Friday, September 23, 2011

#MKEFoodies September Tweet-Up: Stack'd Burger Bar

Our beloved rag-tag group of Milwaukee Foodies descended like a cloud of ravenous locusts on Stack'd Burger Bar this past Wednesday, consuming every Wisconsin grass-fed burger in sight. Adding to the excitement was a number of raffle items, including Stack'd gift cards (thanks again, everyone at Stack'd!) and the kind folks from West Bend even provided a Super-Ultra-Multi-Cooker to one lucky winner! 

Interested in seeing what kind of trouble #MKEFoodies get into when not under direct adult supervision? Check out the gallery below! And be sure to check out the #MKEFoodies Facebook page to find out how you can join in the shenanigans!


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Day Twelve: Comet Café

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.

The Details:

Comet Café
1947 N. Farwell Ave.
Milwaukee, WI 53202

Comet Cafe on Urbanspoon

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Day Seven: The European Homemade Sausage Shop

My stepfather Paul is a man of very few words. Those that do become audible, however, are precious and jewel-like, crafted (appropriately) with an engineer's precision. Most of them are life lessons, which I find particularly insufferable, yet I find myself quoting them at the most random and strangely appropriate moments.

"Cheap shoes are never a bargain." 

"Razor-thin mark-up never built a fancy store."

"He makes a really good sausage."

The last one, of course, refers to Frank Jakubczak, a genuine Milwaukee Treasure, a sausage genius, and all-around person you really should become acquainted with. You see, Frank makes the best sausage in the city.

To some, sausage is those machine-formed rods, greased and fried and slathered with imitation maple syrup in the mornings. Others, it's Johnsonville or Klement's or even Usinger's on the grille or maybe poached in beer in onions or maybe pan-fried. But for some, those world-weary culinary travelers, those never satisfied by "good enough," there is the European Homemade Sausage Shop, deep in the heart of what used to be one of the nation's largest immigrant Polish neighborhoods, second only to Chicago. 

Frank doesn't mess around when it comes to his sausage. He doesn't do anything avant-garde: you will find no chicken-blueberrry-gruyere-sage brats here. Nor will you see stacks of styrofoam packaged meats from days previous: Frank does sell frozen product for those from out of town, but the vast majority is fresh, displayed in the single and prominent cooler case in the tiny storefront. There may be a dozen or so varieties, each one in limited quantities daily. I've never stopped in only to find out my favorites were sold out for the day -- still, the scarcity adds a little bit of thrill. Are there going to be any Slovenians left today? How about fresh Polish? Maybe there's just two pounds left... just enough! Perhaps the biggest boon to small quantities is you are always guaranteed that the sausage you buy is the freshest, tastiest, and safest possible: it has happened that the sausage I bought came out of the grinder mere hours before I was grilling it. 

I was introduced to Frank's meat treats a few years back, during one of the annual Brzezinski Family Holiday Fiascos, which I blogged about at the time because I really had nothing new to report.  Paul had sliced up some Krakowska, at which point I thought I had actually had some sort of a seizure. 

I begged Paul with the insistence of someone staring down the secret to life, the universe, everthing... where did this insanely delicious sausage come from?

"Oh, it's this little place down on Muskego, the guy's pretty famous. He's been making sausage for years. Really unusual stuff." This was one of the longer uninterrupted moments of speech I had heard from Paul that evening.

So, what makes the European Homemade Sausage Shop so unique? I mean, with all of the sausage in this city (Hrrmm...), why does Frank's stand out? 

Well, for starters, Frank uses only exceptional cuts of meat. Lean when its supposed to be, fatty when it needs to be, but not an ounce of filler, a drop of artificial flavor, or a scrap of gristle, tendon, or cartilage. He uses spices from a variety of vendors, each one picked after years of experience. The cuts of meat are sourced from within the midwest, some even more locally when possible/practical. Meat is chopped and ground, spices are blended, and sausage is stuffed and smoked in Frank's modest kitchen: nothing is outsourced or obtained from a third party.

And, let's face it: Frank is really, really serious about what he does. 

He moves in the kitchen with a steadiness and determination of someone entrenched in their craft. His hands and eyes are never idle, his stance solid, focused. Frank is a man on a mission: he is uncompromising and relentless in his quest to create an exceptional product. And every bit of meat that passes over his scale shows this fiery passion: every last item on Frank's menu is without peer.

People know this passion, and are fiercely loyal to it -- sometimes, loyal to the point of obsession. Frank retired once: closed the store, shuttered the smoke house, and packed up the various European groceries that grace the marble counters. Milwaukee threw a fit, like a baby. A hungry, angry baby. And that collective temper tantrum worked: Frank re-opened, and the sausage insanity continues to this day, albeit on a slightly more limited schedule: Thursday through Saturday, 8 am to 4 pm. 

