Laura Murphy


Laura may grace these fields with
Thoughtful reflections on
Bread and Wine and Fine Food and Dining
In Milwaukee the Beautiful.

FALL ON YOUR KNEES

“The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit”
1882 ~ John Singer Sargent ~ oil on canvas

A painting which I knew from photos in books before I saw it in person is “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit”. I knew it was a large painting, and I was prepared to be impressed. What I was not prepared for was my reaction, which was that I burst into tears. Literally, tears squirted out of my eyes and I was stopped dead for some seconds while I tried to recover myself. Since that struck-by-lightning moment in a museum gallery, I’ve tried to figure out what it is about that painting that is so powerful. I am not a person who cries easily and it was not the reaction I would have chosen for myself, surrounded as I was by culture mavens in their designer suits and fabulous shoes and precision haircuts. My modus operandi is to be silent, as invisible as possible, and noncommital, a poker face - keep it all inside, the better to process it later.

I came around a corner and there it was, more than 7 feet by 7 feet of oil on canvas, a view of four sisters, the daughters of Edward Darley Boit who was a friend of Sargent and a painter himself. It was painted in 1882 in the Boit’s apartment in Paris when Sargent was just 26 years old.

The scene is serenely domestic, an interior, a rug, two vases and four girls, the two older girls in the doorway of a dimly lit room toward the back of the painting and the two younger girls in the lighter room toward the front, the baby in the center foreground, somber and beautiful. The painting was mounted very low so that the girls in the painting seemed to be just ahead of the viewer on the floor. We could almost step into the room with them.

The oldest girl (14 at the time of the painting), is leaning against one of a pair of Japanese vases. The vase is taller than she is, a lovely blue on white vessel, a fixture in the household. The small of her back rests on an outward curve of the vase, her shoulders and neck on an inward curve, and she is turned away from us, in profile and in shadow, dressed in black with a white pinafore. We can’t know what is inside her anymore than we can know what might be inside the vase. She is facing toward her next sister (age 12) who is looking out, but whose expression reveals no emotion. Also dressed in black with a white pinafore, the second daughter reinforces the reticent position of her sister. The third girl (age 8) stands boldly in the light, copper curls and facial expression giving off energy, although her hands are hidden behind her back. The youngest girl (age 4) sits on a large simply-patterned rug, gazing directly at us, holding a baby doll. The doll is a masterpiece of impressionism, a few swirls of pink and white evoking a face and a dress. This is a bold and informal portrait, children caught in a moment in their home, not sitting primly for the artist, and not gathered into an orderly cluster, but scattered and individual in the space.

The historical record says that the two older girls were isolated and mentally ill as adults. None of the girls ever married, and the painting was donated by the four sisters to the Boston Museum in 1919, I suppose because there were no children or grandchildren who might inherit it and love it.

The weird thing is that I didn’t know any of these sad facts before seeing the painting in person. I knew I loved Sargent’s paintings, starting with the little beauty tucked away in the basement of the Art Institute in Chicago (“Mrs. George Swinton”, oil on canvas, 1897 – a gorgeous woman, dressed in white [which gave JSS the chance to show off his way with light] standing next to a pink chair, the compelling Mrs. Swinton should be displayed right inside the front door of the Art Institute but she is in the basement with the rest of the American Art collection). When I go to a new city, top priority for me is the art museum. Because of this penchant, I have seen the outstanding collection in Cleveland (van Gogh’s “Poplars at St. Remy”, two luscious Bouguereaus), Vermeer’s little lacemaker in the Louvre, Whistler’s Mother sitting in her splendid dove-grey room hanging at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, everything at the Metropolitan Museum in New York over and over and over again. It all started back in 1965 when my friend Jimmy Sullivan and I skipped classes at Dominican High School and took the train to Chicago. Our outrageous behavior there consisted of looking at paintings all day and adopting fake English accents (he – Geoffrey, me – Millicent). Seeing “American Gothic” and Seurat’s dotty picnic and Picasso’s blue man with guitar gave me a taste for painting that has grown more intense with every passing year.

I also know now that there is a lot of scholarship that says this painting of the Boit sisters hits many people viscerally, but why? Why does it make us weep?

Was there some indefinable aspect to the two older girls that was perceptible to Sargent when he painted them? Did he know there was something walled off, guarded, inapproachable? Is that why they are in shadow in the painting? Is the tall vase a stand-in for the husband against whom the oldest girl would never lean? Is the little pink doll of the youngest sister representative of all the children these four girls would never have? And how could Sargent possibly have seen all this before the fact?

Sargent’s childhood friend, Violet Paget, writing under the pen name Vernon Lee, said of JSS, “That quite unverbal, intuitive imagination of his had fastened on the facial forms, the pose and gesture, …which revealed the man or woman’s character and life. To this kind of imagination I would apply Ruskin’s adjective penetrative, for Sargent’s art does penetrate to the innermost suggestion of everything he painted…”.

This is what it comes down to for me. Sargent looked so hard and saw so clearly that he conveyed truth. Sometimes the truth was simple and perfect (Mrs. Swinton), sometimes the truth was snaggle-toothed and wearing horn rim glasses (his painting of Violet Paget), and sometimes the truth was a tangle of sensuousness, tenderness, darkness, and pain (the Boit girls). I think it is the complexity that makes us cry, fall to our knees, never forget.
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FIELD TRIP – SAN FRANCISCO – DECEMBER 2007

Getting to the Airport –. As much as I love to leave Milwaukee and see the world, I love to come home again, and a wonderful part of this trip was my experience with taxi drivers in Milwaukee. Going, my driver was an immigrant from Odessa, and coming home, an immigrant from Burkina Faso. Both spoke lovingly of their home countries, and both said they also love Milwaukee. The Russian, a beefy, middle-aged man holding a tiny dog, has been here for some years, and has a large family group nearby. The African has few family members in Milwaukee, and spoke eloquently about the coldness of Milwaukee and the warmth of Milwaukeeans. Last summer in New York my driver was an Egyptian from Alexandria, a man with many children who told me that back in his hometown people manage to get along, all the people, of all religions. His parting words to me were, “we must think of peace, we must pray for peace”. Maybe Milwaukee can be a little Alexandria; maybe we can emulate the ancient city with the great port and renowned public library. Wave after wave of immigrants has made Milwaukee the strong city that it is. Let us continue to welcome them and appreciate their contributions

