By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Apr 10, 2024 at 12:27 PM Photography: Kevin J. Miyazaki

Following three months of renovations, EsterEv – the former restaurant-inside-a-restaurant at Dandan – will officially welcome guests into its new home at 2165 S. Kinickinnic Ave. on Wednesday, April 17.

When it does, guests can expect a similarly intimate, high-quality dining experience to that for which EsterEv has become known. But they can also expect a fresh personality-infused space and a more casual, neighborhood-driven dining format that makes the experience more accessible to a wider swath of diners.

Ester & Evelyn

The tasting menu restaurant, which opened inside of DanDan in 2016, has always been a personal venture. The name is an homage to Chef and Owners Dan Jacob's and Dan Van Rite’s great-grandmothers (Ester and Evelyn), both fondly remembered for their joyful spirits and passion for cooking and feeding those around them. 

But it has also been a showpiece for the talents of Jacobs and Van Rite (along with their hardworking team) and a way for them to share their personalities and passion for food with the community.

Dan Jacobs and Dan Van Rite in the kitchen (Galdones Photography)
Dan Jacobs and Dan Van Rite in the kitchen (Galdones Photography)

It’s an effort that has earned both chefs accolades, including five nods as James Beard Award semifinalists and – most recently – a nomination for the duo in the category of Best Chef: Midwest for 2024

The skills and techniques practiced in the EsterEv kitchen have also served as a way for Jacobs to continue honing his fine dining skills, an asset that has kept him in the running as a chef-testant on Season 21 of Bravo's "Top Chef."

“We’ve been sharing the DanDan kitchen for so many years,” notes Jacobs. “And we made it work. But we’ve always wanted Ester Ev to have its own voice and its own space."

He says that, despite searching for years, it wasn’t until C-Viche vacated their Bay View location in the fall of 2023 that they found what they’d been hoping for:  an intimate, 40-seat restaurant that they could infuse with personality and share with food lovers in Milwaukee.

Small space, big personality

“Food-wise, we always take our work at EsterEv very seriously,” says Jacobs. “But we want this place to reflect us, to showcase our personalities and our sense of humor. We want the atmosphere to feel like we’re welcoming people into our home.”

Despite the caliber of food being served, Jacobs says they also want EsterEv to be a comfortable, neighborhood concept. “It’s not the sort of place with a dress code,” he says. “People can come here as they are and enjoy a great meal.”

Largely a DIY exercise accomplished by Jacobs and his wife, local artist Kate Riley, the interior of EsterEv is modern and minimalist, sporting clean lines, Midcentury Modern inflection and a palette in shades of blue and green.

Pops of orange appear in the restaurant’s wallpaper, which Scott Starr of Rev Pop designed to incorporate elements of the flower from the EsterEv logo.

Shelving, wallpaperX

Shelving on the walls are filled with favorite cookbooks and tchotchkes along with a healthy collection of live plants – a passion and contribution from Van Rite, whose botanical interests and green thumb have enhanced the decor at the partners’ restaurants for over a decade.

Meanwhile, in the venue's quirkily-decorated bathrooms, guests will also encounter Funko Pops and pieces of pop-art that Jacobs has collected over the years. There are framed prints depicting the galaxies of “Star Wars”, scenes from “The Simpsons” and themes and characters from “Lord of the Rings” and comic books.

“I love a cool bathroom,” notes Riley. “Everywhere I go the first thing I do is check out the bathrooms. So we took some of the fun collectibles, along with a bunch of pop art that he’d collected over the years. I got things framed and we used them.”

Approachable & fun

In Bay View, Jacobs and Van Rite will take turns leading the kitchen alongside industry veterans Val Bartram and Syd Zwieg. Front-of-house matters will be led by a team composed of Tyler Flynn, Zoe Jones and Alex Cichon.

Meanwhile, veteran bartender Courtney Kelley has created a menu of cocktails for the venue, showcasing a mix of classics and seasonal creations including the Drunken Monkey, an homage to EsterEv's sister restaurant Dandan (bourbon, brandy, amantillado, apricot, coconut, lime, pineapple, Chinese five spice); the Balam (Anodyne cold brew, xtabentun and a cardamom cream float).

