There's something about an old school steak house; I'm not sure if it's the scintillating waft of scotch and cigars emanating from the bar, patrons dressed in suits and evening gowns, the smell and feel of good leather, or just the beauty of a perfectly cooked steak served on a clean lined restaurant plate with giant potatoes served a la carte, but these types of establishments make patrons feel like they're back in a good old American Noir crime novel.
Yanni's, 540 E. Mason St., does a perfect job of bringing back to life an elegant 1940s style steakhouse by design, and does a remarkable job of pleasing both seafood and carnivorous palates alike; something other Milwaukee steak establishments are known to struggle with.
Two recent visits to Yanni's yielded a pleasant surprise; although their servers are dressed in white coats, they were not stripped of their personalities. We found our servers to be the perfect mix of professional and entertaining. Three servers wait on each table at Yanni's, but they take care not to overwhelm guests, and we were never wanting for a refilled water glass or a piece of clean flatware.
The menu at Yanni's delivers an eclectic mix of appetizers, sandwiches (including an American Kobe burger, $9.50), steaks, lamb, pork and veal chops, chicken, ribs, and fresh fish and seafood.
Every evening they feature a seafood and a steak special that range in price from $28.95 and up; and while menu prices are more on the upward end of the scale at Yanni's, entrees do come with house salad (a fresh mix of mesclun and field greens with cucumber, tomato, and hard boiled egg) or soup (on one visit it was a creamy wild mushroom seasoned with a hint of Hungarian paprika).
For starters, we sampled the crab cakes ($12.95), two plump, flaky baked versions of lump crab served alongside a simple yet delicious Dijonaise and a remoulade, and it was nice to see the order come with two cakes instead of what has become the Milwaukee standard of one large cake the diners need to share.
We found the broiled filet mignon (8-oz., $29.95; 12-oz. $35.95) to be just average. The steak came beautifully plated with sliced portabella mushrooms, but was a full temperature less than I requested (rare instead of medium rare); the quality (USDA Prime) and tenderness of the meat was good, but it just lacked that little something to make it really special.
In direct contrast, the veal rib chop ($34.95) was delightful, cooked to a perfect medium rare, and served simply with a light veal jus and a pile of crisp shoestring sweet potatoes.
A halibut special ($28.95) featured a delicious piece of spice-crusted halibut in a citrus reduction sauce with popcorn shrimp and steamed asparagus. The flaky, spicy halibut stood up well to the rich tart reduction sauce, which came just shy of being enjoyably lip puckering.
We did not understand why they served popcorn shrimp with the dish, which would have been better accompanied by lightly sautéed or grilled crustaceans, but they were good nonetheless.
The salmon special ($28.95) on a differing visit was just as successful with light broiled salmon in a light cream sauce accompanied by shrimp Vera Cruz (tomatoes, jalapenos, onions, and various spices).
Side dishes are a la carte at Yanni's, and the offerings range from standard and twice baked potatoes to fresh vegetables and rice pilaf ($3.50-$5). All of the side dishes we sampled were good, but nothing rang out as being spectacular.
That is not true, however, of the wine list. Yanni's wine list is exceptional and they feature varietals from all parts of the globe. We were pleased to see a healthy selection of wines by the glass in addition to their impressive bottle list.
My dining companion mentioned at one visit that he felt as though we were sitting in a skybox, getting ready to watch the entertainment, in reference to Yanni's unique booth seating plan, where diners in booths face the center of the room. And in a way he was right, because the whirlwind of activity and delicious food at Yanni's that took us back to 1940s romance was well worth watching, and participating in, from the best seats in the house.
Yanni's is open Monday through Friday 3-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5-9 p.m. Reservations are recommended, and valet parking is available. Yanni's Web site is yannismilwaukee.com. Call (414) 847-9264.
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.