November 25, 2014
There was a time when the best way to taste the highlights of a region was to dine at one of its grand hotels. They combined cosmopolitan sophistication and regional flair. Though much of how and why we travel has changed, a few of Milwaukee’s better hotels have kept this tradition alive, offering a sense of place through food.
A fine hotel nestled in one of the most fertile places on earth ought to deliver special dishes that reflect gifts of the soil. Chef Aaron Miles at Milwaukee’s Intercontinental Hotel does just that. It is true that ingredients available to chefs with seasonal acumen do narrow by November, but for an accomplished chef, that is where the fun begins. Chef Miles has a “no butternut squash policy” in his kitchen. “The stuff is ubiquitous,” he told me. Instead he populates the late-season Kilow@t fall menu with Minnesota wild rice cakes, root vegetable blends colored with rutabaga, winter carrots and parsnips, with enough autumn vibrato to hold their own against a lamb shank brined in IPA from Lakefront Brewery. He cooks with an eye toward the season, without falling back on old standards or the overwrought crutch of “comfort food,” heavily sauced and bereft of spirit.
Just a dozen blocks to the South, Chef Bradford Shovlin’s menu for Smyth at the Iron Horse Hotel evinces his Midwest heritage and accomplished training. After stints with Chef Bruce Sherman of Chicago’s North Pond (a 5-time James Beard Best Chef Award nominee and 2012 winner) and time in other esteemed kitchens, Shovlin brings a delicate, culinary inventiveness to the hotel that Condé Nast Traveler Magazine listed among the 100 best in the country.
My favorite of Shovlin’s opening dishes takes lush Beluga lentils which give way to locally -sourced kale, cauliflower, hazelnuts and Pleasant Ridge Reserve (one of the rock stars of Wisconsin cheese). Another dish that reveals his poised, seasonal sensibilities, is the bison tartar from nearby New Belgium, Wisconsin. The farm, called Lake View Buffalo, is helmed by a fifth generation farming family. I filmed a Wisconsin Foodie at the farm in 2011, and the majestic animals and the family that raises them were highlights of the whole season. Eschewing the standard tartar preparation, he pairs it with a horseradish-cured egg yolk, caper berries and Sarvecchio (a Wisconsin Cheese that beat the parmesan-making Italians at their own game when blind tasted at an International Cheese composition in 2012 as “Best in Class.”)
This deep into the season, the natural predilection is to hunker down, to find a place that offers the warmth the soul seeks as the days get that much shorter. Milwaukee, to its credit, has always been known as one of the more friendly places; an honest city, in the sense that, when you visit, we are genuinely glad you did. As autumn rolls into winter, I am glad that my city remains a place where one can tuck-in and savor the memorable cooking and hospitality of a good land that keeps giving.