New Restaurant Added – Odd Duck

Odd Duck in Milwaukee, WI is an absolutely wonderful little restaurant.  If this were a restaurant review, I would gush about the diversity of the menu, the inventiveness on display in nearly every dish, the brilliant execution on each small plate presentation. But this is not a restaurant review so our focus here is on the dishes reflecting the ethno-culinary traditions of the Great Lakes region.

Here are a couple of recent dishes featured on the evening menu – Kale Salad, Dried Cranberries, Roasted Pear, Maple Vinaigrette, Pecans, Aged Cheddar Mornay or perhaps you would prefer Chicken Schnitzel, Handmade Bratwurst, Cheesy Pork Belly, Spätzle, with Brussels Sprout Sauerkraut. Their cheese selection includes many of my local Wisconsin favorites such as Hook’s Cheddar, Carr Valley Mobay, and Saxon Creamery Big Ed’s Gouda. The charcuterie selection features Underground Meat Company (a true favorite here) as well as house-made options. All these are clear markers of local traditions being re-invented and re-imagined leading to, based on my recent dining experience, truly wonderful results. This is Great Lakes Cuisine and we’re happy to include them in our Restaurants section.

The menu is really global fusion with so many different cuisines seamlessly and beautifully brought together. For a longer discussion of how the Odd Duck stretches our definition, see this post. For pure enjoyment, simply go to Odd Duck and enjoy.

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Definitions and the Occasional Odd Duck

This post will be a bit longer and more esoteric than many of our posts as we attempt to lay-out a fundamental problem at the very core of our efforts here. A recent video discussion between Kyle Cherek and Ardent’s chef/owner Justin Carlisle was featured here recently as something of a raison d’être for this website – simply, to create a name for an emerging cuisine and thereby promote it. In our view, this is not just a local food movement, this is not just a comfort food movement, this is an outgrowth of an ethno-culinary tradition being re-imagined and re-invented by a number of highly creative and innovative chefs in the Great Lakes region.

We began with the very clear belief that just as the phrases “Napa Cuisine”, “Tex-Mex Food”, or “Southern Cooking” conjure a basic understanding of what food is being discussed, the phrase “Great Lakes Cuisine” can capture an idea, a method, an ethos by which we can come to understand something about this food, and the chefs as the creative force behind it. But definitions inherently create problems, particularly when we are attempting to categorize a movement predicated on originality and creativity. And so I come to the problem of the Odd Duck.

Ducks

For those of you unaware, Odd Duck is a tiny, wonderful little gem of a restaurant in Milwaukee operated by Melissa Buchholz & chef Ross Bachhuber.  Here are some tidbits to set the stage, selectively pulled directly from their website:

“People often ask, “What kind of food do you serve?” It is hard for us to be specific about our menu, because we view this not just as a project or a business – but as a way of life, a journey that includes our staff and all of you, as well!

Our food and cocktails are inspired by things as varied as the smell of grass in the spring and street food in Turkey. The goofy creativity of the kids in our lives, the summer farmer’s market at South Shore Park, the memory of the perfect popsicle when we were children.

That said, Ross Bachhuber (Executive Chef and Owner) has had a long career in the restaurants of Milwaukee… His roots are based in classic French cuisine, but he also draws heavily on the flavors of Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, along with Southern Asia, India, and Japan.”

Now, the creativity and collaboration has led to dishes such as Kale Salad, Dried Cranberries, Roasted Pear, Maple Vinaigrette, Pecans, Aged Cheddar Mornay or perhaps you would prefer Chicken Schnitzel, Handmade Bratwurst, Cheesy Pork Belly, Spätzle, with Brussels Sprout Sauerkraut. Their cheese selection includes many of my local Wisconsin favorites such as Hook’s Cheddar, Carr Valley Mobay, and Saxon Creamery Big Ed’s Gouda. The charcuteries selection features Underground Meat Company (a true favorite here) as well as house-made options. All clear examples of local traditions being re-invented and re-imagined leading to, based on my recent dining experience, truly wonderful results. This is Great Lakes Cuisine.

And yet Chef Bachhuber and his crew have no hesitation to include dishes like Indian Seafood Saag with mussels, octopus, and scallops in a coconut curry or berbere rubbed lamb loin with Ethiopian butternut squash and lentil stew or Hong Kong tofu with a sweet chili glaze. They just as successfully pull of the global forays as they do the local features.

    Ducks

So here is our “definitional” existential question: Is the Odd Duck restaurant an example of Great Lakes Cuisine?

