Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Café Lulu

It was a sort of odd night, really. Maybe that would explain our dining experience at Lulu's. I'll blame it on the phase of the moon. Or maybe Jupiter and Mercury were mis-aligned. Who knows.

By now, if you're a Milwaukee resident, you've probably been been to Lulu's. If you haven't, you're either a North Sider, or you just moved here. Lulu's has been a Bay View fixture now for quite a few years, and recently added a second dining room / bar area next door to the original Ex-George Webbs.

The Eating Milwaukee staff and I were really planning on getting dinner at Southwoods tonight, but after a day of substantial unexpected costs, we decided to get something a little lighter, and a little less expensive. So, it was between Lulu's, Centraal, and Riviera Maya. Like Andy said after dinner, "We shoulda gone to the Mexican place."

Lulu's addition (sadly, not pictured) is a sprawling, chic space filled with quirky art and big spans of old red brick. I like it. Well lit, intimate and spacious at the same time, and smoker-friendly, the new Lulu's is my kinda joint. However, I've eaten at that half of the restaurant a million times. So, we decided to sit in the older section. Besides, (and probably more importantly), Lauren is sensitive to cigarette smoke. Which is a hazard when hanging out with me.

The original section of Lulu's upholds our ongoing theme of "Restaurants That Used To Be Something Else." An old George Webb, it keeps with the theme of New Restaurants That Used To Be George Webbs, maintaining some of that greasy-diner decor, with some very Eames-era lights, and, gasp!, more quirky art. However, this half of the restaurant is very poorly lit, with some bright, obnoxious halogen task lighting behind the counter, and yellow-tinged light bleeding across the length of the room from the very few floor lamps. The floors are old linoleum, the walls are industrial-kitchen plastic sheeting, and the ceilings are dusty acoustic tiles.

We noticed right away the painful lack of cleanliness. Dried, unidentifiable chunks of food hugged the baseboards, and it was clear where someone had just mopped around the tables and other furniture. Either it had been a really, really busy day, or someone hadn't swept and mopped properly for a while. Even if the former were true, my expectation is that the staff stay on top of cleaning duties. Just because you're busy doesn't mean you can get sloppy.

We also quickly became aware of how COLD it was where we were sitting. Our drink order came relatively quickly, and we placed our orders for appetizers and entrées.

Lulu's menu is relatively limited, but in a strangely diverse way. Burgers, salads, pitas, and wraps round things out, with only two different appetizers to choose from: spreads, and snack pizzas. Each item has a number of what I would call "trick" ingredients, which is to say, something that takes a standard burger and elevates it to edible couture. This has it's ups and downs: on one hand, it allows the diner to try things in different combinations, take a safe food and mess its hair up a little bit. On the other hand, though, a chef can try to shoe-horn a particular ingredient into a form it's just not naturally meant to be in. This seemed to be the more common experience on our visit, which I will touch upon shortly.

We ordered an assortment of three "spreads" -- Boursin cheese with herbs, Hummus, and Olive Tapenade.

Our tray featured Crostinis, warm flatbread, and slices of Marble Rye.

The spreads took a painfully long time to arrive. I mean to say, I think I saw Andy visibly age before they arrived. In fact, it became a joke, because we were almost about to leave for greener pastures -- it took that long -- when I said, "Well, we can always walk out..." and our waitress turned the corner with the spreads.

The breads were all fine, although I would have done away entirely with the marble rye. The super-strong flavor of the caraway seed completely overpowered the hummus, clashed terribly with the olives, and blew the ultra-delicate Boursin into smithereens. No wonder it was the only bread to be left when we were done -- it simply didn't work with our spreads.

And speaking of spreads...

The Boursin you can't really screw up, since it is a prepared, packaged cheese product. The olive tapenade was a little one-notey, missing the bitter-sour of capers, and lacking anything past the slightly fruit flavor of the dark olives they used. I longed for a little more nuance -- maybe some shallot, some garlic, God forbid, even the traditional-but-funky anchovy. But alas.

The hummus was incredibly garlicky. But woefully flat. Grainy, dry, and far too oily. And, although it might have been my imagination, I'm fairly certain there was no sesame tahini present. Big oversight, in my book.

Luckily, we didn't have much time to consider how disappointing the spreads were, because Andy and my soup arrived before we had eaten our second piece of bread.

We both had the Irish Cheddar and Guinness soup.

