Beautiful. Elusive. Delicious.
A morel mushroom is many things, including the name of a hot new spot opening soon in Walker’s Point.
"It was one of the first foods I ever foraged in Wisconsin," says Jonathan Manyo, chef and owner of the soon to open Morel restaurant, located at 430 S. 2nd St.
Manyo, who grew up in Milwaukee, left home to attend the California Culinary Academy. He worked locally at The Immigrant Restaurant in Kohler, as well as Watermark in Milwaukee. But, he also cooked at Club XIX in Pebble Beach, the Maisonette in Cincinnati and – most recently – at Lincoln Restaurant in Portland, Ore.
Although Manyo considered opening a restaurant in Portland, he says that, ultimately, he didn’t want to blend in with the myriad restaurants in the area. So, two years ago, when his father fell ill, he decided to make the move back to Wisconsin.
"Every restaurant out on the west coast is farm to table," says Manyo. "With a 12-month growing season, it’s difficult to be anything but."
But, he recognized that wasn’t the case in Milwaukee.
"Here a lot of restaurants say they’re farm to table, but they’re really just supplementing their usual fare with local food," he says. "I really felt like Milwaukee needed a good farm to table restaurant. So, I focused on pulling things together here. I’ve always loved this city, and I felt like it was one way that I could contribute to bettering Milwaukee."
Manyo likens his philosophy to that of Chef Dave Swanson at Braise – who preserves fresh foods during their peak growing season and stores them for the off season.
"It’s a real challenge," he notes, "But, it’s about quality and staying true to the concept. The goal is to serve as much locally sourced food as possible"
Manyo says he plans to employ a small staff of interested industry folks to help out with canning and preserving during the peak season. Dry storage and a walk-in freezer in the basement of the restaurant will accommodate storage for preserved items.
"We’ll source all of our proteins from Wisconsin," Manyo says. "We’ll bring in some whole animals – including hogs, lamb and hopefully goats – to be butchered at the restaurant – as well as additional local meat from Black Earth."
Seafood will also come from local sources, including Rushing Waters Trout Farm and Walleye from Northern Wisconsin.
"We won't have seafood," jokes General Manager Brayden Twesme with a smile. "It's lakefood."
In future years, Manyo says he expects the restaurant will grow most – if not all – of its herbs, as well as some produce and edible flowers in an on-premise garden. Solar panels and a focus on smart water usage are other environmental considerations that will be pursued.
Manyo says work has also begun on a large secluded patio behind the restaurant, where he hopes the city will allow him to install an outdoor hearth for cooking. He hopes the space will be ready for use later this season, or next spring at the latest.
When it comes to his personal cooking style, Manyo says "rustic elegance" is the goal.
"We’re not going for an overly artistic plate," he says. "In fact, it’s more about creating great flavors, great dishes. We want to create accessible, affordable food."
Kitchen staff, including Sous Chef Shaun Abbott, formerly of Mason Street Grill, is already collaborating with Manyo to create the dishes that will comprise the restaurant's first weekly menu.
The offerings will be fairly traditional, says Manyo, with a selection of about six appetizers and starters, a cheese board, a charcuterie board (comprised of primarily house-made items, with the exception of dry cured meats) and six to eight entrees. The menu is anticipated to change about once a week, with daily adjustments and specials added as needed. And pricing will fall in the mid-range, with appetizers ranging from $6-12, charcuterie around $15 for a board, and entrees between $16-26.
The wine list will also be affordable, says Matt Hungerford, bar manager, who notes that there will be about 45 bottles available at any given time, with about three-quarters of the selection priced under $50. Another eight wines will be available for purchase by the glass.
The bar will feature house-made bitters, tonic and syrups. And cocktails, says Hungerford, will be primarily riffs on classics.
"We want to do classic cocktails, and some of those that have been forgotten," he says, "Like the Aviation, a gin cocktail with maraschino liqueur and lemon juice. We want to educate people and have fun with it. For instance, I foresee doing a series of Brandy cocktails in the future. People here love their brandy."
Along with cocktails, a rotating selection of five seasonal craft beers from Midwestern breweries will be available on tap, along with 18-20 bottled beers.
The restaurant itself is designed with a rustic French farmhouse feel, featuring barnwood and exposed stone accents, along with warm neutral tones.
"We wanted it to have a countryside feel," says Twesme. "Really comfortable and welcoming."
The open kitchen, which flows into the bar area, will accommodate counter seating for four, giving diners a first-hand look behind the scenes.
"Here, every table will be able to talk with us, have access to us," says Manyo, "It’s fun for the diners, but, it’s also great for the cooks. We get immediate feedback, and we can see how they’re enjoying the food. We love the idea of being interactive."
In a city where chef-driven restaurants are becoming the norm, Manyo says he’s excited to be part of the changing scene.
"Milwaukee is really waking up to the fact that food doesn’t have to be 1950s diner style – with fish on Fridays and prime rib on Sundays," says Manyo. "The city is really a lot different. There are cool restaurants and good cooks who want to learn and stay instead of moving to Chicago. And the more good restaurants there are here, the more they’ll stay."
Morel is waiting on its final inspections, but expects to open toward the end of the month. The restaurant will serve dinner Tuesday through Saturday evenings.
Watch OnMilwaukee.com for more details as they become available.
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.