Full disclosure: Guy Fieri did a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives segment here.
I say that, because I forgot entirely about the fact that the Shah of Second-Rate Simile (yes, it took me ten minutes and a Thesaurus to come up with that one) had once been in Milwaukee, touting the Comet Café's affinity for bacon.
Oh, here we go again with the bacon.
The strange part is, Comet Café isn't, er, all about the bacon. Sure, you can order it on pretty much anything you want. But it's not like the place is bacon themed, for cripe's sake.
So, I'd act shocked that Guy portrayed Comet in a way that wasn't exactly realistic, but then, I understand the way media works, and if his producers needed a certain slant (I can see the pitch meeting right now... "Okay, so we have this funky restaurant on the East Side of Milwaukee... what says Milwaukee to you? Binge drinking? Abandoned High Speed Rail plans? Aha! Bacon! Of course! The country's second most obese city behind Springfield needs a restaurant that specializes in bacon dishes! Let's get it done!"), well, then, I get it.
But Comet is so much more than bacon. I mean, a whole lot more.
I met with Travis, the head chef, to talk to him about what Comet does with local ingredients, why they do local, and to get some shots of what he thought best represented their delicious, only 47% bacon-themed culinary genius.
Travis looks sad in this picture. Personally, I would be ecstatic if I were standing next to that case of cupcakes. But, then again, I'm a grown man who gets ecstatic near cupcakes. Some might call that bordering on kinky.
Travis found himself head chef sort of by accident, much in the same way I've found myself rising to Funeral Director glory. Nonetheless, he shares a palpable enthusiasm for the food he's preparing, and is quick to tell me about the local ingredients he so lovingly cooks.
I asked him to select a few dishes from the menu that he thought represent Comet's outlook on food, flavor, and local ingredients in the most clearly articulated way possible. The first dish he suggested without hesitation, "The meatloaf!"
The preparation of this can be seen in a (probably copyright infringing) clip on YouTube. Guy makes it seem like a bit of a circus, but in reality, the Meatloaf Sandwich is elegant, intricate, and layered with amazing flavors.
First, we start with Wisconsin Grass Feed beef in the meatloaf, perched atop rye bread from Breadsmith, mashed potatoes, crisp bacon, and flat-top griddled onions and a tomato slice, floating life-raft style in a sea of Comet's beer gravy.
The rye is salty, the meatloaf is about ready to crack open with flavor, the mashed potatoes are garlicky and rich, the bacon is, well, bacon, and the tomato and onion come together to provide nice bright top notes. Add in the infinite complexity of the beer gravy, and it's enough to make a foodie's toes curl. You catch my drift. The noises I made while trying this one weren't family friendly.
Travis mentioned that the potatoes were sadly not local. I prodded him a little, reminding him that the challenge wasn't just about the sunny side of eating local.
"Local potatoes... they don't keep well. A day or two, and they're already sprouting. You can't serve sprouted potatoes. There's a reason Wisconsin isn't known for its potato production." I guess you can't be perfect at everything.
It does merit a mention, however, that the beef is from Braise RSA, which brought us such a fine meal at Meritage.
I wanted to eat the whole plate. I really, really did. But it was to no avail: the next plate arrived.
Mac & Cheese.
Think you have a favorite Mac & Cheese? Think again. Comet's Mac & Cheese uses dairy from The Sassy Cow Creamery, and, of course, Wisconsin cheese.
Before digging in, I asked Travis if they used the traditional Béchamel sauce as a base. He chucked.
"Cheese, cream, and a touch of butter."
And oh, was it cheesy. And rich. Cheesy and rich. And amazing. And delicious. And sinfully rich. Grandma B. may very well be spinning in her Batesville Cortez Gold, but cheese, cream, and butter win out over Béchamel. End of story.
I would have to say, without hyperbole, that Comet's Mac & Cheese is, without a doubt, the best I've ever had.
No time to dawdle, though! The next plate arrived as soon as I had a second bite. This time, it was the Comet's Medianoche. Or, for the Wisconsin crowd, a Cuban sandwich:
Slow cooked Wilson Farms pork, swiss, ham, brown mustard, and Comet's homemade bread 'n' butter pickles, on fresh Sciortino's bread.
Now, I'm a bit of a Medianoche snob, and I've had more than my fair share of slightly less-than-tasty Cubans. Let me tell you why Comet hits this one out of the ballpark:
The pork is incredibly flavorful, and tender without being mushy -- which is essential. The bread is entirely fresh, keeping in the tradition of using bread-baked-that-day in an authentic Medianoche (traditional Cuban bread usually contains lard, and it doesn't keep well for more than a day or two).
The mustard, an absolute must, is tangy and bright without overpowering the rest of the flavors of the sandwich.
And then there's the pickles.
I asked Travis, "Do I taste curry?" "Sure do," he replied with a smile.
Finally, the last dish arrived.
This was a bit special, as it comes from Comet's monthly specials menu. Travis pointed out that this particular item was vegan, although they make a point to not scream it from the hilltops: non-vegans (read: the staff of Eating Milwaukee) tend to shy away from vegan dishes, thinking they're going to try to tart up some sort of meat-substitute (think Tofurkey) to fool us into eating them. Not so with the Black Bean Polenta Cakes and Mushroom Ragout:
The menu description reads as follows:
Crimini mushroom ragout, sautéed swiss chard, fried black bean polenta cakes, and roasted almond mole with cilantro oil. And hey, it's vegan.
Like I said. Not exactly shouting it from the hilltops.
I demanding to know how much butter went into making the perfectly creamy yet fluffy polenta cakes. Travis just chuckled. "None," he quipped.
The mole was almost the star of the dish: deep, dark, smoky with chili and thick with almonds and breadcrumbs. I must admit, had I never known the dish to be vegan, I wouldn't have even guessed otherwise. While deep-frying the polenta drops the health factor down a little bit, we never said Comet was going for the lo-cal market!
The Comet Café is consistently packed, and with a list of monthly specials constantly changing to the seasons, it's easy to see why. The food alone will keep you coming back. The menu will keep you intrigued as to what's up next.
The interior is comfortable and fun, everything you'd expect a top-notch East Side establishment to be:
Did we mention the cupcakes?
Bakery is fresh from Comet's sister restaurant, Honey Pie. I ended up adopting a Mexican Chocolate cupcake -- complete with cayenne pepper, a buttercream with the faintest hint of coffee, and sliced toasted almonds. Insane.
Despite Comet's fame on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, it's plain to see it hasn't swayed from its roots: a brilliant mix of classic dishes, local ingredients, and upscale twists.
In my conversations with Travis, I got to see the culture of Comet in action. Not a once did our talk change course at any sort of silence -- the entire evening was about food, food, food. And really, if a restaurant is as devoted to eating local as Comet is, there really isn't much room for distractions. The full, busy dining room is a telltale of the quality that Comet puts into its food, and while the pictures turned out gorgeous, it was the flavors that really bowled me over. From the rich and homey meatloaf to the decadent Mac & Cheese and the surprising polenta, every locally inspired dish I tried was an all-star. I'm proud to have had an audience with Travis, and look forward to all the miraculous things Comet does with the bounty we have here right in our backyard.
1947 N. Farwell Ave.
Milwaukee, WI 53202