The two concurrent appetizers were a bit frustrating. I would have much rather tackled the spreads first, had some time to ruminate, and then dig into the soup. Instead, I had to leave the soup to the side, getting cold all the while, until I finished enough bread to be respected.

The soup was an interesting concept.

I wish I could stop there. Both cloyingly salty, pucker-inducing bitter, it was the sort of dish that I'm sure sounded brilliant on paper. The sharpness of the cheddar, however, only served to reinforce the bitterness of the Guinness, and left me wondering exactly which flavor was actually running the show. The traditional Wisconsin Beer-Cheese soup works because the malt and grain flavors mesh so well with the funk of domestic cheddar, but Irish cheddar and Irish beer are two different animals entirely. The grilled (leeks?) on top were a nice touch, and added flavor that was absent from the rest of the soup. More dimension! More depth! Are you getting this, Lulu's?

At one point, I drank a bit of my diet Coke, and had some still on my lips when I took my next spoonful of soup. I thought, "Wow! Maybe my tastebuds were broken! This is brilliant!" The soup, with just a little sweetness, would have been sublime. But, then I realized it was just leftover Nutrasweet, and kept eating.

However, none of us had much time to consider the disappointment of either our spreads or our soups, because our entrées came rollicking around the corner shortly after I took my first sip of soup!

None of us had really even made a dent in the spreads, hadn't even touched our soup, and our meals had arrived. Poor, poor timing.

Lauren ordered a Philly Cheesesteak:

Andy ordered a Cheeseburger:

And, I ordered a Casablanca Burger (scene missing).

My burger was smallish, especially considering the size of Andy's frozen Reinhart-burger hand-formed lookalike. A blend of beef and lamb, I'm assuming my patty didn't come on the same Reinhart truck as Andy's did. There was a very distinct spiciness to the patty, but I'm still not sure exactly what I tasted. Coriander, for sure, and maybe some oregano. Was there some thyme there? I know I tasted fenugreek, but I'm guessing it was probably a part of a curry powder, since nobody I know uses it by itself.

Otherwise, the burger was ordinary. A bit on the dry side, not overwhelmingly spiced, and not topped with anything unusual. Red onion, mealy, under-ripe tomato, and leaf-lettuce. And a feta/yogurt/black pepper sauce. By the time I was able to start eating it, it was already cold. Perhaps if our very kind, but slightly misguided waitress had waited to bring our meals out until after we had finished our soup, it might have been a little tastier. But, thus is life.

Now, I know what you're thinking. I'm ripping Lulu's a new one. And, to a certain extent, I am. But I feel a little betrayed that a local favorite, one that I've been going to for years and always enjoying, could fall short of my expectations in so many ways during a single visit. Having good food and a cool space doesn't make a successful restaurant. Being able to deliver good food consistently well, over and over, with excellent service: that's what makes a restaurant really shine. I've always been happy with my food at Lulu's, and never had a problem with my service, but tonight, I took issue with both. Ordinary/discordant flavors mixed with terrible timing took what was an already "meh" dining experience and dropped it down another few pegs.

Report Card:
Atmosphere: D+
I love the new side of Lulu's, but was ashamed of how dirty the Webb's portion of the restaurant was. Dirty, dirty, dirty. And if the dining room is that dirty, what does the kitchen look like?

Prices: B+
Fair prices for decent food. Dinner for the three of us came to $53. Not bad, considering the sizable appetizer platter and two soups...

Service: D-
The fact that everything we ordered came at once was nearly unforgivable. I think the only thing that kept us in our seats was the fact that I live in the neighborhood, and see these people regularly.

The Food: B
Lulu's is like that one kid you knew in High School who tried so hard. To steal an old musician's motto, Sometimes B-sharp. Never B-flat. Always B-natural. Stick with what you know. Don't try to be something you're not. Master the basics before going for the advanced stuff.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Coming Soon: Southwoods, Juniper 61

To reward you, dear Reader, I've decided to make a special trip to the new Juniper 61, in continuation of our previous "Restaurants That Used To Be Something Else" theme. Of course, the current location of Juniper 61 used to be Shiraz, which used to be Jakes. So, it should fit in just fine. Look for it in the coming week.

Likewise, the dining debaucherists and I will be making a trip to Southwoods, in Cudahy. That review should appear before the week is through.

