Saturday, April 18, 2009

Cold Spoons Gelato

Happiness is a small spoon, and a small dish filled with gelato. There, I've said it.

Sure, you'd like to think you're immune to the stuff. But you're gonna have to face it, you're addicted to that smooth, creamy, sweeter-than-custard treat that is so hard to come by in this city.

I believe the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of the custard stand. And I certainly can't fault them. In Milwaukee, custard is king, and I don't have a problem with that. I have my favorite, just as I'm sure everyone else does. But gelato is a different animal. Colder, lower butterfat, less air, and no eggs... it's sweet, rich, and comes in about every flavor in the rainbow. And there's very little room in Milwaukeean's stomachs for it.

Luckily, Cold Spoons Gelato opened up in my old neighborhood of Washington Heights. With this smallish, owner-operated stand comes some dessert bliss that so many other people already know about.

Cold Spoons offers a number of traditional gelato flavors (the flavors rotate, so you'll always be surprised), in addition to fruity "sorbetto" flavors, as well.

The interior is well-lit, open and airy, with a sort of fun-but-not-kindergarten feel to it that makes it both sophisticated and family friendly. Keeping with most custard and gelato stands, ordering is done at the counter with the freezers full of gelato in front of you, tempting you from the frozen depths. Customers are encouraged to try any flavor they're unfamiliar with, and trust me, you'll find yourself doing this at least twice, if not a few more times. You have the option of doing two, three, or four flavors in a single bowl, topped off with a crunchy half pizzelle.

I opted for the sampling of three flavors, including Pistachio, Caramel, and Panna Cotta.

The pistachio was a complete surprise. The flavor of the nuts was strong, cutting through the dairy like a knife. It immediately called to mind the potency of Amaretto -- maybe it was the nuttiness, maybe the clarity of flavor.

The caramel had clear notes of burnt sugar, and I was immediately relieved by this. No gooey dairy-caramel here, only strong, slightly bitter browned sugar, with just a little vanilla creaminess.

The panna cotta was the most delicate flavor, with a smooth, comforting note of cooked milk, with the smack of macerated strawberries mixed in.

Gelato isn't an every-day dessert, by any stretch of the imagination. The first time I had it, in Europe, I was surprised by the small portions and even smaller spoon, but I now understand: the richness, the strength of flavors, and the variety require tastes, not gobs. It's a dessert to be savored, not devoured. Cold Spoons brings a taste of Italy to Milwaukee (finally!), and does it with class and attention to details. We'll be going back.

Report Card:
Atmosphere: A-
Clean, bright, and family-friendly. There's plenty of space for lots of patrons, and you can always eat old-school out on the sidewalk!

Prices: B-
A three-flavor dish will run you $4.50. Not a cheap date, but not an everyday item, either. It's a premium product, I'll let the prices slide.

Service: A
The counter staff at Cold Spoons was smiling, quick and talkative.

The Food: B+
Lots of flavor options, and each one of them a victory in their own right. I would like to see a few more adventurous flavors, though...

The Details:

Cold Spoons Gelato
(414) 727-9457
5924 W. Vliet St.
Milwaukee, WI 53208

Cold Spoons Gelato on Urbanspoon

Riviera Maya

The staff of Eating Milwaukee and I have been jonesing for some Mexican food lately. Living on the South Side, there's no shortage of Mexican restaurants, but a disappointing trend has emerged: heavy, fried dishes, sloppy, sliding portions of insipid refried beans, and gobs of flavorless melted cheese. Yawn.

It's not that we don't like our melted cheese. Trust me. It's just that, after having portion after portion of greasy, cumin-tinged gringo-ized Mexican, our palettes were just looking for something a little different. Maybe more authentic.

Our quest for Better Mexican started at Hector's on Delaware, here in Bay View. Hector's has been a Milwaukee staple for years, and the Delaware location is a more recent addition to the family. After getting a few recommendations from Eating Milwaukee readers, I was pretty sure it'd be a safe bet for our quest.

The restaurant itself is really more of an eat-in bar, and it should be noted that the bar clearly takes center stage in the space. The dining room is half of the building, punctuated by basic two-top and four-top brown formica tables, and a variety of mis-matched chairs.

After browsing the expansive and adventurous menu for a few minutes, our waitress came to take our drink order. After Andy and Lauren ordered, I kindly asked if she'd be able to split our check, so that I could pay separately.

"No, I can't." She replied curtly. I thought she was kidding. "It's busy, and it says so on the menu." I ordered a diet Coke.

We all searched the menu, but couldn't find any mention of this no-check-splitting policy. We quickly decided to leave.

