By Amy L. Schubert Food Writer Published Feb 16, 2009 at 2:22 PM Photography: Whitney Teska

As the transformation of Milwaukee's former tanneries and warehouses continues, The Iron Horse Hotel, 500 W. Florida St., has reared its bright red signage over the 6th Street viaduct in an area that has, up until now, seen little social activity save nearby Conejito's and the now-closed Il Mito.

The hotel is breathtaking, with a big-city feel and an atmosphere that boasts sleek camaraderie. Within the bar area of the hotel, patrons can dine at Branded, a casual yet chic restaurant space with a menu heavy with steaks, burgers and not surprisingly, other items that could proverbially be "branded."

Chef Thomas Schultz has the reins both at Branded, and the more upscale Smyth in the hotel, and his love of duck confit (in his trademark DLT) and charcuterie platters find themselves on the menu here in more simple variations of what Schultz served during previous stops at Holiday House and Laissez Faire.

Visits to Branded were redeemed by the pretty décor and light atmosphere, but the kitchen staff is still working out some issues. Since the menu is seasonal, I already witnessed some positive alterations between my first and second visit. I hope, as the restaurant gets its footing, the food quality can step up to the level of the ambience.

House chips ($7) are transparently thin and lightly layered with white truffle and parmesan for the perfect accompaniment to a cold beer or a glass of wine. These can be positively addictive and I easily see myself back at the bar with an order in tow.

Sliders on a first visit were priced individually, now they can be mixed and matched in a $12 set. Halibut cheeks and Kobe beef were both slightly overdone for less than favorable results, and a surf and turf definitely peaked some interest with the pairing of wagyu kobe beef and crab in one small burger.

The charcuterie ($14.50) paired two pates, with prosciutto, salami and fontina and blue cheese with a mismatched selection of crackers. It would have been enjoyable had our entrees not arrived, literally, within seconds of our server delivering the platter, which we had ordered no less than five minutes prior to ordering our entrees.

Hanger steak sandwich ($12) was gristly, which was unfortunate because the accompanying Madeira porcini sauce was quite delightful. And a flat iron steak ($16) probably would have been better had I not had to wait close to 10 minutes for a steak knife. The caramelized shallot sauce over the top was sweet and savory, and a great complement to the steak, but did nothing for the French fries, which became sauce-soaked mush beneath the meat. This dish would be better with mashed potatoes to soak up that delicious sauce.

I am a fan of Schultz, so I expect the kitchen to quickly find its stride. And I think if the servers can work out their timing and Schultz can continue to tweak the dishes at Branded, this could easily become one of Milwaukee's better destination restaurants.

The nightlife here already has taken off, as exhibited by a very full bar area on both visits. Now the restaurant just needs to catch up.

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