Sometimes you see a Chicago dining concept and think, "that'll never fly here."
But this weekend, I came face to face with a Windy City restaurant that would be a perfect fit for Milwaukee.
River Roast, 315 N. LaSalle St., is nestled along the north bank of the Chicago River, with a great view out over the drink, and an outdoor riverside dining area – for use when it's not 25 degrees out – that focuses on roasted meat and poultry, carved table-side.
Small plates are crafted around hearty ingredients like rabbit, foie gras, artichokes and seafood, including scallops and salmon, and a range of roasts is available, typically, for more than one diner.
A whole chicken or a rack of pork, for example, serves two.
The table-side carving, along with simple, interesting riffs on classic salad options (chopped romaine, beet salad, shaved fennel with a hazelnut vinaigrette, etc.) and comfort food-style sides (roasted brussels sprouts, peas with pearl onions, etc.) – and a variety of oysters on the half shell – gives River Roast a down-home Wisconsin supper club feel, even if the decor and the setting don't really suggest it.
On Sundays, which is when we visited, there's a live blues brunch, this time with a duo – featuring Buddy Guy keyboardist Marty Sammon and drummer Rick King – that was really, really good and, amazingly for a large space like River Roast's dining room – which also has an open kitchen – never overpowering.
This was the scene for what turned out to be a family friendly brunch that was fun and satisfying for all of us. We weren't sure kids would find much on the menu when we looked at it in advance, but the River Roast staff assured us the kitchen would make nearly any breakfast item (sans pancakes) that they requested.
Yet, the kids happily ordered off the menu and massive kudos to the culinary minds behind River Roast – Wisconsin Chef Tony Mantuano and his Chicago colleague Chef John Hogan – who managed to get my kid to eat rabbit with waffles. The verdict? It's really good. And, he says, it tastes like chicken.
However, while there were some kids dining, River Roast doesn't appear to be hopping with little ones, even at weekend brunch, so you can go and expect to have a good old adult time, too, especially, I'd imagine at dinner and weekday lunch service.
The sprawling restaurant also has a number of spaces that can easily be made private for groups of all sizes. And, sometimes, assistant general manager Kevin Palmos told me, they push together a bunch of the tables in the main dining room to host festive, family-style dining events for large groups, too.
My favorite of the brunch dishes we ordered was the low country croque madame (pictured above), with ham, swiss cheese and dijon mustard atop a thick slice of sourdough bread and topped with a hearty gravy and a sunny side up egg. Sinfully delicious.
If the food, especially, feels a bit Wisconsin, it's no coincidence, according to Mantuano, best known for his Spiaggia Italian restaurant, but whose Bar Toma is our favorite of his places. Mantuano also owns Kenosha's respected and long-lived Mangia.
"Growing up in Wisconsin," writes Mantuano, on the River Roast web site, "my earliest memories were created around the table, meals with family and friends, old and new. Great conversation, delicious food and drinks, served with care."
River Roast is open for lunch on weekdays from 11:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. and for brunch on weekends from 11 to 3. Dinner is served from 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, from 5 to 11 on Saturday, and 5 to 9 Sunday. The full bar is open 11:30 until late on weekdays and 11 until late weekends.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.