Around the World and Back Again
By Catherine McGarry Miller
Bacchus is a place for celebrations. Its wall of 230 wines encased in elegant glass and chrome is a nod to the restaurant’s namesake, the god of wine. It is not, however, a dipsomaniac’s domain. Bacchus exudes class from its carte to its cultivated customers.
Executive Chef Adam Siegal started, surprisingly, in the hot dog business at his stepfather’s Chicago area Red Hot huts. As a boy, Siegal stocked shelves, chopped vegetables, and bussed tables. He still likes a good hot dog – an all beef Hebrew National “run through the garden” – dog talk for topped with every veggie in the joint.
Since then, Siegal has graduated to ultra-fine dining with a degree from the Culinary School of Kendall College in Evanston, Illinois, and has apprenticed under some of the world’s greatest gastronomes:
At the age of 20, Siegal launched his career at Paul Bartolotta’s renowned Chicago bistro, Spiaggia. There he learned “the simplicity of cooking the way Italians cook. I learned technique to taste,” he recalls. He studied directly under the James Beard Award-winning chef, now Bacchus’ co-owner with brother Joe. “Paul’s been my mentor for 14 years and I don’t think I could have a better one. He’s helped me throughout my whole career.”
For two years, Siegal explored classical French cuisine under the tutelage of Chef Julian Serrano, also a winner of the James Beard Award and executive chef of Masataka Kobayashi’s celebrated French restaurant, Masa’s, in San Francisco. “The food was classical yet very modern. It was a very intense kitchen, which suited me because I’m a very intense individual with an intense passion for cooking.”
Back stateside, Siegal joined the team that popped the cork on the D.C. branch of Todd English’s lauded Olives restaurant. He didn’t see much of the celebrity chef, but he experienced the initiation of a national high-end restaurant. He also met his future wife, Daria, who was Olives’ manager. The spin at Olives was Mediterranean, but emphasized “taking the traditional and making it not traditional,” Siegal explains.
In 2000, the executive sous chef position opened up at Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro, so Siegal happily returned to the Midwest. “I love Milwaukee – it’s a kind of hidden treasure. People always think of “Laverne and Shirley,” but there’s all this charm and character to the city.” He later took over chef Mark Weber’s toque and recently added Bacchus to his realm of responsibilities.
With the diversity of Siegal’s culinary training, one might expect him to be a fusion aficionado. But if you’re looking for caramelized fois gras in chocolate chipotle mole with a drizzle of wasabi crÃ¨me fraiche, you won’t find it in Siegal’s kitchen.
“I’m a chef who’s torn between French and Italian training,” Siegal admits. “I just love foods. I don’t like nouveau or a mish mash, combining flavors never meant to be together and calling it a dish. That’s not my style. My approach is simple, not doing too much to ingredients – nice clean food. If it’s parsnips, I’ll make it so you taste the parsnips.”
Indeed, in the understated, elegant décor of Bacchus’ brown leather banquettes, off-white walls, white table clothes and crockery, the food itself is the accent. Siegal’s favorite salad is roasted red and yellow beets lightly dressed in olive oil and sherry vinegar with a handful of greens, toasted walnuts, and small wedge of cheese. The colors and flavors are as complementary as red and green on a color wheel.
His crabcakes are crabby. Yet he twists the traditional with creamy, sweet potato-filled ravioli set in sautéed Swiss chard, seasoned with a very subtle curry butter sauce. His strawberry Napoleon with mascarpone custard is world class, layered between crispy pastry plates that explode at every bite. The mixed berry sorbet that balances the plate is but a sample of the array of sorbets and ice creams made in-house.
The prices make Bacchus a special occasion place for most. But, given the quality of the food and dining experience, it’s a solid value. Prix fixe luncheons and dinners make two or three course samplers very accessible. VS