Thanks to many dedicated people and businesses, Downtown is the heart of Milwaukee and the entire state of Wisconsin. This week, OnMilwaukee presents Milwaukee Downtown Week, sponsored, aptly, by Milwaukee Downtown, BID #21. For seven days, we will share stories, videos and photography profiling some of the neighborhood's best offerings and celebrating those who make it so great. Milwaukee Downtown Employee Appreciation Week, by the way, runs July 31-Aug. 4, 2017.
What's in a restaurant? In this series, we ask chefs around the city to describe their restaurants in their own words and recommend three dishes that embody the best of what they offer. In this edition, we talk with Mason Street Grill's new executive chef, Kenneth Hardiman about his take on some classic dishes from the restaurant's menu.
"When I came to Milwaukee to interview for the Mason Street Grill job, I was still weighing my decision. So, I took some time and sat at a cocktail table in the bar. And it was great. So many different people came through the door that night. And the music was great. People were dancing and enjoying themselves. And I knew by the end of the night that this was a place I wanted to be.
"Mason Street Grill is the type of place where you can come in and enjoy a really elegant meal, or take a seat in the bar and have a nice, casual meal. We’re well known as a steakhouse, but we like people to think of us as a neighborhood bar and grill. So, you can come here and get a really high quality cut of meat, or you can drop by and have a really delicious burger.
"I grew up in the Midwest. But, I really learned to respect ingredients in an entirely new way while I was working West Side Tavern in Los Angeles. We’d make trips to the farmer’s market in Santa Monica, and everything was so delicious and fresh. I learned a lot about balance and keeping things delicate. It was about seasonality, about using ingredients that married well, but that didn’t overpower one another. I loved creating really fresh seafood dishes where I’d take market vegetables and use them to make a really beautiful delicate puree. I’d add sauteed vegetables for texture, and then just a delicate vinaigrette over the fish to tie all the flavors together.
"As a chef, I love that simplicity. And so many of the classic dishes at Mason Street Grill exemplify that. It’s about starting with really quality products, fresh produce, fish that’s flown in daily. And then it’s about the care that’s taken with the process and technique. It’s about knowing how to let the food and the ingredients speak for themselves.
"This is the type of place where, we don’t make changes here just for the sake of making changes. Instead, we really listen to what people are saying, and what they love. These are dishes that people order over and over again, and there’s good reason for that."
1. Fried surf clams
Buttermilk batter, tartar sauce, lemon ($11.50)
"My wife went to school at Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island before we met. There, the seafood is always so fresh, and there’s a whole culture around the preparation. I remember my wife making me some fried clams, fried green tomatoes and crab cakes; she had so many fond memories of the area, and and that meal stuck with me. I felt like I’d experienced something right along with her.
"This dish takes me back there. Here, clams are cleaned and hand-sliced, marinated in a bit of seasoned buttermilk and then dredged in a mixture of flour and cornmeal. They’re served up with French fries, our homemade tartar sauce, ketchup and lemon. This is one of those dishes that people love. The other night, just between 5 and 7 p.m. during happy hour, we probably sold 30 plates of these. The aroma wafts through the dining room, and it smells so good; it makes it pretty hard to resist."
2. Mason Street Grill signature chopped salad
House mustard horseradish dressing, bacon, egg, onion, tomato, cucumber, avocado ($10)
"This salad has been on the menu for ten years, and it’s a dish that people come back for over and over again. And there’s a reason for that. You get something delicious with every bite. Fresh cucumbers, diced tomatoes, hard-boiled egg. The applewood bacon gives you some smokiness and saltiness. And it comes together with a five lettuce blend that we’ve created ourselves and a tangy vinaigrette. Every ingredient has its place and plays a part."
3. Sauteed rainbow trout
Preserved lemon, brown butter, capers, green beans ($28.50)
"This is one of those dishes that really takes me to a place in time. When I was in Boy Scouts, we’d go camping. There was one trip we took… I think it was in Omaha, and we went fishing for trout. My father was a scout leader, and he was there. He was a busy man; he ran a construction business. And I’ll never forget that he was there. We had fresh trout,a little flour, a little butter and oil. And we fried it up and squeezed a bit of lemon on it. And it was perfect. This dish isn’t so different. Technique-wise, we give it a bit more in the pan. We take the melted butter and baste the fish; it adds flavor, a bit of fat and it keeps the fish moist as you’re cooking it. And then we add crisp capers, preserved lemon and a bit of parsley."
Bonus: Carrot cake
"This is an extra dish, but it really ties into the simplicity here. Chef Mark Weber’s carrot cake is probably the best carrot in the city. The amount of time and care that goes into it is really impressive … from ingredients like zucchini and carrots being hand shredded, to the glaze that goes on the cake after it’s been baked. On the plate, it’s the definition of simplicity; it’s a great classic dessert."
Mason Street Grill is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to midnight (kitchen until 10 p.m.), Saturday from 5 p.m. to midnight (kitchen until 10 p.m.) and Sunday from 5 to 11 p.m. (kitchen until 9 p.m.).
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.