"The effort chefs bring to the table is often something that gets overlooked," says Wolf Peach Executive Chef Cole Ersel as we discuss changes to the menu in preparation for spring. "When I go to a place, and I’m familiar with the chefs … there might be a six-word description on their menus, but I know the work that went into it."
That’s something we don’t often consider when eating out.
"The truth is," Ersel continues, "When it tastes good, the effort doesn’t matter."
But, it’s an education that foodies welcome – knowing how a dish comes together in the kitchen, where the ingredients originated and how the dish came into being.
When I look on the new spring menu at Wolf Peach, I see a number of items with which a great deal of thought was expended.
In the vegetable category, I note deviled Sherwood Game Farm duck eggs with green garlic goddess dressing and garlic scapes ($7), housemade LaClare Farms goat’s milk ricotta with ramp herb bread crumbs and saba ($12), crispy cauliflower with pickled chickpeas, tomatoes, olives, capers, parsley and espelette ($13), and wood roasted asparagus, smoked tomato coulis and spiced millet ($12).
Most of these dishes require ingredients or techniques that few home cooks use regularly.
In other cases, expertise has led the chef to make substitutions to reflect the season, as is the case with the popular lamb sausage pizza ($14) on which mushrooms and leeks have been replaced with ramp greens and artichokes, along with house made ricotta replacing the goat cheese. And the Brussels sprouts have been replaced with asparagus on the slow-poached egg pizza with mozzarella, guanciale, parmesan and basil ($13).
Even the wood roasted spring chicken with wild vegetables, purple potatoes and chicken jus ($21), as simple as it sounds, is a sort of vision – made with 18-ounce poussins that have been cooked with care and combined with just the right combination of (sometimes foraged) vegetables.
Wolf Peach is a comfortable, rustic environment. And they’re not the sort of place that does many fully composed dishes. Simplicity is often key – and the emphasis tends to be on simple, fresh ingredients. However, one menu item did catch my eye.
It’s the Strauss veal osso bucco served atop a polenta cake with ground radish butter, radish gremolotta and whey demi-glace ($24).
"I was looking to do something a little bit unique," says Ersel of the dish. "But, I really wanted to keep the price point manageable."
So, Ersel set out on a hunt to find exactly the right cut of veal – one inch center cut hind shank group-raised osso bucco.
"It took me two or three weeks to find the cut of meat for this dish," he says. "I wanted center cut because the dish is one piece per portion, so the size needs to be consistent. And it had to be humanely raised."
The restaurant works regularly with Strauss Veal, a family farm that has grown exponentially, largely due to its insistence upon humane raising methods.
Ersels’ treatment of the delicious cut of meat is simple. But it belies the sort of thought process that food lovers like to see in a restaurant dish.
"Between me and the guys here, there are years and years and years of experience," admits Ersel. "So, we can bounce ideas off of one another and really come up with dishes. I don’t have the classical training that they have. So, I start with an idea. I know what I want to do – but it takes a village to pull the dish together."
In this case, the dish begins with a one hour cure on the osso bucco, with seasonings like salt, brown sugar, coriander, lemon zest and bay leaf gently rubbed into the meat.
"It’s seasoning the meat, drawing out excess liquid and intensifying the meat flavor," says Ersel. "And it’s quick because they’re only one inch thick."
Goat’s milk whey, a bi-product from making the goat’s milk ricotta for the ravioli, is then used to slow cook the meat.
"We put the osso bucco into bags with the whey, thyme and garlic," says Ersel, "And then we sous vide it at 168 degrees for for five hours."
"The goat whey is really good," he continues. "It’s mild, but it’s sweeter than cow’s milk whey. And an integral part of a calf’s diet is whey. So, I wanted the dish to come full circle. And the natural enzymes in the whey also serve to break down the protein."
Originally, Ersel explains, he planned to simply steam the veal in the whey. But, when the cuts came in, he noted that the marrow was still intact. So, he made the decision to sous vide, so as not to lose the marrow and its luscious flavor.
When the meat is cooked, it’s not falling apart tender, but it is tender enough to be cut with a fork. And the inner portions of the meat are still slightly pink, thanks to the cure, which helps the meat retain a bit of color.
"After sous vide, we pour off liquid and reduce it to make a demiglace," he explains. "We supplement with a little bit of housemade pork demiglace to increase the body, flavor and color."
A simple polenta cake, prepared with milk and cheese is prepared as an accompaniment.
"You’d typically get polenta or saffon risotto and gremolata," Ersel notes. "But, we wanted to do something a bit different – more rustic. We’re using Easter Egg radishes, along with lemon, parsley and garlic for the gremolata and dressing Lone Duck Farms mizuna greens with it as a sort of dressing."
More sharply flavored French breakfast radishes are ground in the meat grinder, salted and mixed with butter, parsley and chives to make a finishing butter that infuses the dish with the flavors of herbs and hints of radish.
"In some ways it’s very simple," says Ersel. "But it’s also very much the epitome of spring. It was a way to serve a deliciously rich dish that still pulls in all the beautiful elements of spring."
More spring dishes will grace the menu in a few weeks, says Ersel.
But, for now, head over and enjoy that osso bucco.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.