One of Milwaukee's most beautiful riverfront patios is in the space currently occupied by Port of Call.
But the Riverwalk space at 106. E. Wells St. seems challenged. In the five years since it opened as the Mediterranean-influenced infused-vodka lounge Yaffa, Port of Call is the third restaurant to take over the space, following a brief stint by Byron's Beer Garden. Yaffa shuttered in early 2009.
Port of Call, now owned by the same owners who operate the Milwaukee River Cruise Line (Edelweiss), has an appealing menu and the interior is open and welcoming, making the space's newest tenant seem like a sure-fire win. But two recent visits yielded such inconsistent results that Port of Call may need to firm things up or possibly end up yet another victim of closure.
A first lunch visit dining inside brought with it excellent sandwiches and good weekday service (we were in and out in under an hour). A second visit, this time late on a Sunday afternoon, left both myself and my dining companion miserable with our dishes and the experience in general. It was undoubtedly one of the worst restaurant experiences I've had in a long time.
The good at Port of Call was very, very good, in the form of a shrimp BLT ($9) which paired grilled shrimp with apple wood bacon and mixed greens, layered them with a basil pesto mayonnaise and tucking it all into panino format with crunchy toasted bread.
The good continued through a short rib grilled cheese ($9) with flavorful, tender short ribs also in a panino with Muenster cheese, caramelized onions and this time a horseradish and chive mayonnaise.
Both sandwiches were served with thin, crisp French fries that were salted to perfection, making the lunch experience superb, filling and quick.
The bad started taking shape when after trying to order tap beer and brunch on a Sunday, we were told the beer garden's tappers weren't working and that even though the menu read that brunch was served until 4 p.m., they were now only serving it until 1 p.m.
An attempt at ordering whitefish pâté and an entrée also ended in failure, since the kitchen was out of pâté and it was 20 minutes too early to order entrées, even though no brunch was available, leaving us to choose between sandwiches or salads.
Once our third attempt at an order was placed -- this time for buttermilk marinated calamari ($8), duck confit quesadillas ($8), overnight pulled pork ($9) and a cheddar apple burger ($10) -- we had another fail when my companion tried to order another beermosa (orange juice and Spotted Cow), and was informed his first drink had been made with the last tap of beer, so he would need to order something else.
As we waited for our food, we watched as several tables around us began to leave. The first was never visited by a waitress 30 minutes after being seated and the guests were obviously angry.
The second had come to drink beer in the beer garden and found out after they ordered that there was no beer to drink. Others came and went as our appetizers arrived, and sadly, much of this could have been avoided with a little proactive effort from the staff in explaining what was available and what was not.
However, soon we wished we had left, as well, since our dining experience began to turn ugly.
The calamari was decent when we found a rare crisp piece on our platter, but for the most part the dish was either old, overcooked or both, resulting in a mushy consistency.
The duck quesadillas were actually quite good with pico de gallo and a drizzle of cilantro sour cream. But the pulled pork had a burnt taste to it, and my burger arrived so raw that when I cut into it, the ground beef actually all pulled apart.
Since we couldn't locate our server, we flagged down another, who told us they had mixed up my order with another table that ordered a raw (not rare) mushroom and Swiss burger. After a lengthy wait during which both my companion and the other burger orderer's companions both finished their meals, my second burger arrived.
This time, the burger was cooked well done instead of medium rare, and was so tough and dry I couldn't eat it. The other burger diner looked just as displeased as I did, and I left much of my hockey puck style burger on my plate, filling myself with the fries, which, at least, were as good as on my first visit.
I'm not sure if it was too taxing on the staff to try to cover both the patio and the interior of the restaurant, or if everyone there was just having a bad day, but had that been my first visit, I would never again return to Port of Call, no matter how lovely the patio is.
And based on the customers we saw leaving, they likely lost more customers than just myself based on that ugly Sunday afternoon.
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.