Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mo's A Place For Steaks: An Evening with Chef Ken Arnone

Maybe some day I'll stop being surprised when we're invited to special events, because, ahem, we have a semi-credible website. Maybe someday I'll become jaded with local and undeserved fame, blinded by half-lit rustbelt stars in my eyes, complacent in my cockneyed celebrity. But, that day, thankfully, has not come, and I still blush a little when those e-mails arrive in my inbox, beckoning me to some of Milwaukee's finest eateries.

The staff of Eating Milwaukee was recently invited to a special dinner at Mo's, a Place For Steaks, celebrating Certified Master Chef Ken Arnone. Because it says so in my contract with the Association for Certified Chef's Certification Certificates Corporation, here's a few facts about Certified Global Master Chef Ken Arnone:

  • Chef Arnone became a Certified Master Chef in 2003, one of only 65 in the country.
  • Chef Arnone served as CHef Professor at the Culinary Institute of America from 1999-2005
  • Became a Global Master Chef in 2008
  • Worked for the CIA at Ristorante Caterina de Medici.
  • Thinks Milwaukee is by far the most fun city on the Western shore of Lake Michigan.

Our invitation allowed us a plus-one, and I thought, since my mom has consistently thought this blog to be a slightly silly venture whose sole purpose is to spend money on domain registration and restaurant cheques, I would bring her to help show her the fabulous, glamorous side of being a restaurant blogger. 

Look! There's the joyful staff of Eating Milwaukee, and my mom, faking a smile for what I promised would be the first and last picture I'd take of her that night. 

Because Mo's invited us to this shindig, I'll gladly share with you all of the tasty details, and the tasty pics, but I'm going to abstain on our usual "report card" section, as I believe that's the slightly stand-up thing to do in this situations.

Mo's is a steakhouse with class and panache, this isn't the Texas Roadhouse, and it most certainly isn't the Ponderosa

We started the evening with butlered hors d'oeuvres.

Lobster Ceviche:

Veggie Sushi:

And an Amuse Bouche of the regular menu item, "The Big Shorty," which is bleu crusted braised short ribs with asparagus and horseradish risotto. Mmmm... little spoons of heaven...

Lobster Ceviche! How elegant! How Chic! But the citrus kind of trampled the delicateness of the lobster to death. Still tasty, just... I'm poor, and if I'm going to eat lobster, I want to make sure I can taste every sweet, succulent morsel. Because sweet and succulent lobster costs extra (Eating Milwaukee Staff In-Joke Alert!).

I'm an all-out lunatic when it comes to sushi, so the veggie maki we were treated to were just fine. Nothing too daring, but still well-executed.

The snack-size Big Shorty was fantastic, and was a great way to whet our palettes for the rest of the meal. Imagine, if this little china spoon of food was so incredible, what were the other six (six!) courses going to be like?

Carbs ahoy! 

Well, hold on to your hats, because here comes course number one!

Oh, good golly. It's Nueske's bacon, about two inches thick, and MEATY, braised for something like eight hours, served with a microgreen salad, sweet potato purée, and seared shrimp. Pork Candy is one of those things that should be an automatic invention for a Wisconsin business, and I hope to see it released in time for grilling season next year. Pork Candy. Between Bacchus' pork belly, and Chef Arnone's braised bacon, I'm sold. The bacon literally melted in your mouth, was both meaty and fabulously fatty at the same time, and just wallowed in the sauce made from the braising liquid. Were you the kid that loved the chunk of bacon at the top of the can of Bush's Best Baked Beans? Well, then this will make you pop a few fuses. Why the shrimp? Well, I guess because the bacon needed to stand next to something, to make you realize exactly how kick-butt it really was. 

"Hey, Shrimp."
"Yeah, Bacon?"
"Uh, who has no thumbs, sits around in a low braise for eight hours, and blows you out of the water?"
"Gee, Bacon, I don't know... maybe La Merenda's Osso Buco?"
"THIS GUY, shrimp! Aww, snap! Burned you!"
"Wow, bacon, you really are amazing. If Chuck Norris were a meat, he'd be you..."

Well, that was fun. Stoked yet? Well, cool your jets, 'cause the second course is a salad. I know, I know.

Luckily, this Endive and Radicchio salad had caramelized honey crisp apples, candied pecans, and Montechevré Goat's Milk Brie, just so I didn't feel too emasculated. Because nothing says limp-wristed sally like salad. No, real men eat meat. Meat, meat, meat, meat. There's nothing more manly than meat

Heeeeyyy... that's not meat! Well, I guess it is, kinda. No, silly me. It's a tasty delicious blackened salmon filet. Served with tomato basil risotto and a spicy Creole sauce. The third course was not accompanied by a wine selection, but rather a mixed drink, a Ketel One Serrano:

This was absolutely delightful, with the texture of the fish at the perfect and almost nearly unattainable point of delicate flakiness with ideal moisture and tenderness. Wonderful, and if I were a man who came to a place like Mo's looking for awesome salmon, I would be impressed. But as I'm a man who would go to Mo's looking for a steak, I yearned for a bovine banquet to bedeck my bowl. I was getting a little nervous...

