Bravo, Blue Jacket!
A new star of the dining scene offers equally inventive food and cocktails
Tucked away east of 1st St. and near the very end of National Avenue is Blue Jacket, one of Milwaukee’s newest high-end eateries, which will be one year old next month. Just next to La Merenda, the restaurant is yet another addition to the growing dining scene on the near South Side. The owners are avid sailing fans (“Blue Jacket” is how one refers to a British naval officer) and the original theme of the place was to highlight the Great Lakes and all the great things in and around them to eat and drink. But it has evolved over its first year into much more. The Saturday night I visited with my date was incredibly busy, and I was happy I made reservations or we may have waited an hour or more to be seated.
The exterior of the restaurant, reminiscent of an old yacht club or boat dock, is quite a contrast from the intimate interior which, instead of being decorated with weathered timbers, has sleek, modern appointments – except for the driftwood handles on the beer taps, a nice touch.
The menu has static wine and cocktail lists, but the loose center page listing the main plates changes daily. Desserts also change daily and are written on one of two chalkboards mounted on the west wall of the bar. In the menu, (gf) indicates which selections are gluten free and (v) indicates which are vegetarian.
“Planks” are snack boards laden with a selection of either different cheeses or assorted pickled and smoked fish for $15. The particular types of the day are also written on the chalkboards. For $25, you can order the “Collaborative” plank which is a large combination of both the cheese and fish planks, with a little charcuterie thrown in. The fish selection of the day featured, among others, whitefish, salmon and trout.
The day’s “plates” menu offered a butter-lettuce salad with black-truffle goat cheese for $7, an asparagus soup made with cured salmon brunoise (brunoise is a culinary knife cut where the food is julienned, then turned a quarter-turn and diced again to make cubes about a tenth of an inch in size), soft egg, dill and lemon for $8. For $14, one could order mussels with andouille sausage, lemongrass and cilantro in a ginger-chili broth. It’s not often at all that we find octopus served in a Milwaukee restaurant, so when I saw braised Spanish octopus with roasted sunchokes, fingerling potatoes, watercress and confit garlic cloves in a sauce of curry-persilade with dollops of honey yogurt at each end of the plate for $18, I ordered it! The pieces of the aquatic 8-legger on my plate were deliciously sweet and as tender as scallops. Chefs Matt Kerley and Justice Neal really have it going on with the octopus (don’t be afraid of this stuff, people – it’s good!); this dish had such a complex symphony of pungent flavors to it, I had quite a case of dragon breath afterwards. Well worth it.
My date chose the $26 grass-fed bavette steak with caramelized spring garlic and rosemary with beurre rouge on top and unique yuka French fries served on the side which are first shredded, formed into big chips then deep fried, giving them an awesomely crispy texture both inside and out. I had a little taste and, though I did not care for the buttery patty of beurre rouge served on the top of the steak slices, I thought the steak was marvelously done (so did she – and she liked the beurre rouge).
Though Blue Jacket does have an extensive and impressive wine list served by the glass and the bottle, what we noticed most is its extensive selection of dainty liquor cocktails – the bartenders were quite busy all evening trimming delicate citrus and other garnishes, eye-dropping various flavored bitters into shakers, nimbly pouring various colors of mixes into doll-house glasses and sending intriguing non-alcohol creations out as well. I had a glass of Oregon-State Brandborg Pinot Noir for $12. I was not happy with the price (most of the other wines tended to be $8 or $9 a glass), but it paired perfectly with my octopus.
For dessert, we shared a huge slice of the three-layer chocolate cake with chocolate butter-cream frosting for $7. Decadently rich, it’s a chocolate lover’s dream at meal’s end. Also offered for dessert that evening were ginger cookies with cardamom milk for $5.
Our bill came $84. I’m going to say something I normally don’t: I think it’s good value for the money because the place’s cuisine is eclectic and excellent, it’s a small venue that’s hard to get into without reservations, the service is non-pretentious and welcoming, the attention to detail with the fancy little cocktails is mind-boggling and it’s taking Milwaukee’s culinary scene a notch up. Bravo, Blue Jacket! Is that first Michelin star on its way?
135 E. National Ave., Milwaukee
Tel.: (414) 312-7098
Major credit cards accepted – reservations strongly encouraged
Recipe: Parsley Salad with Toasted Almonds and Lemon
(Makes 6 – 8 servings). This healthy, refreshing salad is zesty, nutty, herbal and crunchy!
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1½ teaspoons Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon honey
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon salt
1 smaller clove garlic, grated, or minced and mashed with the side of a knife
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup cooked rice, chilled
2 large bunches flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped with tender stems
½ cup whole almonds, toasted for 10 minutes on a baking sheet in the oven at 400° F. and roughly chopped (that’s ½ cup volume, not weight)
¼ cup shallots (or one really big one), finely minced
Hot paprika, for garnish (optional)
Zest the lemon and reserve the zest before squeezing out the juice. Make the dressing right in the serving bowl: Combine the lemon juice, mustard, honey, pepper, salt and garlic in a large bowl and whisk to combine. Slowly add the olive oil, whisking until emulsified.
Add the parsley to the dressing and toss to combine. Add the rice, almonds, onions and lemon zest, and toss well. Serve, garnished with a couple dashes of hot paprika and extra lemon wedges.