Now that we have finally discovered the value of our river, condominiums, retail stores and restaurants have begun to dot the Riverwalk. In the Third Ward, places like Riverwalk Bistro have become shining stars for lunch and dinner with some of the best outdoor patios around, and now, since December 2005, downtown Chef and owner John Chitko has graced us with a huge beautiful riverside patio in Yaffa Restaurant and Lounge, 106 W. Wells St.
A short walk from the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and other Downtown venues, Yaffa Lounge boasts unique and beautiful décor inside that just begs to be filled, even if it is not nice enough to sit outside.
Diners can opt for the bar, patio or lounge for their dining experiences, each of which has its own theme. Cozy up on a comfortable chair by the fireplace in the lounge and sip a cup of vodka or other liquor-infused tea, find yourself in the formal dining room which sings of Moroccan reds, or sample their $5 happy hour martinis in the bar area (our favorite is the pango berry martini (vodka, sweet and sour and mango nectar).
Several recent visits to Yaffa brought some interesting dishes and very good service. Yaffa spins tapas, mezes (literally translated in Greek as "appetizers") and entrées with a Moroccan feel. Moroccan and Israeli cooking brings with it some distinctive flavor combinations that are not to every taste, but there are some staples here for the less adventurous.
The hummus falafel combo ($8.95) featured delicious and creamy traditional hummus with a cilantro puree as garnish, but it came with a Zaatar-crusted pita (an Arabic seasoning mix of dried thyme, sumac, sea salt and sesame seeds) which was a little too salty and overpowering for the delicate flavor of the hummus. The falafel was good and tasted even better dipped into the hummus.
Steak tartar ($8.95) came with diced seared tenderloin with red onions and capers on a toasted baguette, and lacked flavor, however, we also ordered the Harissa shrimp, which at $9.95 was a great deal and one of our favorite items on the menu. Harissa, a Mediterranean chili sauce made with roasted red peppers, chilis, olive oil and spices, is a delight, and we used our extra sauce after the delicious shrimp were gone for dipping the remainder of our tartar, giving it more of a wow factor.
In fact, what we found in general with Yaffa is that all the dishes here were good, but seemed to be missing something to really make them exceptional. The same held true for the ostrich tenderloin ($18.95), something rarely found in Milwaukee. The dish showcased a 3-oz. cut of ostrich, served medium rare over a creamy butternut squash puree with mushrooms and asparagus. The port demi-glace did not offer the punch we was looking for with this dish, but again, it was good and both my dining companion and I much appreciated visiting a restaurant with a truly unique spin.
Lamb tangine ($15.95) was a beautiful piece of traditionally slow-cooked lamb shank, with dates, plums and spices. The lamb was fall off the bone tender, and was our favorite entrée, save for the bed of chickpeas beneath it, which we felt detracted from the delicious meat, fruits, and spices.
Yaffa is definitely worth a visit for something out of the ordinary, and its proximity to the theater district and good service make it an excellent choice for a pre-show meal. Being a newer restaurant, Yaffa still has much time to improve its dishes and really live up to the potential you can see in its existing menu and in the painstaking detail put into the décor.
Yaffa Restaurant and Lounge is open Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. and Saturday, 4 p.m.-2:30 a.m. Yaffa offers a good vegetarian selection and valet parking on Friday and Saturday nights. The phone number is (414) 223-0101, or the Web site is yaffalounge.com.
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.