Of all the new spots opening up in Bay View and Walker's Point, Odd Duck has fascinated me most. Sure, part of the intrigue lies with the name itself. But, after watching the crowds flock to this hip new spot night after night, I began to wonder if it would live up to all the brouhaha.
Odd Duck, 2352 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., is a 65-seat restaurant and bar owned by Ross Bachhuber, former executive chef for Lowlands Group restaurants (Trocadero, Café Hollander), and Melissa Buchholz. It inhabits the space formerly occupied by Café Tarragon, a low-profile café housed within the former Future Green, Milwaukee's first totally eco-friendly, fair-trade shop.
The new restaurant makes good use of the reclaimed wood and exposed brick interior, embellishing the sustainable look with bamboo tables, turquoise-painted reproduction vintage farmstead chairs, kitchy wall-mounted antlers, mason jar lighting and tropical reed fans overhead. Pair that with a diverse group of beard-donning, skinny-jean-wearing customers and you have what a dining companion of mine called "the ultimate hipster haven."
Add its reputation as yet another restaurant serving "locally inspired fare" and one could get a bit cynical about the overall concept. But, as we'd discover, the culinary prowess of the place surpasses such a trite description, offering diners an explosive selection of inventive fare with a flare for the extraordinary.
The menu – which spans the globe with offerings inspired by French, Mediterranean and Asian fare – offers a wide selection of ever-changing small plates, along with a small-but-inventive selection of full-blown entrees.
The drink offerings are similarly impressive, offering a moderately priced selection of beers and wines, as well as a bright, well-executed smattering of imaginative cocktails, hearkening back to the days of Prohibition while giving a staunch wave to modern mixology. A chalkboard just inside the door also lists bar snacks including dilly beans, bourbon pickled long beans, oil-cured olives and pickled eggs with beet juice ($3 each).
We arrived at the restaurant in time for a 6:30 p.m. reservation, which soon seemed extremely well-advised, as the restaurant was bustling by 7 and seating demanded a one-hour wait by the time 7:30 p.m. rolled around.
As the crowds grew, the high ceiling, wood floors and linen-free tables (all components of most new restaurants nowadays) contributed to a relatively loud dining experience, with sounds from the semi-open kitchen ricocheting against the sounds of animated conversation and clattering dishes. Not a deal-breaker, of course, but the factor should be kept in mind for those seeking an intimate conversational atmosphere.
For us, dinner began with a sampling of cocktails, including the refreshingly peppery #009 Arugula Gimlet ($9) and the mouthwateringly old fashioned #73, featuring gin, St. Germaine, lemon, cardamom and blueberry-lilac syrup and egg white.
The former was green and herbal, invoking summer salads and lazy patio days, while the latter somehow evoked the sweet bitterness of grapefruit, floral elements from the lilac and a pleasant waft of evergreen thanks to a healthy dose of locally distilled Rehorst gin.
Appetites ready, the four of us began our meal with a round of the Duck's small plate offerings. Two crisp fried duck confit spring rolls ($8) came sliced on the diagonal with a pleasantly salty soy dipping sauce that bore just enough kick to cut the richness of the duck, which was packed into the rolls with a selection of red, yellow and green peppers.
The goat cheese and thyme-braised carrot terrine ($7), a beautifully presented spread, featured fresh mild chevre layered with tender carrots and drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar. It was perfect spread atop the accompanying crostini with a leaf or two of fresh arugula to add a bit of peppery bite. Similarly, the bacon-wrapped gouda-stuffed Medjool dates ($8), served four to a plate, offered up a pleasant balance between sweet and smoky, with tender fresh arugula offering up a refreshing herbal note.
Most impressive, if not the most flavorful, were the guanciale and ginger salami stuffed prawns ($12), served whole atop a bed of fragrant garlic rice. Few restaurants in the area serve whole prawns, making the presentation of the dish notable.
The prawn shell offered up its flavor to the tender, though slightly dry flesh, while the saltiness of the salami and richness of guanciale gave the dish additional body. One diner noted that the dish "maybe could've used a sauce" which would have added to the texture and moisture of the dish, but it wasn't necessarily lacking in flavor.
Service throughout our meal was attentive and affirming. Our waitress was knowledgeable about the menu and offered up her sincere – if guarded – opinions about the dishes ordered. Despite the hectic pace of the busy restaurant, she kept a keen eye on our plates and drinks, offering the meal a sense of well-executed timing and laid-back attention without making us feel at all rushed.
While small plate selection left us feeling quite satisfied, our entrees took our gratification to the next level. We sampled the Drunken Noodle ($14), a highly spiced dish featuring thick-cut rice noodles, fried tofu, carrots, snow peas, broccoli, basil and Thai chiles. The sauce had a kick that would be off-putting to milder palates, but it was eagerly welcomed by my chile-headed dining companion, who also found the balance between the tender noodles and crisp-tender vegetables to be just right.
The handmade gnocchi ($16) was equally delicious, highlighting tender free-form potato dumplings enveloped by a mild-yet-flavorful horseradish and mustard bechemel and accompanied by sweet roasted peppers and crisp, lightly smoked pancetta.
On the heavier side fell the shortrib bourguignon ($18), a homey dish filled with uber-tender braised shortribs and a mélange of potatoes, carrots and pearl onions bathed in a rich red wine sauce embellished with the smokiness of bacon. Likewise, the pork belly bulgogi ($16) aimed to satisfy with a liberal serving of tender belly served over an ample portion of garlic rice and accompanied by a beautifully cooked quail egg. A spicy kimchi-like sweet plum-apple-daikon relish provided the perfect foil for the well-seasoned, but rich, pork.
Despite our full bellies, we also opted to try one of the evening's dessert selections – a pineapple upside-down cake ($6) served with Purple Door banana ice cream. Perfectly old-fashioned in its preparation, the tender cake with its brandy-spiked pineapple played nicely with the rich tropically flavored ice cream, and the portion was ample. In fact, this caramelized treat was just enough to give all four of us a few sweet bites to end our evening.
And the verdict? Four happy diners very relieved that the Odd Duck lived up to the hype. For just under $150 (including drinks, small plates, dinner and dessert), we ate like kings and queens, sampling the menu to our heart's content yet remaining curious about menu items untried. Another trip is definitely on the docket, and there's nothing odd about that.
The kitchen at Odd Duck is open from 5 to 10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, with the bar keeping hours from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. Monday-Thursday and 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Reservations are strongly recommended.
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.