The Lowlands Group is riding high.
Its new Historic Third Ward restaurant, Cafe Benelux, is proving to be the customer magnet many expected when the operators of Trocadero, Cafe Hollander and Cafe Centraal took over the space formerly occupied by the Good Harvest Market. The building is kitty-corner from the Milwaukee Public Market.
Benelux opened June 9 and set a single day sales record for any Lowlands restaurant last Friday. It then exceeded that figure on Saturday, according to group marketing director Kristin Godfrey.
"We're experiencing a very strong business rush for lunch, and then people keep coming throughout the day to dinner. We have a significant happy hour volume, higher than our other restaurants," Godfrey reports.
The cafe opens for breakfast at 7 on weekdays and 8 on weekends, making it the only full service restaurant operating at that time of day in the Third Ward. Godfrey says morning business has not been as robust as lunch and dinner, but it is building as people discover a new breakfast venue.
In the style of grand European cafes, Benelux's kitchen is open to midnight every day.
Lowlands invested heavily in remodeling and improving the single story structure that had been a Commission Row tavern for much of its existence. The roof was reenforced and a wide central staircase installed to create an open-air second-story deck that seats 120.
About 160 persons can be accommodated on the first floor that includes a bar seating 25. Sidewalk tables for about 110 were added this week.
The new cafe's floor is recycled from a Wausau school gym, and the table tops were bowling alley lanes in a previous life in Iowa. "The floor was laid, sanded and refinished," Godfrey says.
Benelux's look is irresistibly appealing, with bright table umbrellas on its roof and potted plants suspended from an overhang on the Broadway side of the building. The restaurant's menu is similar in style with its Lowlands siblings but also features items exclusive to it.
Sweet and savory pannenkoeken, a large thin pancake that is standard fare in The Netherlands, falls into that category. Priced from $8.95 to $10.95, the toppings vary from asparagus, fried eggs, pancetta, parmesan and Belgian beer cheese sauce in a pannenkoeken called The Brussels, to banana, chocolate sauce, Nutella, hazelnuts and bourbon cream in a variety dubbed The Brugse.
Mussels prepared six different ways are $12.95 a pound, and $18.95 for two pounds. Curry cauliflower ($8.95), which includes roasted cashews, green apples, cilantro, caramel sauce and sea salt, is an intriguing appetizer.
Half-pound burgers, which come with frittes, can be made of beef, bison, turkey or black beans. They range from $9.95 to $12.95, depending on the fixings. The Derailleur includes onions prepared three different ways -- pickled, crispy and caramelized -- with garlic aioli and Boursin cheese.
The menu's most expensive item is a 6-ounce beef filet with asparagus, braised onions, mushroom ragout and blue cheese for $20.95. Frittes come with it. Four desserts, all $6.95, include banana fritters with a white chocolate curry sauce and spiced pecans.
Benelux's bar mixes four different bloody marys ($7-$9) and four different mimosas ($6.50-$7.50). The Stinking Rose bloody consists of garlic-infused vodka, a house-made mix, a garlic beef stick and several shrimp. The Beer Mosa is a blend of Belgian wheat beer and orange juice.
Speaking of beer, Benelux has 30 on tap and about 160 in the bottle. The draughts include three new brews being made exclusively for the Lowlands restaurants by the Van Steenberge Brewery in Ertvelde, Belgium. The special offerings are a Belgian white, a Belgian dark dubbel and a complex golden colored beer with an alcohol content of 9%.
Benelux includes a market that sells about 40 chilled beers and European and domestic specialty groceries, from the Dutch stroopwafel cookie to California olive oil. A grab and go selection of prepared foods is gradually being brought up to full speed. Baseball caps, T-shirts, glassware and kitchen accessories are also on sale.
The cafe is affiliated with the Milwaukee Public Market, and customers can have tickets from the market's parking lot validated at the restaurant.
Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.
During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.
Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.