Greens Restaurant – A legendary vegetarian restaurant in historic Fort Mason, overlooking a marina, Greens provided a phenomenon of feasting for winter-weary travelers. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, we arrived for brunch to find a large room packed with diners. After a short wait, we were shown to a window table. We wanted the curried cauliflower soup with toasted coconut, chiles and Thai basil but the vat had run dry just before we arrived, so we started by sharing a chopped salad of romaine, radicchio, escarole, pink lady apples, walnuts, celery and parsley with a bleu d’ Auvergne dressing. It was masterful in a very logical way and was devoured as if by a swarm of locusts. The Yellow Finn potato griddle cakes with masa harina, scallions, cheddar and smoked cheese, served over eggs with arugula and pumpkin seed/cilantro pesto were hot, garlicky, and completely satisfying. Goat cheese, pear and arugula ravioli with rainbow chard, savoy spinach, shallots, pine nuts, Meyer lemon cream, lemon zest and a sprinkle of grana padano cheese was as celestial a ravioli as I can imagine. The balance of colors, flavors and textures was perfect. A butternut squash gratin with roasted tomatoes, cheddar cheese, marjoram, sage and fromage blanc custard was served with grilled polenta and roasted cipollini onions. Again, an inspired combo, the onions roasted with smoky chipotle peppers, the polenta crispy and creamy. There was some bickering among us about which desserts to order, but when the three desserts arrived the bickering ceased. In fact, all talking ceased as we shared a honey pine nut tart with Meyer lemon sherbet, a roasted pear tart with bourbon caramel sauce and whipped cream, and a chocolate coconut marquis with fresh coconut and caramel sauce. We drank delicious organic Saracina sauvignon blanc from Mendocino with lunch, followed by excellent coffee. The coffee was strong and mild, a difficult and noteworthy achievement.

Established by the San Francisco Zen Center in 1979, Greens features produce from the Center’s organic farm in Marin. The Executive Chef is Annie Somerville. Greens is truly a great American restaurant, showcasing the finest food, culinary expertise, good service and a gorgeous setting.

Chez Papa – Run by two brothers from Provence, Chez Papa serves French bistro food in the Potrero Hill neighborhood. We were told in no uncertain terms by our friend Yaakov (a good cook himself) that we were not to miss this place, so we settled in on a gloomy day for lunch, and came away warm and happy and full. In addition to employing the handsomest waiter in San Francisco, Chez Papa has just taken first place in our crème brulee category, but more on that later.

Our beautiful, blue-eyed waiter from Brittany recommended a Sancerre wine and it was crisp, not too sweet, and a good complement to the food. Squash soup was a lovely color and very smooth, hot and aromatic. The salade nicoise consisted of a quail egg, very rare ahi tuna, anchovy and lettuce, a few olives. Somehow, quail eggs and anchovy is a great echo of bacon and eggs, with richness, salt and simplicity. Ricotta ravioli was served with pistou, parmesan shavings, and toasted pine nuts. A hearty sandwich contained coppa sausage and salami, cambozola (Spanish blue cheese), tomato and aioli. The butter lettuce salad had a zesty mustard vinaigrette and Fourme d’Ambert crostini. Pissaladiere with caramelized onions, nicoise olives and a small anchovy and frisee salad had a sprinkle of herbs and was properly warm. The bread was notable, a baguette with very crisp exterior and moist aromatic interior. It was served with sweet fresh butter.

Apple tart with almond and cinnamon crème fraiche was a lovely sight to behold, with thin rings of apple, a drift of powdered sugar and a sprig of mint.

It was the crème brulee which stole our hearts. Of all the crème brulee in all the joints, this one is the star, super rich and impossibly yellow, which I can only guess is due to organic eggs. Matt declared, “that’s some good custard” with his usual penchant for understatement. In fact, it is some good custard.

Taqueria Pancho Villa – This authentic little place in the Mission District serves great Mexican food, cheap. Go through the line, select a burrito or taco or salad, order some sides and a drink, and sit down at a table in the midst of a busy neighborhood restaurant. I had a chile rellenos burrito with a side of black beans and rice, and to drink, watermelon juice which served as a light counterpoint to the food. Authentic and delicioso.

Dragonfly – This small restaurant on Judah Street in the Inner Sunset serves top level Vietnamese food at a very reasonable price. We started with asparagus soup, a light mix of chicken stock, crab meat, asparagus, cilantro, scallion and egg. The Dragonfly sampler consisted of golden shrimp, excellent spring rolls, sesame beef and a wonderful and unusual lotus root salad. Fresh Dungeness crab with garlic noodles was a messy and delightful treat, and the beef short ribs were aromatic and savory, and served with coconut rice. The 33 Vietnam beer was, in the words of the imbiber, “crisp, clear, golden lager with hints of lemon grass and a clean finish”. What could be better with the sophisticated cuisine of Vietnam than a perfect glass of beer?

Yank Sing Deem Sum (Dim Sum) – This packed-to-the-rafters dim sum restaurant in the Rincon Center is obviously a San Francisco favorite. To accommodate what seemed like thousands of diners, the food kept coming on little rolling carts, and it was all delicious; the absolute stand-out was a large chunk of grilled sea bass with honey/ginger/soy glaze. My companion for that meal says she is still trying to work off the dim sum a month later. She grew up in San Francisco, eating Yank Sing dim sum weekly and has many favorites that she wanted me to try so perhaps we overdid it a bit. I say it was worth it.
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Luciano

In 1978, Luciano Pavarotti came to Milwaukee to sing a concert. My family got tickets and prepared to attend this cultural event, buoyed by an enthusiastic endorsement from my cousin Steve, who was a jazz/blues/opera fan. Steve’s tastes ran from Verdi to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, with Mel Torme, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis also in the mix. He notified my mother about the concert, and she rounded up family and friends for a trip to the PAC.

The concert was a marvel of energy and joy. Although I never before or since have seen an aura around a person, I saw Luciano’s aura that night. As he sang, the audience began to respond. The power of art and love of the artist bounced back and forth between us and him, creating an almost palpable flow, a circle. At some point, as I looked at him down there on the stage, he was surrounded by shimmering silvery golden sparkles, as if a stage hand had thrown glitter onto him from above. Even as I stared in awe, I realized that I was seeing energy.

He was called back for many encores, and finally left the stage, as reluctant to go as we were to see him go. I made a beeline for the backstage area. The people in line ahead of me were polite, taking their turn to approach him seated at a long table, signing programs. When my turn came, I looked him in the eye and said, “Can I hug you?” He put his palms up, shrugged, smiled sweetly and said, “You can try!”

His entourage burst into delighted laughter. I knew he was referring to his considerable girth and the question of whether I’d get my arms around him. He stood up, I walked up to him behind the table and threw my arms around as much of him as I could, and he hugged back. I wanted to soak up some of that mojo, some of that genius and power. And he freely gave to a young woman whom he would never see again.

In the nearly 30 years since that night, I have loved his giant voice and giant heart. Two of my favorite songs are his – Nessun Dorma (“watch the stars that tremble with love and with hope”), and Miss Sarajevo, a celestial collaboration with U2. I blast them when I need inspiration, and they never fail me.

