Cafe Calatrava menus add spice to the shows upstairs
At some restaurants, the menu almost never changes. At others, the dishes on offer get a seasonal overhaul. At Milwaukee Art Museum's Cafe Calatrava, the menu changes multiple times a year as the kitchen staff works to create a culinary experience that's in step with the latest exhibition on view upstairs.
Right now, that show is "30 Americans," and for the past four months, the chef de cuisine has been Micah Kaufman.
A Milwaukee native, Kaufman arrived at Cafe Calatrava with a resume of experience in a variety of capacities and venues in the Bartolotta Restaurant Group, where he says he "floated around and got a really great overview of the business," working at Rumpus Room, the now-closed Downer Ristorante Bartolotta, Joey Gerard's Mequon, Harbor House, Lake Park Bistro and in the catering venues, too.
He has also cooked at Mason Street Grill, Kil@wat, Oakland Wine and Tapas in Shorewood, and the Ritz Carlton on Amelia Island in Florida.
Creating the menu to accompany "30 Americans" was one of the first tasks on his plate when he arrived at the Art Museum.
"We wanted to make sure that menu was reflective of the influence of African-American chefs, that we had a well-rounded approach to it and we were able to draw inspiration from really anywhere where we could find African-American chefs excelling at their craft," he recalls.
The menu was created with his sous, Jamie Nelson, who has been at Cafe Calatrava for three years and also has a wide range of cooking experience gained at places as diverse as Milwaukee County Zoo and Children's Hospital of Wisconsin.
They started out exploring the work of pioneer Abby Fisher, a former slave whose 1881 book, "What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc.," is considered the first African-American cookbook.
Above all, Kaufman, Nelson and their team drew inspiration from the late Patrick Clark, who worked at New York's Odeon and Tavern on the Green before his premature death at the age of 42 in 1998.
"He was a big influence for us," says Kaufman.
"The knowledge nugget is more about versatility ... we were also able to take from him some of the fun, summer, Tavern on the Green-type ideas. So, we borrowed from his barbecue sauce, his soups we've taken inspiration from. We have his cookbook sitting on the line right now so when we get bored or we get curious we can flip through and try to find the stuff that really reflects him as a chef."
The menu isn't huge, but it is ambitious for a museum cafe.
Among the appetizers are a sumptuous barbecued shrimp skewer plated with a bowl of creamy Wisconsin cheddar grits topped with crab meat; red beans and rice; and Cajun chicken. There is also an artisanal cheese plate that pairs a trio of cheeses from a Wisconsin dairy with spiced nuts, crackers and house-made jams.
"We're changing dairy farms about once a month," says Kaufman. "It makes it more approachable for the guests and for the staff to learn about what one dairy farm does and why it's special and so we'll feature three of their artisanal cheeses. It's a great starting place for us here and its a great start to a meal."
There are five entrees including a pretzel crusted tilapia, braised short ribs and Nelson's crispy duck l'orange that pairs tender medium rare duck breast with a sweet potato hash and orange glaze.
There are also a number of salads – check out the alluring grilled peaches on the, well, grilled peach salad – and a selection of burgers and wraps and an ancho chile pork sandwich. Entrees and sandwiches range in price from about $9 to $16.
The menu, says, Kaufman, is really the result of collaboration among the entire kitchen staff.
"A number of the dishes came from line cooks, some came from me, some came from Jamie. All the menus and a lot of the work that we do here is extremely collaborative. When I came in, I was able to bring with me a number of really talented, really well-proven cooks that can contribute to the menu and have brilliant ideas."
The "30 Americans" menu runs through beginning of October, when it will be replaced by a menu tied to the upcoming "Thomas Sully: Painted Performance" exhibition, which opens Oct. 11.
Kaufman says that one will focus on heartier dishes like game and stews.
"We've gone through a couple drafts already," he says. "Inspiration is being drawn from the Pennsylvania Dutch colonial period.
"Thomas Sully spent a lot of his life in Philadelphia, and this is a little before Philly cheese steak time but late enough that we're really starting to create the foundation of American cuisine, (using) old world techniques and (newly discovered) ingredients."
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