By Amy L. Schubert Food Writer Published Aug 07, 2006 at 5:35 AM Photography: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography
It has been over seven years since Chef Joe Volpe first took the Milwaukee restaurant scene by storm, and his resume reads like a Milwaukee “Best of Dining” article: Vinifera at the Passeggio in 1999, Sauce in 2000, followed by four splendid years of ongoing culinary delight at Tess with his partner Mitchell Wakefield (also of The Harp).

But, Volpe has truly outdone himself this time with his creation of Holiday House, 525 E. Menomonee St., with Chef de Cuisine Tom Schulz.

Fashioned after the memories of a classic dinner club Volpe’s grandfather John ran in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, Holiday House is sleek and timeless. Diners choose from the private, more formal dining area or the platform seating that places them up near floor to ceiling windows tastefully decorated with crisp, white linens and holiday lights.

Two recent visits to Holiday House showed why Volpe has solidified his place as Milwaukee’s best, most creative chef. His ability to combine traditional culinary arts with contemporary and dare I say, passionate, uniquely paired flavors make his food something not to be missed, whether you sample his offerings at Holiday House or in le jardin at Tess.

The menu at Holiday House is laid out into three acts; Act I features appetizers and starter plates, Act II a medley of uniquely spun salads (expect to see golden beets, door county cherries, and smoked trout as some of the stars cast in this section) and Act III, an assortment of 13 entrée selections plus a nightly meat and fish special.

Spinach and watercress ravioli ($9) came with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano and al dente to perfection, lying atop a light brown butter sauce with essence of truffle oil which begged to be eaten with our warm basket of bread after we had enjoyed the ravioli.

The Charcuterie plate ($16) a selection of Italian meats and cheeses, was served with a fruit mostarda (a pungent Italian fruit chutney of sorts prepared with mixed fruits paired with mustard seed and white wine vinegar) and rivaled the best cheese plates in town.

Thai shrimp ($10) mingled large seared shrimp with a green curry and coconut milk sauce, baby corn, wild mushrooms and basmati rice. Had I been dining alone, I would have happily kept this appetizer all to myself as an entree. The shrimp were delightfully fresh and plump and the vegetables and rice intermixed with the curry sauce was heavenly.

One of Volpe’s strengths has always been his ability to meld flavors with faultless precision, the point where many restaurants miss their mark, either by oversaucing delicate dishes or not providing enough contrast to richly flavored standalone meats and fishes.

This skill was aptly exhibited in all the entrees we sampled. My dining companion proclaimed the Amatriciano ($16) which showcased bucatini (thick, tubular pasta; like fat spaghetti with a hollow center) in a red sauce with pancetta, onions, plum tomatoes and pecorino cheese, the best pasta dish she had ever had.

Volpe’s success with fish also shown brightly in both the seared Maine scallops ($24) which were, undoubtedly the best scallops I have had in Milwaukee, and also with the Florida grouper special ($24) which came light and flaky in a classic beurre blanc with crab pico de gallo, sautéed zucchini and light, fluffy mashed potatoes.

Like Tess, Holiday House features little nuances that most other Milwaukee restaurants neglect in both tact and timing. Servers bring clean silverware with each plate change, menus indicate gluten-free selections (items that contain no wheat or flours) and the staff is professional and knowledgeable, yet courteous and friendly.

At times we found the pacing a bit slow, but we were pleased that at no time during the course of either dining experience did we feel rushed, and the space lends itself well to a reserved and intimate dinner. With great food, a relaxing atmosphere, and outstanding service, Holiday House has, in multiple ways, found a niche in making each and every visit truly seem like a holiday away.

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.