The Blending of Lines

One of the hallmarks of a definable cuisine is the ability to identify when it is being used as a highlight, a complement, to another approach.  When a chef uses a slow roasted pork, glazed in hoisin, and served with an Asian Pear salsa as a taco appetizer, we can identify the elements of Latino cuisine and the Asian cuisine.  In a similar way, this dish:

Chicken Brat

A chicken sausage prepared in the same style and with the same spices as a traditional bratwurst.  The coleslaw is cabbage, carrots, and pea shoots with a traditional mayonnaise based dressing but the addition of a Saison craft brew vinegar echoes the tang of serving bratwurst with sauerkraut.  A light, summery take on a very traditional brat and kraut.  We can see, feel, and taste the influence of Great Lakes Cuisine.

When defining cuisine, particularly as it applies to the work of talented chefs across the region, innovation often makes clear delineation difficult.  We discussed the problems of “defining a cuisine” in a previous post and we won’t repeat that discussion here. The particular idea we address here is Italian-American Cuisine. Anyone traveling throughout the Great Lakes Region realizes a significant immigrant population settled in the region and in many cases have held strong to their ethnic, culinary traditions. The deep-dish pizza in Chicago is a unique testimony to this process.  The cuisine is at once clearly Italian and clearly American, which is why we have previously maintained that Italian-American is not part of Great Lakes Cuisine, because it is clearly and definable part of another tradition.

It should be no surprise, however, that such a clear line exists only on paper and not in the kitchen.  We have detailed in the past the contribution Chef Jason Gorman has had to the ideas we present here. It is appropriate then that his interpretation of Italian food at Mangia in Kenosha, WI would present a hybrid of these two cuisines. The offerings are firmly rooted in Italian cuisine, but also bring a lovely blending of Great Lakes Cuisine. Here are some samples from a recent dinner:

Mangia - Tuscan Chicken with Cherries


We began with a several appetizers and among them was this offering – Tuscan Chicken Liver Spread with Door County Cherries. Lush, earthy flavors of the liver spread created the perfect contrast to the tart fruitiness Door County Cherries.

Mangia - Goat Cheese Curds

Another offering featured goat cheese curds, heated until just softened with N’duja and Pachino tomatoes. Goat cheese curds, such as those you can purchase from LaClare Farms, have an appealing “chew” to their texture and a bit more pronounced flavor than traditional cheddar curds. N’duja is a spicy, spreadable sausage from Calabria (or you can get a great version from Underground Meats in Madison, WI).

Mangia - Walleye

In addition to a table full of excellent Italian-inspired dinner offerings, we enjoyed a Walleye Pike with chickpeas, garlic spinach, Pachino tomatoes, grilled leek gremolata. The flavors and preparation throughout the meal were unmistakably Italian, but the ingredients were local and often featured in unique ways.

Mangia is unmistakably Italian cuisine, but in the hands of such an innovative, and accomplished chef, elements of Great Lakes Cuisine still shine through.  Though we will not add Mangia to our Restaurant section, as it does not fit the stricter definition of Great lakes Cuisine we are utilizing here, it is truly great cuisine.

Swedish Elk Meatballs – A Hank Shaw Tribute

Hank Shaw is the creator of the Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook blog which won the James Beard Award for the best food blog in 2013. He recently spoke at the Pheasant Fest 2014 in Milwaukee, WI, and I had a chance to hear him talk. Down-to-earth, genuine, and funny, he shared a number of tips on preparing pheasants, quail, and a whole host of other birds.  He rattled off types of ducks and their flavor profiles like he was listing off a McDonald’s menu.  This guy knows his stuff.  I got this, so I was pretty happy:

Hank Shaw

Earlier in the day, my daughter and I got to the Milwaukee Winter Farmers Market hosted at the Mitchell Park Domes and were fortunate enough to pick-up a pound of ground Elk from Golden Bear Monarchs Elk Farm. Hank includes a recipe for Swedish Moose Meatballs in the book (also on his blog), easily adapted to Elk meat.  In place of the high-bush cranberry jelly, I utilized the Bacon Bourbon Blackcurrant Jam, prepared for Grilled Cheese Sandwich #3. The result:

Swedish MeatballI enjoyed it over organic cabbage from JenEhr Farm, caramelized and dressed with Onion Fennel Jam and a bit of broth ala Thomas Keller from his Ad Hoc Cook Book. The kids enjoyed it over egg noodles. Unique ingredients and a bit of inspiration from Hank. Get his book and enjoy.

