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A passion for the plate

Photos by Matt Haas

February 2015

Ale Asylum Riverhouse

The chefs and owners of this month’s featured new restaurants all have turned their singular enthusiasm for exceptional food into four equally exceptional yet quite diverse dining experiences.


Zesti, chef Michael Feker’s latest endeavor, opened in downtown Hartland in late December. The new restaurant boasts exposed brick and stucco walls with sleek yet weathered wood tables, creating a modern yet warm ambiance. "It is a continuation of my culinary journey," says Feker. "We each are infused with various flavors of life. That’s how we are created and how we establish our flavors. ‘Zest’ is another name for flavor, and it is my intention and mission to bring flavors to the table and create a gathering place in Lake Country."

The menu is organized, in fact, with the flavors and origin of each dish clearly highlighted. Each dish is also highlighted or identified by the country or world region where it originates. For brunch, three clear winners include torrijas, a Spanish-style "French" toast; a dish titled "Mexico" — a winning mix of fried corn tortillas topped with beans, over-easy eggs, grilled tomatoes, cilantro, avocado and cotija cheese; and "The Orient" — a fusion experience of Asian and Italian with an Asian-flavored risotto topped with fresh fish, poached eggs, kimchee, spinach, Thai basil and Vietnamese-inspired chili sauce. Order a mimosa or better yet, a Bellini made with fresh raspberry puree.

Fish is a standout on the dinner menu, as well. If it’s offered, try the panga, a white fish served with a white wine sauce, spinach, garlic and squash. Other dinner items to savor include a memorable beet salad served with fresh goat cheese, sweet and sour cabbage and perfectly caramelized Brussels sprouts, the meatball appetizer served over creamy polenta, and any of Feker’s memorable pasta and pizza dishes. His famed tiramisu is on the menu, and the hazelnut flourless chocolate tort is also a good choice. Those adhering to special diets like gluten-free and vegan will find educated servers who know the menu well, and wine lovers will enjoy Feker’s thoughtful selections. 130 E. Capitol Drive, Hartland, (262) 367-3333,

Kasana Restaurant

Like Feker, chef and restaurateur Ana Docta has a singular and unique culinary vision. Her Kasana Restaurant, which means "Casa de Ana" or "Ana’s house," recently underwent a complete redesign in both menu and décor. The new look is both elegant and inviting, with plush seating arrangements and tones of aqua and white and gorgeous lighting fixtures.

"I want you to feel welcome in my house," says Docta, who grew up in Argentina and Brazil with a Spanish mother and Italian father.

The new menu reflects Docta’s desire to go back to what she loves — organic cuisine with a South American twist, and it boasts an ample tapas section. Everything is made from scratch in-house, from the salad dressings to the pizza dough, and the dishes you don’t want to miss are: manajar, which is Brussels sprouts caramelized with garlic and chilies in coconut oil; the hard-to-stop- eating manchego cheese bread; the perfectly crisp cod fritters; the signature flatbread with prosciutto, goat cheese, mangoes and arugula; and croquetas de pollo, which are served with Docta’s father’s chimichurri sauce. The house sangria is refreshing, and the wine list is carefully cultivated. Even though it’s hard to do, do save room for desserts. The flan, which is made with raw sugar caramel and lavender honey, is especially decadent.

Expect to see more wine dinners this year at Kasana and more pop-up dinners, one of Docta’s specialties. 241 N. Broadway, (414) 224-6158,

Ale Asylum Riverhouse

Though the Ale Asylum Riverhouse is restaurateur Tim Thompson’s first foray into Milwaukee, it’s not his first gastropub, as he owns several in the greater Madison area. Located in the space that previously housed Molly Cool’s, the red and black toned hip interior sets off some spectacular views of the Milwaukee River, and a patio that will be well used, come warmer weather. "It was a very well-conceived space, and it just needed a face-lift," Thompson says.

The menu features gourmet twists on pub fare like deviled eggs, but the eggs aren’t your mama’s deviled eggs, as they’re chock-full of prosciutto, peas, Sartori Parmesan, pickled onion and a touch of sriracha sauce. Or try the anti-mozzarella sticks, in which prosciutto is wrapped around Uraguayan coalho cheese and then fried before being served with marinara.

The sandwiches are also deliciously familiar yet exotic — like the BLT, which is made with dry-aged, cherrywood-smoked bacon and dehydrated Roma tomatoes, or the perch dish served with Southern-style white barbecue sauce. The grilled cheese, which is stacked with Ale Asylum Big Slick Stout-braised short ribs and cheddar and havarti cheeses, is another standout. The salads are also hearty — the beet salad boasts sesame seed-encrusted chevre with a garlic-honey vinaigrette, and the hunters salad features butternut squash, house-smoked pork, mushrooms, wilted kale and basted eggs.

If the delicious twists seem a bit familiar, it’s because former owner and chef of Industri Café Robert Klemm reigns over the kitchen at Ale Asylum. The beer selection naturally features Ale Asylum brews, but Thompson also expects to bring in other offerings from microbrewers not commonly found in Milwaukee. The wine list is pretty spectacular for a brewpub, and the Educated Guess Cabernet Sauvignon pairs well with the short rib grilled cheese. Beer pairings are par for the course, and beer tastings cost only $8 for four 5-ounce selections. 1110 N. Old World 3rd St., Milwaukee, (414) 269-8700,

Simmer Café

Though Steve Perlstein and his wife, Jennifer Block, didn’t start Simmer Café by doing pop-up meals, they did start with a food truck, and they became the first Milwaukee food truck to open a brick and mortar restaurant late last year. With two full seasons of the truck under their belt, customers are finding their way to the café, which is located in the heart of downtown on Water Street, between Mason and Wisconsin.

Regulars know to try the soup of the day — Perlstein has a rotating repertoire of dozens of soups — or to get the tomato basil, which is always available. Paninis and salads, along with Stone Creek Coffee, are also on the menu, as are breakfast dishes. Perlstein, who used to be a Chicago chef before he returned home to work at Buca di Beppo, serves homemade omelets with crispy hash browns on panini bread. A local favorite is the spinach, shallot and feta omelet. "People know we serve lunch," Perlstein says. "The biggest challenge is letting them know we also serve breakfast and coffee."

The café boasts a clean, modern look, with high ceilings, honed wood tables and fresh flowers. There’s absolutely no trace of the location’s previous incarnations, which included a corned beef emporium and an Arby’s fast food restaurant. Though Perlstein and Block love their new café, they still take their food truck out, especially to the convention center for special events, and they also do a lot of catering events, including weddings. "Food truck weddings offer a different vibe," Perlstein says. "Everything’s more relaxed and fun." Just like their café. 718 N. Water St., (414) 949-SOUP,


This story ran in the February 2015 issue of: