor – from za’atar-seasoned flatbread, crisp roasted mushrooms, pungent house-made pickles and the thick, nutty chickpea hummus – is strong. A good sharing plate, as is the aloo gobi chaat ($10), an Indian-influenced mix of cooked potatoes and cauliflower, chickpeas, herb chutney, tamarind sauce and coconut yogurt. Eggplant involtini ($11) with black walnut-sorrel pesto and saltsa domata (Greek tomato sauce, with traces of nutmeg and cinnamon) over basmati makes the thin, tender rolled eggplant the star here. Between the spiced tomato sauce and the sharp sorrel pesto, this is a refreshingly different plate and one of many worthwhile stops in this Strange Town.