The Pfister Hotel is one of Milwaukee's most notable hotels, and yet over the years, its main restaurants have struggled, with the closing of The English Room and more recently Celia. So with an boom in Downtown development with condos and freeway renovations, the timing was perfect to introduce Mason Street Grill, 425 E. Mason St., a highly publicized, trendy -- yet not really -- steakhouse meets sandwich lounge right on the corner of Mason and Jefferson.
Mason Street Grill is difficult to pin down. The interior leans towards masculine-minded steakhouse, yet the bar area features loungey live entertainment with televisions, and counter seating abuts a noisy open kitchen space that is otherwise separated from the formal dining area.
Music is eclectic, as is the clientele, and how the Grill's walk-in policy works is a mystery to me, as on two of our three visits we were told there was no seating available by a host standing in front of the nearly empty dining room. On one occasion we stayed in the bar area and were later seated with no apparent change in the number of customers dining. On another occasion, we left and went elsewhere, although not to the Café at The Pfister as they recommended. This seating oddity seems to stem either from lack of scheduled staff during shifts, kitchen limitations, or maybe something else ... but whatever the reason, I recommend making reservations for lunch or dinner, even for parties as small as two.
Mason Street Grill's menu ranges from sandwiches and salads to veal Oscar and wood grilled Ahi tuna. Prices here range expensive, with the sandwiches and salads starting at $9.50 and entrees topping out at $48.50 for a 21-day dry aged USDA prime New York Strip Steak. We found the food and service to be very good, but, surprisingly, not commensurately outstanding when weighing the size of our bills.
Dinners here start with a basket of complementary house flatbreads which are a pleasant starter, and entrées came with the house salad, which mimics a chop salad with hard boiled eggs, bacon, and a wasabi honey dressing we found to be a very heavy way to begin a meal. A chopped liver pate ($7.50) was served with brioche, and was good, but not as rich as we would have expected. Baked goat cheese with tomatoes and garlic ($7.75) was delicious, especially when coupled with the house flatbreads. And a specialty soup of cream of asparagus ($6) was outstanding and well-seasoned.
Entrées again were very good, but tipped high on the pricing scale. Sea bass in a red pepper sauce ($36) was flaky and delicious, but slightly marred by a very hot and unidentified jalapeno pickle relish garnish that was so unexpectedly hot it gave me a start. USDA filet medallions au poivre ($36.50) were excellent, with just enough peppercorns to give them delightful flavor and texture without being overpowering.
Mason Street Grill offers nine a la carte sides (one included, additional choices for $4 each), and we sampled three of them, Delmonico potatoes, button mushrooms and ratatouille, all three of which were very good.
One of the most notable things about Mason Street Grill is that both service and food quality improved greatly from our first visit to our second, which spanned several weeks, during which time there was a menu change as well. If they continue to work at improvement, the Grill stands to do very well amid its competition, but it seems to be pulling in enough people right now to keep very busy, or at least as busy as it chooses to be.
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.