By Amy L. Schubert Food Writer Published Sep 28, 2009 at 11:17 AM Photography: Whitney Teska

I first visited Sanford Restaurant, 1547 N. Jackson St., 12 years ago to celebrate my college graduation.

In those days, Dentice Brothers Italian Sausage and Joey's Italian Restaurant were humming busily on the nearby corners, and Sanford, a converted family grocery store, was the most expensive and the most high-end restaurant in town.

Sanford D'Amato, a James Beard Award recipient, and his wife Angie, had created a homey, intimate dining environment with gourmet, seasonal food. And dinners at Sanford for people like me were typically reserved for special, celebratory occasions, since the bill with wine could easily hover in the $150-plus range.

Over the years, things in Milwaukee started to change. Dentice Brothers and Joey's both closed. Jackson Street became a little quieter. More upscale and more expensive restaurants began to enter the Milwaukee dining scene, and soon it was no longer uncommon to find menu entrees priced in the $30 to $40 range at various trendy and higher-end locations throughout the city.

While the landscape ebbed and flowed around them, the D'Amatos continued perfecting with what was working for them at Sanford, down to the décor, the hand-picked wine selections and even some menu items -- like their signature grilled rare marinated tuna with cumin wafers and cilantro dressing ($12).

I sampled that tuna 12 years ago, and when I sampled it again a few months ago for this review, it was exactly as I remembered it.

At Sanford, you will find interesting, consistently well-executed seasonal items, created with painstaking attention to detail and widespread international influence of cuisine. The menu at present reflects Indian influences like Garam Masala flavored kohlrabi soup ($9) and Tandoori spiced beef striploin ($34), in addition to Moroccan and Southwestern flavors. And in celebration of their 20th anniversary, Sanford is offering 20 wine selections at $20 per bottle, and a prix fixe four-course meal for $49.

Service here is flawless, the dining environment is small and tightly spaced, and the clientele is a mixed bag of people celebrating, out of town guests and business professionals.

There is no glory in being "seen" at Sanford; the payoff is getting to spend an evening eating, drinking and enjoying the art of fine dining. Although we were amused on a second visit by a young lady who was photographing every item that came to the table.

"People do it all the time," one of the waitresses whispered when we asked about it; and indeed the presentation here is lovely, but I think the more important message is that the people who dine at Sanford truly appreciate what the restaurant brings to the table.

The artisanal cheese plate ($18) at Sanford is truly something to behold. A tiny chalkboard with the featured fromages outlined next to them is paired with fresh fruit compote and a fresh specialty toasted bread. I've been known to visit simply for the cheese plate and a bottle of wine.

But on evenings when dining for a full meal, you order all at once, from appetizer to dessert; in addition to knowing exactly what you're in for, this helps the fluidity of your meal, and depending on your temperament, you can truly make an evening of it -- I spent over two hours there on my most recent visit.

Sanford begins each meal with an amuse bouche, which could be something as simple as tiny chunks of marinated carrots, or a shooter of chilled beet soup. These miniscule dishes not only awaken the taste buds, at Sanford, they pack some punch. It's amazing that such a little bite can offer so much flavor.

Salads fall in the lighter side of the menu, as there are typically only two selections (hovering in the $9-$11 range), but they are well-executed and on one visit featured such blood-red slices of fresh tomatoes that they nearly looked fake -- but were utterly delicious.

Entrees offer items you may be pressed to find on even the most upscale menus. Wild American Sturgeon ($33), served with crab hash and pancetta vinaigrette, was one of the more unique dishes I've ever sampled.

After wrapping up your meal with something sweet, like a warm German Chocolate Cake with burnt almond ice cream ($10), you are provided with yet another parting sweet; a tiny plate with miniature biscotti, shortbread, and pecan caramels or other niceties.

With wine and tip, you should still be able to get out of Sanford for less than $100 a person. And when you add up the total experience, from the moment they open the door for you and greet you by name (due to structured reservations, they always know who you are when you arrive) until the second you're back out onto Jackson Street, it's worth every penny. And even after all these years, there is no other dining experience in Milwaukee that compares.

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