Happy Eating!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Mekong Café

I think I may have missed the boat when I named this blog. It should have been, "Restaurants That Used to be Something Else." It seems like so many Milwaukee establishments inevitably turn over, run their course and then whimper off into the twilight. Such was the case with the old Gaslight, located on the Northeast corner of N. 60th St. and North Avenue.

I remember as a child going to the Gaslight, and immediately recognizing that it was not fine dining. Dark, ghastly interiors shrouded in light-sapping wood panelling, with wagon-wheel light fixtures and cramped wooden booths. I remember low, barreled ceilings and lackluster Supper Club style cuisine. I was not particularly sad to see it go.

What has replaced the Gaslight (and a Jamaican restaurant, and an Urban Fashion store, and a gambling/sports bar) is the Mekong Café, whose slogan is "One magical river, three enchanting cuisines." I certainly hope it's able to break the streak of failed businesses at this location.

The Mekong Café promises authentic Laos, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. And on that promise, it delivers. Named for the river in Asia which runs through or borders nearly every country in, well, Asia, the Mekong Café is a bit difficult to pin down. I don't think it really qualifies as a café -- the menu is extensive, and the atmosphere is refined, but not stuffy. The sheer variety of available dishes makes me think of it as a sort of study in Asian cuisine, and to a certain extent, it is. But it's certainly not clinical.

I was really convinced before going that a single restaurant that would attempt Laotian, Thai, and Vietnamese food all at once would probably suffer a few pitfalls. My experience with restaurants that try to cover a lot of cultural ground tend to get caught up in one favorite, with the others singing back up. The Mekong Café avoids this entirely: the mix of the three cuisines is a love letter to Asian food, something of a celebration of the diversity and the common ties between three distinctly different, yet strikingly similar cooking styles.

The interior is nothing like I remember from the Gas Light. The front of the restaurant is open and airy, thanks to a large expanse of glass facing North Avenue. The building itself is a joyous creation, creamy brick and art-deco flourishes outside, and immense space inside. The ceilings, which are the original concrete of the building, are painted a flat black, and the walls are, well, a work of art.

What appears to be about 80-year-old paint, cracked and crazed, with outlines of bricks and splotches of plaster adorn the Western wall. Hints of antique terra cotta construction tile peek up from beneath the baseboards. The original art-deco tile floor adorns the entryway. Music is introduced into the recipe, too... authentic, culturally-appropriate music, which is at a level that brings a certain amount of credibility to the experience, but never calls too much attention to itself.

The menu goes on for miles. Dishes, for the most part, are split down cultural lines, with different sections for Laotian, Thai, and Vietnamese. Each item is carefully described, and some menu items are even noted as being kid-friendly. The chef has made sure the dominant items in each dish are listed, but has left some of the intricacies of flavor to be discovered by the diner. I like that.

Andy, Lauren and I ordered two appetizers before our meal: chicken satay, and Laotian Beef Jerky.

The chicken satay was superb. Four thick, long chicken tenderloin pieces, tender beyond belief, and smacking of curry and coconut milk. The peanut sauce and sweet-sour sauce served with them were clearly homemade, and each one offered a different perspective for the chicken: exactly what a dipping sauce should do. The meat shouldn't hide behind an overpowering sauce, rather the sauce should inform the meat, bring to the front a different dimension than just the meat alone. I was impressed.

The Laotian Beef Jerky was one of those happy surprises in food that doesn't happen half as much as I'd like it to. Warm, beefy, spicy, salty, chewy, and tender all in the same dish. And plentiful! For six dollars, we got a portion that was perfect for the three of us. And with a dish of a red garlic dipping sauce, this has got to be one of the more exciting appetizers I've had in a long time. Both the chicken satay and the beef jerk whet our appetites, and left us wanting more: exactly what an appetizer should do!

Our entrées were just as enjoyable.

Lauren: Stir Fry Pineapple Chicken, from the Thai portion of the menu.

Andy: Stir Fry Combination, from the Laotian part of the menu.

Myself: Grandma Chantra's Special, from the Laotian part.

Lauren's chicken stir-fry was a marvelous concoction. The salty, garlicky brown sauce, albeit a bit staid, was a wonderful pair with the sweet-tart of the pineapple. The entire mix was very delicately spiced, but still had a depth of flavor that made it both fun and very satisfying.

Andy's stir-fry combination was breathtaking. The sauce had a very solid, bright foundation of citrus, with layers of both dark and funky basil, and medicinal cilantro. When I saw his plate arrive, my eyes immediately went to the giant strip of criss-cross cut squid on the top, and my mind recalled images of late-night Chinese buffets from college. "Oh, no," I thought, remembering the leatherette squid I've had in the past.

