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 Nell Benton of The National Cafe. Benton will be among six featured chefs at the upcoming Moveable Feast event at the Milwaukee Public Museum.
"A customer once described The National as 'The International,'" says Chef Nell Benton. "And that was very perceptive because I really do see this as an international cafe. The food here is based on my experiences, my travels. I’ve taken cooking classes around the world, and learned to make foods like curries, spring rolls and sate. The menu here really reflects foods that I love and that reflect my love for the places I’ve been and would like to visit."
1. Full English breakfast
A proper English breakfast featuring sunny side up eggs, grilled tomato, sauteed mushrooms, sausage, bacon, baked beans, toast and potatoes. $10
"This is what I grew up eating. As a child, we always spent summers in England. And it’s one of the things I always looked forward to. The banger (sausage) is a traditional English sausage that’s very similar to chipolata. It’s traditionally served for Christmas dinner, as well as for breakfast."
2. Tonkotsu ramen
Rich pork broth with seared pork belly, scallions, soft boiled soy egg, nori and egg noodles served with a spicy bomb. $12
"The ramen here is a labor of love. It’s a dish I was obsessed with for a number of years and really worked to perfect. At the time we originally put it on the menu, there were no restaurants in Milwaukee making it, and I had to drive to Madison to get it."
Incidentally, Benton also wrote "Ramen Fusion," one of the first comprehensive volumes on the history of ramen, along with recipes anyone can tackle at home.
3. Weekly specials
"This is one place where you’ll find more entree style offerings. It’s a place to be creative, to try things out. And it pleases people who want to try something new every time they come in."
Current specials include this asparagus tart featuring a crisp pastry crust and fresh chevre from Clock Shadow Creamery.
Other specials have included Irish stew, curries and pasta dishes. A recent breakfast special featured banana French toast with tamarind caramel, crispy bacon and a vanilla bean honey Greek yogurt sauce.
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.