At a recent visit to Three Brothers, 2414 S. St. Clair St. in Bay View, I shocked my dining companions when I uncharacteristically ordered my entrée before they could select a bottle of wine. But from previous visits, I knew that in order to sample the burek ($15.50), the restaurant’s signature dish, I would need to give the kitchen 45 minutes to an hour to have it arrive baked to perfection.
This visit, too, made me feel immediately comfortable in doing so, because upon entry, we saw Branko Radicevic, long-time owner and 2002 James Beard award winner, peek out of the kitchen he has worked in for so many years.
A visit a few months ago had left me slightly disappointed in the food and service, and we had noted that there was not a familiar family face to be found on that visit; not that one can expect 80-something Branko to be there at all times. But, when he is, you know you are in for a real treat.
What gives Three Brothers its special charm is the restaurant’s minimal décor, its long history as a family place, and the old European recipes for items like the burek, which are exemplary in both composition and taste.
Burek is a pastry made of light buttery layers of phyllo dough filled with cheese or a combination of cheese and spinach or cheese and meat. I selected the cheese and spinach on our waitress’s recommendation and was thrilled with the beautiful savory pastry that arrived 45 minutes later. (Diners may call ahead to have the dish started while they are in transit.) Layers of dimensional flavors and richness made this our overall favorite item, although everything else we tried was wonderful as well.
Appetizers of stuffed grape leaves (small $6.50, large $7.50), featured six rolls of black olives, rice and goat cheese dressed with olive oil and fresh lemon. The Serbian hors d’oeuvres platter (small $6, large $7) mixed Serbian potato salad with salty Serbian cheese, ripe tomato wedges, green peppers and kalamata olives, showcasing the lively clean flavors of ripe vegetables paired simply and superbly.
Main dishes at Three Brothers were hard to choose from because everything in their fairly substantial menu was wonderfully attractive to us. Most dishes are served with potato dumplings and/or cabbage, which make the dishes a bit heavier, and lovingly comforting. Stuffed zucchini ($12.50) came pared, and was cored so that the ground meat stuffing poured out of the tenderly cooked vegetable and into a light tomato cream sauce.
Tilapia fillet ($13.50) was baked and laced with garlic and butter, perhaps surprisingly balanced with the side serving of cabbage, and delightful alongside the fresh, warm rye bread that comes with dinner. Roast lamb was bone in, although the dish was so tender, merely touching the roast with a fork tine pulled the meat delicately from the bone.
I brought out of town guests, neither of whom had eaten Serbian food before, to Three Brothers on my most recent visit. On the way to the former Schlitz building, circa 1897, I tried to describe the location with its faux marble topped tables, scattered potted plants, mismatched plates and old-school salt shakers with rice kernels to keep out any unwanted moisture, without sounding too cliché.
I stumbled a few times trying to describe the food, which while it may be compared to German, Mediterranean and various other cuisines, is something all its own, and as our waitress would later suggest, wholly European.
And once again I realized the charm of Three Brothers is in fact the patchwork décor, the low key, minimal and almost sedate surroundings, and the very old world, very comfortable and entirely wonderful cuisine that is some of the best Milwaukee has to offer.
Amy L. Schubert is a 15-year veteran of the hospitality industry and has worked in every aspect of bar and restaurant operations. A graduate of Marquette University (B.A.-Writing Intensive English, 1997) and UW-Milwaukee (M.A.-Rhetoric, Composition, and Professional Writing, 2001), Amy still occasionally moonlights as a guest bartender and she mixes a mean martini.
The restaurant business seems to be in Amy’s blood, and she prides herself in researching and experimenting with culinary combinations and cooking techniques in her own kitchen as well as in friends’ restaurants. Both she and her husband, Scott, are avid cooks and “wine heads,” and love to entertain friends, family and neighbors as frequently as possible.
Amy and Scott live with their boys, Alex and Nick, in Bay View, where they are all very active in the community. Amy finds great pleasure in sharing her knowledge and passions for food and writing in her contributions to OnMilwaukee.com.