My driver—courtesy of Visit Milwaukee —picked me in front of the Iron Horse Hotel at 8:15 the next morning and 15 minutes later we arrived at The Plaza on N. Cass Street. The Cafe at the Plaza is a farm-to-table establishment presided over by executive chef Christopher Stoye.
Think open kitchen, diner service, and original Art Deco décor to get an inkling of both the ambiance and attitude of this place. I managed to put away an astonishing breakfast that featured baked sherried and black-truffled eggs with Gruyere cheese. The bacon was lean and crisp, the orange juice freshly squeezed, and the potatoes grilled to perfection—the coffee is the only aspect that wasn’t top-notch.
Milwaukee is one of the famous American industrial cities that fell into a rapid economic decline, but which is now enjoying a renaissance of art and culture. Since I couldn’t spend the entire day eating, arrangements were made to see some of the city’s famous sites.
My next stop was to witness the morning opening of the city’s most notable piece of modern architecture, the Milwaukee Art Museum designed by Santiago Calatrava. On the south end of Veteran’s Park, the museum’s huge reception hall looks over Lake Michigan and is covered by the Burke Rise Soleil, a giant sunscreen that opens like a pair of wings with a span equal to that of a Boeing 747. It was pretty spectacular with the white wings rising against the backdrop of blue water as if the building was a seabird about to take flight.
Located in the Walker’s Point district, Clock Shadow Creamery is one of the few urban creameries in the nation. Wisconsin is famous for its cheese and Bob Wills produces ethnic cheeses like quark (a German soft cheese) mozzarella, and cheese curds. All of his products are produced from hormone-free milk from farms just outside the city.
After sampling some interesting cheeses, walking almost diagonally across the street brought me to the Milwaukee Brewing Company. This micro-brewery produces Polish Moon (a milk stout), Pull Chain (pale ale), Booyah (ale), Admiral Stache (Baltic Porter), and seasonal specials. Although the brewing and canning facility resembles almost every other microbrewery I’ve seen, the hip atmosphere of the place can almost be tasted in their brews.
Coquette Cafe in East Town is a French bistro, so naturally I ordered Escargot de Bourgogne (burgundy snails baked in garlic-parsley butter) as an appetizer—and they absolutely nailed it. An extremely delightful salad of leaf spinach with pears, pecans, and blue D’Auvergne cheese with a balsamic vinaigrette dressing and a sampling of the house smoked salmon carpaccio didn’t leave much room for the delicious main course: caramelized onion goat cheese ravioli with oyster mushrooms, walnuts, fried sage, and Grana Padano cheese.
A digestive break in order, it was off to tours some more architecture. This time it was a tour of the Captain Frederick Pabst Mansion. Built in 1892 by the nouveau-rich sea captain who became a beer baron, this mansion is the jewel of the Gilded Age in Milwaukee.
The conservatory, converted into a chapel during the ownership of the Roman Catholic dioceses, was originally constructed for the Columbia Exposition (a.k.a. Chicago World’s Fair) in 1893. Made of terra cotta, it was disassembled, moved, and attached to the mansion. It’s the only surviving structure from this famous exposition.
To learn a bit more about the good captain, I headed over to the Best Place Tavern at the Historic Pabst Brewery on W. Juneau Ave to meet beer historian Jim Haertel. This piece of nearly derelict property contains the original Blue Ribbon Hall, styled after a 17th-century German gasthaus, and the Pabst corporate offices that are slowly being restored by Jim and his wife Karen.
I’m graciously given a tour—a glass of local beer in hand—while Jim expounds on the history of this iconic company. I learn how Empire Brewing evolved into Best Brewing and how it became Pabst in 1889. Pabst stopped making beer in 1996 and now contracts production of their InBev brands— Pabst, Schlitz, Colt 45, St. Ides, Lone Star, Olympia, Pearl, Piels, Stroh’s, Heilmans—to Miller.
Looking out the windows I see the old brewery that has been transformed into the exquisite boutique Brewhouse Inn and Suites.
It was time for supper and Rumpus Room on N. Water St. has a style I can only describe as a synthesis of nouveau-Victorian yuppie and steampunk. With 24 beers—including some hard-to-find craft brews—on tap, rare bourbons, and aged whiskeys it’s no surprise that this establishment draws crowds. The menu offered enough delectable dishes to make ordering a painful choice.
Finally I settled on a beer cheese soup of Carr Valley cheddar and Weiss beer followed by carpaccio with ruby red grapefruit segments, arugula, citrus vinaigrette, and Montamore cheese. Realizing that I was being repetitive, but not caring, the entrée chosen was a penne pasta tossed with a mushroom ragout and rosemary in parmesan cream sauce. I vainly attempted to finish the goat cheese cheesecake—a walnut crust and covered with saba— but failed.