On the Saturday I dropped in, I had the privilege of talking with Frank's daughter, Mary. 

"Frank's on Holiday," she said, maybe a little relieved he was taking some leisure time. "So we're running a bit low on some things." Luckily, I still snagged a few pounds of fresh Polish, which I de-cased and made into Polish sliders on Miller Bakery pretzel rolls for a recent appetizer bash. Along with the Polish, I stocked up on my usual multiple pounds of Slovenians, and a pound of Frank's home-cured and smoked bacon. 

"The bacon is pretty awesome," a co-worker of mine recently told me. The understatement of the century.

Mary was overly kind, offering to take me back in the "inner sanctum" of the kitchen, exploring the smoker, the coolers, walking along rows of hanging sausages so perfect that they almost seemed like movie props. You can tell by the inflection she uses when she speaks of the business that she's rightfully proud of it, but exceedingly careful that her father's brand doesn't become diluted. I asked her if she was looking to get into any restaurants in the city, and she responded that they were indeed, but doing so selectively to make sure they find the best fit for the product.

This is, after all, the best sausage in Milwaukee.

I keep using superlatives in this post, and I imagine that they may lose a little of their wallop eventually, but I don't really know how to convey how much I actually love Frank's creations. I have never, in my whole entire Polish/German food-grab-bag life, eating sausages with so much flavor, so perfect grind and texture, and such freshness. There simply does not exist anything like the European Homemade Sausage Shop in this city: Usinger's, for all of their variety, can't hold a candle to Frank's core of a few authentic recipes, made without compromise, and made fresh.

Here, stalwart traditional blood and tongue sausage mingle with spicy smokey Polish Delights (a Brzezinski family tradition on Easter). Sweet and Hot Italians, Slovenians, and scorching hot Hungarians waft their fragrance of exotic and long-lost spices from behind the glass cooler. Cold cuts -- maybe liverwurst or Franks own smoked ham or my personal favorite -- Krakowska -- are always sliced when a customer orders them. Sausages are still linked together -- buy three pounds of Hungarians, and you'll receive them in one continuous strand. 

Certain varieties are available both fresh and smoked -- a fresh Slovenian is worlds different than a smoked, and the contrast can be exciting. Some sausage, if you're in the right place at the right time, can be had fresh, smoked, or smoked and dried -- offering an entire world of different flavors and textures.

Mild and spicy dried hunter's sausage is a staple hanging from the racks next to the register in front:

While in the cooler in the back, Krakowska rests, waiting patiently for the next Brzezinski holiday for people to melt into large puddles of moaning goo upon first bite:

Frank offers a few European groceries: a few bulk spices, fruit syrups, mustards and horseradish, a mythical Polish seasoning called Vegeta:

And traditional Polish Kluski:

Looking around the retail space, you'll see 100 year old fixtures from its time as a sort of general store:

and some still vintage reminders of its long history as a sausage and butcher shop, such as this well-worn chopping block, cozying up to a bag of rice undoubtedly destined for blood sausage:


No amount of praise I can heap on Frank and his family can ever really explain not only the European Homemade Sausage Shop, but also the ideals it represents: Frank came to the US not intending to be a Master Sausage Maker, but fell in love with the craft, and has pursued it with almost a religious fervour. His desire to continue the tradition of the food of his homeland is the same desire that drives so many Milwaukeeans to not just buy his wares, but become zealous devotees. Frank's cultural heritage is so similar to that of so many in this city, myself included. Part of the way we connect with that heritage is through food, and in Frank's case, authentic, delicious food. My childhood memories are dotted with Polish Christmas Wafers, creamed herring, paper-thin German Butterplätzchen with dabs of egg and crushed nuts, Rouladen, spätzle, and the pungent fumes of Grandma B's hot bacon dressing over wilted baby spinach. Frank's sausage is a piece to that puzzle, a non-specific sense memory of How Things Used To Be, and I find immense comfort in that. My heart grows a little sad thinking that life has changed so drastically, and that so many of us have lost touch with that which makes us unique, what has served as our families' foundations for so long: our food.

I want to see the European Homemade Sausage Shop thrive. I want people all over this state, er, this country, to know what amazing artisanal meat products this little shop cranks out, here on Muskego Avenue, in the middle of what has become the epicenter of Milwaukee's Hispanic population. Still, Frank makes every sausage with the care and craft that makes eating them such a transcendent experience, even after decades of business. Mary and her brother Andy have a vision for the shop, to be sure, and I'm excited for them -- I know in my heart (and stomach) that the European Homemade Sausage Shop will continue delighting customers for a long, long time to come. And I will continue to buy my Slovenians, like clockwork -- because I am a complete and utter slave to the sausage!

