Friday, August 11, 2006

a foodie in Milwaukee

I recently spent a couple of weeks in Wisconsin, first at a French teachers' convention in Milwaukee and then visiting my parents in Green Bay (where I also used my second cousins as guinea pigs to try out some techniques I learned at the conference). During that short time, I had a number of memorable meals--in fact, perhaps the best restaurant meal I've ever experienced in Wisconsin!

Milwaukee brought with it everything from a gloppy and disappointing "Wisconsin cheddar soup" via hotel room service to smoked salmon pinwheels tied with chive strands at a reception at the glorious art museum to celebrate the 19th century French prints exhibit and us, the French teachers from around the country. (I've never been feted at a museum before! Milwaukee treats teachers like they're treasures.)

Milwaukee turned to be more internationally flavored than I would have expected. Predicatably, many restaurants and stores reflected the state's German heritage, like Usinger's Sausages, whose dense and spicy aroma spilled out into the street and even drew me, a near-vegetarian, into the store, where sausage counters lined three of the four walls and people took numbers and milled about with blissful expressions. The air was pork. Usingers offers only pork: you can find all sorts of authentic German sausages, plus "luncheon meats" like Schinkenwurst and Leona Bologna, but don't look for a turkey bratwurst or, heaven forbid, a veggie dog.

That day, I opted for a less intense but still German "luncheon" experience down the street at Mader's, which I now see from the website touts itself as "Wisconsin's most famous restaurant." Well, most of the menu--and the decor--was German (dark and heavy and sausagey), but I followed the lead of my fellow diners: as it was Friday, the locals knew to order the fish fry. For a ridiculously small price (maybe eight dollars or so), my plate boasted two fried cod fillets, two broiled, coleslaw, french fries, and half a slice of rye bread with butter. (Why rye? That seems to be the case at every Wisconsin fish-serving restaurant I've visited.) While the meal was reasonably tasty and not too greasy, I just wish the fish had been local, like a walleye. (By the way, Friday fish frys are so ubiquitous in Wisconsin that even the downtown Indian buffet in Milwaukee restaurant advertises its Friday fish fry!)

But Milwaukee offers more than just fish and hearty, meaty fare. I also traveled to West Africa, Morocco, and France--indeed, all over the Mediterranean--in a matter of days! I loved African Hut with its mushy, spicy, peanutty, unidentifiable vegetably stews. My vegetarian platter's two stews and rice steamed and sent off aromas of cinnamon and spinach and who knows what herbs and spices. "Banfi" consists of "peanuts cooked down and stratified at alternating temperatures with a blend of choice vegetables and herbs," while the stewed spinach description also hinted at exotic flavorings without actually naming them. (Yes, I took notes from the menu; I'm a nerd. Or a foodie. Or both.) What really knocked my socks off, though, was "Geelrys," a South African rice dish that translates as "yellow rice." Oh, what a prosaic name for this sweet, salty, buttery, turmeric-yellow, cinnamon-infused grain dotted with raisins. It was soft and addictive and I'll never think of rice the same way again! Here's a recipe for it that I found online.

Speaking of spices, I could smell The Spice House before walking past it. Like Penzey's or Denver's Savory Spice Shop, it sells all kinds of herbs, spices, blends, vanillas, and so on in bulk. While Mr. Tart and I are pretty well supplied, I did find caramelized ginger "chips" for sprinkling directly into batters or granola, chamayo chili powder, a dill-flavored chip dip seasoning to mix with sour cream, and their version of Old Bay seasoning. (Ironically, Mr. Tart and I had recently had a long discussion about Old Bay with fellow Tart Lis, and then I read an article about it in a cooking magazine, so I was planning to pick up some at the grocery store, but of course the Old Bay tins are huge, so I was happy to find a little baggie which will easily fit in our the spice cupboard.)

