Joe and Angie Sorge are perhaps Milwaukee's most chameleon-like restaurant owners. Their restaurant Sauce, formerly in the Third Ward, was one of the first trendy restaurants to rear its head on the now hopping Broadway Avenue row, and is now in the process of evolving into a reincarnation of Swig.
Swig, which resided temporarily on Water Street and offered a spin on tapas dining, is now Sullivan's, a more "Water Street" type establishment with televisions and drink specials to please the downtown weekend masses.
If you followed all of that, then you should happily take a trip to the Sorges' newest addition, Water Buffalo, 249 N. Water St., located behind Blush in the Third Ward, which is their best endeavor to date. OnMilwaukee.com readers recently named it Milwaukee's best new restaurant.
Water Buffalo is first and foremost trendy and loud, but the restaurant succeeds in also being amazingly fun and kitschy. Food here on its own is average, but the wide variety of selections coupled with Water Buffalo's fantastic atmosphere, outdoor dining options in the warmer months, evocative artwork and fresh flowers make this a great spot for after work cocktails and appetizers, a reasonably priced meal in the evenings, or a quick salad or sandwich at lunch.
Multiple visits to Water Buffalo yielded good results; while not every item on the menu we sampled was something we would order again, Water Buffalo's strength is their location, atmosphere and the unique architectural design within the building.
Both the upper and lower bars are fully stocked with boutique and domestic beers, a solid wine selection, and some fun mixed drink concoctions. And the popularity of Water Buffalo even in its first six months makes 90-minute waits for a table on the weekend a common occurrence.
Starters at Water Buffalo include sautéed mussels ($7.50), baked Italian cheese spread ($7), tomato basil bruschetta ($7.50), chicken rolls ($7.50), and lobster and fennel fritters (9). Of these, lobster and fennel fritters were the least impressive, with a doughy consistency and lack of both lobster and fennel flavors.
Chicken rolls mimicked a fancy chimichanga, and were good with an ice-cold beer, as was the Italian cheese spread, which tasted mostly of ricotta cheese. Sautéed mussels and bruschetta seemed to encounter the same ordinary flavors, which with the bruschetta would have been easily cured with a smattering of sea salt to bring out the fresh tomato and basil flavors.
But again, food here was good enough to make me want to return, and a few minor tweaks to these dishes by head chef Frank Ortlieb could easily make the food something spectacular.
The very reasonable dinner entrées proved themselves good as well. Even slightly overcooked due to a busy kitchen, a tenderloin steak sandwich ($12.50) was melt-in-your mouth delicious, and the accompanying fries were crispy and perfectly seasoned.
A beef tenderloin kabob ($12) with onions, peppers and mushrooms arrived fork tender and had a lovely red wine demi-glace that worked well with the beef and side of rice. And, baked salmon ($14) stuffed with spinach and pancetta was flaky and good, sitting atop a bed of rice with fresh vegetables.
With the incursion of highly priced, underwhelming restaurants that have joined Milwaukee's restaurant scene in the last several years, Water Buffalo brings a welcome change with their moderately priced, accessible menu and fabulous space. I fully expect Water Buffalo to be a Third Ward favorite for many, many years to come.
Water Buffalo is open daily from 11 a.m.
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.