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For a restaurant without a view of the water, Blue Jacket in Walker's Point provides a sense of place on this Great Lake better than any other.
(Not that Lake Michigan is far away. Go four or five blocks to the Riverfront Launching Site for a fantastic view of the Hoan Bridge and open water.)
That feeling is partly due to the food — they have smelt, people, smelt! — and partly due to the atmosphere, driven by owners Tom and Laura van Heijningen, whose motto for the restaurant is "Live the Third Coast."
Inside, Blue Jacket is clad in colors you'd see at the lakefront in sand, weathered wood and, in a patch of blue ceiling over the bar, water and sky. The tap handles are lengths of driftwood; the artwork is oversize photos of the lakefront. It's an impressive renovation of the former Triangle Bar, a modern tribute to life on the water.
The food is modern, too, while including plates that speak of Milwaukee's heritage. There's the spectacularly crunchy smelt ($9), fried in a coating of kettle chips and served with piercing fried orange zest and harissa aioli for wee spice.
And there's sauerkraut, in fabulous little cakes ($8) that look like the close cousin of potato pancakes. They're given loft and savor with ricotta and pecorino, served with chive sour cream, applesauce (ever harder to find made from scratch, as it is here) and, for a couple extra bucks, schnibbles of smoked kielbasa.
The menu, designed by chef Karen Bell before she opened her Bavette butcher shop, is an approachable mix diners are seeing a lot lately: some snacks, boards of meat, fish or cheese (called planks here), and small and large plates.
It's all executed most deliciously by chef Chad Meier, but his daily specials deserve special consideration. The ones I happened across were outstanding, including one that's on my tally of best dishes of the year: abalone mushroom with carrot ($6).
On the plate were tender but firm young yellow carrots, one coated in the ash of ramp greens that Meier made in spring after pickling ramp bulbs; thin shavings of carrot, raw and sweet; and a deeply flavorful carrot puree. Roasting the mushrooms left them tasting like chicken's best, most savory self. Mushrooms, the other, other white meat? (A version of this dish is expected to reappear for the fall menu in a couple of weeks.)
Another night, the special matched a fillet of crisp, grilled sardine ($8) — the fresh variety — with yellow-fleshed watermelon, red mizuna and the element that tied it all together, a sauce of citrusy ponzu and rendered foie gras fat, rich and clear at once. It's the sort of thing that makes a person punctuate bites with "Wow."
Let's talk about the constants, though. The snacks, natural pals for the excellent drinks, range from nibbles like cheddar and black truffle popcorn to more substantial bites, like caramelized onions baked under melting Gruyere ($7) to spread on toasts, or poutine ($12), the fries and cheese curds topped with thin sticks of roasted carrots and parsnips and pour-your-own mushroom gravy, with pickled chile on the side. Add a poached egg ($2), and it's a meal.
The planks of meat ($14), cheese ($13) and fish ($14) — with a mixed board for $18 — were a wonderland to navigate. Put aside for the moment that the cheese plank held some of the state's very best, like Dunbarton Blue, Cocoa Cardona, Creama Kasa and GranQueso. The accompaniments showed thought and care, from candied pecans and peach compote to pickles of all sorts, each made in a distinct pickling liquid — blueberries, carrot, ramps, turnips and green beans, for starters, along with a generous stack of bread and lavosh.
And the fish plank looked like an edible history of Milwaukee, with whitefish rillettes, smoked trout and creamy pickled herring.
As delightful as it would be to order just smelt and sauerkraut pancakes again and again, other small plates rewarded handsomely, too. Among them was roasted French horn mushrooms ($9) with torpedo onions and fennel puree sprinkled with charred-onion-like nigella seeds, one of the most delicious things I've eaten all year.
My table shared the small plates, and we shared the large, too, like the fresh, mild Lake Superior whitefish ($16), with caramelized onions and little chanterelles mushrooms in an elegant butternut broth so savory the server knew to provide spoons without our asking.
Grilled, sliced sirloin ($20), the plate with probably the most traditional flavors on the menu, looked as modern and tasted as delicious as any other: robust beef with blue cheese, caramelized onions, roasted fingerling potatoes and artichoke.
Meatballs of duck and mushrooms ($16) on a bed of soft polenta were topped with a poached duck egg; the sauce of reduced honey and balsamic worked in tandem with the dish. The asparagus, though, was an off choice for midsummer (it's due to change on the fall menu).
More seasonal, Blue Jacket's summer panzanella ($12) was an exemplary version. The cubed bread tasted of toasting in butter before it was allowed to draw in the tomatoes' juices and red wine vinaigrette, all tumbled with summer squash, olives and eggplant.
Desserts ($6) are few and fairly simple but avoid the trap of the commonplace. Blue Jacket presents Purple Door's salted caramel ice cream with pistachio brittle and chocolate sauce with cherry bark bitters; a trio of tiny puffs with grapefruit curd and pastry cream flavored with bitters with floral notes; and dollops of spicy chocolate ganache with spiced rum sabayon and crunchy "dirt" made from crumbled chocolate-almond cookies.
The bitters incorporated into some sweet and savory dishes are by Bittercube, the Milwaukee company. Its founders, Ira Koplowitz and Nick Kosevich, are consulting partners with the van Heijningens in Blue Jacket.
Bittercube's presence is apparent in the drinks menu as well, in smart, harmonious cocktails such as Of the Older Bumbo ($10) — 12-year Flor de Caña rum, Blue Jacket's Mahalo bitters and nutmeg and sorghum syrup, delivered in an icy apothecary jar for pouring.
Beyond cocktails, the wine list is well-chosen, as is the list of beers from the Great Lakes region.
Blue Jacket is intimate — just four booths, a few high-top tables and five standard tables for two, plus the bar — and even with the overhead door flung open on a warm evening, the packed dining room was buzzing in the extreme. We found refuge one night on the sweet patio behind the restaurant, but the booths provide a harbor, too.
Oversize windows flood the dining room with light during the day; at night the lighting is dim (great for falling in love but challenging when it comes to reading the menu and downright unjust in terms of admiring the food).
Blue Jacket is one of those places that just feels good. Combine that with delicious, thoughtful food, and the result is a remarkable addition for Milwaukee.
The website has several menus listed http://bluejacketbar.com/menu/plates/
Due the size of this establishment and the potential financial impact any cancellations with less than 24 hours notice are subject to removal without the standard 2 strike option.
How To Avoid Being a "No Show"
1) If you RSVP Yes, show up.
3) If you can't make it at least a day before the event, remove your "Yes" RSVP from the site. This frees up a space for someone else.
4) If you can't make it on the day of an event, call the organizer or my cell phone 414-465-8202(if it's my event.) I recommend programming it into your cell phone so it's handy in case of emergency (like you get a flat tire on the way to the event.)
If you don't have the organizer information, try calling the venue, and having them pass on the information. If the venue doesn't pass on the message, you still get a strike.
You must TRY TO NOTIFY THE ORGANIZER AT LEAST 4 HOURS prior to the event (unless there is a compelling reason such as you had a car accident on the way to the dinner.)
Even on a last minute or day of event dropout, I still have options to make adjustments like calling people on a waiting list, or negotiating with the venue (especially on larger dinners). I can only do this if you notify me.