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,
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,www.roellicheese.com
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, firstname.lastname@example.org, 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, email@example.com, www.carrvalleycheese.com
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, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.hollandsfamilycheese.com
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, email@example.com, www.uplandscheese.com
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, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.rothkase.com
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!