Friday, August 20, 2010


A word about today's article: this is not a review. Consider it our way of spinning a yarn, a little story for your amusement. About the best dinner I've ever had. 

It should be noted that our dinner was provided courtesy of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Megan and Heather from the bottom of my heart for the flattery of the invitation, the warmth of hospitality, and the absolute perfection of the meal -- and the cheese! 

When I received an e-mail inviting me to a "Wisconsin Cheese Dinner," I was skeptical. I mean, can you blame me?

I've heard enough spiels about Pyramid Schemes and Mary Kay  to know when my leg is being pulled. And pulled hard. No, I knew this was a scam. I would show up at Bacchus on Monday night, Nikon in tow, and be treated by a not-so-subtle request for a donation to the non-profit organization pushing for Wisconsin Cheddar For Governor. Hmm...

I actually forgot about the shindig entirely. Monday, after basically sitting around, picking my nose, and checking failblog and MacRumors incessantly, Andy called me. I answered with my usual,

"Small parts!"

He asked what I was doing. I replied. The usual. Not much. He asked what I was doing that night. I said, "Well, there is this Wisconsin Milk Marketing thing at Bacchus we were invited to..."

Silence on the other end.

Of course, that was because my iPhone dropped the call. But I'd imagine that Andy was speechless just the same. When I finally got him back on the line, I told him what the e-mail said. He said he'd check up on it for me. I said, "durr, okay."

An hour later, our fates were sealed: we were going to Bacchus that night for a dinner hosted by Megan Bykowski and Heather Porter Engwall on behalf of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. Again, with the Hmmmm....

After handing my keys (and my dignity) to the painfully handsome valet, I walked into Bacchus, at the base of the Cudahy Tower. Actually, to be more precise, I walked directly into the massive glass doors at the entrance of Bacchus. Then I opened them and walked in. I was still a little flustered about Spiky McPerfectHair parking my poor Focus for me...

Come to find out, we were among a small handful of Megan and Heather's faves in the food blogosphere, which is a crowded and obnoxious place to exist indeed. Represented at the soiree was Burp! Where Food Happens, Haute Apple Pie, A Taste of Life, and Yours Truly. We were seated in the main dining room of Bacchus, where I had to make the first difficult decision of the evening: white or black napkin?

Not as if it really mattered, I think all of us would have been content to use our own shirts as napkins at this point... all of us food bloggers, and Megan and Heather, chatting away in one of the hottest restaurants in the city… could this actually be happening?

Why yes, yes it is. As it turns out, Constant Reader, people actually do read our humble blog, which always makes me blush a little bit. Because, truth be told, we never expected much from this.

It all started because of a bad Thai dinner. I had been told over and over again that Mai Thai was fantastic, that it was the best Thai restaurant in Milwaukee, and that eating there is like eating out of the hand of Jesus. Well, it wasn't. And it hit me… word of mouth doesn't always work. I kept hearing the same words over and over again, "Oh, the food is sooo good!" Well, compared to Panda Express, it was fantastic. But there had to be a way for me to warn other foodies... to keep the flock from falling prey to the same food I did...

So, here we were, nearly two years later, with Milwaukee's Food Blog Elite. Wait, us? I'm still humbled by the whole thing.

Ordering was like picking the name for a first child: daunting. Everything is exquisite, with terse, neat descriptions in slightly wonky serif font, bound in a leather folio. Oh, I will gladly have one of everything.

Megan and Heather ordered a few rounds of the impeccible veal ravioli, but before any of us were able to really come to any sort of conclusion about entrees, Executive Chef Adam Siegel sent out an Amuse Bouche of his "Wisconsin" Welsh Rarebit (or Welsh Rabbit, depending on who you ask). Named as such, according to Alton Brown, because in actuality it was a English dish -- and the English, being fond of poking fun at the Welsh, asserted that if a Welshman were to go rabbit hunting, he'd end up having cheese for dinner. Another version goes that the Welsh were so poor, that if rabbit was a poor Englishman's meat, than cheese was a poor Welshman's meat. Whatever. It's tasty, and that's all you need to know. Basically a cheese sauce over hearty toast, Bacchus' Wisconsin Rarebit uses a Widmer cheddar and the house-cured pork belly (aka Pork Candy) atop toasted brioche with a microgreen garnish.