My dad always called him Lucky Luciano, but it is we who were lucky to have had him with us in the world. What a great light has gone out.
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Sanford – December 2007

The interior of Sanford on Milwaukee’s east side includes creamy walls adorned with old photos of Milwaukee and its inhabitants. A spectacular scarlet amaryllis at the front desk set the holiday tone. The restaurant remains small, the better to serve freshly prepared food at a leisurely pace.

A group of four convened to celebrate the end of an era, ten years of a unique philanthropic venture, and the warm friendships which evolved from that work.

Sanford was chosen because it is the finest restaurant in Milwaukee, probably Wisconsin, and certainly one of the finest in the country, emblematic of all that is best about our city and our state and our nation – an embrace of diversity, an enduring work ethic, love of the unexpected, respect for the past, and a sense of adventure.

We started with light and fruity prosecco, peppery breadsticks, and an amuse-bouche of shrimp paste with tiny rings of roasted leek, and bits of pickled parsnip – just one bite but loaded with inventiveness and quality. We were each served a warm and crusty roll, shiny and toothsome on the outside, moist inside. Luckily, I saved a bit of it which served me well when my soup arrived. This was provincial fish soup, dark brown broth with small chunks of fish and a few mussels poached in it. The stock was rich in a way that only hours of simmering and perfect spices can achieve. The soup was served with a toasty crouton and spicy-hot rouille, a mayonnaise cousin made with egg yolk, bread crumbs, fish stock, red pepper flakes, garlic, olive oil and saffron. The pepper flakes and saffron lend it a luscious pink color and some heat, and it tastes like a heartier, winter version of aioli. I used my bread to soak up the last of the broth, and I woke up the next morning wishing I could have another bowl of that fragrant soup.

Squash soup with tiny profiteroles was served in a hollowed-out squash shell, savory pate a choux dough cooked into dumplings in the creamy orange liquid. A salad of Boston lettuce with chopped hazelnuts, asiago cheese, prosciutto and dried sliced pears was a model of complexity. Of special note were the pears, so thin they were transparent, yet retaining all their pear magic.

Entrees were outstanding and generous. The veal breast was poached for 17 hours, seared, and served with roasted leek. The scallop and shrimp entrée showed masterful restraint, with the delicate seafood sautéed just long enough and spiced delicately to allow the taste of the sea to shine through. Asian barbecued beef loin with Thai curry on bok choy carried a dark sweet glaze and was fork tender. Lamb with moussaka and an avgolemono custard sauce proved to be a lovely choice. The lamb is cooked medium rare, so it is very tender. The deconstructionist moussaka is light, not the time-honored hearty casserole I am accustomed to, but essentially correct and very flavorful. Beside the lamb was a small pile of pale green frisee and roasted pine nuts with citrus vinaigrette - perfect color, delightful contrast to the dark red lamb.

Desserts consisted of Sanford’s famous orange crème brulee; the legendary bittersweet chocolate tarte with coffee ice cream, a glazey tuile cookie, and a piping of whipped cream; and cranberry tarte with cinnamon ice cream, a singularly delicious cold-weather treat, the perfect balance of sweet and tart.

We drank a fruity pinot noir throughout dinner, and finished with coffee. At the end, our waiter brought a small plate of cookies, three different kinds, four of each kind, all tiny and tasty.

The service was excellent, our waiter a serious and unobtrusive gent who provided succinct and precise information and steered us right every time. In keeping with the obvious mission of the place, every detail of service was of the highest quality.

Food cooked with skill and love, served perfectly, in a room full of memories and tradition – what could be better?

When I think about the things I am grateful for, being a life-long Milwaukeean is high on the list. It is a city of immigrants (mine were German, Irish, Swiss, French and Roman), a community made strong by wave after wave of people seeking a better life. They worked hard, clung to their families, loved the arts (ballet, symphony, a great art museum, theater companies past and present) and architecture (everything from St. Josaphat’s Basilica to north side bungalows, with a Frank Lloyd Wright house and church, the row houses on Ogden, rambling Victorians and brick four-squares), played hard (Beckstein’s Swimming School on the Milwaukee River at Locust Street, horse-back riding along the lakefront, ice-skating rinks and tennis courts and golf courses in the county parks), prayed hard (every ethnic group had a church or three – and that’s just the Catholics!), and always dined well. Christmas goose, Ma Baensch’s herring, home-made scuppernong grape wine, sesame cookies from Sciortino’s, cheeses to rival any in the world, sweet perch from the depths of the big lake, latkes with sour cream and fragrant applesauce, heirloom tomatoes from a local garden, and a thousand other delicious traditional foods fed our bodies. The love with which they were grown and prepared fed our spirits. How lucky we are to have Sanford, a family place given to excellence. It’s the essence of Milwaukee.

Al di la in Park Slope

June 2007

In the pantheon of fine Italian restaurants in New York, there is none finer than Al di la in Park Slope, Brooklyn (5th and Carroll). The food is reliably delicious, the house wine is very good, and the service excellent. On a recent trip to New York, we set aside time for dinner at Al di la because to go all the way there and come home again without some of our favorite treats would be folly indeed. The chef is Anna Klinger, a real American treasure.

We started with Swiss chard stems, grilled and served with bagna cauda, the lovely dipping sauce made from garlic, olive oil and anchovies. Al di la’s excellent bread dunked in this sauce is a complex and savory treat. We also had the spring salad, fresh new green beans and peas with a tender lettuce mix, lightly dressed in vinaigrette.

Another favorite is the casunziei - beet ravioli with poppy seeds and butter sauce. The sweet beets, crunchy seeds, and rich butter combine to please the palate as well as the eye with their unusual colors of deep pink, pale gold and black.

Since we were there just after the spring solstice, we had available to us fresh peas and morels, and these combined with impossibly light potato gnocchi was one of the most delicious dishes I have ever tasted. I think morels are the best of all mushrooms. You can keep your insanely expensive truffles – give me a good old morel anytime. I find them to be lighter but just as earthy as truffles, and have even had the good fortune to find a few myself while wandering around in the woods in Michigan a few years ago.

The hanger steak was (in the immortal words of Mike Myers) “like buttah”. Fork tender, very flavorful, and served with a rich dark sauce over wilted greens, the steak was a good reminder of why I could never commit myself to vegetarianism. Our other main course was fish, a thick meaty chunk, breaded and gently fried to render the exterior crispy while keeping the interior tender and moist.

Pear cake with bittersweet chocolate is another favorite. This is a one-layer, butter batter cake with large chunks of pear and chocolate. The cake is served slightly warm so that the chocolate is melty. The accompanying mound of whipped cream is frosting reduced to its essence – cream and a little sugar and vanilla.