I have earned myself a time-out for all of my assumptions so far tonight, as the squid was the star of the stir-fry, being absolutely melt-in-your-mouth tender, with a delicate, milky flavor.

My chicken sausage may have been the sleeper hit of the evening: rich, meaty, and assertive, it had an entire menagerie of flavors all vying for top billing. I have never had anything quite like it. Garlic, onion, lemongrass, and a host of herbs all elbowed their way into the top notes.

Food and music are innately tied together: they both appeal to very visceral senses, and so it's no wonder why the two are used so often to describe the other. If my sausage at Mekong Café were to be compared to a piece of music, it would have to be something by Poulenc. Quirky, goofy, but sophisticated, and still deeply beautiful. I'm still trying to figure out everything I tasted, and I just can't quite narrow it down. Crispy on the outside, firm and meaty on the inside, Grandma Chantra must be an amazing cook.

My only gripe for my dish (and, really, for the evening) was the Papaya salad that came with my sausage. I asked our bubbly, kind waitress what the best option was, either the salad or steamed veggies, and she said the salad was traditional. Trusting her word, I ordered it at a medium spice level. However, when it arrived, I became keenly aware the amount of red chilies was substantial, and by the fourth or fifth forkful, the salad was almost unbearable.

Mekong Café was exceeded my expectations ten-fold tonight. The space is fun and intriguing, the menu compelling and expansive, the food is downright explosive, and the experience is both laid-back but undeniably refined. These are the types of restaurants I love: great food, great setting, and great people behind the operation. I recommend Mekong Café whole-heartedly, and can only hope the succeed in a location that has so often failed in the past. I wish them the best of luck.

Report Card
Atmosphere: B+
Funky, contemporary interior spaces complement the food well, while giving more than a generous nod to the historic nature of the building. High ceilings allow for conversations to carry a little bit, but this is a minor complaint.

Prices: A-
Portion size, food quality, and price really come together here. You get a lot of great, authentic food, and pay a very reasonable amount for it.

Service: B
On a relatively quiet night, our waitress was attentive, but not intrusive. Our food arrived exceedingly fast.

Food: A
Exceptional. Exciting flavors, challenging combinations, and a vast number of choices. Just be careful how hot you order!

Mekong Cafe on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 9, 2009

Mai Thai

Oh, where do we begin with Mai Thai?

How about location... being that it occupies the space once bestowed upon my old favorite, Oriental Coast. 1230 E. Brady Street, it's a double-store front in the part of town I'd rather forget I hung out around as a teenager. Sure, Rochambeau is kinda fun when you're stoned, and there's good music to be heard at Hi Hat, but I just can't quite wash the taste of patchouli out of my mouth.

We (being myself, Andy, Lauren, and Katie) went Sunday night, with the full intention of eating ourselves into Thai Food Stupor. I would be lying if I told you that I didn't enjoy my meal at all, but I certainly wasn't in a super-orgasmic food coma by the end of our dining experience.

First, points for ambiance. Oriental Coast was sort of dank, sort of dark and dodgy, which I do truly enjoy, but seems a little too brooding for a building with a façade full of windows. Mai Thai improves upon the decor, adding a very chíc looking bar, a spritely cerulean coat of paint, flowing sheers between table-booths, and a half-cobbled wall-hanging theme consisting of stock-photos of islands, and stained bamboo and fake banana leaves. Quite the transition!

However, one of the things we all noticed immediately was the soundtrack: conversations held low due to the close quarters, and the bass-devoid droning of... Death Cab?!?

Yes, that was a Death Cab song that just ended. And then some Ziggy Marley. Let's not forget the Louis Armstrong, and maybe a little Jamie Cullum. I was starting to get the strange sensation that we had been hoodwinked: this wasn't a Thai restaurant at all! It's an OLD NAVY! Shun the non-believer! Shun! Shun!

Our clan decided on getting an appetizer a piece, with Katie getting Crab Rangoon (which is so Thai), Lauren getting Chicken Satay, Andy getting Summer Rolls, and myself getting Stuffed Shrimp.

I skipped trying Katie's Crab Rangoon entirely, for obvious reasons. I'm sure they were tasty, but somehow it seems a little...pedestrian.