Unlike the original EsterEv concept, which relied on communal seating in its cozy quarters, the Bay View restaurant will function more like a typical restaurant, with seating for groups of two to six diners at wooden tables outfitted with the familiar blue chairs from the former EsterEv space. 

EsterEv dining room, wallpaper, shelvesX

The change is part of an overall reimagination of the EsterEv concept to make it more affordable and accessible to a larger number of diners.

“We’ll still be serving fun, interesting food,” notes Jacobs of the new four-course pre-fixe menu from which diners can choose from an ever-changing slate of seasonal courses. “But we wanted to make it approachable. Once you get into the $100 price range, it makes a restaurant far less accessible and we really wanted to be sensitive to that, especially considering the current economy.”

The cost will be $80 per person with optional wine pairings available for an additional $50. Wine, along with cocktails, will also be available by the glass. Guests can also order enhancements like EsterEv’s famous caviar tater tot or a cheese course featuring a unique Wisconsin cheese of the moment.

Every meal will begin with a welcome course: a small bowl of housemade chicken soup served with bread and butter. It’s a humble gesture with a long, storied history.

Welcome course: soup, bread, butterX

“The idea was inspired by John Shields of Smyth [in Chicago],” says Jacobs. “It’s a welcome course that thanks our guests for coming. And we chose soup because it’s classic. Marie-Antoine Carême always started his meals with soup because – whether you were rich or poor – there was common comfort in the dish.”

The dining experience will be enhanced by handmade ceramic place settings, coffee mugs and vases designed by Riley.

And while reservations are recommended, guests don’t necessarily need to plan ahead, or bring friends, to experience EsterEv. At the bar, eight seats will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. Walk-ins seated at the bar will have their choice of dishes from the regular menu, along with plates/snacks from a special bar menu.

EsterEv BarX

“We wanted the format to be flexible enough that someone from the neighborhood could wander in and enjoy some wine and a few plates without having to sit through numerous courses,” says Jacobs.

A peek at the menu

As for the menu at EsterEv, guests can expect dishes that reflect the chefs' family traditions, Midwestern sensibility and appreciation for the bounty sourced from Wisconsin farms.

They can also expect a playful slate of offerings that showcases creativity, technique and a love for globally inspired flavors. 

"We are excited about the possibilities," notes Jacobs, "Having our own kitchen will allow us to continue to push the boundaries of our creativity beyond guest expectations."

Here's a peek at just some of the dishes on the opening menu, along with a forecast of what's likely to come.

Clams with herbs, XO sauce, konbu, sourdough
Clams with herbs, XO sauce, konbu, sourdough

Noodles, pastas and dumplings will be prepared with seasonal flair.

Cavatappi, peas, ricotta, whey
Cavatappi, peas, ricotta, whey

There will also be playful takes on Midwestern staples, including dishes like beef tartare (commonly enjoyed in Wisconsin as a "cannibal sandwich"). 

Beef tartare: served with herbs and lettuce
Beef tartare: laab served with herbs and lettuce

Vegetable dishes will receive the same thoughtful treatment as those containing meat.

Dolma: collard greens filled with sunchoke, soubise, tarragon
Dolma: collard greens filled with sunchoke, soubise, tarragon

Entree-style selections – including proteins like beef, pork, duck and fish – will be flavorful and well-executed.

Coulotte steak, tomato, potato, mustard greens
Coulotte steak, tomato, potato, mustard greens

Even more, there will always be memorable desserts, often presented in unexpected ways.

Strawberry, spruce, coriander
Strawberry, spruce, coriander

“I’m really happy with the way this has turned out,” says Jacobs “It’s homey, and there’s a great vibe. We can’t wait to have people dine with us again.”

Beginning April 17, EsterEv will be open Wednesday through Saturday from 5 to 9 p.m., with the last reservation at 8:30 p.m. Both on-site and street parking available for all guests. Reservations can be made online.

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.