Now, I'm not the sort of person to get up and walk out of a restaurant, but at this point, we had waited to be seated, waited for menus, waited for the waitress, and the dining room was only half full. On top of that, our waitress had lied to us, as there was nothing on the menu about splitting checks.

I'd love to tell you how Hector's food was, but we never got a chance to taste it, and truth be told, I don't think I ever will.

After that rather disappointing rebuff, we decided to head off to Riviera Maya. And I can't tell you how glad I am we did.

Located at that nexus intersection of 1st/Howell/Lincoln/KK, Riviera Maya joins a host of fresh new eateries in Bay View. Immediately upon entering, though, you know it's of a different breed than most of the Mexican fare on the South Side. Bright, vibrant colors, fun, appropriate lighting, and a spattering of quirky décor items makes for a visually stimulating fist impression.

We sat towards the back, next to a gigantic hand-painted mural:

And an apparent bright-red scale model of St. Stosh's Church

I was digging it already.

Riviera Maya doesn't have a big menu. In fact, there's only a few entrées at all, taking up a wee three pages in the tiny menu folder. But don't let that fool you. Giving you the option of meats and sauces, there's an almost limitless amount of combinations to be had, and each one is more exciting than the next... I promise.

We started things out with some Guacamole and chips, which is one of our agreed-upon Greatest Foods On Earth:

The smallish-portion of guac was served with hot, fresh corn tortilla chips, and a red and a green salsa:

It should be noted that both salsas, while strictly a back-up act to the guac, were heavenly. The green tomatillo version was light, acidic, and a nice compliment to the buttery nature of the guac. The red was a thick, dark, murky chile concoction that had all of us scratching our heads: what is that flavor. Smoky, rich, meaty, and spicy all came together in an unexpected sweetness that was a sort of one-two punch with the heat that developed about five seconds after you started chewing.

The guac itself was topped with some crumbled queso fresco, and has just the right amount of pretty much everything. Fatty, buttery, and creamy, with a little salt, a little cilantro, a little red bell pepper. Fantastic.

We also ordered the Quesadilla Chica, a small quesadilla stuffed with a blend of cheeses and garlic-sautéed shrimp. One bite, and I knew I was in for an experience.

The shrimp were tender, buttery, and garlicky, all without ever losing the subtle sea flavor. The flour tortilla was tender, and combined with the fresh pico, was the perfect way to get our stomachs rumbling for the main event.

As far as entrées go, Andy had a burrito filled with garlic shrimp (inspired, he says, by how good the quesadilla was):

Lauren had tacos stuffed with shredded beef:

And I had chicken with a Oaxacan Mole:

All of our meals were also served with a cup of Tortilla Soup:

The soup was wonderful. Tortilla Soup has been kind of a sore spot for me lately, as the last version I had was thin, flavorless, overly hot, with gargantuan chunks of chicken and veggies too big to eat with a spoon and almost necessitating a knife. Riviera Maya's version, however, was sublime. The broth was bright red, tinged with broiled tomatoes, and scented with fried onions, chile, and a flavor that instantly called to mind miso. The lime served with the soup was a nice touch, but I wish I would have tried it without smashing my whole lime in first, as I imagine the acidity I added probably wasn't needed.

Andy's burrito was, as expected, fantastic. The cheeses were mild and flavorful, creamy and rich without being overpowering. The shrimp complimented them perfectly. I don't think I can say enough about the shrimp: I'm fairly sure I've never had shrimp that were both as flavorful and as perfectly cooked.

Lauren's three tacos were served in very fresh, very homemade corn tortillas. They were essentially filled with meat, which is refreshing, and what I imagine to be very authentic, but I did find the meat lacking just a bit of seasoning.

My chicken with mole was superb. The chicken breast was pounded flat, pan-seared, and absolutely smothered in thick, rich, dark mole sauce. The mole smacked of chocolate, with some undertones of peanut, chile, and sesame. There was the familiar and comforting flavor and mouth-feel of toasted bread crumbs, and the silkiness of a fine cream sauce. Combined with the lightly seasoned white rice with peas and corn, and the steamed fresh corn tortillas, it was truly wonderful. I kept wanting to shovel the whole portion in my mouth, but found myself eating slowly, finding every last bit of rice to sop up the sauce, savoring the harmonics of the sweet chocolate and chile.

The staff was thoroughly impressed by Riviera Maya, and was comforted by their overwhelming hospitality, not to mention their willingness to split the check. If you're looking for an alternative to Chi-Chi's era Mexican cuisine, Riviera Maya is a strong starting point.

