Sanford Restaurant (Milwaukee)

When one thinks of fine dining in Milwaukee there are a handful of names that come to mind. But one that sits at the top is Sanford Restaurant, a perennial favorite for over 20 years. With a recent change in ownership--former owners Sandy and Angie D'Amato sold the restaurant to their longtime Chef de Cuisine Justin Aprahamian--the restaurant is going stronger than ever. Located in a former grocery store once owned by Sandy D'Amato's grandparents, the space is small and welcoming, with little changed. The food retains its refined New American focus, but with an increasing global influence including that of Chef Aprahamian's Armenian heritage. It's this evolution that is what makes Sanford so exciting and fresh. 

We were greeted with an amuse-bouche of cotechino with pickled cauliflower and carrot with a port-balsamic reduction. The cotechino, an assertively spiced pork sausage, was big on flavor with a rich, unctuous mouthfeel that was cut by the acidity of the pickled cauliflower and carrot. The port-balsamic reduction added a note of complex sweetness, bringing the whole bite together. A promising start to the meal... 

For our first course we were served seared scallop thinly sliced with smoked grapes, a shallot jam, and a 44-year-old Sauternes reduction. To say this dish was mindblowing would be an understatement. The scallop was cooked beautifully, mild with a nice sear on the edges. The shallots were caramelized until reduced to a nice tangle of sharp sweetness. The grapes, though, were the star of the dish. The smoking technique used on this noble fruit was genius. Pure genius. The smokiness crept into every bite of the dish, not overwhelmingly, but just enough so you knew it was there. The grapes were so pure in their flavor and yielded gently to the fork allowing me to get a taste of its smoky-sweetness with every mouthful. The Sauternes reduction, made with 44-year-old-wine was amazing--thick and rich, but not cloyingly sweet. All in all, this was a harmonious dish that may encapsulate perfection on a plate.

We were next served a beautiful dish of sturgeon with a truffle vinaigrette. As beautiful to look at as it was to eat, this dish was accented with brilliant flashes of red and green from the glazed radishes and the earthy green asparagus. The mild, delicate fish was cooked beautifully, lean but meaty and firm, and was nicely complemented with nutty sunchokes and a luxurious truffle vinaigrette.

We then moved onto the meat courses, the first of which was seared pork belly in all of it's meaty, fatty glory served atop mascarpone polenta with Belgian endive and black currant. The bitter, tangy endive helped to cut the richness of the pork, while the black currant gave the dish an unexpected brightness.

Our final savory course of the evening was also one of my favorite: trio of duck. Featuring a beautiful, rosy pink duck breast, a single duck heart and pea shoot ravioli, and a foie gras sauce, this was also one of the most luxurious dishes of the evening. The duck and foie gras sauce were wonderful, as expected, but it was the duck heart and pea shoot ravioli that stole the show, both in conversation and taste. There are few things I won't eat (raw green peppers and bananas, I am talking about you) so duck heart was no big deal. For my dining companions, though, it was a struggle. But once they tasted it, they immediately changed their minds. The toothsome ravioli covered a tender, nicely seasoned filling of duck and pea shoots, which helped add a distinct pea flavor to the dish. There was not a better way to bring the savory courses to an end.

We cleansed our palates with a coconut, lime, and ginger sorbet, which was a wonderfully light and refreshing transition between courses. The evening came to an end (much too soon as I could have eaten all the dishes all over again) with a duo of desserts, featuring a yin and yang of chocolate cake and cherry clafoutis. The desserts were elegant and seemingly light (although it can't be possible) and were a fitting ending to an amazing meal.

The Bottom Line: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles may get all the buzz in the food world, but Sanford is making the case, along with only a few other restaurants, that Milwaukee, too, is a fine dining destination. As our recent meal proved, Sanford is continuing to evolve after over 20 years in business. Some things do get better with age, and Sanford is certainly one of them.   

Urbanbelly (Chicago)

Ever since Urbanbelly arrived on the Chicago dining scene in 2008, locals and tourists alike have been flocking to this seemingly unassuming Avondale restaurant for Chef Bill Kim's fresh takes on noodles and dumplings. Prior to opening Urbanbelly, Chef Kim was already renowned from his days at Charlie Trotter's eponymous gastronomic temple and from Le Lan, the spectacular French-Asian restaurant that closed in 2008. Over the past five years he has been reshaping Chicago's dining scene not only with Urbanbelly, but also with his other spots, Belly Shack and Belly Q. 

