By Colleen Jurkiewicz Reporter Published Oct 06, 2012 at 1:00 PM

For the sixth straight year, October is Dining Month on, presented by Concordia University. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2012."

The Wisconsin Club’s Downtown facility, former home of banking magnate and congressman Alexander Mitchell, is exactly what you would imagine it to be: an enclave of quiet Victorian gentility in the middle of Downtown’s loud, agitated bustle.

High-backed armchairs, fresh flowers and austere mahogany walls. Paintings bearing plaques indicating original ownership by an Uihlein or some other member of the beer peerage. Historic photographs chronicling the Mitchell family and the Deutscher Club to which they sold the house in 1895 after Alexander’s death. A bust of Billy Mitchell, Alexander’s grandson, situated next to an elegant stairwell.

Lifelong Milwaukeeans can drive by the mansion every day of their lives and never see its interior. Such is the nature of private clubs. But perhaps they don’t realize that they’re missing out on more than just elbow-rubbing and opulent banquet facilities.

As it happens, the dining experience at the Wisconsin Club might be best thing that may never happen to most of us.  Although the Club does host several wedding receptions and events each year, so one of those may be your way in.  

We all have our favorite restaurants, our homes-away-from-home where the waitstaff might even know our name, give us our favorite table and remember to ask about our family. But at the Wisconsin Club, the cuisine – and the service – is on a different level entirely.

"I think that when people come here they can feel comfortable that things will be done the proper way," said John Constantine, general manager of the Wisconsin Club. "Buying nothing but the freshest quality, no shortcuts, presentation, everything, all of the above. I mean, it’s 101, but a lot of people forget that. But that’s what we are all about."

The club actually comprises two locations – a "city club" on Wisconsin Avenue and its "country club" counterpart at 6200 W. Good Hope Rd. (formerly Brynwood Country Club, it was assumed by the Wisconsin Club in 2011).

The opportunity for both urban speed and rural relaxation is something that sets the Wisconsin Club apart. Only several private clubs in the nation have both a city and country club. Membership has swelled to over 1,400 since Constantine took over, and the club's banquet and catering facilities were in high demand.

"We used to have four weeks a month," said Bret Clark, manager of the city club. "Now, with the country club location open, as well, we have eight."

The city club is busier in the winter months, when the shuttle and limo service is popular for members who want to attend sporting events and shows downtown after eating. The county club is packed during the summer months, when members take advantage of the golf course and pool.

Between the two locations there are seven different dining options and two executive chefs, Allen Boltik and Greg Abbate, who have been at their posts 21 and 16 years, respectively.

"One of the reasons we are by far the busiest private club in the state is because of these two individuals," said Constantine. "This is one of the top dining experiences in Milwaukee."

The city club, Boltik’s realm, offers three dining options: the Mitchell Room, the veranda, and Alexander's. The county club, where Abbate presides, has the Oak Room, the Grille Room, outdoor dining and a Poolside Café.

The Mitchell Room, formerly the Mitchell family greenhouse, was renovated in 2005. It is a large, light-filled room with a baby grand piano, fresh roses and white linens on every table. It is most popular for lunch, like its country club counterpart the Oak Room, which overlooks the golf course. Both serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

The Mitchell Room’s veranda has wicker furniture clustered around large tables, a set-up that affords plenty of privacy. If not for the view of the Marquette campus across the interstate, you might think you were in Hyannis Port. The country club has several decks and the Poolside Café  caters to the summertime cravings of swimmers and sunbathers.

Downstairs in the city club there is Alexander’s, a bowling-alley-turned-sports-bar since 1994. Friday night fish fries are especially popular with families, since there are arcade games for the kids and plush green leather seats for the parents. At the country club, the more casual option is the Grille Room, serving lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch – also with spectacular views of the golf course.

Two locations, one organization, one goal: superiority in cuisine and presentation.

This ship is tightly run, and everything is done – as Constantine noted – the proper way. Dedication to a life of service, in the Victorian sense of the word, is something almost unheard of in modern society. But Boltik, Abbate and their staff would beg to differ.

To them, service is a challenge, an opportunity and above all it is an art form.

"You watch these TV programs and you see that the chefs are bigger than what they’re producing," Boltik said. "They become bigger than the food. Even as the executive chef, I am a servant. I’m here to serve at the whim of the membership, to make sure that they are having an enjoyable time as soon as they walk through the door."

If you think that comment smacks of feudalist sensibilities, think again. Boltik doesn’t have an inferiority complex, and he is not a slave to any class system. Rather, he is a talented chef who is grateful to hold a position that requires him to respect culinary tradition while simultaneously pushing the expanse of his gastronomic repertoire.  

