After a few visits to Cool Water Bar and Grill, 2247 E. St. Francis Ave., St. Francis, I must admit I'm confused by its seemingly evolving concept. But not necessarily in a bad way.
The restaurant and bar, which housed the St. Francis favorite Madjecki's several years back, underwent some fairly substantial renovations after a four-year project in which the owners encountered some formidable building issues. But, the space is now bright and airy, with a non-smoking bar and red-walled dining room on the first floor, and an upstairs bar area for smokers.
The dining room at Cool Water is bright and sterile, the tables informal and perhaps most interesting is the menu, which has morphed from a one-page printout of sandwiches and burgers to a steakhouse-type formal menu in a matter of a few weeks.
The "new" new venue (Cool Water opened in August) is being touted as part Downtown steakhouse, part Downtown club, where value for the dollar rules. And this is what I find most confounding about Cool Water.
The food here is good. It's actually excellent, especially considering the price, but the disjointedness of trying to be all things to all people shows through in selection and service, making Cool Water teeter on the brink of frustrating and forgettable, which could be devastating in this neighborhood.
Service at Cool Water seems to be a pervasive issue. The staff is predominantly younger and under-trained, although they seem to have the hip, aloof attitude that likely plays well with the club portion of the concept. Our visits were uncomfortable when we entered the restaurant, and timing and general courtesy were big problems.
Our servers interrupted our conversations, left dirty dishes on nearby empty tables, asked us repeatedly if we would like our bill while we were still eating, and showed no understanding of the menu or products available.
The beverage selection here has not yet caught up with the new menu; the only wine options available with steak and shrimp dishes were a $2 Glen Ellen cabernet, white zinfandel or chardonnay.
But the food at Cool Water will completely blow you away, especially when you remember you just spent a mere $16.95 for a cup of amazing homemade chicken noodle soup (with perfectly al dente noodles and seasoned grilled chicken chunks), a large salad layered with mixed greens, radishes and an assortment of fresh vegetables, an oven-baked potato and an 8-oz. filet that would put many steak houses to shame.
Burgers at Cool Water offer fun variations on the classic, and I was thrilled with an olive version for $5.95 accompanied by Jo Jo's, or double-fried steak fries. The burger was messily delicious and brought lingering curiosity to try the Italian versions and other options Cool Water offers.
And entrées here on the new menu are absolutely remarkable for the price point. Admittedly, we had low expectations, and even more so when the server asked me if I wanted A1 with my steak, but the steak not only didn't need A1, it didn't even need salt and pepper. Tender and juicy, it was one of the better restaurant filets I've had over the years.
Shrimp Denise ($15.95) also proved very good, with medium-sized shrimp impressively bacon wrapped, with both shrimp and bacon expertly cooked and served over a bed of rice. An appetizer of sautéed mushrooms ($3.95) worked great with both entrees, with just enough merriment of olive oil, butter and salt and pepper.
Rumor has it that Cool Water's fish fry, too, is excellent. And I probably will venture out to try it, now that I fully know what to expect. The simple truth is, Cool Water has a great kitchen and great product, but it needs to step up the service or I'm afraid we could all miss out on some dirt cheap, exceptional dining on the Bay View / St. Francis border.
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.