New Tess is a hidden dining gem

Although by no means void of restaurants, the East Side's "right bank" (just east of the Milwaukee River) has just gained a tasty addition, a shy but formidable little gal called Tess.

In an old Victorian just across the street from neighborhood stalwart "Mama" Calderone's and two blocks south of the excellent Scotty's Crab House, Tess is a little less earthy than mama and less seafood-oriented than Scotty's, although several seafood dishes made the Tess menu.

On a recent visit we found Tess' wait staff to be extremely friendly, if a bit green, and even got a big welcome from the chef as he passed through the cozy dining room that seats 30, the flicker of dozens of candles reflecting off pomegranate walls. An adjacent bar is a friendly "everybody knows your name" kind of place to wait for a table or just hang out for a beer or drink with friends.

Tess' wine list offers a dozen or so California whites and reds, as well as French Syrah and Cote du Rhone. Appetizers ($4-9), while not cutting-edge creative, are updated classics: steamed mussels, here, with chipolte, coconut broth and cilantro; caramelized onion and bacon tart; piping-hot Brie in a puff pastry; julienne sweet potato fries; and a seafood "martini." The martini was a highlight for its two perfectly grilled shrimp and three scallops in a tangy festival of red and yellow peppers with onions, mango bits in a cilantro-infused rice wine vinaigrette -- "mixed" and served with flair from a cocktail shaker into a martini glass.

Salads ($5-7) included greens with strawberries and crumbled Gorgonzola cheese, chopped arugula mixed with blue cheese and walnuts, spinach salad with the expected hot bacon dressing but the more unusual addition of cranberries, and a fresh house salad.

Entrees were again, nothing you'll have a hard time pronouncing, but crowd pleasers served with flair. We tried two interesting proposals: an orzo pasta and grilled veggies dish and a grilled citrus chicken breast with gorgonzola and walnut stuffing (although it appeared to be served on top rather than stuffed inside). Both were winners.

The orzo ($10) -- a pasta that takes its name and shape from barley -- was tossed with cubes of grilled veggies -- carrots, zucchini, eggplant -- that thankfully retained some crunch and a distinct flavor from the grill. A garlic olive oil/balsamic reduction and grated Parmesan cheese added the needed pungent punch and acted as something of a binder. The tender chicken breast didn't yield much of a citrus flavor, but was a savory delight nevertheless -- propped on a bed of mashed sweet potatoes, covered in a layer of rich Gorgonzola and walnuts, then another layer of sautéed vegetables.

  • Seared Duck Breast with wild rice salad and port wine vinaigrette
  • Beef Tenderloin served with portabella mushrooms, blue cheese and wasabi mashed potatoes
  • Grilled Pork Tenderloin -- with zinfandel reduction, potatoes and veggies
  • Grilled Salmon with a zesty orange-ginger white butter, served with lavender rice and spinach
  • Grilled Mahi-Mahi with a guava-line glaze served with asparagus spears, tomatoes, mushrooms and rice
  • Fish Stew -- scallops, shrimp, salmon, mussels and fish of the day in a fennel/tomato broth
  • Ravioli -- port wine-lemon zest pasta stuffed with Gorgonzola cheese and walnuts and -- as though that isn't weighty enough -- Italian sausage crumble

The desserts were all rich selections that may be too filling to appeal to many diners after the large entrees, but ... like a good diner, I "suffered" through heavenly bites of a moist and rich flourless chocolate cake, accented with fresh raspberries and a drizzle of raspberry sauce. Other choices were Door County cherry chocolate mousse, lemon and almond cake and crème brulee of the week (that week's was mocha caramel).

A large backyard patio will be a terrific place to dine come summer. Until then, Tess is a warm and relaxing getaway that's close to all the East Side action.

Tess, located at 2499 N. Bartlett Ave., is open Tuesday-Sunday, 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Call them at (414) 964-8377. Credit cards accepted.


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