We could simply say it features occasional dishes which represent Great Lakes Cuisine. We took exactly that approach with Harbor House in Milwaukee, which clearly defines itself as a coastal seafood restaurant, but served this fantastic version of a local favorite. It is possible the fish was from Canada, the cabbage from Napa, and the spaetzle imported (though I really doubt it). The dish, from a compositional and flavor profile, was clearly referencing a local tradition of the fish fry in a new and delicious way – a fine example of Great Lakes Cuisine from a restaurant which we can comfortably say would not fit the definition.

Or we could say Odd Duck is a Great Lakes Restaurant like we did with Balzac Wine Bar.  On a recent dinner menu, Balzac featured dishes such as Potted Pork with House-made Apple Sauerkraut or Grilled Trout with Brussels Sprout Slaw. Good examples of our Great Lakes Cuisine. Yet at its core, Balzac is a French bistro made uniquely Milwaukee by great owners and a great staff. They often feature local sausages and unique takes on local flavors; often enough, we felt, to warrant being defined as Great Lakes Cuisine.

This issue arises only when you care to define the cuisine. Many loyal patrons and dynamic chefs will have no interest in this very academic affair. Witness once more, Justin Carlisle’s reaction on the clip mentioned at the outset. Yet there is a compelling reason to define this cuisine – by oversimplifying our message we can cut through in an over-communicated society. This idea was expounded by Jack Trout and Al Reis in their seminal work on advertising called “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind”, in which they detail ways in which companies, people, and even countries have had to clearly define themselves in order to gain a firm hold in the mind of the consumer. The key marketing idea is to narrowly define the idea down to its essence.

This in the end is our aim – To clearly capture and promote the idea of an emergent cuisine, to thereby capture the imagination and appreciation of a wider audience.

Ducks

And the offerings of the Odd Duck spark imagination, so it cannot be excluded without losing some of the essence of Great Lakes Cuisine. Our solution: Odd Duck will be added to the Restaurant section with a small additional line indicating some of the breadth of their offerings.  The same is added to Balzac. These sort of “qualifiers” will be used in the hope of clarifying the selection, rather than confusing our readers.  Let us know your thoughts by comment below or e-mail, because this effort echoes the thoughts from the folks at Odd Duck – “this not just as a project or a business – but as a way of life, a journey that includes our staff and all of you, as well!”

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: http://www.jsonline.com/tablet/topstories/chef-justin-carlisles-ardent-looks-to-wisconsin-with-a-fresh-approach-b99176493z1-239454231.html#ixzz2pwBNnmi8

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

New restaurants added – Michigan

We’re glad to be adding two new restaurants to our list of representatives of Great Lakes Cuisine, and both just happen to be in Michigan.

Mia & Grace is located in Muskegon, opened by two transplants from the Houston area, who moved to be close to family upon the birth of their daughter. Chefs Jeremy and Jamie Paquin took a chance by opening a small bistro in the downtown Muskegon area and focusing on farm-to-table cuisine, but the accolades they have received more than confirms their vision.  The cuisine on their ever-changing menu does range across a variety of ethnic and regional styles, but enough of the offerings reflect the local ethnic traditions to warrant inclusion (Mia & Grace – Food Menu – Sandwiches).  The representative dish we’ve chosen is the Beef Tongue Schnitzel, a traditional German approach adapted to an oft-neglected cut of beef.  Pair it with the Apple-Fennel Cole Slaw and the Bacon & Shallot Potato Salad and you have a stunning update on a number of German classics all on one plate. The inclusion of house-made sausages on the menu, including a gourmet hot dog, along with house-made pretzels and meat pies further provides ethno-culinary echoes that are a hallmark of Great Lakes Cuisine.  The relaxed atmosphere, local ingredients, and unpretentious presentation all fall in line with our definition as well.

Our next Michigan inclusion is not a restaurant, but a chef.  Chef Steven Grostick is responsible for creating and preparing foods for The Produce Station in Ann Arbor. Formerly the chef at Toasted Oak, the video series Great Lakes – Great Tastes featured an interview with him then, which we include here because of the obvious passion he exhibits in talking about his culinary vision.  He has continued to feature his house-made Kielbasa at The Produce Station as well as a rotating selection of other charcuterie.  He worked for many years with Chef  Brian Polcyn at the former Five Lakes Grill, during the time Chef Polcyn was working on the recipes for his well-respected book Charcuterie: The Art and Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing.  The representative dish is Chef Grostick’s famous house-made kielbasa, which he serves off the grill on a pretzel roll, with a sauté of peppers and onions, and a caraway beer mustard. Simple, good food and another excellent example of Great Lakes Cuisine.