By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Feb 05, 2014 at 11:08 AM

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When Black Sheep opened in August at 216 S. 2nd St., my first impressions of the place were divided. The lounge earned big points for its atmosphere which included great music, quirky décor and kudos for ultra-comfortable bar stools. It boasted a great boutique wine list and intriguing cocktails. But, a first visit turned up shabby service, inconsistently mixed cocktails and a menu that was more confusing than impressive.

But, things are changing rapidly, and the hip space may soon have some food and beverage offerings to brag about.

It all starts with Black Sheep’s new chef, Frank Haroun, who was hired in December to revamp the restaurant’s menu.

Haroun’s resume includes a lifetime in the restaurant industry, including stints around the country freelancing with catering groups like Spectrum and Compass. Haroun has served up events for the PGA tour and the NFL, including meals for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. He also spent time as the chef for Cirque de Soleil, serving meals for more than 120 traveling performers and techs in different cities every week.

"Loved the job. But, it was exhausting," Haroun notes. "Waking up in a new city every day gets to be arduous."

So, a few years ago, he came back to Milwaukee where he landed a job working with Chef Michael Engel of Pastiche Bistro and Wine Bar. He also worked here and there with Chef Jan Kelly at Meritage.

"I knew Chef Michael from the Delafield House, where I worked when I was 16," Haroun tells me. "Both he and Kelly have had a huge influence on my cooking."

Haroun moved on to help David Kressin and April Woelfel open The Noble before taking the job with Black Sheep.

"I’ve been at this a long time," he confesses. "When I was 14, I started out working for Shoney’s restaurant as the Shoney Bear … then I got promoted to dishwasher. I look back at it now and I think ‘God, you’re an idiot.’ But, ultimately I looked at the guys on the line and thought ‘I want to be like you.’"

Haroun says industry work came naturally to him, and that he’s at his best when he’s working off the cuff – "I’m very good at looking at an open refrigerator and just making something," he says.

As for the menu at Black Sheep, Haroun has been working long and hard to transform the food at a restaurant with the tagline "wine meets hot dog" into something with genuine appeal.

"We’re shifting gears and definitely focusing toward small plates," he tells me as we hang out in the kitchen while a pot of cassoulet is bubbling on the stove. "Walker’s Point has recently become the ‘foodie district’ of Milwaukee, so it was time to take a step back and refocus our attention."

He says that the restaurant will still offer creative upscale hot dogs and cool bar food – "We’re keeping that kind of tongue-in-cheek Black Sheep attitude," he says. But, he’ll also work to elevate the fare to bring it into better focus.

Part of that is working with the wine the restaurant serves to create delicious dishes that are eclectic and fun, but not pretentious.

"The fact that there’s a focus on wine makes my life easier for sure," he notes. "I have an arsenal of wine to choose from. It’s an open forum for me to be creative and really challenge myself to be a better chef."

The restaurant’s wine list just received an overhaul at the hand of Josh Pietrykowski, Black Sheep’s general manager, and Haroun says over the next few days they'll really dive in and discuss wine pairings to recommend to customers.

"Every week, we’ll switch out a couple wines to keep it fresh and keep it going," Pietrykowski says. "We’re also pricing very aggressively. Full pours between $6 and $12 on wines where you’d normally see prices in the $10-plus range."

The wine list will include eight to 10 whites, 12 to 15 reds and four or five sparkling options, along with 16 in self-service machines. 

On the cocktail side of things, Pietrykowski says there will be a move to bring more wine and sparkling wine into the cocktails, as well as incorporation of more "cello-style liquors" and small batch items.

The new menu, which debuted on Tuesday, Feb. 4 includes something for everyone – from gluten-free diners, to vegetarians, to seafood and meat lovers.

Seafood options include dishes like mussels with apples, fennel and Italian sausage to grilled octopus and oysters on the half shell, while vegetable options feature warm root vegetables with toasted hazelnuts, stracciatella cheese and balsamic and salted roasted beets with goat cheese, pepitas and baby arugula. Carnivores can dig into meatballs with polenta and Rehorst vodka sauce, duck bruschetta with white bean puree or slow-cooked cassoulet with lamb, pork and sausage.

Featured "haute dogs" will include the "Trailer Park Dog" with a bacon wrapped dog, coleslaw and braised onions, the "Wooster Dog" with fig jam, arugula, balsamic reduction and the "Rum Dog" with Roaring Dan’s Rum baked beans, crispy pork jowl and Cheddar. All hot dogs are available with Udi’s gluten-free buns.

The restaurant’s brunch menu, which is served from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays, has also gotten an overhaul. In addition to pancakes and waffles, diners can choose from omelets, breakfast burritos, franks and beans hash, polenta with roasted mushrooms and poached egg and the Black Sheep Benedict with poached eggs served on a grit cake with cassoulet.

"My favorite would have to be the chicken and biscuits," says Haroun. "It comes with housemade sausage gravy – we make the sausage here – over buttermilk biscuits with fried chicken and chipotle honey. Add two poached eggs and it’s pretty amazing."

Brunch drinks will include classics, as well as the Black Sheep version of the Bloody Mary which features a slow-cooked house-made mix that will be batched out with alcohol before service. Unique sangria, incorporating cello liquors rather than the usual brandy, will also be featured.

Haroun says the restaurant is working on a variety of new offerings, including weekly entrée specials and house-made pasta. He says that his wish list includes house-made "haute dogs" as well, though the restaurant has yet to enter into the process of the necessary inspections for that.

"I’m pretty excited to be here," he says. "There’s a lot of fun stuff coming along the way."

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

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.