Lauren's Chicken Satay was served with a nice peanut sauce, and something akin to a tangy plum sauce. The chicken was grilled nicely, but lacked any sort of depth of flavor, and had only cursory seasoning. There was no little charcoal grill provided -- either the cook was really touchy about his skills, or the insurance company didn't okay portable arson. Overall, it seemed a little dry, and a little bland. And a little cold.

Andy's summer rolls were a blend of cabbage, onion, carrots, garlic, and black pepper. Tasty, but very straight forward. They were clearly fried in too-cold oil, as they were completely saturated. Crispy, and with a nice aromatic flavor, they were dripping with grease, and quite expensive for the relatively small portion.

My stuffed shrimp, sadly, left me cold as well. Described as "Shrimp, stuffed with crab, wrapped in a rice blanket" I imagined something very different from the bland, oily, small-ish shrimp deep fried in wonton wrappers I had in front of me. Extra points for using real crab meat, instead of Krab, however, the points were quickly deducted due to the lack of...well, anything else compelling. Five tiny shrimp, ringing a thimble of sauce too small to even dip the shrimp in, all for seven bucks.

Maybe our main courses would rescue the dining experience. Well...maybe...

(A quick Strawberry Crush interlude ensues...)

So, a brief wrap-up of the entrées ordered:

Andy: Ginger Stir-Fry with Chicken
Katie: Pud Thai
Me: Rad Nah (Pan-seared noodles) with Chicken

I think everyone had a similar reaction to their meals, but I'll focus on mine...

A plate of edible-sized bits of veggies, including napa cabbage, onions, baby corn, skin mushrooms, carrots, and celery. Slices of steamed chicken breast. A few pan-seared noodles, about a sixteenth of an inch thick, and at least an inch wide. Very, very odd.

I ordered mine at a spice level of "one" on a scale of zero-to-four. I always love spice, but I've learned that unless you're familiar with a restaurant's spice scale, you should play it safe the first time. Let someone else at the table order too hot -- then you'll remember for next time.

Well, if there was any difference between a one and a zero, I can't imagine what it would be. The sauce my noodles were swimming in was too thick to be broth, but too thin to be what the menu described as "gravy." I'm just not sure what it was.

Strong flavors of garlic and soy were prominent, with a hint of black and white pepper, maybe a little basil (very, very little), and some fish sauce. I sensed a very odd sweetness, but it seemed very out of place in what was clearly intended to be a rich, savory sauce. The flavors were a bit incongruous, as the chicken had a strong poultry taste, which was not carried through the sauce, and vice-versa. Fine for a corner Chinese joint, this seemed a little lacking for a culture praised for noodles. I was left underwhelmed.

I can't say that I'd go back to Mai Thai, any more than I'd say that there's anything keeping me from going back. In a town completely choked with average Asian cuisine, you have to do something special to gain my attention, and sadly, Mai Thai just didn't do it this time. Our waitress was kind and attentive, our service timely and our food satisfactory. But high prices, small portion sizes, and lackluster flavors simply can't carry a novelty restaurant in economic times such as these.

Report Card:
Atmosphere: C+
A step up from the previous tenant, but some things seem to be Pier One afterthoughts,
and can we please pick some better dining music?

Prices: C
Average appetizer runs about $5, and average meal about $12-$14. Not expensive, but not really all that cheap, considering portion sizes.

Service: B+
Smiling waitresses, attentive and quick. No complaints.

The Food: C+
I want to rate it higher. I really, really do. But I just can't get excited about flavors that are copped from every Asian cookbook out there. There was no snap of freshness, no pop on my palette. There is better Thai to be had in the city...

Mai Thai on Urbanspoon

The inaugural eats...

I have come to a conclusion: I eat too much.

For those of you who have known me for some time, or have seen full-profile pictures of me, this should come as no surprise.

But if I'm going to labor tirelessly over fork and spoon, shouldn't I at least contribute something to the world... isn't there a greater good to be served, particularly when dinner is?

I'm going to food-blog.

I know, it's passé. I'm sure we'll all get over it. Besides... there hasn't been half enough written out there about Milwaukee eating... and I'm talking about the real Milwaukee eating. This is not the Bartolotta Restaurant Group blog, nor is it the Harbor 550 blog. This is the hole-in-the-wall, blue (or azul, or bleu, or however you say it), plate special joints that we all walk past every day, and always note that we should try.

We'll, I've been trying them. And I'm open to suggestions.

In the words of my blue-collar-foodie-dad, "Soup's Up!"