The same whipped cream was served alongside the dessert du jour – fritters with mascarpone filling and hot apricot compote on the side. Fabulous.

The waiters are attentive and some of them have been there for years, always a good sign. Our amazingly handsome waiter recognized my daughter and remembered some of her favorite dishes. It was almost as if we could have said, “the usual”, except that we haven’t been there for more than a year.

Go to Brooklyn immediately. Eat at Al di la.
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North Star Café – October 2007

The North Star Café on Oakland Avenue in Shorewood is a small restaurant serving the neighborhood with delicious food and a friendly staff. I have been there several times in the last year, and have enjoyed each meal.

Our most recent visit was fairly late on a Saturday evening. We were able to walk in and be served. However, sometimes the restaurant is full, so a call ahead for reservations is recommended.

We ordered the house salad with balsamic vinaigrette, which was a lovely and very fresh salad of mixed greens and carrot curls served with the restaurant’s signature pickled onions, sour little gems whose deep pink color livens up the plate. The Wedge Salad is iceberg lettuce with Nueske’s bacon crumbles and blue cheese dressing. It is as tasty a return to yesteryear as one can imagine. Remember the olden days when iceberg lettuce was the norm, usually served with Thousand Island dressing? Now we’re all sophisticated and eating baby arugula and radicchio and we’ve forgotten how crisp and refreshing a wedge of iceberg lettuce can be. North Star is here to remind us.

The crab cake salad was excellent, three large and very crabby cakes set atop a mix of greens and served with a luscious remoulade, which is a seafood sauce made of mayonnaise, paprika (giving it a pink hue), parsley, chives, chervil, tarragon, chopped cornichons, and a squirt of lemon juice. It is the French version of tartar sauce and, of course, is complex and very pretty as everything French seems to be.

The squash-filled ravioli paired with seared scallops, sprinkled with chopped candied pecans and served with a cream sauce was comfort food at its finest. The small scallops were just done and therefore very tender, the raviolis large and steaming hot, the sauce a pale cream color and slightly salty, and the nuts crispy and sweet.

The steak with gorgonzola mashed potatoes was very good. Not the tenderest cut, but flavorful and served on a big bed of cheesy potatoes, it was a cardiologist’s nightmare but a carnivore’s delight.

Also on the menu are big burgers, small pizzas, soup (cream of cauliflower is on the menu right now), lamb shanks, and some very good desserts.

If you live in the neighborhood, stroll over for lunch or dinner. And if you don’t live in the neighborhood, take a leisurely drive to North Star, just north of the intersection of Oakland and Kensington.
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Back to Coquette - March 2007

We paid another visit to Coquette recently and I can happily report that the food and service are up to their usual brilliant standards. As our party of three discussed what to order, someone said, “order anything - I’ve never had anything bad here”, and that maxim held.

For a starter, we ordered the charcuterie plate, various smooth and rough chopped meats served with dense bread, mustard and perfectly crunchy sweet/sour gherkins. The smooth chicken liver pate was the favorite, but a close second was the pork terrine, especially when accented with the accompanying sharp mustard. We did everything but lick the plate.

Two of us ordered the Boston lettuce salad with radishes, chopped hazelnuts and an herbed buttermilk dressing. We both love salad and eat a lot of salad and make salads, and we agree that this is the best salad of all time - in terms of texture, color, flavor and snap, it can’t be beat. The third person ordered onion soup and was delighted with its richness and complexity.

Our main courses were halibut, hanger steak, and coq au vin. The halibut was aromatic in that properly fresh, watery way, and very light. It was served with olives, supremes of red grapefruit, toasted walnuts, and greens in a smoky grapefruit vinaigrette. The hanger steak with frites and a garlicky aioli had all the flavor one could want, and was very tender. It swam in a small pool of juices reduced with wine. The frites are always perfect at Coquette - skinny, crisp, salty, boiling hot - the standard to which all fries should aspire. And once you’ve dunked your fries in a nice aioli, you’ll never go back. Coq au vin, that most classic bistro dish, is cooked for days - chicken, red wine, spices - and Coquette serves the resulting stew over mashed potatoes, the better to sop up every drop of the juices. Not your grandmother’s chicken stew, unless your grandmother is a genius cook with a finely tuned palate and access to the best ingredients.

Our wine was a 2004 cotes du rhone Grenache/syrah blend, a trifle acidic at the end, but a good rich fruitiness with the food.

Did we eat dessert after all that? Dear Reader, you guessed it - YES! We shared a plate of profiteroles and drank café au lait and a scotch. We talked about how the dinner had been a Henry the 8th, Shakespearean feast. In addition to the food fit for royalty, the restaurant’s ambience encourages laughter, conversation, and the clinking of wine glasses. The waiters are magnificent, extremely knowledgeable about the food, helpful but not intrusive, and very respectful about timing. We were not rushed, we were made to feel like honored guests, and so we left a big fat tip. Excellent work should be rewarded.
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CHEZ PANISSE - Berkeley, California - founded 1971

I took a little field trip, folks, and here is a report on what is arguably America’s best restaurant. Founded by the great American cook, Alice Waters, Chez Panisse is a testament to her dedication to fresh, local food produced by growers who don’t use toxic chemicals on their crops. Her small Berkeley restaurant serves a fixed-price dinner in the first floor dining room, and lunch and dinner a la carte in the airy, Mission-style upstairs café. There were six of us, all good at sharing, and so I am able to describe the many dishes that were served to us in the spectacular surroundings of the café at the end of December, 2006.

From the salad menu, we chose chicory with beets and Meyer lemon, potato and Monterey Bay sardines with crème fraiche and pickled onions, scallops roasted with pancetta, baked Sonoma goat cheese with garden lettuce, and a green garlic broth with grilled bread. The beet salad contained dark red and pale gold beets with the sharp lettuce and sweetly tangy lemon bits dressed in vinaigrette. It was masterfully composed with regard to flavor and visual appeal. The potato and sardine salad was perhaps the best single item of the lunch. Fresh sardines, grilled and laid atop chunks of golden potatoes, tiny rings of sour onion, a small pile of frisee, the tiniest possible leaves of parsley, blobs of crème fraiche and capers combined to make an intricate treat that was unusual and logical at the same time - maybe no one ever ate this before and maybe they’ve been eating it in Sweden for 12,000 years. The scallops were so good that my nephew Juan volunteered to go back to Chez Panisse if they ever hold a scallop-eating contest. The sweet little mouthfuls were accented perfectly by the salty pancetta. The goat cheese salad blended creamy with crunchy in yet another point/counterpoint taste sensation. And the garlic broth was almost unbelievable in its simple heartiness. How can a broth made from one vegetable be so complex? How can it be a cure for the winter blahs and possibly even more serious maladies when it is just some garlic cloves and water?