Urbanbelly is located next to a laundromat in an unassuming blink-and-you'll-miss-it strip mall. Inside, though, the space is warm and inviting, modern but not stark, replete with four large reclaimed Indonesian wood tables, benches, and stools meant to foster a sense of community among friends and strangers alike. And food this flavorful and service this friendly certainly brings people together. 

I started with the Duck and Pho Spice Dumplings, lightly fried to a golden brown with a thin, crisp exterior that gave way to a steaming hot filling of tender minced duck with the familiar aromatic spices of a savory-sweet pho broth, all nestled in a warm sauté of Napa cabbage. The aroma was so inviting, so intoxicating, that I couldn't wait to take a bite, burning my tongue in the process. A small price to pay for the pleasure of these meaty, savory morsels. Upon recovery from my tongue burn, I moved onto the Pork and Cilantro Dumplings. These pan-fried dumplings came in a tender, slightly chewy wrapper that concealed a filling of juicy pork, peppery ginger, pungent garlic, and bright cilantro.  Warning: These dumplings pack a massive amount of flavor and are, therefore, highly addictive. 

Up next was one of the day's specials--Belly Fire Chicken--a boneless chicken breast lightly breaded and fried, bathed in a slightly sweet, fiery chili sauce. The chicken was supremely juicy and tender, set atop a bed of greens lightly dressed in a mixture of lime, soy sauce, and fish sauce, while long strands of green papaya added a pleasing crunch and coolness to the dish. 

I ended my meal with a huge bowl of Urbanbelly Ramen. This ramen bears no resemblance to the prepackaged salt-laden crap we all enjoyed (or rather, survived on) during our college days. Made with an unctuously rich pho broth redolent of cinnamon and star anise, the bowl was filled with a large tangle of toothsome curly noodles and meaty shiitake mushrooms. Slices of rich, fatty pork belly were draped lazily across the noodles and topped with paper-thin slices of peppery radish and finely chopped scallions, making for a rich, comforting ending to a wonderful meal.

The Bottom Line: Five years in, Urbanbelly is still going strong as a destination for flavorful, creative Asian food prepared with top-notch ingredients. The restaurant is certainly deserving of its Michelin Bib Gourmand award, granted for outstanding cuisine at a reasonable price. Menu offerings are limited and that's just fine; Urbanbelly makes just a handful of things but does them all exceptionally well.

Riccardo Trattoria (Chicago)

I love Italian food. Perhaps it's because of my Italian ancestry (1/4 Sicilian, thanks Mom!) or because the Italians know how to properly respect and celebrate food, my love for the widely varied cuisines of Italy knows no bounds. From the simple yet stunning cacio e pepe of Rome to the arancine of Sicily and the great marbled slabs of Bistecca alla Fiorentina in Florence, I have always been fascinated by Italian food. Finding good Italian food can be fairly easy in the United States, thanks to the proliferation of high-quality ingredients over the last decade as well as the emphasis on the slow-food movement (naturally born in Italy). But finding great Italian food can still be a challenge. 

I have eaten at some great Italian restaurants--Del Posto, Marea, and Torrisi Italian Specialties in New York City, Bartolotta di Mare in Las Vegas, Osteria Mozza and Giorgio Baldi in Los Angeles, and Tony's in St. Louis, to name a handful--but I am always on the lookout for the next great one. While there are many on my wish list, including Frasca in Boulder, Roberta's in Brooklyn, Al Forno in Providence, and Vetri in Philadelphia, I was looking for a great Italian meal on a recent trip to Chicago. And so the research began. And when the smoke cleared, the restaurant left standing was Riccardo Trattoria.

Located in a small brick building in Chicago's Lincoln Park, Riccardo Trattoria is a warm, casual restaurant with an emphasis on handcrafted, beautifully prepared authentic Italian specialties. Looking at the menu was like looking at a greatest hits compilation of Italian cooking, and culling the menu down to a reasonable amount of dishes proved to be difficult. When all was said and done, we had a lineup of five appetizers, four pastas and a risotto, and four desserts. Oh, and four bottles of wine.