Quickly after, our first course, the veal ravioli, arrived. The ravioli is served with a brown butter sauce, wilted spinach, and toasted pine nuts.

I started with a single piece of ravioli, as we were sharing, and I didn't want to seem like a total cad right away (I would wait for our entrées to arrive before I brought out the really uncivilized behavior).

And the obligatory bread basket. Which was as beautiful and elegant as anything on the table. But really, bread? This was not a bread dinner, after all, this was a Wisconsin Cheese dinner!

Seriously. Cheese. Please.

Much better. Of course, this tasty display of dairy came later. But I needed to see some cheese, stat.

We all started things out with a Small Plate, just to get our culinary bearings. Lauren ordered straight-up cheese ravioli (Cheese!):

While Andy ordered a seafood ravioli:

The word "sublime" pretty much explains both. I ordered a small version of Chef Siegel's risotto with shrimp and sweet corn:

And, just to be a complete sow, a spinach salad with a mustard vinaigrette and more cured pork belly:

Now, the salad was supposed to come with a poached egg riding shotgun, however, after a tragic egg-yolk related fainting incident a few years back, I decided to forgo the egg. A pity, because I think it might have actually been integral to the whole dish -- something was missing. My fault entire, I accept all blame.

But that's okay, because next to me, Megan had this gorgeous string bean salad with Salemville blue:

When my taste buds were thoroughly warmed up, we forged ahead with our entrées. Andy ordered the filet:

while I ordered the scallops: 

which were, truth be told, absolute heaven. They arrived sailing towards my mouth on the SS Caramelized Fennel, accompanied by the HMS wilted spinach, flying the flag of Our Lady of the Rosemary. It was astounding how the sweet licorice flavor of the fennel crept up into the scallops, while the woody flavory of the rosemary perfumed them from above. They were done to absolute perfection, a little crispy on the edges, totally rare inside, and with a sweet/tart honey-wine sauce with the sweetest red grapes I have ever tasted. Fabulous.

At this point, Chef de Cuisine Andrew Ruiz came out to talk to us about our cheese course. Cheese!

Our cheese was served with Germany Acacia honey, as well as a balsamic fig jam:

Heather was kind enough to put together a list of these cheeses for us, just because I have the worst memory in the world:

Featured Wisconsin Cheese 

Cave-Aged Cheddar, Bleu Mont Dairy, Blue Mounds, WI, 608.767.2875, Willi Lehner
Aged in a cave on special spruce boards that are sanitized after each use, this cheese has a cleaner, more open feel than many other cheddars, and its taste offers buttery nuttiness and a very clean finish.

Dunbarton Blue, Roelli Cheese, Shullsburg, WI, 800.575.4372, Chris Roelli,
Open air aged in a cellar to enhance its rich flavor, this cheese combines all the greatness of fine English Cheddar with the bite and creaminess of a French Blue.

Four-Year Aged Cheddar, Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, Theresa, WI, 888.878.1107, Joe Widmer,, www.widmerscheese. com
Widmer’s produces exceptionally sophisticated artisanal Cheddars using select cultures and old-fashioned Cheddarin
techniques. Their four-year aged Cheddar has a rich and nutty flavor and a smooth, firm texture that becomes more granular and crumbly with age

Gran Canaria, Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle, WI, 800.462.7258, Sid Cook,,
Made from a blend of cow’s, sheep’s and goat’s milk and aged at least two years, this olive-oil-cured specialty is fruity, nutty, 
intense, sweet and pungent all at the same time.