Swedish Meatball1


The Art and Artistry of Chef Gorman

We’ve noted in the past the debt of inspiration we owe to Chef Jason Gorman, the current Executive Chef at the Art Institute of Chicago.  In his former role as the executive chef of the Dream Dance concept in Milwaukee, he offered a unique take on “New Wisconsin” cuisine, which became the genesis for our thoughts on Great Lakes Cuisine. A recent promotional video for the museum featured Chef Gorman’s take on simple ingredients being transformed into something innovative and new.

Simple things, creativity, good food – Great Lakes Cuisine.

New Restaurant Added – Ardent, Milwaukee WI

A recent review of Justin Carlisle’s new venture, Ardent in Milwaukee, WI, Carol Deptolla of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel expressed her appreciation this way:

“Ardent’s inaugural menu in particular said Wisconsin to me, with some dishes that evoked supper clubs, if their chefs had put in time at the Greenbrier in West Virginia, Gramercy Tavern in New York and Tru in Chicago as Carlisle had, along with Harvest in Madison and Umami Moto in Milwaukee. Ardent is the sort of restaurant that food lovers travel to try, where the character of a place and its traditions are revealed in a modern way, and there’s flat-out joy to be found in food. How fantastic to have a restaurant like Ardent in Milwaukee.”

Read more from Journal Sentinel:

Justin tried to capture the idea in an interview with Kyle Cherek this way:

Note how Justin resists the desire by Kyle to categorize the cuisine at Ardent. At the 2:20 mark, Kyle pushes Justin to give the 30-second definition of his cuisine. Justin resists defining it with anything more than it’s “personal”. Kyle has an “aggressive” characterization of Justin. They laugh. Kyle tries to define the cuisine for Justin as “It’s comfort food. And I get a lot from my parents farm.” Justin says “Right.”

But it certainly stretches the definition of comfort food to call the Game Hen recently featured at Ardent “comfort food” given this description by Carol Deptolla:

“leg meat so tender and delicious, alongside a breast stuffed with forcemeat and herbs, and an earthy note of ash. The hen’s amazing companion was a sunflower “risotto,” the sunflower seeds rendered creamy and tender like the rice dish, with a star-shaped bit of rutabaga beside it.”

Comforting…yes. Comfort food…not like anything I grew up with as a Midwest boy. May we ever so humbly suggest an alternative definition of Justin’s innovative offerings at Ardent – Great Lakes Cuisine.  We’re glad to add Ardent to our list of Restaurants and look forward to more innovation to come. Any chef crediting Joel Rubochon along with Grandma Carlisle as the inspiration for their pureed potatoes embodies the best of innovative takes on our traditional cuisine.

New Restaurant Added – The Sample Room

We’re happy to add another Minneapolis, MN entry to our Restaurants list – The Sample Room with chef Geoff Hausmann at the helm (hat tip to contributor Tom Kuckhahn). Chef Hausmann partners with a number of local farms and operates a scratch kitchen. There are also ties to the local brewing tradition, including the convenience of being located a half mile from the old home of Grain Belt Brewery, which is now brewed by August Schell in New Ulm, MN.

The charcuterie selection alone is reason to go, featuring a number of iconic options such as liverwurst and headcheese, supplemented with house-made beer mustard and pickles. For the heartier appetite, a bison/beef/pork meatloaf with smoked ketchup could always be paired with the hand-cut fries.  Just looking for a snack with a selection of craft brews? How about bacon fat popcorn?  Seriously, how did I not think of this? Of course it is brought to another level given that they make their bacon in-house as well.  Overall, The Sample Room is a welcome addition to our list of restaurants continuing the Great Lakes Cuisine tradition.

Sample Room