The Details:
The European Homemade Sausage Shop
1985 S. Muskego Ave. 
Milwaukee, WI 53204
Andy let me know that the Shop will be launching a new website in the next few weeks, however, the current site is a great resource in the mean time. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Day Five: Patterson's

Sometimes, in the clamor and excitement of all of the new things going on in food, we sort of glance over those classics, those proven winners which have been with us all along. When I tell people I got my peaches at Patterson's Orchard and Farm Market, they look at me, beguiled. 

"Where?" they ask, and I cringe a little.

"Patterson's!" I say again, hoping that they misheard me.

"Where is that, again?" they'll ask, with the tone that the name rings a bell, but I know the truth. They have no idea where I'm talking about.

"Uh, you know... Patterson's. On 124th and Layton."

"Oh! The place with the apple trees!" I roll my eyes in disgust, and continue eating my sweet-as-candy peach.

The Patterson family has been growing some of the finest produce in Wisconsin since the early 1950's, but I'm finding that so many of my foodie friends are completely oblivious to their wares. Why is that?

On my visit, I was lucky enough to strike up a conversation with Jay Patterson, third generation and current owner:

When I told him about the Eat Local Challenge, he lit up. As I took shot after gorgeous shot of the rows of packed apples and peaches, pears and plums, he said, "Hey... do you want to go back in the cooler? I'm sure you can get some good shots in there!" He didn't have to ask twice.

Bin after wooden bin, overflowing with perfect ripe Wisconsin apples. The perfume of apple was like honey.

"Here, check these out," Jay said as we walked over to a smaller bin. "We didn't even really get to put these out this year, there was so many orders for them. This is all that's left." 

I looked down into the bin, only to see the deepest, darkest blue plums I'd ever seen:

"Wisconsin prune plums," Jay said with a grin. "Try one. They're amazing!" And I did try one -- a few, actually. The plums are tiny by commercial fruit standards -- about the size of a silver dollar around, with a thick skin, and giving, intensely sweet flesh. I can see why they sold out so quickly:

I felt like a kid in a produce department, madly shooting every bin with wild abandonment, wanting to catch every single gleaming fruit before this year's bounty disappeared:

Patterson's has limited distribution in the Milwaukee area, but for best results, I highly recommend a visit to the Farm Market, on So. 124th St. in New Berlin, just a half block North of Layton Ave.. You can really take in the full breadth of selection there, see exactly why so many people on the South Side get so excited about harvest time.

Patterson's is only open from mid-August to May 31st -- and they do sell out of some of their 30-odd varieties of fruit they raise -- so don't feel guilty about stocking up if you see a cultivar you like. The fruit grown by the Patterson family is split between a smaller orchard adjacent to the market, and a larger one in the Town of Raymond, near Union Grove. 

Each half peck of fruit looks longing to me, like a puppy waiting to be adopted:

But wait! Apples don't have all the fun at Patterson's... seasonal veggies also make guest appearances from time to time:

I was particularly taken aback by the petite Wisconsin peaches, with their ultra-fuzzy skins (think chenille sweater), soft flesh, and absolutely sugar-sweet flavor. The aroma of "peach" is so strong, it'll make you think they're designed, not grown:

Until Honey Crisp apples are in season, we're able to get Zestar!(s), which Patterson's has in abundance, and I've had more than one person nearly lose their mind biting into one. Megan, a co-worker, nearly ate my entire mid-afternoon snack today, chomping slice after slice of the apple, admitting to me, "Oh, these things are amazing! I stole one from you this morning!" 

If fruit incites grand larceny, you know it's good.

With all of the fantastic new retail outlets we have in Milwaukee for local produce, now more than ever, I believe it's important to support independent farmers like the Patterson's. Knowing that your food came from your backyard is wonderful, and knowing the people behind the food is essential. The Pattersons have been feeding the Milwaukee area with their exceptional fruits and veggies for over 60 years, and it's my wish (for purely selfish reasons: I need good apples like I need oxygen) that they continue to thrive. Take a field trip, bring some cash (no plastic accepted here, kids), and bring home a neat paper sack filled with the bounty of an orchard just a dozen miles away from downtown, but a million miles away from mere supermarket produce.

The Details:

Patterson's Orchard & Farm Market
4607 S. 124th St.
New Berlin, WI 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Day Three: Meritage

As I write this, I take note: it's day five. And the intro image above says day three. Curious, that.