Marieke’s Raw Milk Gouda, Holland’s Family Cheese, Thorp, WI, 715.669.5230, Ena Langendijk,,
Made from raw milk that is piped underground to the farmstead cheese plant, this Gouda is handcrafted and aged on wooden boards, resulting in a full-bodied cheese with a sweet caramelized flavor.

Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Uplands Cheese, Dodgeville, WI, 608.935.5558, Mike Gingrich,,
This much-awarded, one-of-a-kind cheese is made with only the best-tasting, fresh spring and summer milk of rotationally-grazed, pastured cows. It is a washed-rind, Beaufort-style cheese with flavor that hints of grasses and herbs.

Shaft Bleu Cheese, Emmi-Roth Käse, Monroe, WI, 608.845.5796, Steve McKeon,,
Emmi-Roth Käse ships this young cheese to California where it is aged for at least one year in a former gold mine in the Sierra Nevada mountains making it a rich and creamy, robust, full-bodied variety of Blue cheese.

By this time I had consumed about two gallons of Pellegrino and about ten virgin Cranberry Collins,

which meant it was time for dessert. Now, none of us were actually hungry for a dessert, but when you're a food blogger in a fabulous restaurant, well, I'm fairly sure it's the law that someone has to order something. So, our end of the table shared a "Cookies and Cream," which was chocolate chip cookie bars with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce:

and Andy had an apple-cranberry cobbler:

Both of which, of course, were delicious.

So, all in all, dinner was about as perfect as perfect can be -- food crafted with such care and precision that it was practically a crime to eat, along with great company and fun conversation. I'm fond of the idea that the Milk Marketing Board would seek out food bloggers to help evangelize the Power of Cheese, and I'm floored that Eating Milwaukee would be included in the Church of Curd. Even more so, I'm excited: excited by the idea of the grass-roots movement of blogging becoming so mainstream (ever notice how on Bizarre Foods that Andrew Zimmer always asks food bloggers where to eat when he gets to a city?), and excited that we get to take part in furthering something so integral to Wisconsin: cheese. I'm proud of Wisconsin's dairy heritage, I'm proud to know that my Great-Grandparents, immigrants from Pommern, Germany in the 1840's, worked the land, milked the cows, and crafted cheese in ways that are not all that dissimilar than the great artisans at work today. Wisconsin may not be glamorous, and it has moments of weirdness, but dammit, we've got a pretty good thing going. Now, I leave it up to you, dear reader, to keep the momentum: go out and explore the vasty universe that is Wisconsin Cheese, and start out with some Widmer's cheddar, 'cause holy cow, that's some tasty cheese!

Bacchus on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 2, 2010

Irie Palace

Imagine my shock,

"Joe, let's go out for Jamaican food!"

We have a Jamaican restaurant?

Well, I knew we did have a Jamaican restaurant. What seems like eons ago, occupying the old Gaslight restaurant on the corner of 60th and North Ave., now is the formidable Mekong Café, was Spice Island Jamaican restaurant. I never had the pleasure of going there, and I don't think many others did, either, as it closed not long after it opened. That Milwaukee was home to any other Jamaican restaurants was new to me, but it shouldn't have been...

Just a few blocks from my Maternal homestead, smack dab in the middle of 76th Street, Appleton Ave., and Capitol Dr., right next door to my favorite Asian Grocery in Milwaukee, Chu Hai, is Irie Palace; incognito, almost invisible in a block of former offices-turned-startups, save for the bright, clean marquee and windows bedecked with palm trees...

Inside, Irie Palace is a taffy-colored delight for the eyes: the walls fluorescing with a potent yellow, fishing nets filled with petrified starfish, structural columns wrapped in brown and crowned with fake palm fronds, paintings and murals of bright tempera abound. I had to smile.

You see, I like it when a business which can't afford really fancy décor makes their best effort in the ways they know how to convey a sense of place. At no point does any of this seem forced or fake, but rather a genuine gesture of authenticity: you can tell that everything in Irie Palace was selected with care: from the paint to the wood lattice around the booths. 

