Final JBFA dispatch: Eating Milwaukee

Beef tartare at Ardent/ Hanna Raskin

More than 90 percent of American adults have a cell phone, but the device is still treated like a dirty little secret in many upscale restaurants. “We politely ask you to abstain from cell phone use,” the italicized last line of a menu is apt to instruct, not very politely at all. So when a sous chef at Ardent, a dimly-lit tasting menu burrow in Milwaukee, approached my phone-wielding husband with a wood-and-cloth contraption, I assumed it was a crafty way to conceal the unwanted technology.

Hardly. The linen pocket was actually a sort of sleeping bag, designed to protect the phone throughout the meal, because – as Ardent recognizes – diners don’t always want to surrender the right to snap a picture of soup or Google their way out of a debate. The supporting wooden block didn’t charge the phone (we were in Milwuakee, not San Francisco), but it lifted it above the fray of the dribbles and splashes that inevitably accompany a meal enjoyed fully. It was easily the best example of hospitality I’ve encountered this year.

But that’s Milwaukee for you. The city surprised me in many ways when I visited prior to the James Beard Foundation awards: I wasn’t prepared for the stunning architecture, or the depth of sports fandom, which turns the streets into streams of hockey, baseball and basketball jerseys on weekend nights. In other ways, though, the Midwestern city lives up to its reputation: People are incredibly nice. And the old-fashioneds really are mixed with brandy.

If Milwaukee is known for anything in the food-and-drink realm, it’s beer. According to the film that precedes the Miller Brewing Company factory tour, the city’s status as a beer capital resulted from an influx of German immigrants; access to wheat, water and railroads and the Great Chicago Fire, which took down local brewers’ stiffest competition (Miller also credits Frederick Miller’s genius, although the honchos at Schlitz, Blatz and Pabst, all formerly located in Milwaukee, might have offered a different read.)

It’s fun to see how Milwaukee has built on its sudsy past, literally – I stayed at the Brewhouse Inn & Suites, located in the old Pabst Brewery, where five gleaming copper kettles still dominate the lobby – and spiritually. Milwaukee is home to about a dozen microbreweries, including Sprecher. Touring the facility, I got the strong sense that the company wants to be known for something other than its excellent root beer, which outsells all of its other products combined. Fortunately, Sprecher is making hard root beer, which ought to keep everybody happy.

The best beer I drank in Milwaukee was Lakefront’s Eastside Dark, a robust, coffee-tinged Bavarian dark lager that should automatically be offered to anyone who asks for red wine with chocolate. But honestly, I’m not a beer drinker. I was much more in my element at Holler House, a frumpy-looking neighborhood bar where a tall glass of Jack Daniel’s sells for $4. Although I hadn’t heard of it, Holler House is one of those establishments that turn up regularly on TV shows devoted to American oddities. That’s because the nation’s oldest sanctioned bowling lanes are in the basement.

When we arrived at Holler House, we nearly walked back out, since we figured all of the casserole dishes and seven-layer dips perched on the vinyl-covered tables in the bar signaled a private party. Of course, we should have guessed that not much qualifies as private at Holler House, where a rainbow of full-figured women’s bras hang from the rafters. The bar was open, although the lanes were closed: The pin man had already gone home. The bar is trying to keep play to a minimum, since the lanes’ original varnish has almost disappeared. Professional bowlers have a standing invitation to roll, and nearly always leave frustrated: The last 300 game was recorded in 1938.

As it happens, that’s the same year that Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge opened. It’s unclear whether Bryant Sharp was the state’s first cocktailian, but the bar’s current owners believe he was the first man in Milwaukee to swear off serving beer and dedicate his menu to liquor drinks. He also threw out his jukebox, and installed a record player on which he only spun classical music. Nowadays, though, very little trace of Bryant’s World II era elegance remains, because a 1971 fire chewed up the bar’s interior. It was replaced with the finest in 1970s swank. The bar is furnished with gold-plating; an aquarium; dark brown leather and a curvaceous bar and booths.

Despite Bryant’s long history, it’s embraced a very current style of mixed drinks, in which bartenders are supposed to devise cocktails to match a customer’s precise tastes. There is no menu. Maybe I got the wrong bartender, but the exercise seemed sillier than smart when I said I wanted an alcohol-forward whiskey drink with perceptible bitters. “OK,” the bartender said. “I’m thinking maybe a whiskey drink, alcohol-forward, with bitters.” I ended up with a Manhattan, which is what I probably would have ordered anyway. But the setting was unbeatable.

At our next stop, I couldn’t give the bartender quite as much guidance. I knew I wanted a brandy old-fashioned, the signature drink of the state’s supper clubs, but was unprepared when asked if I wanted it with Sprite, lemon juice, water, club soda or a press. I happily deferred to the bartender at Five O’Clock Steakhouse (he recommended the press, a mix of Sprite and soda.)

Supper clubs, sadly vanishing from the Wisconsin landscape, may have gotten their start when post-Prohibition liquor licenses were granted to bars beyond county lines that served food. Imagine a rural guy back then assembling his version of big city glitz, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of a supper club’s ambiance. House rules dictate that patrons start in the bar, where a server takes their salad dressing orders: When they reach the table, the iceberg salad is waiting, along with a relish tray, outfitted with more dippable things.

In addition to steaks, supper clubs serve fried fish on Fridays and prime rib on Saturdays. The manager, dressed in a too-big suit, was pained to learn there were only end cuts and medium slices left when I placed my prime rib order, but I loved my meal anyhow. On a trip that included visits to the estimable Kopp’s Frozen Custard and Jake’s Deli, the only tastes that could top the altogether flavor of supper club meat-and-potatoes came from Ardent, an outstanding restaurant by every measure.

Ardent’s chef Justin Carlisle this year was up for a Best Chef Midwest award, and everything I tried explained why. Carlisle’s family owns a farm, and its products photobomb many of the restaurant’s fantastically inventive small plates. Sometimes, a dish is wholly dependent on Wisconsin’s bounty, such as the housemade butter and Muenster cheese presented as a milk course. Other times, the fresh ingredients are bootstrapped with cultural references, such as the tender tater tot bobbing in a ramp soup finished with beer vinegar.

Or they wittily harken back to Carlisle’s childhood, as was the case with a rosy, rich beef tartare crowned with a whip of egg and bone marrow. It’s an edible remembrance of the days when Carlisle’s grandmother served cannibal sandwiches, and the chef-to-be defensively gravitated toward her deviled eggs. It’s also a very fine reason to plan a trip to Milwaukee.

Postscript: While Milwaukee was the highlight of my latest eating adventures up north, I didn’t exactly starve in Chicago (or on the road to the Windy City: If you’re ever in Racine, pick up a buttery, flaky kringle from O&H Danish Bakery.) The dishes I liked most included garbanzo hush puppies at Dove’s Luncheonette, sweet and smeared with shrimp cream cheese; Au Cheval’s famed burger; Russian Tea Time’s borscht and Fat Rice’s extraordinary pork chop sandwich on a Portuguese roll, which got me thinking big thoughts about the differences in how Southern and Midwestern chefs approach their birthright pig flesh.