Victory is mine!

Here's a thing of beauty: a gorgeous, select cut of Snake River Kobe beef tenderloin, cooked just long enough so the Moo isn't so loud as to drown out the dinner conversation, with simple adornments of wilted spinach, caramelized pearl onions, and almond potato croquettes. Yes folks, from the people who brought you the roasted-corn Kit Kat comes the most delicious beef on the planet. I love the Japanese. 

It should be noted, if you're a stickler for details (and you are, otherwise you'd be reading someone else's blog right now), that Snake River Kobe should, for all legal purposes, be called Snake River Wagyu/ Angus Proprietary Domestic Cross. But I don't think that has as much marketing sheen to it as just calling it Kobe. Either way, actual Kobe beef is prohibitively expensive, and would probably be a bigger let down than the time we tried Dippin' Dots. 

Chef Arnone handles the beef masterfully, and attains such a deep, beefy flavor, it makes even the richest of store-bought steaks seem like pin-the-tail-on-the-cattle. THIS is why you come to Mo's. To have the finest, most exceptionally prepared piece of beast you will ever have the pleasure of cutting with a butter knife. 

Okay, so, everyone with me so far? I probably shouldn't have said the word MEAT so many times and with such vigor, because now it just seems like that's all that's on the table, and I sort of feel like my head is spinning and my plaque is going to start flowing... but on with the meat, shall we?

I'm really, really sorry. This was the "surprise treat" fifth course presented to us by Johnny V and Chef Arnone themselves, and I can't remember for the life of me what cut it was. I don't even think it matters at this point. Did you ever, when you were a kid, ride your bike down a drastic hill, paved perfectly smooth with no bumps or cracks? Remember that feeling as your own inertia took you down the hill, rolling faster and faster, until it felt as though the bike tires were lifting off the road, and you were becoming gracefully and effortlessly airborne? Well, this steak was better than that.

Not to be outdone, a member of the waterfowl family decided to make an appearance, thus marking my first ever encounter with Foie Gras.

Seared and buttery, with the most rich flavor, I can't say the entire experience was unpleasant. I do, however, eat with a conscience, and I can only hope that the fowl whose liver I was consuming wasn't force-fed through gavage in an inhumane manner. Any folks out there who want to are free to Google foie gras and research the process themselves -- I'm not going to start a flame war by linking to anything.

I was ready to pass out, Andy was draped across the piano singing showtunes and doing his best Isabella Rossellini impression, Lauren was rambling about the Squeesophone again, and my mom was chatting with the energetic little waiter who kept inexplicably refilling her wine glass, when Chef Arnone wheeled out the portable butane ranges...

Along with that came about ten pounds of butter

Another six pounds of brown sugar

And all of the strawberries in the Western Hemisphere. Yes folks, it was time for the sixth and final course, Strawberries Foster, with Mo's Signature chocolate cake.

Of course half the fun of a Foster dessert is the flambé, and this was no exception:

The finished dish: a wedge of decadent rich chocolate cake a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream, and hot strawberries, brown sugar, butter, and rum all over the top. Holy mackerel. 

Here's a run down of exactly everything we had, for those of you with limited short-term memory faculties:

First Course
Fennel Spiced Shrimp and 8 Hour Braised Nueske's Bacon
Sweet Potato Purée

Paired with Far Niente Chardonnay, Napa Valley 2008
Artesa Chardonnay, Carneros 2009

Second Course
Endive & Radicchio Salad
Caramelized Honey Crisp Apples, Candied Pecans, Cider Vinaigrette and Motechevré Goat's Milk Brie

Third Course
Blackened Salmon
Tomato Basil Risotto and Spicy Creole Sauce

Paired with Ketel One Serrano
Ketel One Vodka, Limoncello, Campari, Orange Juice

Fourth Course
Snake River Kobe Tenderloin
Caramelized Pearl Onions, Wilted Spinach and Almond Croquette

Paired with Rubicon Estate "Cask" Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley 2006

Fifth Course
Select Beef with Seared Foie Gras 

Sixth Course
Strawberries Foster
with Mo's Signature Chocolate Cake

Paired with Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Old Tawny Porto


Dining with the fine folks at Mo's, Chef Arnone, and Johnny V was an absolute dream. No matter what kind of wacky food adventures we find ourselves in, it is a rare treat to sit down to a meal so impeccably executed, so complete in every detail, and so doggone delicious. Despite my rambling and playful prose here, we were truly honored to be included on the guest list, and how fortune everyone is that we play host to such an establishment in our own backyard!