Next, we had pan-fried petrale sole with spinach, potatoes and beurre blanc. The fish was golden at the edges and cooked just long enough. Sole requires a very delicate touch as it is one of the most fragile fish in the sea, and this sole was perfect. The grilled grass-fed beef sirloin with shoestring potatoes, braised fennel and horseradish salsa verde exceeded our by now very high expectations. Sirloin can be too chewy for my taste, but this piece of meat was tender, flavorful, life-giving. Accompanied by thin and crisp strings of potato and the horseradish/parsley salsa, the small steak was totally satisfying.

Our desserts were not-too-sweet sweets. We started with a dish of lime sherbet with candied Meyer lemon peel, and a bowl of clementines and dates for the table, followed by a round of more Midwestern-style desserts: apple pie and chocolate cake. But, oh, what forms those last two took. The apple dessert was Sierra Beauty apple and quince tart with vanilla ice cream, the tart warm and glistening, its luscious fruit nestled into a thin crust with rolled (not crimped) edges; and the chocolate dessert was a pave (a baked dark chocolate “paving stone” almost like a brownie if you’re used to eating brownies made by angels), with whipped cream that had powdered espresso folded into it to complement the chocolate. The most memorable dessert turns out to be the lime sherbet. I’d pay $10 for a pint of it right now. It was so limey as to make all other lime dishes pale in comparison.

Our drinks included sparkling wine, white wine, red wine, beer, coffee and lattes, all delicious and served with flair. We drank a 2000 Vouvray Sec, Petillant, Gaston Huet, France; a 2005 Nosis, Buil & Gine, Rueda, Spain; a 2005 Bandol Rose, Domaine Tempier, France; and a 2004 Bandol Rouge, Domaine Tempier, France. Turns out our server has a brother in Port Washington and a sister in Janesville, but even before we established the Wisconsin connection, the service was friendly, helpful, and perfectly paced. She made excellent suggestions with regard to the wines - one of our party said the Bandol Rouge was the best glass of wine she’d ever had.

So here are some words of wisdom: if you’re planning to be anywhere near Berkeley, call Chez Panisse at 510.548.5049 and make a reservation. Apparently the place is packed to the rafters at all times, and with good reason. The food could not be more fresh and it is cooked with great reverence. If the goal of eating is to nourish ourselves, we would do well to think about the origins and the handling of what we eat. At Chez Panisse, Alice Waters has been thinking about these things for 35 years.

For almost that many years, I’ve been ranting about strawberries. Like the sole we ate at Chez Panisse, they are very fragile. They must be picked when ripe and eaten immediately, which means that in Wisconsin there are about two weeks around the end of June/beginning of July when we can go to a farm or farmers’ market and buy some good local berries. We can take them home and make strawberry shortcake, or eat them right out of the colander. We can have them for breakfast with sugar and cream or for a midnight snack dunked in sour cream and brown sugar. We can make a spinach and strawberry salad with poppy seed dressing. What we shouldn’t do is eat those golf-ball size things from the grocery store that reek of chemicals and have been out of the field for weeks.

Alice Waters was once flying home to Berkeley with a flat of strawberries on her lap in the cabin of the plane. There was no other way to transport the little gems to their destination safely. As the flight went on, people, enticed by the smell of real ripe strawberries, began to approach her and ask if they could have one, just one. As she doled out the precious cargo, she realized again that this is what people want to eat - fresh and aromatic food. We are enchanted and transported by the smell of fresh strawberries. Suddenly we are back in grandma’s kitchen, or at a 4th of July picnic at a lake, or a June wedding in the country with strawberries in the champagne and strawberry shortcake for dessert. When we eat local seasonal produce, it becomes an anticipated annual treat rather than a colorless daily staple, and nourishes our brains as well as our bodies.

This June, when I feast on small, impossibly juicy strawberries from the farmers’ market, I will make a toast to Alice Waters.
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Sanford

Although the room is undistinguished, the ambience becomes unimportant after the first bite of anything at Sanford. I’m never sure exactly what “haute cuisine” means but I know it when I see it. The food at Sanford is so good that even the great Julia Child was a fan. Imagine the biggest, sweetest scallops scooped from the sea, wrapped in leeks and broiled. Use your fork to cut a big bite of tender lamb baked with garlic, so juicy that the trip from plate to mouth endangers your good shirt. Think of the most celestial creme brulee and then picture it with tiny bits of orange suspended in the custard. Sanford D’Amato has conceived and prepared all these dishes and more. Milwaukee born and raised, he is a credit to the artistic heritage of our great city. He got his start making onion rings at the old, now defunct, Kalt’s on Oakland Avenue, a place that in its heyday was where hordes of neighborhood families regularly went for Friday night fish fries. In the late 1960s, my group of friends visited Kalt’s at least weekly for the pitchers of tap beer and the fabulous onion rings. Back in the kitchen, toiling in obscurity, was the kid who would turn into Milwaukee’s greatest cook. It is a long trip from the onions and batter and boiling grease to the upper echelons of American cuisine, and Sandy D’Amato has made that journey by working hard and remaining modest about his accomplishments.

There are chefs who will go to any lengths to create something new, even if that means sacrificing the deep down goodness of the food they charge so much for. It is also true that through experimentation and use of unexpected materials, great dishes are born. And it is a rare talent, as much as being able to act or paint or dance is, to be able to cook like Sandy D’Amato cooks. There is a combination of instinct and experience which make a great chef great and he has it, in addition to all the other prerequisites such as strong legs, the stamina to work ridiculous hours, and a love for the bounty of the earth.

You can never go wrong at Sanford. Take along a lot of money, order a nice wine, taste everything on the table.

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Coquette

In Milwaukee’s 3rd ward, just around the corner from the theater center, is Sandy D’Amato’s other restaurant, Coquette. His first restaurant, Sanford, is a destination for major celebrations, a church-like place with diners speaking in hushed tones; Coquette is more casual and less expensive. Here are my all-time Coquette favorites in no particular order.

  1. The most delicious Brussels sprouts ever. Even if you think you don’t like Brussels sprouts, try some here. They are roasted with bits of bacon and are sweet, salty, divine.

  2. The salad of Boston lettuce with a sprinkling of radishes, spiced hazelnuts, and an herb buttermilk dressing. I dream about this salad, and will consider my life complete if I can replicate that dressing.

  3. The ravioli filled with squash and topped with brown butter, chopped nuts and sage. Makes you stop hating winter.

  4. The trout, fresh and firm, sweet, cooked not one moment past done to retain its juiciness - fresh from nearby ponds and smothered in vegetables.

  5. The profiteroles (what we commoners call cream puffs). Tiny, eggy puffs, filled with coffee ice cream and drizzled with a not-too-sweet chocolate sauce. I could eat ten of them. Luckily there are only three to a serving.