As opposed to chefs who can design a menu based around their own strengths, here at the Wisconsin Club the clientele is their boss.

"It’s my job to be all things to my clients as they want it. And that’s the most challenging thing – and it also prevents boredom," Boltik said. "We’re feeding people who have the wherewithal to eat wherever they want – New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, Europe. They see these things that are on the cutting edge and they want them here at the club, as well.

"I’ll go to a table and someone will say, ‘Hey, I was in Korea last week and I had this cool kimchi dish, can you make it?’ At the same time, we have a lot of ‘old guard’ members, and if I’m not running liver and onions or a nice grilled meatloaf sandwich, I hear that, as well."

Abbate agrees that at the county club, the cooking staff is also constantly walking a tightrope between tradition and novelty, striving to keep members interested and also satisfied.

"You’re dealing with the same people week after week, year after year," he said. "If you went to the same restaurant every week all year long you would get bored with it. It’s one of our biggest challenges, keeping familiar things that they like and keeping them interested and always trying for new things. It’s a challenge, but it’s fun."

The chefs and the club membership share a unique relationship. It is a surprisingly intimate bond built on food – and more importantly, what food implies: comfort, tradition, memories.  

"You get to know members and what they like, and you’ll see someone on the reservation sheet and we’ll make a suggestion to the server if we know they are particularly fond of seafood or prime strip loins," said Abbate.

"A lot of times members dine together and we might get a table of eight and it’s under one member’s name and you don’t know who’s dining with them – but then you see a particular order on the ticket and we know who’s at the table. We know this person likes crispy duck or wants their French fries extra crispy or wants their salad chopped – so many of our members, that’s always a request we get. You get to know what they like."

"You have to try to be, as a chef, all things to all members," Boltik agreed. 

Both chefs love their jobs because they feel the Wisconsin Club allows them to, as Boltik described it, avoid complacence. Employment with an organization of the Wisconsin Club’s caliber means deep pockets, vast resources and a reverence for the dining experience.

"The kids I get in from cooking schools…they’re forgetting a lot of the really good, old-school food that keeps a restaurant open. Really good soup-making. Really good sauce-making. Braising. All that technique," said Boltik. "I might be the only place in town that still has two 40-gallon stock pots, and we make all of our own stock."

Abbate worked for 12 years at the Brynwood Country Club before it was taken over by the Wisconsin Club.

"The nice thing for me, as a chef here, is I’ve got many more people dining out here. So with having more people, it’s more business, and that means that we can bring in more products," he said. "How do you serve the best food? You serve the best food by buying the best quality but keeping it fresh, by not freezing your fish. At Brynwood, a much smaller membership, it was hard to offer the variety we offer now with having so many more members."

Both chefs like to be on-site as often as possible. Boltik works too many hours a week to divulge publicly ("I’m afraid my wife will see it.") and the reason for that is he wants his clientele to know that the head chef, not an assistant, is tending to their culinary needs.

This is, after all, what they pay for.

"A lot of our membership works in the downtown area. They can bring guests to the club. They can have a really, really good meal and they can conduct business," he said. "And they’re reasonably sure they won’t be bothered, they’re reasonably sure that what they’re doing here is going to be between them and their client."

"That’s part of the deal," said Abbate. "It's their place, especially for members who've been with the club for years. Whether you’re paying $200 a month for a social membership or $500 a month for golf membership…part of it is coming out to the club, and our dining room managers and a lot of our wait staff have been here a long time. They know the members – ‘Hello Mrs. So and so’ – and the bartenders get to know the members and have their drink ready for them when they’re coming to the table.

"If you can afford to belong to a club you expect a level of service and that's what we have to do."

"The expectations are high. All the time," said Boltik. His hiring process is a rigorous one consisting of three interviews and culminating in a cooking demonstration. One of the reasons for this is that "it takes a long time to get your staff to understand that one bad meal is one bad meal too many."

But despite all of that, the Wisconsin Club is a dream gig for Boltik and Abbate.

"They’ll take me out of here clawing and scratching," Boltik laughed. "I can use all the best ingredients here. I don’t have to cut corners, I don’t have to skimp. If a wedding wants raspberries in February, then it’s my job to go find them.

"It’s good being challenged. A lot of people get very, very staid and very complacent in their profession and they can kind of do it in their sleep. This isn’t one of those professions. You’re constantly on edge. You’re constantly looking at what that next function is going to bring you. I think that that’s absolutely fantastic." 

Colleen Jurkiewicz Reporter

Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.