Cocktail meatballs are featured among the appetizers at The Fitz, the new restaurant at the Ambassador Hotel. Like the 1920s-era lodging, which has decades of stories from its history, culinary director Jason Gorman uses the menu to tell tales too. He modernized his recipe for the retro cocktail meatballs ($12) – which riffs on his mom’s grape jelly versions – with ground venison and a fresh blackberry chutney. They’re delicious meatballs that make me think about family potlucks when I was a kid. My own story unfolds in my head. That’s the beautiful, memory-triggering thing about food.
The Ambassador, old marble floors and plasterwork carrying over into the dining room, recently revamped its food and beverage program, hired new staff, renamed the restaurant and lounge and sought to recreate the era when the hotel was built – the Roaring ’20s. Some menu items are inspired by popular dishes from those times (Waldorf and Crab Louis salads). Gorman – of Dream Dance, the Iron Horse Hotel and, most recently, Milwaukee Art Museum’s Café Calatrava – says he no longer feels the pressure to cook in a certain style. He just wants to make food that tastes good.
That’s a refreshing take, and the nostalgia-meets-modern culinary theme sounds like a good fit for a historic hotel. But other variables come into play. Diners on a given night could include business travelers staying on-site, concertgoers headed to the nearby Rave, people affiliated with Marquette University and destination diners – people with very differing goals.
Perhaps the unpredictability of that crowd’s size was the reason for a very subpar visit to The Fitz one weeknight this summer. The adjacent Gin Rickey lounge was packed, and the Fitz’s dining room quickly filled up. We had a reservation and were seated promptly, but as more diners filed in, service lagged and our food courses arrived in fits and starts. The staff seemed caught off guard. Of the appetizers, most interesting and flavorful to my palate was “fish and chips” – light, puffy prawn crackers topped with whipped salt cod, yuzu mayonnaise and serrano chile ($8). (A few weeks later, that dish was no longer on the menu.). Gorman’s interpretation of pigs in a blanket ($9) uses a fresh, rather plump Chinese-style pork sausage that spills out of the spongy rice bun. But the flavor (enhanced by the rhubarb-BBQ sauce) is good. The best parts of the rumaki ($12) are the wonderful fried chicken liver and dark-rich soy caramel with Sprecher root beer. Thick seared pork belly rounds it out.
Entrées (at two visits) were a mixed bag. The market-price roasted fish (mahi mahi, $29) went back to the kitchen because it was unpleasantly salty. The kitchen responded by sending out a fresh piece of fish, which was the opposite of salty – bland. The risotto of the day (roasted corn, $19) was too al dente and again met a too liberal salt shaker. Best was hibiscus tea-cured duck breast (medium-rare and quite tender) with duck confit and terrific spicy green-curry gnocchi dumplings ($29). Also good was the scallops cordon bleu ($32) – perfectly seared shellfish, not traditional cordon bleu style (which would have included cheese and a breadcrumb coating). Instead, crispy shaved guanciale (an Italian cured meat) stood in for baked ham, and the polenta-Parmesan broth served as an effective flavor complement.
The Ambassador’s history makes this nostalgia-inspired menu sound like a perfect fit. But my up-and-down visits have nagged at me. Is this the menu that suits the clientele? Can it be executed well? And getting destination diners to choose this restaurant over so many others may well be a struggle. Right now there’s a lot of room for improvement. ◆
Ambassador Hotel, 2308 W. Wisconsin Ave., 414-345-5015
Hours: B L D Tues-Sat; Br Sun
Prices: Entrées $16-$48
Service: Needs polishing. Waitstaff has appeared overwhelmed and/or very green.
‘Hotel Heavyweights’ appears in the October 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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