Coquette has curb-side service. You can call ahead, order dinner, and have it delivered to your car. However, the atmosphere of the place is so lovely that dining inside is a pleasure.

The newest development is the Harlequin Bakery in the lobby of the building housing the restaurant. This is a great bakery, not just adequate, but great. There are brioche, the finest and most sophisticated of all the French breads, and Harlequin’s brioche is outstanding. A good strong latte and a brioche is considered by some to be the breakfast of champions. The goat cheese and frisee sandwich on fig baguette, the daily pizza special, and a lovely array of sweets fill the small display case. The sandwich is on my top ten all-time great sandwiches list. Service is excellent and prices are very reasonable given the high quality of the food.

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Lightyears Farm - Avoca, Wisconsin

Off the interstate onto county roads, off the county roads onto a gravel farm road, off that road, past a calf pen and through the hickory, cottonwood, burr oak and wild apple trees, is Lightyears Farm. Slow down here or you’ll be in danger of running down a mixed flock of chickens, Muscovy ducks, turkeys, and guinea fowl, all of them scratching and pecking at the good earth.

Lightyears is the brainchild of Michael Angelo Florescu and Serafina Kent Bathrick who met and married in New York and agreed that they wanted to live in the country, raise their own food, share it with friends, and earn enough from it to continue doing it and in so doing make sense and sensibility from their new life together. Lightyears is therefore a kitchen garden/poultry farm/bistro. The kitchen gardens are lush and fragrant; tended assiduously and with love by Serafina, they bring forth month by month a wide range of vegetables, many of them prized heirloom varieties. Michael and Serafina offer the bounty of Lightyears at the farm itself. (Lightyears is a club. You have to be invited. If you are lucky, a telephone call will do the trick.) Enjoy some of the best food in the world at six tables set in a grape arbor festooned with fairy lights for dinner. At lunch, the grape leaves filter the light in the arbor and perfume the small terrace overlooking the rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin. Michael does the cooking and his way with the home grown ingredients speaks clearly of his European upbringing and his French-Italian heritage.

Our first visit to Lightyears was crowned by a thoughtfully conceived and brilliantly prepared meal. Individual tarts of creamy goat cheese and home-grown asparagus, duck confit sliced thin and served with marinated white beans, and a hot salty almost pretzely bread were served alongside a salad of greens that were picked in the hour before lunch and dressed diaphanously with oil and vinegar. The dessert was rhubarb and strawberry compote sweetened with maple syrup and served with goat milk yogurt from the same neighbor down the road who provided the goat cheese for the tarts.

A recent visit was highlighted by a lunch of roast chicken, rice and spinach. Sounds simple, right? This is where the master touch is evident. The chicken was stuffed with smoked turkey and sun-dried tomatoes, seared on a grill, and roasted to perfection. The stuffing was removed and added to a sauce that was a reduced chicken stock with Marsala wine. The rice was seasoned with ground roasted pumpkin seeds and bits of morel. The spinach was picked in the gardens an hour before lunch. Bread was a homemade french baked that morning. Dessert was orange-infused creme caramel. Altogether it was heaven.

Summer meals are served on a terrace overlooking a vista of rolling hills and neighboring farms. Located about an hour and a half southwest of Madison, Lightyears is a spectacular destination for a drive in the country. Call 608 929–7829 for reservations and directions.

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Bartolotta’s Bistro in the Lake Park Pavilion

The chunk of land we now call Lake Park was once a farm where my grandfather shot rabbits for stew. He’d tuck a rifle into his long coat and walk east from Cramer Street to bag a little dinner. During the 19th century the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed Lake Park and Riverside Park with a broad boulevard running between them. Families spent Sunday afternoons driving the length of the boulevard between the parks, showing off ornate carriages and flashy horses. The pavilion in Lake Park was built as a meeting place and shelter.

Old-timers from the neighborhood still call the place “the pavilion” because that’s what it was until a few years ago - a county park pavilion with a grungy lunch counter and some battered tables and chairs in a cavernous main room, and an adjacent room overlooking the lake. Saturday morning excursions to the farmers’ market were followed by coffee at the pavilion. Neighborhood kids grew up running through the ravines and swinging on the swings and eating eskimo pies and ice cream sandwiches from the deep freezer in the pavilion. We displayed varying degrees of ineptitude on the tennis courts and the golf course. Neighborhood moms organized dances at the pavilion, and old folks dressed all in white played endless games of bocce on the green lawns. The annual 4th of July morning parade up Newberry Boulevard ended with music and a salute at the flagpole at the edge of the golf course. After this patriotic display the elders drank beer and the kids ate ice cream until, replete and sunburned, we headed home.

One still heads home with a warm glow and a full belly but the atmosphere and food have been elevated to a previously unimagined height. The pavilion’s reincarnation as a pleasure palace sets a mood of indulgence perfectly suited to the menu. The once dusty institutional-green room is comfortable and casual and the food is delicious. The cozy rooms (actually cozy - adequately heated to ward off the damp wind from the lake) are further warmed by creamy lampshades so that the diner feels relaxed as soon as the coats are off and stowed in the coat check room. The old lunch counter area is a dramatically beautiful work space for a noisy crew of cooks.

A 21st century dinner at the pavilion was memorable in many ways: a full moon frosting the lake, garlands of greens lit by tiny gold and white lights, friendly bartenders to serve us while we waited for our table, and, as usual, wonderful food.

From our first meal at the Bistro to the most recent, there is one dish we always order mussels. Currently being served in a cream and wine sauce imbued with saffron and curry, these luscious little morsels are fresh or they are not on the menu. French onion soup is sweet with caramelized onions, salty with melted cheese, and hearty enough to make a whole meal. Trout from a cold local pond was served with fried capers. The tiny briny capers had exploded into a crunchy complement for the tender fish, a brilliant treatment of a simple condiment. A fat tender steak, pasta with sea scallops, and a crisp salad of greens and goat cheese were perfect in their freshness and simplicity. We had Maker’s Mark whiskey and a very buttery cabernet sauvignon to wash down the food.

No meal at the pavilion is complete without a creme brulee so we ordered one of those, a chocolate marquise, and an apple crisp with green apple sorbet. The creme brulee was up to its usual standard, creamy custard flecked with vanilla, sheltered by a crisp brown sugar blanket. The marquise was rich and very chocolatey, but it was the green apple sorbet that won our hearts. A light and zingy taste sensation, it was reminiscent of those Saturday morning trips to the Farmers’ Market, and a delightful new twist on an old theme.

Excellent food in a beautiful room in a historic setting - the best of Milwaukee.

