For the sixth straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com, presented by Concordia University. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2012."
It's always a pleasure to sample a restaurant's new menu. I find it's a bit like getting inside a chef's mind for a moment â€“ and peering around at the ingenuity and imagination that lies there. I had the opportunity to do just that as I joined part of the crew of OnMilwaukee.com for a retreat luncheon at the Rumpus Room last week.
We gathered in a cozy corner of the restaurant, where I expected to sample a few bites of this and spoons full of that, in between pleasant banter and work-related conversation. It turns out, I was only half right. The banter was most certainly pleasant (though not necessarily work related), but the food came out in plates and platters ... each dish better than the last.
Our lunch began with a platter of charcuterie, including the Rumpus Room's chicken liver mousse, Bolzano Old School salami, Underground Meats Goat Salami and shaved cured duck breast along with house mustard and cornichons. Both salami were flavorful, redolent with spices and delightfully salty. The chicken liver mousse was rich and creamy with a subtle hint of seasoning that reminded me of the flavors found in traditional braunschweiger. While I enjoyed the varied selection, my favorite item was the shaved, cured duck breast, which had the texture and melt-in-your-mouth qualities of fine prosciutto, with all the flavor and richness expected from duck.
While we were chatting about the charcuterie, our server brought out delicious bowls of crisp, fried strips of pig ear, which were seasoned â€“ if I'm not mistaken â€“ with a bit of garlic, paprika and salt. Many at the table commented that the ears reminded them a bit of chicken skin with regard to both texture and flavor, and I couldn't disagree. They'd be a particularly addictive snack for nibbling alongside a beer or two while chatting with friends.
The next dish to arrive was a Scotch egg â€“ a soft cooked egg, wrapped in sausage and fried with a deliciously crunchy panko breading. This dish always reminds me of an all-in-one breakfast â€“ a slightly creamy egg, enveloped in sausage and surrounded by crisp "toast" of sorts. But, I also found myself thinking it would be a great bar snack, accompanied by a rich malty winter brew that would offset the richness of the egg yolk and pull out more of the spices in the sausage. And I was probably right, as it was especially delicious dipped in the accompanying mustard sauce.
Our salad course was comprised of a plate of braised octopus, with crisp fried chickpeas, eggplant, cucumber, mint, arugula and honeyed yogurt. While this didn't end up to be a favorite among diners, I thought the flavors balanced nicely. The briney, even slightly fishy, flavor of the octopus, along with its meaty, and slightly chewy, texture, played nicely with the peppery arugula and met its match paired with the slight sweetness of the yogurt. The salad also exhibited a lot of nice texture and freshness, which helped to cleanse the palate after the richness of the Scotch egg.
My favorite dish turned out to be the gnocchi and vegetable sugo, which paired creamy cheese-laden dumplings with a flavorful tomato-based vegetable sauce. It was comfort food at its finest, and I found myself wishing for more, even as I began to feel satiated. In case you're in the mood for a bit of a culinary lesson, I'll let you in on the fact that "sugo" is a word which literally means "juice" in Italian, and it often refers to the type of long-simmering ragu created by the mythical Italian grandmother, or nonna. The long simmering sauces of Italy are well known, if not legendary. And the rich, complex flavor of the sugo seemed to me to be just the thing to satisfy my innermost desire for the warm, reassuring dishes of a nonna's kitchen, even though I was never lucky enough to have a nonna myself.
Of course, just as I finished the last scoop of gnocchi, another delightful dish arrived. This time, it was hoisin marinated grilled pork belly with basmati rice, pickled cabbage and radish, cilantro and jalapeno. I could smell the umami of fish sauce as the dish was set before me, and as I sliced off little chunks of the slightly sweet Asian flavored pork belly, I was greeted with multiple layers of flavor and texture. First, the crisp exterior, then the sweetly spiced meat, and afterwards the creaminess of the belly fat. The richness of the dish was cut by both the rice and the pickles, and the picante jalapenos offered a pleasant foil for the subtle sweetness of the dish.
We were really too full for dessert by the time we moved over to the front bar area to enjoy an after-dinner cheese platter and dessert. But, I couldn't help sampling at least two of the offerings.
I skipped over one of my favorite cheeses, Upland's Pleasant Ridge Reserve, in favor of Hidden Springs Bad Axe, a smooth tart cheese whose texture mirrors fresh mozzarella. Made from pasteurized sheep's milk cheese that is aged a mere 60 days, you can't help but taste the freshness of the milk as you sink your teeth into this delightfully accessible cheese.
Next, I went for the Hidden Springs Bohemian Blue, a rindless cave-aged blue made by Hook's Creamery in Mineral Point, Wis. from Hidden Springs milk. It's a rather dry cheese, with a sweet, slightly sour finish, and was just perfect eaten with a drizzle of honey. Of course, if it weren't lunch and I had more of an appetite, I could have polished off a few more ounces of the cheese with a rich caramel-infused single malt scotch.
Fortunately, by the time I was contemplating another small taste of that cheese, dessert was delivered. I almost refused, on account of feeling a bit like I'd never need to eat again. But, one taste of the restaurant's infamous Rumpus Bar, a raucous sweet-salty combination of graham crackers, potato chips, pretzels, chocolate chips and coconut topped with vanilla gelato, made it impossible to refuse subsequent nibbles. And those nibbles, at least when enjoyed between sips of hot Valentine coffee, almost melted away into nothingness â€“ or at least that's what I told myself, as I finished up my portion down to the last crumb.
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