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The year in dining

Photos by Dan Bishop

December  2012

c. 1880
Photo by Kevin Miyazaki

Returning to his native Wisconsin after cooking with Michel Richard at Citronelle in Washington, D.C., was never a question — he always intended on it. Thomas Hauck, chef owner of c. 1880, on a corner along bustling 1st Street in Walker’s Point, uses his restaurant as a culinary laboratory where he pickles, preserves and dehydrates. Eat under the glow of Edison bulbs and experience what he does best: seasonal, locally sourced ingredients. Open since May, the dinner-only menu includes contemporary, upscale selections like young lettuce tossed with champagne and fine herbs; or scallops with white chocolate, sunchokes and almonds.


Two blocks away is sustainable-foods advocate Dave Swanson’s empire, years in the making, with Braise, a fine-dining, dinner-only restaurant on the ground floor (inside a former bowling alley), and a garden on its roof. It opened in December 2011. Sunday suppers bring a different farmer into the dining room each week for a fixed-price menu featuring their goods. Also in Walker’s Point, The Noble, which opened a month before Braise, channels New York City’s West Village with a tiny space that serves dinner until midnight. Comfort food is the name of the game, with rotating dishes like chili mac with crispy pork belly and a daily "hunters" entrée for carnivores, or "gatherers" for vegetarians. (Or, pop in for Monday brunch, a new take on the weekend tradition.)

Odd Duck

Farther south on the Kinnickinnic/1st Street corridor, Bay View continues to blossom with eating options for lovers of artisan fare. Odd Duck opened in April inside the former Future Green (with an equally green aesthetic, right down to the sorghum-straw tables and original-brick walls covered with co-owner/executive chef’s Russ Bachhuber’s art). Open for dinner only, the small-plates focused menu — written that morning to reflect small allotments of local, fresh ingredients — also features four large plates as well as cheese and charcuterie boards reflecting Wisconsin’s best picks. Almost everything is sourced from within 100 miles, even the shrubs and infusions for cocktails like The Gimlet, with arugula as a twist. "We’re on a journey. We’re learning new things. We want to run out of something so we can make something else," says co-owner Melissa Buchholz, Bachhuber’s girlfriend.

Espana Tapas House

Downtown Milwaukee welcomed two new restaurants: Espana Tapas House — open since March, serving Spanish-inspired tapas paired with Spanish wines and Sangria — and The Rumpus Room, The Bartolotta Group’s most casual sibling yet, with a stunning selection of craft beers and late-night snacks — from Scotch eggs to beer-steamed mussels — at the gastropub. The Third Ward now has a second sushi spot — Kanpai Sushi Lounge, inside the former Nanakusa on Chicago Street — where unique sushi spreads like Drunken Piranha and Geisha Dreams are presented in a modern dining space.

Another Third Ward newcomer — open since January — is Smoke Shack from seasoned restaurant owners Joe and Angie Sorge, who are also behind Swig, Water Buffalo and AJ Bombers. Tucked into a former smoke shack — hence its name — are framed photos of Wisconsin farms; drinks served in Mason jars; barnwood repurposed as décor; and the moistest cornbread in town. All meats (which are humanely raised and free of antibiotics) come out of the smoker without sauce; it’s then up to the diner to choose from among five signature sauces, including Carolina Gold and Kansas City.

Twisted Fisherman Crab Shack, inside a former boathouse on West Canal Street, brings a little bit of Key West to the Menomonee Valley. It’s owner Russ Davis’ — who also runs the Lakefront Palm Garden, Rio West Cantina and Riverwalk Boat Tours — homage to Mexico, where he vacations often. Come winter the outdoor patio on the Menomonee River (with plenty of boat slips) is enclosed, and heat lamps switched on. Expect fishnet draped over the bar year-round. Tropical drinks, such as Milwaukee Sunset, are the perfect prelude to blue crab flown in from warmer climates, finished with Door County cherry cobbler served in a sizzling-hot skillet.

Cafe One 24

Out in Brookfield, Café One 24, named for its perch on 124th Street and Capitol Drive, opened in January inside a strip mall a stone’s throw from a Culver’s and a Chipotle. "There is not a stitch of refined flour or sugar in the kitchen," says Sarah Dusseau, who developed the menu as an extension of her Fit Food Trainer business. Each dish is an example of "clean eating" where ingredients are not altered with butter, deep-frying or salt. Instead, they are whole and unprocessed, whether it’s chicken tacos or a pepperoni flatbread. 8-twelve MVP Bar & Grill debuted in July on Bluemound Road as a living memorial to the MVP statuses achieved by Ryan Braun and Aaron Rodgers, whose sports mementos (such as Rodgers’ 2011 playoffs’ cleats) are either framed or within window boxes. Refurbished barnwood, a temperature-controlled wine room and a farm-to-table focus (many ingredients are sourced from owner Mike Polaski’s farm in New London) put a spin on the typical sports-bar ambiance. Of course, there are numerous flat-screen televisions.

Joey Gerard's 
Photo courtesy of Bartolotta Restaurants

Two more suburbs heated up with the autumn openings of Joey Gerard’s from The Bartolotta Group in Greendale and Mequon. Everything hearkens back to the state’s supper clubs as they were during the late 1950s, including ice-cream cocktails, hearty portions, black vinyl half-moon booth seating and black-and-white framed photos of Old Hollywood. "I can’t tell you how freaked out people get by the relish tray — they get so excited," says owner Joe Bartolotta, whose middle name is Gerard. At the Greendale restaurant is a Josper Wood Stone Charcoal oven unique to the Midwest; items are cooked with charcoal at more than 700 degrees.

Wild Earth Cucina

Two floors up from the ding-ding sounds of slot machines in Potawatomi Bingo Casino is Wild Earth Cucina Italiana, which reopened in early September (Wild Earth closed in 2009) with Vegas-like grand décor (think a back-lit bar in deep red, an open kitchen, pillars of pebbles and a half wall of small trees). Almost all of the ingredients executive chef Audrey Vandenburgh uses to create innovative Italian cuisine, such as Laughing Bird shrimp with pesto and pancetta, are locally sourced — and the seafood sustainable. "We wanted the restaurant to have this homey feel," explains general manager Vita Fugarino, who filled a china cabinet with pieces from each employee’s family, to further drive home the cozy concept.


This story ran in the December 2012 issue of: