October is the third annual Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delicious features, chef profiles, unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2009."
In the mid to late 1990s, whether you were in a little corner trattoria or stepping into someplace a bit more uppity, where you'd expect to only purchase by the bottle, many Milwaukee wine lists had multiple pages with multiple price points.
Not so anymore, as many restaurateurs have pared the listings down to a few by-the-glass options that can also be bought by the bottle, or simply have gone to house wine-only selections.
The good news is that the places with smaller selections usually do their homework and carry solid brands, and the better news is that the places that carry more substantial selections have nurtured those longer lists with products that not only turn over quickly, but also satiate picky palates.
Balzac Wine Bar, 1716 N. Arlington Pl., falls into the latter category, and also boasts a happy hour (3-7 p.m.) that allowed us to taste a very palatable Russian River pinot for a cool $36, since it was half off its normal $72 bottle price.
The deep darkness of Balzac, combined with its laid back service and take it-or-leave-it menu, is not dissimilar to what I remember from my first visit there some four years ago. What made me happier was that now instead of being pinned to stemless Riedels, they'll bring you a stemmed wine bulb upon request.
The menu at Balzac is unique, and some items are better executed than others; I prefer to visit this place as a lounge for a nice quiet and secluded glass of wine (as the venue seems intimate regardless of how busy it is) and nosh on something rather than seeking out Balzac for dinner and grabbing the wine as a complement.
Prices, however, are moderate, so even if you aren't blown away, you can easily share a few small plates with a friend and not blow your budget. Balzac offers cheese flights ($9 a selection or $21 for a trio) with fruit, bread and crackers, and also provides serious digs, such as sandwiches, pastas and salads, in addition to their small-plate selections.
I'm naturally a fan of charcuteries, but for me, the la Espana ($14) with Serrano ham, manchego cheese, olives and almonds, was too much like something one could throw together at home as an afterthought. We found better results with the small plates, which when combined into three to four selections, can easily make a good dinner for two.
Duck confit nachos ($11) were the favorite of the items we tried, although, admittedly, anything slow rendered in duck fat has got to be good. The nachos remained crisp, tucked beneath layers of gruyere cheese and the crunch of bacon, mixed with the shredded duck and drizzles of crème fraiche.
Perhaps nachos are an unlikely bedfellow for a bold red, but add in the duck and you've got a pairing made in heaven. Tuna tartare in a wasabi vinaigrette ($9) was also delightfully fresh, although slightly overpowered by the accompanying crisp wontons. We ate them separately for happier results, and then also found simple pleasure in the lamb skewers ($13), which were cooked medium rare and sang slightly of lemon and garlic.
A napoleon made with pine-crusted portabello mushrooms, mozzarella and spinach ($9) was served tepid, if not borderline cold, which was unfortunate, because the flavors melded well together and the crunch of the portabello played nicely with fresh mozzarella and the tang of balsamic vinegar. But the dish also brings to light something else Balzac does quite well -- cater to vegetarians -- the menu offers four vegetarian small plates in addition to their pasta and pizza options.
Overall, the experience at Balzac is one of serenity, and the atmosphere is carefree -- we liked that our server spaced the timing of the small plates, we were fine with pouring our own wine, and it's nice to have a nook to grab a bottle and know that if you do decide to eat, there are some very good options to play with.
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.