Another very good and unpretentious meal cooked by someone who actually grew up in the area where the dishes originated was at the Au Bon Appetit, a French restaurant with a Middle Eastern flavor courtesy the Lebanese owners. Or maybe you could call it a Middle Eastern restaurant with a French flair. Whatever. All I know is that the menu ranged from a garlic-studded poulet basquais and ratatouille to falafel and shwarma, and that everything we ordered was flavorful and interesting. "We" here refers to me and my cousins Mike and Dan, who have lived in Milwaukee for years but had never tried this restaurant despite all the rave reviews they'd encountered. When they heard that their little cousin (the one they and their brothers used to torment with empty french fry bags and watermelon seeds), now all grown up, would be visiting their city, they took me out to dinner here. (Merci beaucoup!) We split a bottle of red wine--they let me pick, since they're mostly beer drinkers and I'm the French teacher--and an appetizer of olives and a not-too-salty feta, and then they had chicken dishes with pita bread on the side and I tried the couscous and vegetables. We all cleared our plates (even Dan, who didn't think he liked olives or feta).

My very favorite restaurant meal in Milwaukee--indeed, in all of Wisconsin--came on my last day there at yet another ethnic restaurant. I had just given the talk I went there to give, and I was exhausted and proud of myself and wanted to treat myself to a good meal. But I didn't want to drive in an unfamiliar city, so I picked a place within walking distance. Yaffa, which considers itself an Israeli-Spanish-Moroccan restaurant, was perfect. I sat on the patio overlooking the river and perused the short menu, of which half a page was devoted to describing teas served by the pot. (Tea-crazy me took that as a good sign.) I sat and read and people-watched while waiting for the food to arrive, feeling myself finally calming down. My Moroccan spice-rubbed salmon, perfectly done and little crispy on the seared edged, lay on a bed of what the menu had called as a chickpea puree. Surprisingly, this didn't mean hummus. The puree was chunky like upscale mashed potatoes, but light, redolent of olive oil and saffron, and not just a hint of saffron: the flavor was intense. Sorry to be graphic here, but even my little belches the next day tasted pleasantly of saffron. To prolong the experience, I then ordered dessert and met a rich and lovely melting chocolate cake with raspberry sauce and a dollop of something so unctuous and sweet and creamy that it reminded me of fromage blanc, which I've only ever found in France. Oh, I was so happy--I was melting along with the cake.

To conclude this perfect meal, and to remind myself that I was still in Milwaukee and not somewhere along the Mediterranean, I stopped at the Wisconsin Cheese Mart on the way out of town, where I spent a good fifty dollars on cheese--and this was after putting half of my basket back on the shelf! I found cheeses that I never knew existed, like an aged cheddar with veins of rocquefort bleu running through it, and a benedictine cheese made with a mix of cow, goat, and sheep's milk. Others tasted better than I would have expected, such as the Wisconsin gruyere, and some I haven't even opened yet! (I'm saving the goat cheddar for when I really need it.) Mr. Tart and I took the cheese to a picnic with my in-laws to celebrate our first anniversary, and everyone raved about it. I also brought the shop's catalog home, and it's already covered in highlighter and drool. Yay Wisconsin! Vive le fromage!


Blogger tara said...

Try saying "Milwaukee treats teachers like they're treasures" ten times fast. ;)

Wow, I didn't have time for nearly this much foodie fun in my brief recent stop in Milwaukee en route to D.C. We did have time for one brewery tour (on which our tour guide appeared to be already drunk). That night, we just fired up the grill and cooked at home. Our hosts make a mean burger, though, so I'll have to remember what they put in them. yum.

One of these days, my life will be normal again and I'll return to posting on a regular basis. But that'll require getting an apartment and Internet service first. We're working on that ...

6:53 AM  
Anonymous Mark said...

Tara neglected to mention the Bernie Brewer slide that we went down in Milwaukee. She'll have to post the pictures some time.

6:52 PM  
Blogger Lisa B. said...

I have had splendid meals in Milwaukee, and in general just love that town. The art museum on the shores of Lake Michigan is not to be missed. I had some wonderful Thai food there, too.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Speaking of spices, I just found out that Penzey's is opening a shop near me in Arvada (a suburb of Denver).

8:26 AM  
Blogger Ned Dorff said...

I just moved to the Milwaukee area from Green Bay for a great teaching job. I'm not quite sure how I happened onto your site, but I'm glad I did. Thanks for the advice on veggie-friendly foods in the area!

7:31 PM  

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