By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Jan 03, 2011 at 4:02 PM

Those sleek Edelweiss river cruise boats that slide beneath Downtown bridges during the summer have an onshore year-round sibling. The boats and the Port of Call Bistro & Beer Garden, appropriately located along the Milwaukee River at Wells Street, share the same owners, Robert Carr and Dan Jorgenson.

Carr was captain of the two Edelweiss vessels when they were owned by Hans Weissgerber III's Waterfront Entertainment Group, and Jorgenson was involved with the Washington Island Ferry Line. They bought the river boats in 2007 and opened Port of Call last St. Patrick's Day.

Besides giving the business a 12-month a year presence, the Port of Call kitchen and staff provide the food and beverage service aboard the boats. That gives the Edelweiss operation flexibility with such things as adding last minute customers, according to Port of Call general manager Mat Grasseschi.

But the restaurant and bar also stands on its own two sea legs, drawing distinctly different sets of customers at different times of the year. Port of Call's spacious outdoor patio on the river attracts warm weather diners and drinkers spending lazy afternoons and evenings watching boat traffic pass by.

When temperatures cool and days shorten, Port of Call feeds audiences on their way to shows at the nearby Pabst Theater, Off the Wall Theatre, Marcus Center and Milwaukee Rep. The restaurant's rhythm completely changes as the staff puts the pedal to the metal to get its customers in their theater seats on time.

Grasseschi studies the calendars of all the show venues each week to have his kitchen, bar and servers ready for the pre-curtain tsunami. "We have it down. We can push out a lot of food at a high quality," he says, adding that diners on a deadline can figure on getting in and out of the restaurant in less than an hour.

Port of Call is in a space formerly occupied by the Mediterranean-influenced fine dining restaurant Yaffa and the more casual Byron's Bistro and Beer Garden. The interior design at Port of Call is essentially unchanged, with owners Carr and Jorgenson adding nautical artifacts and wall decorations.

The main dining room seats 50, and a smaller lounge that comfortably accommodates groups has a capacity of 16. A fireplace in the lounge makes the space especially cozy in the winter. The separate barroom includes three tables.

Executive chef Blake Bengsch was trained at the Culinary Institute of America. His resume includes an internship at a Manhattan restaurant and a sous chef position at Osteria del Mondo.

Bengsch's original menu at Port of Call was adventurous for a mainstream restaurant, with ethnic influences in some of the offerings -- a scallop satay appetizer and a Napa Thai salad, for example. "When we opened we had more foo foo type stuff," he says.

Those items are gone, replaced by "Wisconsin meat and potatoes, more homestyle food," the chef adds. "We took off the menu things that scare people," Grasseschi says.

"People don't go out anymore to try things," he explains. "They go out to get a version of what they know they will like. People were coming in here and asking, 'where is the steak?'"

Customers are not asking that anymore. A full pound ribeye, priced at $28, is the most expensive item on the menu. A 7-ounce tenderloin is $24 and an 8-ounce hanger steak is $22.

"I recommend our tenderloin. You can't go wrong with it," says Grasseschi, whose family has owned a steak house in his hometown of Great Falls, Mont., for 74 years.

All steaks come with a choice of two sides and a sauce. Bengsch gets a chance to demonstrate his CIA training with a variety of sides that include carmelized brussels sprouts, and spring onion and corn fricassee.

Port of Call's nautical theme is reflected on the menu with paella ($17), cioppino ($19), Atlantic salmon served with a vodka cream sauce ($22), seafood linguini ($17) and seared scallops with risotto ($21). Grasseschi is proud of the Friday perch fish fry, which comes with a house coleslaw and a choice of fries or potato pancakes.

Other interesting menu items include a Guinness beef stew made with the Irish brew ($4/$7), Wisconsin beer cheese soup prepared with Pabst and bratwurst medallions ($4/$7), duck quesadillas ($9) and a cheddar apple burger that features maple roasted apples and white cheddar cheese ($9). Bengsch grinds brisket for the burgers, which are served on pretzel buns.

Port of Call's kitchen opens at 11 Tuesday through Saturday, and closes at 10 Tuesday-Thursday and midnight Friday and Saturday. The restaurant opens for brunch at 10:30 a.m. Sundays and serves food until 9 p.m.

The Port of Call bar stays open until the standard closing time.

Grasseschi is making plans to improve the patio next summer. An outdoor bar and dockside delivery to boaters is on the to-do list.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.