Report Card:
Atmosphere: A
Funky, fun, with a nod towards traditional Mexican design and color, but still recognizable as a contemporary American restaurant. Be careful, you might forget you're still in Milwaukee.

Prices: B
Prices for entrées range from about $9 to $15. Appetizers are a little steep, starting at $4 and going up to $9. This isn't an every-day affair, for sure, but a wonderful treat. I'm comfortable saying the prices are justified, considering what you get.

Service: B+
Servers and staff were attentive and personable. No complaints. Oh, and they had no problem splitting the check. Ah-hem, Hector's.

The Food: A-
While not brimming with options, the menu is exciting without being intimidating. A few old favorites, a few more intriguing options. Lots of big, authentic flavors all presented well and portioned just right.

The Details:

Riviera Maya
(414) 294-4848
2257 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.
Milwaukee, WI 53207
view the restaurant's site and menu here

Riviera Maya on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Coming Attractions...

Tonight, we hit another up-and-comer in Milwaukee. Want to know where? I bet you do. Here's a hint: it's NOT this place:

The Eating Milwaukee staff took a field trip to Riviera Maya, and we have some pretty strong feelings about it. But, sadly, dear Reader, it will have to wait until tomorrow. A combination of an early start at work tomorrow, along with overall exhaustion from a 2 AM call last night, and my Mexican meal sitting like a small boat anchor in my stomach is forcing me to put off writing a formal review until later.

However... rest assured, it will be worth the wait.

Also debuting tomorrow is a new feature, entitled Friday Favorites, where we take a look back at some of our favorite Milwaukee Eats, the tried-and-true places that keep us coming back for more. Tomorrow, we take a look at Tandoor, on HWY 100. Mmmm, curry...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Calling All Diners!

The staff of Eating Milwaukee would love to know if there's a restaurant out there you've been meaning to try, but never had the courage to. If you've been there, know it's good, that's fine, too, but we'd prefer to stick to the new stuff. This week, we're eager to try some food with a Latino flair; Mexican or Cuban would be wonderful.

It's not that we're out of ideas... it's just that La Fuente's, La Perla, and Jalisco's just aren't what we're looking for.

Remember... the more odd or out of the way it is, the more bonus points awarded!

E-mail us today!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Olde Mill Inn

Some of my most cherished memories as a child involve going out to eat with my grandparents on my dad's side. Grandpa Al always had these little hole-in-the-wall favorite restaurants, both here in the Milwaukee area, but particularly in his home turf in Cecil, Bonduel, and Crivitz. I remember very fondly going to DeSchmidts', Ma Schaefer's, and a number of other supper clubs in Northern Wisconsin, sitting at the bar for a few minutes before our table was ready, sipping Kiddy Cocktails and eating stale pretzels. Those supper clubs were simple; a brief menu, with a number of relatively consistent dishes, and a good, warm atmosphere. It seemed like my Grandpa always knew the waitresses, like he and the owner were friends from childhood, and the cook knew exactly how he liked his prime rib cooked. No matter where we were, we were treated like honored guests, and I always left full and happy.

What a wonderful surprise it was to me that we went on our latest excursion to Richfield's Olde Mill Inn, located very conveniently on HWY 175, just North of Holy Hill Road. One simple dining experience brought all of those old memories flooding back, and I left thinking about the times I spent in the back seat of Grandpa Al's plush Cadillac, rollicking through the Northwoods, on the way back to the cabin to sip Créme de Menthe and sit around the fire.

The Olde Mill Inn is exactly the sort of place Grandpa Al would have brought the family for a Saturday Night Dinner. Parking in the back lot immediately made me think of The Pines, the definitive supper club in our little Northwoods hamlet of Crooked Lake. With the gravel crunching under our feet, we walked up to the side entrance, and I, being the conspicuous Milwaukeean, insisted on finishing my cigarette outside. Not a minute went by, and Joel, the manager, came out to greet us. "Come on in!" he said heartily, "it's nicer in here!" Inside, we were greeted with the pretty prerequisite supper-club layout, with a long, serpentine bar area, and a partitioned, non-smoking dining room. Andy called ahead with a reservation, but when we arrived, there was plenty of room in the dining room. I would still highly recommend calling ahead on Fridays and Saturdays (when reservations are accepted).

The Olde Mill Inn's menu is not sprawling, and that immediately set my mind at ease. The owners obvious did not fall into the menu-bigger-than-the-kitchen trap that so many establishments fall prey to. We chose some relatively innocuous appetizers to start off with: fried cheese curds, fried mushrooms, and fried broccoli and cheese bites. Yup, lots of fried foods.