Of course, the dining room was filled with Reggae, but this, too, never got on our nerves: the songs were specific, picked for that time, that place... this was not the "Sounds of Reggae" station on Sirius, this was someone's playlist on their iPod. I like that.

We started things out with a frosty beverage: noting that the menu had under its Soft Drinks heading, "D&G Sodas," I was curious what exactly we had to pick from, but I didn't want to sound like a complete schmuck, so I asked what our server recommended. "Ting," he replied without any extra thought or time. Okay, so Ting it was... Ting all around!

Wait, what the hell is Ting? I had no idea. Did he say "Thing?" Or "Sing?" His light and slightly lilting Jamaican accent made the word just fuzzy enough for me to question what it was we were going to be drinking. But, I put my faith in the fates, and waited expectantly for our Ting. God, what on Earth is Ting?

Ting, as it turns out, is essentially the Jamaican version of Fresca. Served ice-cold, it's a grapefruit soda, but almost a sort of spritzer, as it is at its core sparkling water, grapefruit juice, and sugar. 

It is absolutely, positively delightful. Not overly carbonated, not cloyingly sweet, but refreshing, and just a little bitter with grapefruit flavor. Now I'm hooked on Ting.

The menu at Irie Palace is brief. Like, less than a half a page brief. But, I held out the hope this was an example of "Do one thing, and do it well." There are a number of recognizably classic Jamaican dishes, from Jerk Chicken and Shrimp, to Escovitch fish, Curry Chicken / Goat, and Brown Stew Chicken. We all started with a hearty cup (or, in Andy's case, a large trough) of Jamaican chicken soup:

This soup is out of this world. Days later, as I'm writing this, I instinctively start salivating at the thought. The broth is thick, richly flavored with thyme and allspice, and almost creamy. There are big, tender chunks of potato, carrot, and chicken -- not dry, flavorless breast meat, but hunks of bird with bones still in, making you work a little bit for your dinner. Andy and Lauren got a sort of long, sausagelike dumpling in their soup, I did not (for whatever reason), but I can honestly say I didn't miss it one bit. The soup was pleasantly hot, with the sort of trailing edge of heat that I so enjoy. At no point did I take a spoonful and immediately feel the chili explode on my tongue; the heat was subtle, slow and methodical. 

I can see how it would be easy to make a meal off of the soup alone, and I feel no shame in putting this on the "must-eat" list.

As for the entrées, well, we stayed a little pedestrian, I admit. But since we were testing this waters on this one, and none of us is exactly a Jamaican food expert, I'm okay with that. The rundown is as follows:

Andy got French Fried Chicken:

Lauren ordered Brown Stew Chicken:

While I ordered the Irie Sampler Platter, with two meats (I chose Jerk Chicken and Curry Chicken):

All of our dinners came with a side of Fried Plantain and Steamed Cabbage. You can stop your groaning right now, mister...

As well as a bowl of beans and rice:

Let's start with the sides, shall we?

First, I know what you're thinking. The steamed cabbage must be cringeworthy, right?

I have an odd relationship with cabbage. Despite the fact that I know I should probably hate it for its flaccid, mundane texture, its watery, bland flavor, and even purely on reputation, I can't. I love steamed cabbage. I love boiled cabbage. I love fried cabbage. I love sour kraut. I can't get enough of cabbage. Blame that on my Pomeranian roots.

But! Irie Palace's steamed cabbage packs a one-two punch. First, there's the element of texture: slightly firm, with a sort of toothiness that is pleasant without being either mushy or crunchy. Second, there's the element of flavor: salty, savory, herb-y, and infused with that belle of the ball, the Scotch Bonnet chili. You would never know this cabbage is steamed, and even Lauren, an avowed enemy of cabbages everywhere stated, "If I ate cabbage, this is the cabbage I would eat." Such a resounding vote of confidence!