We began with the simplest of appetizers--Fava Beans with Black Truffle and Pecorino Cheese. The fava beans were large and meaty with a subtle nutty flavor and a tender texture. The sheeps-milk Pecorino Toscano cheese provided a buttery, salty counterpoint to the mild favas while the black truffle shavings imparted their characteristic earthiness to the dish. A simple yet stunning starter. Another example of stunning simplicity was the Burrata and Culatello--the rich creamy mozzarella a perfect complement to the thinly-sliced white-wine cured culatello (dry-cured ham). Riccardo serves it with a drizzle of fruity extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper. This dish was a perfect demonstration of the Italian philosophy of cooking--that the finest products need no additional adornment.

We also enjoyed the Grilled Octopus "Genovese," tender, yet firm octopus charred and served over crushed potatoes with an emerald-green pesto redolent of basil and garlic. The Peppered Tuna Carpaccio was fresh and vibrant--the thinly sliced tuna coated in crushed peppercorns with a simple salad of arugula, sliced palm hearts, shaved Parmesan, and lemon. The Fried Zucchini Blossoms, lightly coated in a tempura-like batter and stuffed with mozzarella cheese and speck prosciutto, were luscious and flavorful, giving a light crunch when bitten into. All in all, the appetizers were a great introduction to what was to come during the rest of the meal.

Appetizers cleared, we were ready to get down to business; we selected four pastas and a risotto. First up was the Spaghetti Chitarra alla Carbonara, one of Italy's greatest dishes. A seemingly simple dish of spaghetti with pancetta, egg yolk, and pecorino cheese, the successful execution of this dish lies in the quality of the ingredients and the finesse with which they are combined. In this perfectly-executed version, the pancetta is rendered slowly to coax out the flavorful fat and crisp up the meat, at which point the hot al dente pasta is added and a bright yellow egg yolk is stirred in, melding with the pork fat to create a silky, unctuous sauce for the spaghetti. A shower of grated pecorino cheese adds a tangy saltiness to the dish and a sprinkling of freshly cracked black pepper brings it all together.

Up next was the Fettucine Bolognese, a hearty meat-based sauce of veal, pork, and beef with finely chopped vegetables, butter, white wine, and tomatoes, long-simmered to marry together the flavors of each component. At Riccardo Trattoria, the bolognese sauce is tossed with a tangle of fresh fettucine, creating the kind of stick-to-your ribs dish that was right at home on a blustery December night. 

We then turned to a couple of seafood pasta dishes, beginning with the Penne Scampi, a plate of toothsome penne tossed in a spicy pink sauce and studded with large chunks of lobster and langoustine, both of which provided a sweet succulent counterpoint to the creamy rich tomato sauce. The Lobster and Crab Ravioli that came next was the star of the night. Beautiful round pillows stuffed with sweet, briny lobster and crab and smothered in a luxuriously rich saffron cream sauce and tossed with more chunks of lobster. This may be one of the most indulgent dishes that I have ever had the pleasure of enjoying. In fact, we liked it so much, we promptly ordered it a second time!

We finished off our main courses with the poetically-named Risotto Seas and Mountains, a bowl of creamy rice studded with porcinimushrooms and lobster. The grains were still separate with a slight bite and and the porcini mushrooms added a nutty meatiness to the dish that is so prized by gourmands everywhere. After scraping every last morsel off our plates, we decided that we couldn't possibly end the meal without some sweet treats. And so the onslaught of desserts began.

First up was what has been dubbed by many as the best panna cotta in Chicago. That may be an understatement. The panna cotta was rich, creamy, and slightly sweet and was swimming in a bright, silky passionfruit coulis. The housemade Tiramisu was a textbook version--fluffy, slightly chocolatey, moderately bitter from the espresso, and cool and creamy from the zabaglione. The Apple Pie that was delivered was full of warm spices and soft apples, while the Ricotta Cheesecake was tangy and creamy, as a good cheesecake should be.

The Bottom Line: Riccardo Trattoria in Chicago's Lincoln Park is a true neighborhood gem that is serving up some of the best Italian food this side of the Atlantic. By using preparations that allow the best ingredients to shine and preparing virtually everything from scratch, Riccardo Trattoria is setting a new standard for Italian restaurants in the U.S. Out of fourteen dishes I tried, there was not one I did not enjoy. Be sure to make reservations as the space is small and tables can be hard to come by.