No surprises here, as Andy put it, "Ahh, good old Anchor Foods." Which is not a bad thing! Frankly, I'd rather have a prepared, consistent product when it comes to deep-fried goodness than getting someone's greaseball-du-jour because they don't know how to bread things properly. I do have to add, however, that while there wasn't an enormous quantity of the Broccoli-bites, they were fantastic, cheesy and rich, despite their absolutely frightening broccoli-branch cut-out shape. I instantly had flashbacks to grade school on Mock Chicken Leg day. Shudder.

And now, for the entrée rundown:

Andy: "Stinger" Burger (two 1/3 pound burger patties with pepper jack cheese, home-made salsa, and the optional jalapeño peppers)

Lauren: Chicken Philly Cheese Sandwich w/ hunormous portobello cap

Myself: Southern Fried Chicken Dinner (Half a chicken with soup or salad, choice of potatoes, and chef's choice of veggies)

All of our entrées came with beautifully crispy crinkle-cut fries, seasoned with a flavor I couldn't quite place. It really didn't matter, though, they were absolutely delicious, steaming hot, and crunchy. My only regret is not asking for a side of mayo to dip them in.

My entrée also came with the option of soup or salad, and since I'm a big believer in the power of soup, I ordered the special for the day, a cheese soup with sausage and potatoes.

All of our food tonight was spectacular, but I'm fairly sure this was one of the sleeper hits of the dinner. What arrived at the table was a downright huge bowl of the richest, creamiest, cheesiest soup I've ever eaten. With a strong note of bouquet garni, big chunks of melt-in-your-mouth bulk sausage, and bits of tender potato, it won over everyone at the table.

Andy's burger was literally "mouth watering." The patties were cooked perfectly, and the mix of pepper jack cheese, salsa, and jalapeños made me take a step back and think, "Whoa...burger?" The veggies in the salsa had a wonderful snap to them, and the overall flavor was bright, crisp, and fresh.

Lauren's chicken Philly was also a pleasant surprise. Huge chunks of mildly seasoned, honest-to-blog grilled chicken breast co-existed with bright and fresh peppers and one monstrous 'bello cap. Lauren admitted the huge mushroom did make the sandwich a bit awkward to eat, and I'd have to agree: the only think missing from the plate was a steak knife.

My chicken was divine. In fairness, the standard to which all chicken is held is without a doubt Kroll's in Green Bay. Olde Mill Inn didn't beat them outright, but it is certainly a close second.

My half a chicken was served with a blend of veggies featuring beautiful string beans, seasoned with a bit of lemon-pepper. The chicken itself was blazing hot when it arrived, and was adorned with the most wonderful breading I've seen outside of Green Bay. "Fried Hard" was certainly the case: thin, well-seasoned, and CRUNCHY. The chicken itself was perfectly cooked, not overdone, but not borderline-pink, either. My only want was for a bit of salt to the chicken, which in hindsight I could have probably easily accomplished by picking up the salt shaker and using it for its intended purpose.

During the course of the evening, our pleasant server continuously checked up on us, chatted with us, and laughed at my self-deprecating humor, but never got pesty. As we were finishing up, Joel, the manager and owner's son, introduced himself and talked with us a bit. I was immediately taken back to those dinners with Grandpa Al.

Old fashioned supper clubs aren't gone, but they certainly are a dying breed. The Olde Mill Inn has a few tricks up its sleeve, and certainly isn't Grandpa Al's old haunt. I truly hope they experience continued success, and can only give the highest of praise: a casual, familiar atmosphere, fantastic food, exceptional prices, and fun people. We'll be back.

Report Card:
Atmosphere: B+
Simple, but effective. Not sophisticated but not a dive, Olde Mill Inn is the sort of family-run restaurant familiar to those of us with Northwoods roots. Please note that smoking is permitted in the bar, and the dining room, while non-smoking, is not smoke-free.

Prices: A+
I know, it's a cop-out grade, but I was truly amazed. My huge chicken dinner, with fries and almost an entire pot of soup was $10.95. Most steaks hover around the $15-$18 mark. Sandwiches don't go over $10.

Service: A
Pleasant, personable, and concerned, but not clingy. From the moment we walked in to the moment we left, we felt welcomed.

The Food: B+
You won't find anything exotic on the Olde Mill's menu, but that's okay. Nothing pretends to be anything but good, home-style supper-club fare. To steal the old writer's adage, "Cook what you know." Presentation is nice but minimal, portions are huge, and flavors are big without being ballsy. I like it.

The Details:

The Olde Mill Inn
(262) 628-5080
1953 Highway 175
Richfield, WI 53076

Olde Mill Inn on Urbanspoon