Nautical Nights: A Harbor House Review

    East Coast purists eat their raw oysters au naturel – without benefit of Tabasco, red wine vinegar or grated horseradish. To conquer, simply release the little mollusk from its shell with the tines of a fork, raise the shell to your mouth, slurp and softly chew. There’s no shame in downing it with the closest available cocktail. And beyond the pleasures of the palate, consider the aphrodisiacal benefits. At Harbor House, the successor to the lakefront’s weirdly iconic Pieces of Eight, I see many signs of raw consumption. However, the room really throbs with something else – raw…

Living the Dream

Mike Engel can see everything. Manning the sauté station in his restaurant kitchen, he looks up at his son, Andrew, working the grill. The cold station guy can’t escape his gaze, either. In a white smock as recognizable as a doctor’s lab coat, the 48-year-old Engel crosses the threshold between kitchen and dining room. He steps onto a throw rug and the heat dissipates, the light softens. Heads turn to see the chef’s smile, framed by a salt-and-pepper beard, as he stops at their table and asks about their meal. Two years ago, Engel was entrenched in a different kitchen…

Curveball

Ryan Braun – baseball star, clothing line creator, and now restaurateur. Ryan Braun’s Waterfront, the Third Ward spot named for the Milwaukee Brewers’ left fielder, isn’t a stereotyped celebrity restaurant. You won’t see an homage to No. 8. No displays of bats or autographed jerseys. No arcade games or “Braun burger” on the menu. Instead, it’s stark, white walls, modern floor lamps and colorful (for-sale) art, and a lounge that smacks of “Miami Vice” and frat boys watching ESPN. Braun’s runs the length of a brick building at Water and Erie (the former Fratellos), the wooden deck overlooking the Milwaukee River.…

Chasing Chili

A five-letter word that means fun? I know: “Chili” immediately comes to mind. Do you doubt it? Four reasons chili is fun: 1. The ties that bind: meat, beans, tomatoes, onions. 2. You can eat it with a spoon or fork. (Although some argue chili should be thick enough to eat with a fork.) 3. It has practical uses – chili dog, chili mac, chili cheese fries, chili burger and so on. 4. The word lends itself to rhyming. As in, “silly chili,” “chili gives me the willies” (it sodoesn’t), and Chili Lili’s,a new restaurant in the Third Ward where…

Taylor Made

We’re playing a game. “Wilma Flintstone,” I say. “Howdy Doody,” my friend volleys back. “The Joker. And Michelle Obama,” I counter. The game is Name the Figurine On the Big Piece of Art Behind the Bar. I’d guess many people who venture inside Taylor’s People’s Park play this game. The raison d’être of this unaffected restaurant is represented by the wall-mounted artwork that runs the length of the bar. Co-owner Dan Taylor even gave the piece a name – People’s Park – an homage to the Berkeley, Calif., park known in the late ’60s as a counterculture haven. He says…

Shot Through the Heart

Riverwest girl rests her head on Riverwest boy’s shoulder. She has a bit of the hippie dancer about her lithe frame. He – seated so close that they seem to share some limbs – is a mixture of IT geek and indie band frontman. As Riverwest boy lifts a forkful of veggie taco and black beans to Riverwest girl’s mouth, it’s like he’s feeding a fragile bird. It’s as though they’re on their own little island, yet life presses on with the clanging of plates, the frenzied steps of servers and garrulous chatter of neighboring diners. Cafe Corazónis a beating…

Dos Mexicanos

This is a tale of two Mexican restaurants that, at first glance, seem to have much in common. They’re competitors, to some extent, located within a mile of each other – one tucked into a longtime shopping district, another surrounded by a sprawling outdoor shopping mall. Both opened during weak economic times, when diners are harder than ever to impress. From the start, COA(named after a tool used to harvest the agave plant)faced a bit of a perception problem. Co-owner Marc Bianchini, who opened Osteria del Mondo in 1994 at the tender age of 23, chose the menu descriptor “Mexican…

Prime Time

 A decade ago, we were in the thick of the old boys’ club steakhouse era. A deferential server dressed in a black tie and white jacket would place a napkin on the diner’s lap, while another would fetch a martini, and still another would hoist a tray of raw meat, pointing to each cut and expounding on its attributes with the flourish of Vanna White. Fifteen ounces of meat later, the diner would leave with a thinner wallet and a satisfied, if somewhat distended, belly.Things obviously aren’t quite so flush anymore. The corporate expense account has run dry.But one thing…

Wok-y Talky

I can summon to my conscious mind everything about a Chinese egg roll. There was a point in adolescence when it figured heavily into my diet. The crisp-rubberiness of the egg roll wrapper. The mushy, salty cabbage filling. The burn on the roof of my mouth that invariably happened because I couldn’t wait long enough for it to cool off. Images like that flood my brain. Another image – much more recent – is of the flaky, croissant-like flatbread served at Waukesha pan-Asian restaurant Mr. Wok. Never mind the name of this restaurant (which undersells the menu), and that it’s…