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Albanese’s on Keefe

Albanese’s is a local treasure. A family business, serving hearty southern Italian dishes, Albanese’s has built its reputation on consistent and inexpensive fare. Although the room is small and noisy, it radiates an appealing warmth. The food is simple and reliable. Some highlights from a recent dinner: lasagna, gnocchi with meatballs and red sauce, and homemade pasta with Italian sausage and mushroom sauce. The member of our party who ordered the lasagna worried before the food was served that there might not be enough sauce for her taste, but she was more than reassured when the huge portion of meaty lasagna was set before her. Swimming in a rich red spicy bath was a perfectly cooked brick of pasta layered with cheese, meat and vegetables. The homemade pasta was a more than ample portion topped with a large juicy Italian sausage and a tomato-based mushroom sauce, adequately sweet and pleasingly spicy. The gnocchi were perfect as usual, and the two large meatballs and red sauce were hot and flavorful. Bread is always fresh and plentiful and is delivered daily from Sciortino’s, the finest baker of Italian treats in our great city. The homemade wine is a delicious accompaniment to the rich food. The salads have not changed in years and, interestingly, now that the trend has swung back and iceberg lettuce is cool (no pun intended) again, Albanese’s house salad of iceberg lettuce is a fitting reminder of this family’s adherence to a traditional standard. The pizzas are thin-crusted constructions of sauce, cheese and a variety of meats and vegetables. They are among the best in the city and make a fine addition to a meal.

Go with a group. Order adventurously. Share the delights.

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Sala da Pranzo

A relatively new entry into the Italian food scene in Milwaukee, Sala da Pranzo is a small place off of Downer Avenue, just across the street from UWM’s Mitchell Hall. Especially noteworthy are the gnocchi with gorgonzola and spinach, and the pasta with mushrooms and pancetta in a cream sauce. A family operation, Sala da Pranzo serves UWM during the day for lunch and the neighbors at night for dinner. Their tiramisu is authentic and wonderful, and so is the espresso.

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East Garden

The great chef at East Garden has built his reputation on quality ingredients and innovative combinations. His off-menu specials add a note of adventure to a standard Chinese restaurant menu while the regular fare is distinguished by its excellent ingredients.

Sesame chicken is a good example of a standard dish perfectly prepared: dark chicken meat cooked to a perfect tenderness and retaining its juiciness, coated with a sweet spicy sauce and lots of sesame seeds. Another old standard is mu shu pork: strips of tender meat sauteed with shredded cabbage, green onions, and dark mushrooms and wrapped in a crepe smeared with plum sauce. One of the great cold weather meals on any continent, mu shu can be ordered with chicken or bean curd if desired.

Lately, he has been cooking spicy chicken or shrimp with walnuts. A lightly breaded meat is paired with candied walnuts and served in a delicate brown sauce. The mango shrimp is a taste sensation made even more delightful by the beauty of its presentation. The pink shrimp and orangey pink mango are as pleasing to the eye as to the palate. The spicy green beans make a delightful addition to a selection of richer dishes since their lightness and delicacy are emphasized in the preparation. Eggplant in garlic sauce is as rich and hearty as it’s possible for a vegetarian dish to be. The cold sesame noodles are bathed in a sesame, peanut buttery sauce and paired with crunchy bean sprouts. Orange flavor beef mixes heat and sweet with tender strips of beef. Chicken with spicy beans combines white meat with the salty spicy black beans that seem to have been marinating for a hundred years - their complexity and mysteriousness are the perfect complement for the chicken.

The hot tea is a perfect accompaniment to the food but beer and wines are also available.

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Beans and Barley

Beans (only those not in the know call it by its full name) has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of the fire that burned it down to the washtubs some years ago. The food was always good and it’s still good but now the dining room is a beautiful space with high ceilings, huge windows, and art that changes regularly and is shown off to good advantage on the sage green walls.

The super burrito is a whole meal (some east side kids think it’s a staple of life, having grown up and grown strong dining on burritos and smoothies from Beans). The vegetable stir-fry is a huge colorful serving of still-crisp peppers, mushrooms, scallions and carrots served over brown rice. Ask your waiter (I’m going to use this term to refer to all such individuals, male and female) to have the cook throw in a handful of cashews and you’ve got yourself a royal treat. The all-you-can-eat spaghetti served once a week has saved many a UWM student from certain starvation or death by dorm food. Soups are adventurously made and come with french bread or a muffin. The chai cappuccino is a good addition to the menu and takes the edge off on a raw Milwaukee day. Save room for dessert. The cakes are as good as homemade and a treat for the eye as well as the palate (try the poppy seed cake - as good as anything grandma ever made).

I miss two things from the old days: the avocado and sunflower seed sandwich, and the surly waiter who snarled at everyone and yet took such good care of his customers that one soon realized the snarl was just a ruse.

In addition to the restaurant, there is a deli section for carry-out food and a store section which sells food, candles, cards, good soaps and shampoos, fresh flowers and mind-bendingly good candy from Northern Chocolate.

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Northern Chocolate

If you haven’t visited this establishment at 2036 North Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive (Third St. just south of North Avenue), make a pilgrimage as soon as possible. The store is open just a few hours per week (except around holidays when hours are extended). The building itself is a beautiful old cream city brick structure. The chocolates are superb - try the dark chocolate mint bars, the dark chocolate covered macadamia nuts, and anything from the vast array of molded chocolates. The owner has amassed a collection of antique molds and his chocolate statues are beautiful and unique. The company logo is an otter and there are yummy otters available along with rabbits, bears, and fish. There are eggs at Easter time and Santas at Christmas and special Valentine’s Day creations. The owner has made a public declaration that 90% of the world’s social problems are caused by hollow chocolate bunnies and has pledged that he will never produce such an abomination.

I am a third generation chocoholic, doomed by genetics to consume mass quantities of the stuff. I’ve eaten chocolate from all over the world, expensive chocolate, imported fancy chocolate from Switzerland, France, Ghana, the UK, San Francisco, and Seattle, and I can say with certainty that Northern Chocolate ranks with the finest on this planet. Prices are very reasonable so plan to buy lots of candy and share it with those you love. Call 372–1885 for store hours.

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Eagan’s on Water

The greatest nonkosher sandwich in the history of sandwiches may be obtained at Eagan’s. It is the lobster BLT and it is expensive and worth every dime. Good bacon, green leaf lettuce, adequate tomatoes (imagine how great this could be in August when the local tomatoes are ripe), a lemony caper mayonnaise, and a king’s ransom of lobster meat spill out from between two slices of good white toast. Hunks of lobster fall onto the plate and must be eaten as finger food (how decadent, how fabulous). What remains on the sandwich mingles with the other flavors to produce a taste sensation. I’ve heard the other food at Eagan’s is good too but I can’t stop ordering that lobster BLT.