So, why does the image say day three and the post is, er, posted on day five? Because it's a lot of time consuming work producing these things, and I like confusing everyone. Day Three included a visit to Meritage. Day Five is when Joe actually finished editing pictures and wrote the post.

It has become very clear during the Eat Local Challenge (I think I'm going to write a macro that replaces the text Eat Local Challenge with a random brick-laying term. Such as, I've been having so much fun participating in the Eat Local Challenge Flemish Bond! Or, I hope lots of people in Milwaukee have stepped up and done their own Eat Local Challenge Rowlock/Shiner - Soldier/Sailor! See? Much more fun.) that eating local is demanding. When I first volunteered to live under glass, I envisioned going to a few restaurants, talking with them about why they chose local ingredients, yada yada yada. But a funny thing happened -- I started getting really picky about what I was eating when I wasn't at those restaurants. I questioned individual ingredients I was using, and when asked to an "appetizer party" on Sunday, made sure that all three dishes I brought contained 98% local ingredients -- right down to the salt and pepper from Penzey's. When work took me to Waukegan today, I regretfully ate very un-local, and even had to chip in for Illinois sales tax (bleagh). I felt guilty about it. Until I snacked on a local Zestar! apple this afternoon, and all was right with the world again.

Point is, I'm looking for ways to integrate local foods into my diet, and I never really intended to. I mean, a Michigan peach is just as good as a New Berlin peach, right? Wrong. This is such a wonderful time to enjoy the bounty that Wisconsin is beginning to rake in, I don't know what I'm going to do in a few short months when I'm back to eating Brazilian apples. Maybe cry a little inside.

Let's not dwell on the impending winter, eh? Instead, let's celebrate a beacon of cooking local in our community. Let's sit down for a meal at Meritage.

Chef/Owner Jan Kelly is a rockstar. She has a passion (there's that word again) for what she's cooking, the same way I see artists suffer over single brushstrokes. Her life is poured through Meritage, and it becomes plainly evident the moment you speak to her.

"Oh, one of these, again!" she joked with me when I asked to take an impromptu portrait. But when you look around, you see an awful lot of pictures of Jan, and of Meritage: both have had quite a bit of press in the past few years -- and when Chef Jan brought the first plate out to me to shoot, I understood immediately why:

Take that salad in: go ahead. Click on it to enlarge it, because by the time you read this, most of these ingredients are almost out of season. Chef Jan explained, "Growing Power spinach, local feta, and a family recipe for the poppyseed dressing. Oh! Just wait until you try the watermelon!"

I didn't see any watermelon. Although, I did find it odd that Wisconsin produces pineapple, which I did see. Upon first bit, my head swam. The pineapple was watermelon! The watermelon was pineapple! What kind of messed up peanut butter-in-my-chocolate insanity was this?!?

"Yellow watermelon." Chef Jan said, with a little smirk. "Better than candy." And it was. Crunchy and sweet and perfect -- if I had access to a salad like this every day, I'd be half my weight. And that's saying a lot.

But I didn't have time to ruminate on the wonders of the salad (but what a salad!). It was time for the Chicago (gasp!) prosciutto-wrapped local melon, with Growing Power arugula and a mint vinaigrette:

The creamy (goat?) cheese is what made this for me: the well-proven contrast of sweet/salty/meaty/porky in the melon and prosciutto was upped a few notches with the smooth, creaminess of the cheese.

Jan came to the table with a ear-to-ear smile, "I almost forgot!" she gushed, "we're doing tappas tonight!" She brought down a small ramekin to the table, with the most heavenly aroma. "This is how my mom got us kids to eat our vegetables. Local squash in a gouda cheese sauce!"

The squash made the most incredible pair with the gouda: there were pockets of the cheese sauce that completely dominated my mouth, and then the squash would come through, traffic cop of all that is good and healthy, and remind me what the real reason of the dish is. It's not called Gouda Cheese Sauce with Squash, after all. Warm notes of nutmeg rounded out the sauce, and herbed bread crumbs on the top of the gratin made for a nice textural play.

Jeez. In order for me to eat my vegetables when I was a kid, my mom just told me I'd have to go to confession and tell Fr. Chuck what a derelict child I was. I'd have preferred the gouda and squash, frankly. Would have saved on the psychotherapy bills. Listening, mom?

Next up, Chef Jan cooked up the Pork Saté:

(Radish?) Sprouts adorn three pork skewers, perched atop what was possibly the most insanely tasty potato salad I've ever had.

