In the department of skills a restaurant needs to have, “diplomacy” is not overrated. Succinctly put: skill at dealing with people. The name is particularly apt since chef-restaurateur Dane Baldwin wants his new Brady Street place, The Diplomat, to evolve as the audience shows him and his staff what they want the restaurant to be. Baldwin has been around the block a few times, has worked in a lot of kitchens (the late Dancing Ganesha, also Carnevor, Harbor House and Mr. B’s Steakhouse) and knows that running a restaurant requires flexibility.
My first night at The Diplomat, early fall but tauntingly like summer, the door is propped open. The tender behind the mahogany-topped bar cheerfully waves us inside. The look is sleek, the beachy Key West theme of the old Bosley on Brady replaced by poster art, simple wood tables each topped with a little vase of goldenrod – a contemporary, unpretentious bistro look. Mindful of the time he spent working in restaurants where he “couldn’t necessarily afford [to dine],” Baldwin created a reasonably priced, approachable menu of small plates that’s not short on flavor. The motif that defines his menu is “piquant.” A bowl of crisp, light pork rinds dusted with tomato powder (sriracha powder on a later menu) comes with a sinus-clearing Carolina mustard sauce ($4). Why pork rinds are not served on more bar food menus, I don’t know. They’re crazy addictive. They’re also a good entry point to bigger flavors – thin sliced (and juicy) fried green tomatoes in cornmeal batter, served with a good, tart remoulade ($8). And triple-blanched steak fries ($6) that are (no embellishment) one of the best things on the menu. Crispy, lightly seasoned wedges of air. Let them cool a bit before taking a bite.
The flavor train just doesn’t end. A long head of charred romaine under crumbled blue cheese – smooth but sharp – plus chunks of thick-cut bacon, cherry tomatoes and a soft, fleshy medium egg ($9) makes a warm salad a fit transition to cooler temperatures.
Surrounded by bold-flavored plates, the pickled shrimp salad ($9) flounders. The halved shrimp are missing any hint of briny flavor. Red pepper, onion and avocado crème fraîche are contrasting creamy and crispy but make faint impact. And while I like the haystack of fresh, earthy pea tendrils and shoots on the same plate, they’re a challenge to politely eat.
The onion tart leads with its flaky, buttery pastry ($8). The only quibble about the filling is the smoked gouda, thyme and caramelized shallots overpower the soft, beautiful roasted grapes. Baldwin says he’ll play around with heavier dishes come winter, but he’s not allowed to remove the trout! The beauty of it is it pulls this delicate, rich fish away from typical almondine and brown butter preparations. The chef pairs the fillet with bright, pickly dilly beans, sliced radish, a daub of creamy red pepper romesco sauce and the kicker, a cold tuna-anchovy sauce or tonnato ($11). It’s a plate you won’t forget. And this is a restaurant you won’t forget. Small plates do seem a bit been-there, ate-that (and was still hungry), and that may be the attitude The Diplomat needs to combat. But many dishes resonate, and Baldwin promises to listen to his audience. Now that’s the epitome of diplomacy. ◆
815 E. Brady St., 414-800-5816
Hours: Dinner Tues-Sat
Prices: $6-$17 (the steak also is available in entrée-size portion, $33)
Service: Welcoming, attentive and still learning