We would also like to share our deepest gratitude with Andrew Stockel, Operating Partner at Mo's, who invited us to this edible extravaganza. 

We have an old saying in our family when someone treats us to a meal the likes of which Chef Arnone was responsible for, 

"Bed's going to feel good tonight..."

What a meal!

Mo's a Place For Steaks on Urbanspoon

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Mama DeMarinis: Accept No Imitators

A few things have become painstakingly clear since my accident on November 8th, some things have become a little more in-focus. I'm not one to claim that my outlook on life has changed completely, nor that I have somehow become a different, more loving, caring, stop-and-smell-the-flowers sort of person. No, I'm still the food-crazed time-crunched word-mongering lunatic I've always been. But now, there's a little more crazy mixed in. Blame it on the concussion.

No, I've become a little more aware of how much my friendships mean to me. I value them a little more now, relish them a little more. I can see them more clearly, I'm aware of how much my friends mean to me. And, without a doubt, how much I mean to my friends. And sometimes we need to be reassured of that.

Eating Milwaukee is a labor of love born of friendship: we started this as three friends who loved to eat together. And it should go that once in a while, we have the honor of eating at a friend's restaurant. Such is the case with Mama DeMarinis'. 

I have the pleasure (and I do mean that) of working with Jessi DeMarinis at the funeral home which keeps the lights on here at the Eating Milwaukee Compound. Jessi married into the DeMarinis clan: her husband Vince is third-generation in the restaurant biz. During the day, Jessi keeps the operations of the funeral home humming along, but at night, almost à la Flashdance, Jessi switches gears to wait tables at the restaurant. 

It is because of Jessi that I started going to DeMarinis, in a sign of camaraderie to support her on a Friday night. But it is because of Vince's mastery in the kitchen that we keep coming back, to continue sampling his latest creations, or to be lulled into a beautiful food coma by our all-time favorites. 

Now, you might be wondering what all of the keyword nonsense regarding Scott Walker is about. Well, I'll tell you.

You see, I've been to DeMarinis' a million times, but our last visit was Andy and Lauren's first. And, lo and behold, who should be sitting at the waitress' table? Governor Elect Scott Walker. Hmph. Strange, but true, and of course, we have the pictures to prove it!

Now, poor Jessi looks as though someone slipped some horse tranquilizer into her Diet Coke, and such continues a long-standing tradition of my taking her picture at exactly the wrong moment. But, the other shot I had has her looking perfect and Scott Walker looking sedated. And, sorry Jessi, but I'm not about to infuriate our state's next governor!

DeMarinis' is a prototypical Milwaukee restaurant-bar, built on the first floor of a sizable Milwaukee Bungalow duplex. Inside, you'll find a homey dining room, crowded but workable, and a large bar. Since July, every business in Wisconsin is smoke-free, and DeMarinis is no exception. 

As luck would have it, Scott Walker and his party were finishing their meal as we arrived, and we were able to snag his table after he left.

The menu at DeMarinis' is comprehensive, but not overwhelming. It covers the basics: pasta and pizza. Don't expect anything exotic, this isn't that kind of Italian. Do expect lots of homemade sauces, crazy delicious (voted City's Best by AOL, btw) seasonal pizzas, a killer Lenten fish fry (or delicious baked fish).. 

Vince makes almost everything on the menu from scratch, and it shows. We started our meal off with a half-and-half sampling... the deep-fried portabella (and yes, spelling it portabello, portabella, or portobello is all fine... I checked) topped with cheese is Vince's own recipe, while the breadsticks filled with cheese are bought frozen. Either way, they're both tasty:

Breadsticks filled with Mozzarella
Fried 'bella Cap with Cheese

The breadsticks and the 'shroom are both served with Vince's homemade Sugo, while the portabella is also available with his homemade Peppercorn or traditional Ranch. Both dressings are insanely rich and creamy, with the Peppercorn being the favorite at our table: with grated cheese mixed in, and a spicy but well-behaved finish on the tongue.

The 'shroom is one of our favorites: simple, and unpretentious. The big mushroom cap is meaty and has a nice tooth to it, never mushy or muddy like some can get. Contrast the meaty chew with the crunchy breading, toss on some bubbly melted mozzarella, and you've got an awesome bar-food meal starter.

It should be noted, however, that the night we went as a group, a fryer was down, and as such, we could not indulge in the home-made onion rings that I have probably gained at least 20 pounds from. Vince slices fresh sweet onions on a mandolin -- for every order -- and breads them moments before he sends them to a sweet hereafter in the Frialator. The result is onion strings with tons of flavor, an awesome crunch, and a lot less grease than you'd expect from a steakhouse variety. Served with the homemade peppercorn ranch, they're well worth the inevitable indigestion.