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River Lane Inn

Housed in a historic building in the old village of Brown Deer, the River Lane Inn is famous for its fish, and deservedly so. The weekly lobster fest has a wonderful twist - for an extra few bucks, they’ll make you a second lobster. Be sure to notify your waiter if you will be wanting an extra crustacean. Esoteric dishes such as cod cheeks, sand dabs, and escargot are often available and are well worth trying. Escargot can be celestial or no better than garlicky rubber bands - at the River Lane, they’re very good. Steaks are unfailingly tender and flavorful, and the lamb is outstanding, served in a large portion, pink on the inside, sauced to perfection. The dining rooms are dark and low-ceilinged, adding a note of intimacy to any occasion.

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Restaurant Hama

Located on east Brown Deer Road, this great northside spot has a blend of authentic Japanese food and creatively done alternatives. The sushi is fresh and beautifully presented and it seems to be the emphasis on freshness that inspires the rest of the menu. Food that will be served directly to the diner without benefit of cooking has to be superior quality and impeccably fresh. Cook this stuff creatively and you’ve got a feast. The coconut scallops with spicy peanut sauce are one of the great taste treats at Hama. The coconut browns during cooking, leaving the scallops tender and juicy. Served with a bed of rice, broccoli, and sometimes flower petals, this dish is very beautiful. Shavings of raw tuna served with a creamy mustard sauce was something I’d never tried before but am more than willing to try again.

Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro Revisited

Five friends gathered for a birthday celebration at what is certainly one of the prettiest restaurants in Milwaukee. The winding road to the historic building, past the lawns and golf course, sets the mood immediately. Jens Jensen, the great landscape architect who built The Clearing in Ellison Bay as an artists’ retreat, had a theory that two turns on any road off the main road caused the traveler to forget everything behind him and focus on what surprise might lie ahead. The road into The Clearing doesn’t cover much distance as the crow flies, but its twists create a sense of leaving it all behind. Newberry Boulevard east of Lake Drive takes a winding path to the Pavilion. The entrance to the building is an anteroom lined with photos of great chefs and memorable meals. The bar just beyond shares the large room with a dining area, and the final room overlooks the water, especially lovely on a moonlit night.

We started with champagne Veuve Clicquot with the appetizers, and went on to a complex and tasty red Talon Rouge Chateau de Jau from Cotes du Roussillon Villages (selected for us by Didier, Bartolotta’s very knowledgeable and very French sommelier) with the main courses. For appetizers, we shared the escargots, scallops and a cheese plate. The escargots were warm and tender under their pastry blanket and we used the Bistro’s excellent French bread to sop up the garlic butter in the snail dish. The sweet scallops were seared and served with bits of zingy artichoke and ripe tomato in a luscious butter and wine sauce. While cheeses are traditionally served at the end of the meal, we are Wisconsinites and wanted a little cheese before the meal - and what cheeses they were. Served on a platter with thinly sliced apples, a mound of raspberry jelly, and slices of raisin bread, were four varieties including Coulommiers, a brie; Petit Basque, a hard sheep’s milk cheese with a fruity olive oil flavor; Parail de Brebis, a soft, rich almost sweet cheese; and Delice de Bourgogne, a triple cream, aromatic dream. We called for more French bread and finished off every bit of the cheeses in short order.

We shared two salads: the Oeuf Mollet avec Asperges et Truffes, frisee lettuce with a warm vinaigrette, sauteed asparagus, a whole soft cooked egg in a bread crumb blanket, and brioche toast points with a black truffle spread; and the Salade au Roquefort, a bed of radicchio, endive and frisee with walnuts, green apple slices and Roquefort cheese in a nutty vinaigrette. While both were delicious, the first earned points for individuality - in the Olympics of salad-making, its inventor scores a 10.

The entrees were delightful. Filet Mignon au Poivre, cooked medium rare, was served with pureed potatoes and a cognac cream sauce. It is a classic and done here with no pretense and no tricks - just real food at its finest. Veal tenderloin in a red wine reduction with Swiss chard and a potato-cauliflower puree was a treat for the eyes and the taste buds. The meat was tender as can be and very flavorful, the chard cooked not one minute beyond done, the potato mix satisfying and surprising at the same time; but it was the reduction that was the best part - pan drippings and red wine cooked down to the color and shine of dark red lacquer…if I had to pick one taste that was the best of the night, that shimmering sauce would be it. Hanger steak and frites were devoured by the teenager in our midst (but only after he’d shared the appetizers and salads and had a big bowl of French onion soup)…a growing boy needs his nourishment. Pan-seared duck breast was served with duck confit, and roasted potatoes with rosemary and red wine sauce, a sprig of fresh rosemary standing up amid the potatoes like a sentinel of goodness. Goat-cheese filled ravioli were topped with a very fresh and light tomato sauce and a parmesan cheese tuille, creating a nice medley of color and texture in a very simple dish.

By this time in the dinner, dessert seemed like gilding the lily, but it was a party, after all, requiring that lilies be gilded. So we ordered four desserts to share among us. The staff of the Bistro, seeing how much fun we were having, decided that four just wouldn’t do it, and brought us seven (count ‘em seven) desserts. While we laughed and protested and said it just wasn’t possible, we ate every single bite of the glorious sweets and they were: a warm chocolate cake with a molten middle, with very minty ice cream served in a tiny, dark chocolate dish; the Bistro’s crème brulee which is as good as ever (see above); chocolate mousse served with a side of coconut ice cream in a tiny flared cookie bowl; a walnut cake with warm poached peaches and crème anglaise (holy mackerel and zowie - what a great concept, what perfect execution!); a lemon tart with meringue and a mound of berries in a zesty berry puree; a Door County apple and cherry tart; and crepes Suzette, that most classic of desserts, and deservedly so. The refreshing orange sauce on the eggy crepes is another example of the simple genius of bistro cooking. Fifty years ago, my parents were slurping up crepes Suzette at Frenchy’s on North Avenue, and here I am today, five blocks east and five blocks north of the site of the old Frenchy’s, realizing just how smart the old folks were.

I remember my mother coming home from dinner late one night fifty years ago, black-haired and beautiful in a sea-green dress. All the other kids were asleep and the house was quiet. She opened a tin-foil packet from the restaurant, held a small bite of something out to me in her palm, and said, “here, taste this”. I did. It was a scallop, sweet, smooth, and somehow tasting of water. I was just a kid and couldn’t have known the effect that moment would have. Now I see that it instilled a love of luxury, of the luxuries that any woman can have, such as dinner with friends, good wine, a happy birthday.

Last edited by Tyler Schuster. Based on work by Godsil, Laura Murphy, Olde, laura murphy, TeganDowling and g.  Page last modified on April 10, 2008

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