Big Jones (Chicago)

It isn't often that I am so compelled to write about a restaurant that I rush home to write about it the same day. But that was the case with my recent outing to Chicago's Big Jones. A small bistro-style restaurant that celebrates "Southern heirloom cooking" from the Carolina Lowcountry to New Orleans, Big Jones is serving up faithful recreations of classic dishes as well as innovative takes on this richly diverse cuisine. 

Co-owner and Executive Chef Paul Fehribach has been practicing his craft at Big Jones since the restaurant's opening in April 2008. He supports the slow food and farm-to-table movements, utilizing every part of whole animals to create the truly spectacular delicacies offered at Big Jones. We went for brunch on a recent Sunday morning and, when faced with the menu of wonderful-sounding dishes from which to choose, I was wracked with indecision over what to order. Would it be the Bayou Teche Omelet with Louisiana crawfish, andouille sausage, and cream cheese? Or the Gumbo Ya-Ya with chicken and sausage? Or maybe the Big Jones Benedict with cream-simmered ham over house-baked farmstead biscuits? In the end, it was none of those. Not because they didn't sound truly amazing, but because even I didn't have enough room for all of those. Read on for what I did choose, though. 

We began with the Boucherie Plate--a butcher block full of house-made charcuterie and baked goods. Atop the thick wooden board were Acadian Andouille, which the restaurant smokes over fragrant pecan wood; housemade Tasso ham, a heavily spiced, smoked, dry-cured ham; Boudin Rouge, a traditional Cajun pork sausage with pork blood; Tete de Cochon, a hog's head paté made by braising the best part of the pig--the head--formed into a rich, soft terrine; and Liver Pudding,  a favorite of the dame of Southern cooking, Edna Lewis. All of this was served with a selection of baked goods, including house-baked Sally Lunn bread, a slightly sweet yeast bread; house-made brick bread, and benne seed crackers, a traditional Charleston favorite made with toasted benne (sesame) seeds. 

To describe the Boucherie Plate as heaven would surely do it injustice (sorry, heaven; I am still hoping to get in). This was a cured meat lover's dream. The Andouille sounded all the notes a proper andouille sausage should--smoky, garlicky, and peppery--all with a coarse grain. The sweet-tart chow-chow served with it helped to brighten the deeply flavorful sausage. The Tasso ham, perhaps one of the greatest of all hams (sorry jamon, iberico, and other also-wonderful hams), was heavily-spiced and hot-smoked, and served with a creamy, sharp pimiento cheese and a tangy piccalilli that offset the richness of the ham. The crimson red with white speckled Boudin Rouge had a surprisingly delicate flavor with a wonderfully coarse, dry texture. 

Moving onto the Tete de Cochon, which was so rich, so unctuous, so, well, porky, that one could not possibly eat more than a few bites. And by a few, I mean a thick slice. What is there not to like about a hog's head that has been slowly braised until falling apart and turned into a gelatinous terrine? I smeared the bourbon and brown sugar grain mustard on the brick bread to add some sweetness and topped it with a little of the chow-chow to add some acidity. Finally, the Liver Pudding, an homage to the great Edna Lewis (recommended reading: The Taste of Country Cooking and The Gift of Southern Cooking, co-authored with Scott Peacock), was a silky paté-like treat made of pork liver, pork jowl, onion, salt, pepper, and a touch of sage. Big Jones gilds the liver pudding lily with a sweet-salty-smoky bacon jam that was a splendid topping for the minerally pudding.

Now came the difficult part...ordering an entrée. Since I couldn't make up my mind, I decided on two--the Debris Biscuits and Gravy and Eugene's Breakfast in Mobile, ca. 1930. First up was Biscuits and Gravy. The biscuits are a masterclass in biscuit making--fluffy and made the old-fashioned way with house-rendered leaf lard. The biscuits were covered with a light-blond gravy accented with peppers and hearty chunks of pork. To help cut the richness of the dish, Big Jones serves a tangle of mildly spicy silky collard greens, slowly cooked with pork and finished with tart vinegar. As if that wasn't enough, you get two perfectly poached eggs that oozed their silky yolks all over the dish, creating another layer of flavor. 

