The bearded man quietly navigates the dimly lighted Hinterland restaurant to the corner table where my boyfriend and I sit. It's like the star of "Walker, Texas Ranger" has just appeared in this gastropub. "Does anyone ever ask you if you look like Chuck Norris?" I ask. "Every day," says Dan Van Rite, Hinterland's three-time James Beard-nominated chef.
The Green Bay native has eased into Milwaukee's culinary scene with a farm-to-table format that has developed a following. Van Rite buys local vegetables, whole lambs, goats and other animals for a menu that constantly rotates.
Many of the dishes incorporate house-made charcuterie and artisan cheeses. So while you can get a wood-fire-grilled elk New York strip or rabbit loin, you also can have pan-seared walleye, accompanied by boar pepperoni, mousseron mushrooms, purple fingerling potatoes, asparagus and tomatillo verde.
"We support our farms," Van Rite says. "If we get the whole animal, it solves the farmer's problem of what to do with the remaining parts."
We share a slew of appetizers, including pan-seared opah cheek with eggplant caponata, feta and couscous, radishes and garden tomato, and a round of beers from Hinterland's brewery. Later, my boyfriend and I opt for wine pairings with the walleye and finish our meal with a mousselike chocolate potted cake that has pretzels and Templeton rye caramel. (Hinterland, 222 E. Erie St., 414-727-9300, hinterlandbeer.com)
While many Chicagoans still view Milwaukee as nothing more than a beer, bratwurst and cheese town, there have been a lot of changes in the last five years to its well-known cuisine. When Hinterland, which started in Green Bay, opened its second location in Milwaukee in 2007, there were a lot of vacant condos and a smaller selection of restaurants, Van Rite says. In the last 10 years, the Historic Third Ward has morphed from old industrial warehouse district filled with boutique shops into a popular foodie and bar spot.
"There are a lot of chefs who are moving from different cities to Milwaukee," Van Rite says. "It's changing, with more and more restaurants opening up."
That's why owner and operator Brian Park, who started and then sold Nikko Japanese Restaurant and Wildfish in Arlington Heights, opened Wasabi Sushi Lounge in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield, and then Kanpai, an Asian fusion sushi restaurant in the Third Ward. Twice a week he drives up from Streamwood to check on his restaurants.
"I was so surprised to see so many good chefs around here who are very unique," Park says.
At Kanpai, one of the more popular rolls is the O My God, which contains shrimp tempura and avocado and is topped with shrimp, eel sauce, spicy aioli and wasabi aioli, then is placed in tin foil and doused with Bacardi 151 rum and lit on fire.
(Kanpai, 408 E. Chicago St., 414-220-1155, kanpaimilwaukee.com)
To get a taste of Milwaukee's German heritage, take the 11/4-mile walk from the Third Ward, along the river walk with its life-size bronze statue of Fonzie from "Happy Days," into Old World Third Street. Until the 1960s and 1970s, many storefront signs were still in German, says Theresa Nemetz, who started Milwaukee Food Tours in 2007. (800-979-3370, milwaukeefoodtours.com)
One of the best-known destinations is Mader's, 1041 N. Old World Third St., which opened in 1902 and offers such traditional German fare as Reuben rolls, Wiener schnitzel and pork shank in an apple demi-glace. It is as if time has stopped. Women wear dirndls. There's a large selection of old metal weaponry, European wooden carvings, stained-glass windows and two suits of armor. A wall of photographs showcases celebrities who have visited, including Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, ZZ Top, Frank Sinatra and Alicia Keys.
The $23.95 strawberry Champagne Sunday brunch includes everything from sauerbraten, knackwurst, pierogi, smoked salmon and goulash to omelets, waffles and French toast. (Mader's, 1041 N. Old World Third St., 414-271-3377, madersrestaurant.com)
At Usinger's Famous Sausage, an old mural depicts the "Usinger elves" in the various stages of sausage-making, from finding a pig to butchering the pig. These elves are known for putting "the magic and goodness" into the sausage each night, Nemetz tells us. Fourth-generation family members run the shop, using a sausage recipe that hasn't changed since the 1880s. For a great deal, ask for the "seconds table," which is behind the counter and offers discounts off misshapen and odd cuts of meats. (Usinger's, 1030 N. Old World Third St., 414-276-9105, usinger.com)
Next door, the Wisconsin Cheese Mart, which opened in 1938, sells more than 200 varieties of cheeses. We try the chocolate walnut fudge (cheddar) cheese that is creamier and less sugary than typical fudge. In an adjoining room is a beer/wine and cheese-pairing bar. (Wisconsin Cheese Mart, 1048 N. Old World 3rd St., 888-482-7700, wisconsincheesemart.com)
And all that is just the beginning. With its 40-page beer menu, Cafe Benelux, 346 N. Broadway, (414-501-2500 cafebenelux.com) is a well-known hot spot day and night. The extensive brunch menu includes such favorites as the cinnamon streusel French toast, buttermilk fried chicken waffle and biscuits with chorizo gravy.
Stop by the Wicked Hop, 345 N. Broadway, (414-223-0345, thewickedhop.com), known for its spicy bloody marys and Sunday brunch. Every Sunday, the Wicked Hop goes through 40 gallons of bloody marys, which are served with a Lakefront Klisch beer sidecar and topped with beef stick, kosher dill pickle, portobello mushroom, Spanish green olive, shrimp, lemon, lime and spaghettilike mozzarella cheese whips.
Restaurateur Joe Sorge and wife Angie have made a name for themselves with such popular Third Ward haunts, as the Water Buffalo, Swig and AJ Bombers, which won the Travel Channel's "Food Wars" for its Milwaukee Burger. For great barbecue, head to their Smoke Shack, 332 N. Milwaukee St. (414-431-1119, smoke-shack.com). The quaint 47-seat "shack," made of old Wisconsin barn materials, offers an outside patio in-season and a killer selection of sauces. Try the pulled-pork Kansas City egg rolls and cakelike cornbread.
Milwaukee Public Market, 400 N. Water St., is akin to the French Market in Chicago, with small shops and restaurants. Stop by the St. Paul Fish Co. for the 1-pound live Maine lobster dinner, $13.95, served with fries and coleslaw. (414-336-1111, milwaukeepublicmarket.org)
No trip to Milwaukee is complete with a stop at the Safe House, 779 N. Front St., a spy bar that pays homage with secret passages, espionage museum artifacts and a martini tube that shoots across the bar to serve up a drink that is shaken, not stirred. If you know the password, you'll get in without having to pull a stunt. The rest is top secret. (414-271-2007, safe-house.com)
If you stay
One of the newer places to stay is the Brewhouse Inn & Suites (1215 N. 10th St.; 414-810-0146; brewhousesuites.com). The 90-room, LEED-certified boutique hotel is housed in the former Pabst brewery. Rates starts at $143. Check out the giant, old copper brew kettles and the five-story stained-glass window of King Gambrinus, the unofficial patron saint of brewing.