By Bill Zaferos   Published Jan 02, 2006 at 5:34 AM Photography: Eron Laber

If you think "tapas" or "small plate dining" means half the food at twice the price, you need to visit Balzac, 1716 N. Arlington Pl.

Recognizing that many Milwaukeeans view restaurant quality by the amount of food they are served, Balzac might not be the place to bring grandma for dinner. There's a sort of mentality in this town that says, "the restaurant was great; the food was awful but the portions were huge." That sort of thinking might make it difficult for places with small plate fare to make a go of it.

But Balzac deserves your attention. No matter what you order, and you should order as many menu items as you can, you'll want to come back for more. Quite simply, the food is, in Milwaukee terms, real good eatin'.

Located just off Brady Street in the building that formerly housed "Watermark" and "Vinifera," the place has been completely remodeled and re-decorated from its previous incarnation to create a dark, chandeliered, intimate atmosphere that is the perfect start or end to an evening out.

Presentation is remarkable at Balzac. The firecracker shrimp ($10) -- a luscious spicy battered shrimp with Thai garlic and cilantro pesto garnish -- are served with such artistry that you almost feel guilty eating them. The seared scallops with sweet potato mashed, sautéed spinach and mediera mirin glaze ($12) are highly recommended.

The succulent petite filet ($11) with sun-dried tomato and porcini demi glace served on whipped gold Yukon potatoes and bacon is indeed petite, yet nearly a meal in itself.

Only the mussels ($8.50) are disappointingly bland and would need significantly more seasoning to be billed as "spicy" on the menu.

There are a few quirks about Balzac. The menus are on plain paper, the wine list included. You'd think that a vast, five-page wine list offering everything from a $6 glass of Caves de Pomerol Picpoul de Pinet (described on the list as the Muscadet of south France) to a $400 bottle of Australian Henschke "Hill of Grace" (described as arguably the rarest and best wine on Earth) would be presented on something other than three sheets of stapled paper.

But more importantly, the wines are served in stemless Riedel crystal, an indication that someone in the joint knows how to treat wine, and the menu offers low-priced "tastes" in case you can't make up your mind between the Hungarian Oremus Tokaji Furmint ($5 for a taste) and French Mas Neuf ($4.25).

The bar also offers 23 different bottled beers, eight draughts and 13 different martinis.

The servers wear logoed "Balzac" T-shirts instead of something dressier that might be more in keeping with the cuisine and the atmosphere. And the music is some sort of beat-heavy techno that seems out of place in the otherwise quiet scene. It's almost as though Balzac can't decide whether to be semi-formal dining or just a hip place to get a bite to eat.

Nevertheless, Balzac is an experience in and of itself. The knowledgeable staff seems unfailingly happy to see you, and is helpful in offering suggestions for wine or menu items.

One huge disadvantage to Balzac is that the dining room is so small that even though there is a no smoking section, it is so close to the bar that you can't help but wind up inhaling someone else's Marlboro. That's a real shame given the great quality and taste of the food. Either they should improve the ventilation system or they should go smoke-free, as one restaurant of a similar size, Indigo, on Vliet Street, has done.

Still, Balzac has what it takes to become an institution in the Brady Street area. Even if the portions aren't Milwaukee-sized.