Andy and Lauren ordered a Pepperoni and Fresh Mushroom pie, 

while I ordered my all-time favorite off-menu extravaganza: the Vinny Special, also known as a sausage patty completely swallowed by a sea of sugo, mozzarella, mushrooms, onions, and hot banana peppers:

Along with a side of spaghetti slathered in, you guessed it, more sugo:

I think it's important to note I'm a fan of both DeMarinis' red sauces: the sugo is a little more straightforward and what American tastes would be used to. The Marinara is much, much spicier, with an acidic tang, lots of diced bell pepper and onion, and an abundance of oregano. 

Lauren also ordered a side of mostaccioli with garlic butter:

I love that Vince tosses his pasta with sauce before plating it. I know it's a simple thing, but every single bleedin' strand of spaghetti on my plate had a perfect thin coating of sauce on it. Lauren's mostaccioli was ideally coated in amazingly flavorful garlic-parmesan-parsley butter. It's little things that take a few extra seconds that show that even simple cuisine can still be elegant and exceptionally executed. 

On other occasions, I've also sampled the Chicken Parmesan, along with Vince's off-menu (but soon to be returning) Alfredo.

The chicken parmesan is a fantastically thin chicken breast, pounded, seasoned, and breaded in-house, fried to GBD perfection, and then slathered with either sugo or marinara, topped with mozzarella, and baked until bubbly and melty. It's simple, it's not cutting edge, and it's not avant-garde, but it is fantastically delicious.

Vince's alfredo is a wonderful change of pace from bottled alfredos, or chemically-induced alfredo that we've become so used to at the Olive Gardens of the world. Heavy cream, garlic, and grated cheese come together in a ménage à trois of rich dairy insanity. The texture isn't the velvety smooth sauce many are used to: the cheese stays a bit gritty, and the flavor is less buttery and more cheesy, but I adore it. The night I had it, I asked Vince to add in whatever he saw fit, and he put in the kitchen sink; spinach, bell peppers, onions, broccoli, and artichoke hearts, along with a seared chicken breast.

DeMarinis' pie follows traditional Milwaukee Party Style rules: sheet pan, medium-thin crust, and square slices. Vince bakes his to a moderate doneness by default, resulting in a crust that is neither cracker-crisp nor soggy, but somewhere in between. The kitchen staff will gladly leave your pie in a little longer if you like it on the crunchy side, like I do. Of course, the red sauce or pesto (whichever you'd like) is homemade, and the blend of cheeses is a big flavor bullseye.

Which leads me to DeMarinis' sausage...

This is not from a shrink-sealed package from Klement's. It's not even bulk sausage from a butcher shop. Every ounce of Italian Sausage you eat at DeMarinis' is custom-blended from a generations-old family recipe, unchanged and phenomenal. The same sausage that is plopped in little blobs on the pizza makes up the sausage patty, traditionally found on the appropriately enough named Sausage Patty Sandwich. Salty, spicy, fatty, juicy, and porky... I'm not really sure if there is the need for anything else in life. Maybe a shower once in while. But that's about it.


I know I go into this with a bias: the DeMarinis' are good friends, and I want to see them succeed and grow in their business, so I want to hype them up. But our review of the restaurant is a fair one, biased, but true, and you can ask their legions of loyal customers and you'll hear the same gushing praise. Heck, ask the soon-to-be Governor! DeMarinis' isn't flashy, when you walk in, you're not magically whisked away to some villa in the Italian countryside. In fact, at every turn, in every way, you're reminded that you're in Milwaukee: a hard working, blue-collar town made up of a diverse crowd of people... just trying to make it. At the end of the day, especially these days, it's nice to share some table space with some friends, chat it up with Jessi or Kimbo, listen to Vince get excited about locally sourced ingredients, and relax knowing that we're all in this together, whatever this is, and we're all very, very lucky to have it.

Report Card:
Atmosphere: A
Oh, sure. It's not stylish. You don't need to wear a jacket, and there's no gimmicky theme. Plastic grapes, red ceiling tiles, and the most diverse crowd gathered in any single place in Milwaukee. It's loud, it's crowded, you will no doubt hear your neighbor's conversation as clearly as your own. But this is a community, and this is dining as a shared experience. This is not an intimate date restaurant, this is loud, boisterous, Friday-night-pizza-with-the-family. And I wouldn't want it any other way. 

Prices: B+
Nothing on DeMarinis' menu is what I would consider expensive.

My best friend is a waitress here. I don't think I should make any comments...

The Food: A-
Simple Italian, simply delicious. Don't limit yourself to their pizza! I love the pies, but there's a lot of tastes that languish elsewhere on the menu that you'd be a fool to leave uneaten. 

The Details:

Mama De Marinis
2457 S. Wentworth Ave.  
Milwaukee, WI 53207
(414) 481-1770

Of course, they do a brisk carry-out business, too!

Mama de Marini's Pizza (Bay View) on Urbanspoon