Next up was the very specifically-named Eugene's Breakfast in Mobile, ca. 1930. I've gotta tell you, I don't know who this Eugene guy is, but his breakfast is a hell of a dish. Moist, flaky catfish breaded in a crisp cornmeal and rice crust served atop a bed of buttered aromatic rice and soupy black beans, as well as thin slices of fried plantain, this is a hearty, yet refined dish that is equally at home in a deep South fish camp or a restaurant in a trendy Chicago neighborhood. What really brought it all together, though, was the slightly sweet, tart green tomato relish. A tiny dab on each forkful helped to brighten and lighten the dish.   

Since I still couldn't get enough, I decided to spear some of my wife's breakfast--Eggs New Orleans. Crab cakes made with sweet Pontchartrain blue crab were served with delicately poached eggs atop popovers with bearnaise sauce and potatoes O'Brien, crisp potatoes browned with peppers. This was a dish as rich and sinful as its namesake--definitely not for those looking for a light meal. As if that wasn't enough I felt compelled to order a side of house-cured pecan smoked bacon, cooked perfectly crisp, and oyster boudin, crisply fried on the outside and tender and giving on the inside. 

The Bottom Line: What is there possibly left to say that I haven't yet said? Simply put, Big Jones is doing an exemplary job of bringing the heritage of Southern cooking to the north. Even in the deep South, Big Jones would be right at home. This is not a Southern-style restaurant, but rather a restaurant that has the diversity and rich tradition of the South in it's blood.  Run, do not walk to Big Jones. Trust me, it is impossible to be disappointed.

Lake Park Bistro (Milwaukee)

I have had a spectacular few weeks of food. Well, not spectacular for my waistline, but spectacular for my taste buds. I have been high (Veuve Clicquot Champagne dinner) and low (In-N-Out Burger), but one of my favorite meals came at the Lake Park Bistro Paris Chef Dinner in Milwaukee. Chef Sébastien Gravé of Paris' Pottoka took over the kitchen and dazzled a packed house with his inventive and flavorful fare. 

If you have not yet heard of Sébastien Gravé, rest assured, you will. He is part of a new school of chefs that is reinventing French cuisine and is one of the best chefs working in Paris today. Chef Gravé already has one Michelin star under his belt, awarded during his time at his previous restaurant, Les Fables de la Fontaine. At Pottoka he is serving Basque-influenced cuisine in a small, casual space near the 7th Arrondissement and, for a night, we were lucky to be able to experience his culinary mastery in Milwaukee. 

The first course was the Tartare of Bass with Lemon Confit, Lemon Mousse and Parmesan Shortbread. The mild clean taste of the finely hand-chopped bass was complemented beautifully by the tart lemon confit and mousse as well as the nutty, salty crunch of the parmesan shortbread. The dish was bright and refreshing and an all-around great start to the meal. 

We followed the bass with Crispy Prawns in a Citrus Sauce. Such a simple description does not do this dish justice. Large, perfectly cooked prawns wrapped in a basil leaf were coated in a light tempura-like batter that shattered into crisp shards when bitten into. This was accompanied by a sunny yellow, slightly tart citrus sauce, that balanced out the savory sweetness of the prawns. 

Next up was the Sea Scallop in Hazelnut Crust with Cumin-Scented Carrot Purée and Crispy Fennel. The scallop was perfect--moist, soft, slightly sweet--and was coated in a hazelnut crust that gave the bivalve a nice textural contrast. The carrot purée was velvety smooth with a warm earthiness from the cumin, while the fennel atop the scallop was crisp and refreshing. Most inventively, there was a disk of carrot purée made with a seaweed stabilizing agent that was used as a flavorful garnish.   

Our final savory course of the evening was the Filet of Duck with Artichoke Purée, Chanterelle Mushrooms, and Pork Belly "Chip." The duck was cooked to a perfect medium rare, pink and juicy on the inside, and sat atop a pool of red wine sauce. The earthy chanterelle mushrooms and the artichoke puree gave a beautiful seasonal touch to the dish and the crispy pork belly was so thinly sliced I could see right through it. I love duck in its many incarnations and this was truly a dish to remember.  