Each local pork skewer is unique in flavor: sweet barbecue, Moroccan spice, and Asian. The tender, juicy chunks of pork literally slide off the skewers in the most seductive way -- and the flavor explodes, both assertive in their individuality, but also playing off God's One Chosen Meat: the pork. The sweet smokiness of the barbecue, the warm and complex Moroccan spices, and the zesty, sweet/soy flavor of the Asian all work to highlight the best part of the dish: the meat

The final dish of the shoot was what I'm going to call Lamb Three Ways. Or Tres Lamb-age. Maybe Trois Agneaux. Drei Lämmer? Nein? Whatever. Call it what you will. It was delicious:

I was torn when I was editing the photos for this -- I have two awesome shots, one which follows all of the rules of shooting high-end food, and one that shows off every element of the dish, while sacrificing some technical points. I'm including both:

Going clockwise from the right, we have: breaded, fried lamb belly; lamb kabobs, lamb spin-roll, and hidden beneath the greens, a healthy dose of tahini-chickpea salad.

The lamb kabobs don't just showcase that delectable Pinn-Oak Ridge Farms lamb that Chef Jan creates masterpieces from -- oh, no. That Pinn-Oak perfection is paraded out like Mighty Joe Young, a gorilla-sized flavor rampaging across the table. The lamb is deep, rich, flavorful, and not the least bit lamb-y.

And the lamb belly. Oh! The lamb belly! Chef Jan gets that one-corner-of-the-mouth-up smirk again, "You see pork belly everywhere. But how often do you see lamb belly? I had to look hard to even find it!" Thank God she did.

The lamb belly is this most ridiculous mix of fat, of tender meat like it should be velvet, of crunchy crust and richness which makes it the perfect small-portion treat.

"If I put lamb belly on the menu by itself, no one would order it!" Chef Jan explained. I interjected, "I'd order it!" She raised an eyebrow, "Okay, you'd order it. And a half dozen other adventurous people would order it. But when I include it with the kabobs, people have to try it. And they're led to discover it." This works, though: given a taste, now I want it all the more. And maybe, just maybe, Chef Jan can start a trend -- have all of the haute cuisine chefs across the country clamoring not for candied pork belly, but rather Pinn-Oak lamb belly!

As I was packing up my lights, a very kind hearted server handed me a to-go box. "Chocolate lovers. You know, for later." It was Jan's infamous flour-less chocolate cake, with chocolate mousse, and topped with a thick chocolate ganache, sided by a rather large puff of vanilla-bean mascarpone cream. Seriously. I would have taken a picture of the cake, but sadly, a wild fork appeared! It was super-effective.

"I'm not a big chocolate freak," Jan confessed at the bar later. I looked at her as if she killed a Muppet. "It's just not my thing."

But this is why I love Chef Jan: we talked for almost two hours about, er, just about everything. Turns out, Chef Jan loves Royal India just about as much as we do. She cried during the series finale of Six Feet Under (which, by the way, is the appropriate response to said show. The inappropriate response is to quit student teaching and go to mortuary school. Ahem.). She loves Mazos and little Asian grocery stores and Penzey's Lamb Blend. Get Chef Jan rolling, you'll find out she's just as invested in this burg as we are.

Which is good.

Meritage is a gorgeous setting:

With warm hued walls, plucky, mod lighting, and a well stocked bar. Rich linens and fresh flower arrangements dot the tables:

And, during the warmer months, a romantic back-yard patio serves as the perfect setting for a local meal under the stars:

This shot actually seems to take in more of the greenhouse next door to Meritage, but I assure you, the patio is gorgeous... wish I would have paid a bit more attention to my framing when I took the shot...


Meeting Chef Jan made my day. Seeing her enthusiasm and energy for integrating quality local ingredients into her dishes made my week. Seeing that passion in action (and, of course, tasting it) makes me want to keep coming back to Meritage, to see what next season's menu will bring.

Meritage is certainly not every-day faire. But the excitement of having such fine dishes, such clever implementation of season, local ingredients, is what makes you want to find opportunities to go. Chef Jan is one of those rare restauranteurs: incredibly passionate, amazingly knowledgeable, and immediately approachable. Talk to her about her favorite Penzey's blends -- she'll tell it like it is. Want to know about what cuts from Pinn-Oak are really top-notch right now? She'll give you the low-down. Give her some grief about her lack of chocolate love -- she can take the joke.

For every restaurant in Milwaukee wanting to carve out a niche for themselves by doing something a little different, a little trendy, Meritage is simple elegance, showcasing dozens of local ingredients, and standing out for it. We here at Eating Milwaukee are big fans, and look forward to years to come of Eating Local at Meritage with Chef Jan!

The Details:
5921 W. Vliet Street
Milwaukee, WI 53208
414-479-0620 (reservations highly recommended)
Excellent Website Here

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