First impressions matter, especially when it comes to dining. So, here's a first-hand look at one of the newest restaurants on the block, through the eyes of a (more or less) average restaurant-goer.
Walker's Point is slowly but surely becoming a haven for great dining destinations, and Braise Restaurant, located at 1101 S. 2nd St., is no exception.
Chef and owner Dave Swanson began working in the restaurant business at age 15. He perfected his craft at Commander's Palace, in the heart of New Orleans' Garden District. He also worked at Carlos' in Highland Park, Ill., and spent six years at the very prestigious Le Francais in Wheeling, Ill.
In 1998, he was recruited by Sandy D'Amato for Sanford, where he remained until 2004, honing his skills and continuing to dream of someday opening his own restaurant. Subsequently, Swanson founded the Braise Culinary School and Restaurant Supported Agriculture (RSA).
Swanson's background in fine dining is evident in more ways than one – first, in the atmosphere of the bar and restaurant itself, and secondly in the restaurant's service and food.
Braise harbors an intimate bar area decorated with cozy wood accents, including a wall covered with recycled barn board, as well as jewel-toned fabric detailing. The space is perfect for a late-night drink, or for diners who wish to enjoy a bite to eat with their cocktails, since the bar offers a nice selection of small plate options, including a variety of patés and shareable appetizers. Patrons can enjoy any number of Wisconsin-made beers, craft cocktails, including a variety of seasonal offerings, or well-priced wines.
But, for those who wish to get the full Braise experience, I would recommend taking a seat in the dining room, where you'll enjoy not only a delicious array of locally procured, seasonal food, but also some of the best service in the area.
I am not exaggerating when I suggest that the service we received at Braise was absolutely impeccable. Virtually moments after being seated, our server, Susie, arrived to introduce herself, get us settled in with our menus, and offer us glasses of water. As we perused the entrees, she wasted no time in bringing us complimentary slices of French bread, served with the daily compound butter flavored with lemon, parsley and capers.
Throughout the evening, Susie was not only attentive and knowledgeable, but her actions were well-timed and not at all intrusive. Our experience was unhurried, and yet it also lacked that interminable lag which can take place between dessert and coffee and the delivery of the bill.
Great service extended, importantly, to Susie's ability to recommend comfortably and aptly from the wine list. In my experience, it's rare to find a Milwaukee-area restaurant where so much thought and work has gone into the wine list. So my praise always goes to those where wines have been carefully sourced from a variety of suppliers.
Happily, the wine list at Braise is nuanced and imaginative, as well as well-priced. Servers are extremely knowledgeable about the offerings. And, interestingly enough, the restaurant currently offers at least two wines, Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir and Silvertap Cabernet Savignon, served directly from the cask – a feature commonplace in California but not widely established in Milwaukee.
With Susie's help, we opted for a bottle of the 2009 Saumur Champigny ($26), a delightfully versatile Loire Valley Cabernet Franc that complemented our entrees, and somewhat surprisingly, our desserts.
We began our meal with half portions of two dishes. The kohlrabi curry ($8) was a pleasantly spiced combination of cubed kohlrabi and chickpeas served with white rice and a deliciously fresh-tasting lime yogurt sauce, while the green tomato pancetta risotto ($4) was an apt combination of creamy rice, rich pancetta and the pleasantly sour tang of pickled green tomatoes. Susie informed us that a variety of dishes on the Braise menu can be ordered as half portions at the request of diners.
For entrees, we opted for the seared duck breast ($24) and an off-menu option of a veal chop served with mushroom ragu and gnocchi ($24). Both entrees were well-executed, beautifully presented and even more importantly, delicious. The duck was perfectly seared, with a crisp exterior and a pleasantly rare interior.
The meat was sweet and toothy, a perfect pairing alongside the slight sourness of cumin vinaigrette, which also made a delicious foil for the ultra-rich duck confit ravioli, which had been pan sautéed to give the outside of the pasta a pleasant caramel crispness.
Similarly, the veal was well-cooked, served medium-rare with a deliciously fresh pistou (herb pesto) that played beautifully with the light-but-crisp sautéed gnocchi, which nearly melted in your mouth. The mushroom ragu, though scant, provided an earthy richness that complemented both the veal and the pasta.
Although we could have been quite content with our dinners, there were too many delicious-sounding options on the dessert menu to resist sampling. We opted for the rosemary cake with strawberry black pepper preserves ($7) and the cranberry tart ($8). Again, both dishes were delicious and well-executed.
The rosemary cake, which we later found out was gluten-free, was sweet, light-textured and deliciously complemented by the strawberry black pepper preserves, which pulled together the expected sweetness of fresh summer strawberries with the unexpectedly smooth bite of black pepper. Garnished with rosemary sugar and a dollop of whipped cream, the herbal cake was the perfect choice to satiate a sweet tooth after dinner.
In opposition, the cranberry tart pulled together the lip-puckering flavor of fresh cranberries with the sweet butteriness of an almost cookie-like pastry. Served in a pool of "cranberry broth" swirled with spiced marscapone, it was the perfect dessert for diners who prefer their desserts to be slightly less sweet.
I tend to reserve my praise for restaurant experiences that blow me away. And, even on the first visit, Braise did just that. In short, Braise is a solid restaurant favoring simple, high-quality ingredients and impeccable preparation over fussy novelties.
In sitting down at Braise, I got the distinct feeling that the proprietor was truly passionate about food and wine, and that his primary goal is dining excellence, rather than making a fortune. And, for that reason, I suspect I'll return time and time again.
The Braise menu is seasonal, and therefore ever-changing. Beginning sometime later this year, the restaurant also plans to offer Sunday suppers, featuring three-course meals. Kitchen hours are 5-10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
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.