Another Look at Prodigal Gastropub
The restaurant’s food is creative, but uneven, another critic finds.
Life can be good when you visit Prodigal Gastropub on a summer eve. From our table just inside the restaurant we enjoyed a soft evening breeze and shelter from the street-side sun. With three roll-up garage doors, high ceilings, and that Milwaukee industrial warehouse chic, Prodigal joins a growing number of local “gastropubs.” And what exactly is a gastropub? It’s loosely defined as a pub that offers a fine dining experience, a mellow bar with upscale food, a cross between a French bistro and a British pub. Most gastropubs offer reasonably-priced fine dining hoping to attract regulars, not just special occasion guests.
Often they serve more refined choices alongside classic comfort food such as Prodigal’s Agnolotti, a special Italian dish, and Poutine, French-Canadian fast food usually found in diners and pubs. In both cases, Prodigal’s chef tweaked the traditional recipes, one upgraded to gourmet and the other, a complex version of the original.
For the Poutine, the chef started with the basics, French fries, brown gravy and cheese curds, then added stew made with beef cheeks, the slow-cooked cheek muscle from a cow. It’s a big, gloppy bowl of deliciousness, enough to serve two or three hungry diners. We loved the white cheddar cheese curds from Clock Shadow Creamery that we discovered when we dug into the gravy. We declined a doggie bag for the leftover soggy fries but left no warm, melted, gooey cheese curds behind.
On the down side, we found our Roasted Asparagus Salad a sad specimen. We agreed the limp overcooked/over roasted asparagus reminded us of something our mothers used to boil to death in the 1950s. The crispy capers were chewy and we barely tasted the lemon vinaigrette. The superfluous “cured egg yolk” crumbs sprinkled on top looked like Eggs a la Goldenrod from my Home Economics class in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
We wondered if the “fat poached egg” that sat on top of the Asparagus Salad was a fat egg, or did it come from a fat chicken? “It was poached in fat,” our server explained. Ah.
We found the House bread, $5.00, uninspired but we livened it with house-made herb butter. We could have used some bread, triscuits, saltines — anything but the dry mini-popovers that came with the cheese board. You can’t go wrong with a selection of Wisconsin cheese and fresh fruit even if two out of three of the cheeses were fairly bland. We ate the delicious 5- Lilies jam with a spoon.
From the chalkboard, a friend ordered the pork chop with date puree and arugula, an admirable mix of sweet, salty, and bitter. The bone-in chop was tender, juicy, and cut easily with a table knife, yet we questioned whether one chop, a smear of date puree, and six carrots justified the $24.00 tag.
We sampled two more salads, a hit and a miss. I was sorry I had to share the Roasted Beet Salad. It was so much more than a pretty pile of tri-colored beets dressed with citrus-herb flavored yogurt. Pine nuts and cucumber chunks added texture, and sprinkled on top, a “soil” of ground nuts, seeds, and raisins gave it visual appeal and a tasty crunch.
We were less impressed with the Fennel salad. The delicate and delicious lavender vinaigrette couldn’t rescue the sparse fennel and over-abundant frisee. We all wanted more than a tiny taste of the bits of honey brittle sprinkled on the greens.
The menu at Prodigal divides into “Smaller” sharable appetizers and salads, and “Larger” entrée-size portions not necessarily meant to be shared. From that list, along with the Poutine, we ordered Goat Cheese Gnocchi. We found two surprises hidden in the apple-cream sauce — watermelon radishes and roasted beets. One bite and my friend exclaimed, “This melts in my mouth.”
So did dessert, Panna Cotta topped with tart cherry compote, a perfect foil to accent the rich creamy custard-like dish.
Is Prodigal an authentic gastropub? There’s a creative chef at the stove working to invent new twists on familiar dishes, and the restaurant does an admirable job of fusing upscale with mellow. The food is uneven, but after two visits, six diners voted “yes” to it.
240 E. Pittsburgh Ave.
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 4-10, Friday-Saturday 4-1 a.m., Sunday brunch 10-3.
Reservations and menu at prodigal240.com