I made the trip up from Chicago for another weekend in Milwaukee (city motto: "Spring Here Guarenteed To Be Alaskan") and, given the dearth of Brew City posts, thought I'd give my karmic payback.
After processing my anger at having to experience >50 degree weather in June, I enjoyed the trip, which includes these food-oriented reports for your perusal:
Coast Restaurant. With beautiful views of the lake of Calatrava's stunning addition to the art museum, we had to try this place. Decor was a safe-suburban-businessman's view of comfortably stylish - nice curves to the ceiling, 80's-by-way-of-60's upholstery, brushed nickel silver rope railings that would be in the Wickes Contempo Series, all very stylish without being, you know, Too Hip. The interesting additional of the live piano player humming along to the likes of "Memories" and other Tasteful Background Tunes gave us pause, but it was subtle. We actually liked the Latin inspired canned music better that they played when he was on break.
Service was friendly and exceptional, apologizing when returning a smudged wine glass, noting that I'd removed the too-cold wine from its bucket and inquiring about its temperature, etc.
The food focuses somewhat artificially on concepts of "coasts", seafood items or things it could call, for instance, "Californian" or "New England." And although nothing was bad, all the food needed More. More garlic, or onion, or spice, or salt. It was too tame, safe, a bit bland. Fried calamari and crawfish were fine, but the dipping sauce too sweet with not much red pepper. Salads lacking an inspired dressing, though with excellent greens. Seared ahi tuna was fairly flat in flavor, though I'm a terrible judge of raw fish. The salmon had a nice sauce, but nothing special. A fairly nice wine list, great service, but there are better choices. One bottle of wine, one salad, 2 apps, 1 entree, $100.
Roots Restaurant. A very interesting, fun space in the gentrifying Brewers Hill area, this place is literally perched on top of this hill with great views of downtown. Owned and operated by a young chef with apparently some $$ from somewhere, the rooms would fit right into the west loop area of Chicago - lots and lots of artistic metalwork, carved cherry, nice attention to visual detail. There is a formal restaurant upstairs with a balcony, a more casual cafe/bar downstairs with its own great outdoor sitting area (including some pricey teak furniture). I would definitely enjoy this place in the summer. This place skewed younger, say mid 20's to early 40's, whereas Coast bumped the curve up 5 or so years.
Good service, decent wine list. Bread from local Sunflour Bakery, with asiago sourdough bread and poppy seed loaf, served with herbed olive oil. Food was better than Coast, and I return here, but I wasn't blown away by either the pureness of the craft (as I have been at the eminently recommendable Coquette's Cafe) or by its culinary leaps (Sanfords, to name one). Asparagus soup was overwhelmed by sage and thyme in the stock, so that it could have been broccoli for all I knew, though given the temps, appropriate. Grilled shrimp texturally succulent, but lacking great shrimpiness or flavor additions (brine, garlic, other possibilities). Blanking out on the other app and entree, but dessert was flourless chococake-cum-chipotle with...stay with me here...caladine caramel sauce (caladines the same mini limes the waitress plopped into our water along with cuke slices), cilantro creme and...shoot, some other funny item. Nothing bad, just a bit busy. Cilantro creme? Hmm. One bottle of vino, 2 apps, 1 soup, 1 entree, 1 dessert, $85. Will return, if at least for the views.
How does this city do it where Chicago can't? Alterra Coffee has 2 superior coffee shops with their own roasted coffee, superb locally made pastries and 2 way cool spaces. Intelligentsia is our closest, and though I am a regular customer, their space (and outsourced edibles) just don't compete. Nor does Peet's. Then there is Outpost, a cooperative grocery store, and Beans & Barley, a sleek modern cafe-cum-deli/bakery-cum-grocer. Both have a superb, well-focused selection of excellent wines under $20 selected by some passionate owners. I've gotten turned on to some great Algerian selections at both places, an can select unknown bottles there with the certainty that they will at least be interesting.
Now please, it's just my opinion, but I just don't get people's fascination with (the frozen custard at) Culvers, Kopps or Lixx. K's is the best in terms of dairy flavor, but all of it is way too fluffy and liquid-mercury smooth. And sweet. I don't hate overrun, per se, and smoothifiers have their place in the Great Ice Creams Of The World (cornstarch, eggs, egg whites), it just feels like I'm eating sweet liquid plastic. This is after multiple tries. Please don't hate me.
There are plenty of other food stores and eateries I could recommend, but we didn't visit them this time. Hope this adds to someone else's enjoyment.