The fried plantain was a fun change of pace for a starch: tart like plantains are, but fried so that the sugars began to caramelize and break down -- it was tangy, slightly sweet, and even a bit crunchy in places.

The beans and rice was nice, if not a bit bland. There was the slightest hint of coconut flavor... perhaps a bit of coconut water in the cooking liquid? This is meant top sop up juice, not to stand alone as a dish unto itself, so blandness is completely forgiven here.

Andy's "French-Fried" Chicken was pleasantly spiced, well seasoned, and had a decent all-around crunch factor. This crunch factor may easily have been the bones that were still in the carcass, though, and this is an important matter to take note of: most (if not all) chicken dishes are bone-in. Learn to chew lightly.

The fried chicken was served with a sweet, allspice tinged dipping sauce, which was the slightly milder analog of the nose-hair scorchingly hot sauce that was served with my Jerk Chicken.

Lauren's Brown Stew Chicken was deep, dark, rich and highly spiced. I immediately thought back to my luncheons with my mother as a young, impressionable foodie at Shah Jee downtown: the gravy was so strong, so intense with spices (but never too spicy), you can't help but love it. Showing Jamaican cuisine's varied influences, Irie's Brown Stew Chicken is a little Indian, a little French, a little indigenous... all delicious.

My half and half Jerk Chicken and Curry Chicken was a mixed bag. One one hand, the Jerk Chicken was absolute seasoned to perfection. Hot, but never painful or unpleasant, salty, but not briny, with garlic and allspice and everything I love about jerk seasonings. On the other hand, despite what looked like a huge portion, I was dodging bones and gristle left and right. The meat was a hair overdone, and was a bit too dry. I understand that Jerk Chicken is grilled, and that grilling lends itself to overcooking and dryness very easily, so I know why it was dry, but I wasn't thrilled that it was.

The Curry Chicken, in a complete about-face from the Jerk, was fall-off-the-bone tender, in a bright luminescent curry sauce with veggies. If you're looking for an Indian-style curry, you might as well take a trip over to Tandoor, 'cause Jamaican curry is a whole different animal. The spicing is subtle, almost bland, and while there was no truly offensive flavor to the dish, it wasn't exceptionally flavorful. 

I'm splitting hairs, and I know this. The Jerk Chicken is very tasty indeed, and I would certainly love to order it again (and I wouldn't fear doing so), yet I can't help but wonder if it will be consistently dry, or if this was just a one-time event.

All in all, I have to say, I really did enjoy our visit to Irie Palace, and with the menu as foreign to me as it is, I would relish the opportunity to try some less pedestrian flavors next time we go -- and to be sure, we will be going again. As the sun was setting on our dinner, the warm orange glow filtered through the windows, cut up by the painted palm trees, and splashed across the yellows of the walls, and for a second... just a second, I wasn't in Milwaukee anymore. And isn't that the fun of a good dinner? Even if the chicken is a little dry, isn't it all better escaping the drone of Rust-Belt city life for a while?

Report Card:
Atmosphere: A-
Bright colors, island music, and friendly faces. It's not expensive décor, but it sure brightened my crappy mood when I walked in!

Prices: B
Price-to-portion is good, but for the money I would like to see a slightly higher amount of meat-to-bone. Most dinners are between $10-$15

Service: A-
Quick, friendly, helpful, and un-intrusive. 

The Food: B+
Tasty and different, including a long list of surprises (the Chicken Soup, steamed cabbage, Brown Stew Chicken), a few valiant efforts (the Jerk Chicken), and a bummer (at least in my book) in the curry chicken. All in all, tasty enough for me to recommend it, but mysterious enough for me to want to come back for more. 

The Details:

Irie Palace Jamaican Restaurant
7506 W. Appleton Ave. 
Milwaukee, WI 53216
(414) 461-8203

Irie Palace on Urbanspoon