There are several restaurants in history where I wish I had dined before they were lost to time: La Mère Brazier's Rue Du Royal in Paris, Fernad Point's La Pyramide in Vienne, France and Jean-Louis Palladin's Jean-Louis in Washington D.C. These may just seem like a jumble of French names to the less-than-historically inclined, but to me, they are landmarks, culinary treasures that shaped an era or, at the very least, a camelot moment. They are mile markers in the evolution of our dining culture, almost more real in what they left behind than what they were in actuality.
Though not as storied, nationally or internationally lauded, last week, another restaurant that was a hallmark of good eating and formative for me personally and my city, was lost to time. For Milwaukee, it was a lion in what it accomplished and got away with zeitgeist-like panache: an offal heavy menu, fine dining priced dishes modeled to be paired with beers, a bar menu that preceded a host of national culinary trends.
This place was distinctively precious for me, because I dined there, drank there and even, it could be argued, lived part of my life there. Major turning points for me took place at its front bar, dining room and back lounge.
The restaurant I am referring to was Milwaukee's Hinterland, which, after 10 years, closed its doors for good on Aug. 9, 2017.
The first few years after Hinterland's 2007 opening were a sweep of time and memories. Because I lived near the restaurant, the place became my Cheers, albeit a bit more gustatory.
I came to know the staff well and they me; they became more than people delivering a plate or refilling a glass. I had my 38th birthday fête at Hinterland and then my 40th. Hosting it there was less of a celebration for me per se than a mechanism to get as many friends as I could to know about the restaurant I connected with on so many levels. I used my 40th as leverage to insist people come for the party then return for dinner.
I have great memories from that event: Mayor Barrett politely explaining who he was to my Dad; David Gordon, the then director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, in deep conversation about the occult with my friend Theresa Reed, the Tarot Lady; chefs that turned up late, who would eventually become some of the darlings of the city's restaurant scene. Many of them met for the first time at that party. I remember them standing together, their drinks in their hands, salubrious grins on their faces, looking around as if to say, "Just wait and see what we will do." Nearly every one of the party guests returned for dinner and loved it.
Hinterland was the place first I had sautéed veal brains – soft and dense as they were light, as if warm foie gras has been strained through fresh cream. I ate it silently at the bar, paired with one of Hinterland Brewery's saison beers, and came to know, bite by sip, that cooking could be a form of reverence and revolution on a plate. I ate antelope, huge and rustically cooked, flavored with a rich, electric vegetable sauce that would make any French saucier of the classic old restaurants of Europe nod with approval. Housemade hot dogs, ramen before anyone else in the city was doing it, a white fish dish that still haunts me ... the debt I owe Hinterland for the expansion of my palette cannot be overstated.
When you walked into Hinterland, you were greeted by stairs that led up to the dining room. To your left, a long bar was punctuated on the end by an enormous vintage French wine bottle drying rack. Just past the rack was a row of high stools facing the bar. Seated at the second bar stool from the end, I had two of the most important conversations in my life.
The first conversation was in 2007 with Arthur Ircink, the creator and producer of "Wisconsin Foodie," the television show I have hosted for a decade. There at Hinterland's bar, he pitched me on the idea of the show. We talked at length, and though I nearly said no, that yes indelibly changed the direction of my life.
Four years later, at the same bar stool, I met a woman with whom I would fall in love and eventually marry. We talked for hours, finally moving from the bar to the dining room for a proper dinner. The service team that night, my friends, watched this happen and ebbed and flowed around us, shepherding something more that just a meal.
At its best, a restaurant is a living entity, a moment in time, a snapshot of what people, in search of more than nourishment, want best. It is place where time zigzags like in a good dream. Where the familiar swirls with the anticipation of what will happen next. Where we leave sated but not full, because there is an ineffable sense that you will come back again. For my Hinterland, that is not to be, though I had my time there and the restaurant had its time with me – something shorter than an era, but longer than a Camelot moment.
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