We ended the evening with one of the best desserts I have eaten in a long time--Brioche Pain Perdu (Lost Bread) with Vanilla Ice Cream. The pain perdu was custardy with nicely caramelized peaks on top and the chocolate mousse accompanying the dish was so rich and so, well, chocolatey. So simple, yet so flavorful and satisfying.   

The Bottom Line: Sébastien Gravé is no doubt one of the most exciting chefs cooking not only in France, but in the world right now. His flavor combinations, flawless technique, and masterful presentations are the mark of a truly gifted chef. And pairing Chef Gravé with a kitchen as stellar as that of Lake Park Bistro was genius. I don't know if I will get to France anytime soon, but at least for a night, France came to me.

The Publican (Chicago)

There are many things in this world I don't understand. Among them, non-alcoholic beer, instructions on shampoo bottles, carryout from Hooters, and why there is always just one shoe on the side of the road. One thing I've also never understood was brunch. Seemingly innocuous, brunch has always bothered me, because I really want to commit to whatever meal I am getting ready to eat. Brunch always seemed like such a politically correct meal--it didn't want to commit to either breakfast or lunch. But, after a recent brunch adventure at The Publican in Chicago, I finally get it. At this perpetually packed restaurant in Chicago's Fulton Market neighborhood, The Wife and I recently tore through the menu like it was our last meal. With so many amazing-looking options, it was tough to narrow down, but we did the best we could... 

We started with, what else? Booze! There are few better ways to kick off a Saturday morning than with an alcohol-spiked thirst quencher. I started with the Bloody Mary, a drink I have always favored for its dual role as both a drink and a snack. Crafted using house-made "Publican mix," it had a deep tomato flavor complemented by the bracing celery bitters. Served with an array of pickled vegetables and a beer back (your choice of several), the Publican's Bloody Mary may very well be the finest I have ever had. 

With drinks firmly in hand we then faced the most difficult part of our day--deciding what to eat! We had spent weeks doing menu reconnaissance and had mostly decided on what we were going to have, but now came game time. Most people would get one dish per person. Not us. We ordered the Maple-Braised Bacon, Hash Browns, Weisswurst, Soft-Scrambled Egg Focaccia, and the Soft Shell Crab Sandwich.   

First came the Weisswurst. Brought to the table in a steaming hot water bath, this Bavarian-style fresh white sausage emerged from its luxurious soaking as tender and moist as any sausage I have ever eaten. The flavor was subtle, yet powerful, with its delicate spicing and, when eaten with the sweet Bavarian mustard and a warm, chewy pretzel, was an example of how good simple yet impeccably prepared food can be. Sitting there, I imagined that this must be what heaven tastes like.   

Next up was The Publican's legendary Maple Syrup-Braised Bacon. When most people think of bacon, they think of your average grocery store type bacon, where even the stuff that says "thick cut" is still pretty thinly cut. This, however, was not your average bacon. Beautiful slabs of smoked pork belly that had been braised in maple syrup, it was smoky, sweet, sticky and, most of all, intensely flavorful. With the bacon, we got the Hash Brown, which was as big as the plate and was golden on the outside, soft and ethereal on the inside. The Hash Brown was crispy, not greasy, and with a hit of salt, utterly satisfying.

We followed up the bacon and hash brown with the Soft-Scrambled Egg Focaccia. Softly scrambled eggs on thick-sliced pillows of focaccia, this was nourishing and soul-satisfying. With red onions, lightly-dressed greens, and sliced salami, this puts to shame most other egg dishes I have eaten.   

We ended the meal with the Soft Shell Crab Sandwich. Because the soft shell season is so fleeting, whenever I see it on a menu, I order it. And this one didn't let me down. The cornmeal crusted crab was delicate and crunchy, juicy and sweet. Crowned with a perfectly cooked fried egg, which oozed its golden yolk all over the sandwich, this sandwich was a study in textures and flavors. 

There is no doubt in my mind why Travel & Leisure has declared that brunch at The Publican is one of the ten best in America. Although I didn't really get brunch before now, I am pleased to say that, after my meal at The Publican, I really get it. And I love it.   

The Bottom Line: Gluttons and gourmands alike will find much to like at this informal, energetic restaurant. The Publican has won a devoted following with a menu devoted to beautiful ingredients prepared without fuss. Saturday and Sunday brunches feature different menus; you won't go wrong with either.