Jeffrey Merlot

Rumpus Room Is a Consistent Surprise

Its theatrical setting and eclectic menu might leave you wondering, but the food is great.

By - Feb 6th, 2015 12:03 pm
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Rumpus Room. Photo from facebook.

Rumpus Room. Photo from facebook.

After a disappointing visit to Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro in 2009, I sought a more positive experience with the Bartolotta restaurant empire by paying a visit to their Rumpus Room. The chaotic-sounding name has always intrigued me, reminding me of a popular morning kids’ TV show when I was a boy called “Romper Room” where they paraded around the TV set wearing yellow “romper stompers” that elevated their shoes off the floor.

Consulting the restaurant’s web site before venturing there, I found this description: “The Rumpus Room menu tosses previous convention out the window, making dining a shared, affordable and casual affair. Placing emphasis on great flavor and a little experimentation in the kitchen… (the) menu offers plates inspired by a love for quality, regionally-sourced and exciting ingredients.” This is about as generic a description of a modern restaurant in our fair city as you could find. So my dining companion and I were in for a complete surprise as to what Rumpus Room really is all about.

Located just steps away from the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts on Water Street in downtown Milwaukee, its prominent, exterior signage offers welcome assistance in finding the restaurant while crooking one’s neck around in a vehicle looking for the address.  As you might imagine, finding parking during Downtown evening activaties can be a challenge. But I always manage to luck out and found a good spot.

Inside, the gorgeous baroque light fixtures hanging from the elegantly tin-tiled ceiling and ensconced on every wall give one the feeling you’re in an historic, European theater. The fancy, wrought-iron table legs reinforce that impression. This makes sense, given that the place is so near the Marcus Center.

The dinner menu is a hodgepodge of cultural diversity, yet fairly simple and, perhaps, a little playful. But definitely not adhering to any sort of theme. As I perused it, I kept asking myself what is the targeted audience, whom are they trying to attract as diners? “Chaotic” not only describes the restaurant’s name, but also its menu. Not because it’s overloaded with selections, but because it’s all over the board in the items it does list. “V” indicates vegetarian items and “gf” indicates gluten-free. Offerings like Scotch eggs ($7.75 each), grilled cheese sandwiches ($9.75 each), maple-glazed pork belly ($13.25), pork schnitzel with a fried egg ($22.95), rumaki ($3.95), mussels and beer ($14.25), rainbow trout ($27.95), a Wisconsin pretzel ($5.25) and spiced popcorn (95 cents) are all thrown on basically a single page in the menu, albeit under various labels, like “Snacks” and “Entrees,” but with some dishes not really fitting under their respective labels. Maybe that’s fitting for a restaurant in a hectic downtown environment serving a broad cross-section of people.

As it happens, I’m quite chaos averse, so I started things off rather conventionally with the apple and ham salad (one of only two salads on the menu, the other a simple green salad for $5.50). My salad was comprised of arugula, fennel, frisée lettuce with sliced apple, fenugreek, gouda ham, scallions and lemon-honey vinaigrette ($9.95). It’s a rich, smoky forest of taste and was very good and innovative. I also tried the rumaki to get things going. I love rumaki. It reminds me of the holidays. This version was tasty and bacony good, but nothing out of the ordinary. My friend started off with the other salad composed of mixed greens, cucumber, grape tomato and balsamic vinaigrette. It was just a salad, nothing special.

Rumpus Room. Photo from facebook.

Rumpus Room. Photo from facebook.

Next, I had their roasted chicken – a pan-roasted Bell & Evan’s chicken that came with grilled broccolini tossed with lemon and parmesan cheese, and a potato-parsnip puree ($19.50). This little hen breast with charred wing bone was quite visually appealing: crispy-skinned and roasted golden-brown. It was probably the best chicken dish I’ve ever had in a restaurant. Bravo to Australian born-and-bred Chef Guy Davies and his kitchen! The potato-parsnip puree was treated more as a serving medium than a proper side dish all its own, but it was very rich and filling and made a nice addition to the order. The broccolini had a distinct citrus note but, alas, were a tad bit overcooked. I ate them all, anyway!

My friend ordered the bone-in ribeye steak, medium rare. It came plated over the same tasty and filling potato-parsnip mash with caramelized Brussels sprouts and herb butter on the side ($43.95). I of course had to help her with it. This steak was so perfectly, succulently prepared that I was able to cut it very easily with my butter knife. Bravo again, Chef Davies!

For dessert, we just had to try the very British-sounding Vonda Brown’s sticky toffee pudding with pecans and whipped cream ($7.00). It took me a while to figure out what it reminded me of — warm, soft, caramel covered Boston brown bread. Awesome.

A gin martini accompanied my meal for $9. My friend ordered a glass of crisp sauvignon blanc wine for $8.50. By the looks of it, the bar is stocked with every type of liquid intoxicant known to humankind.

I’ve been told by those in the know that Rumpus Room is meant to cater to the theater crowd. Certainly that’s what the atmosphere suggests. The expansive Cheese & Charcuterie selection on the first page of the menu is apparently meant to be the star attraction, providing theatergoers something to nibble on before and after performances. But one’s proclivity is to sweep right by that first page to get to the main menu. So the theater theme may be lost in translation (and nothing on the menu or the restaurant’s web site gives the game away). But in truth, it works fine for non-theater goers. And if the restaurant’s approach does seem a bit chaotic, take it from me: even those who prefer things calm and orderly can appreciate what it has to offer. In its own curious way, Rumpus Room brings something unique to our city.

On the Menu

Rumpus Room
1030 N. Water Street, Milwaukee
Tel.: (414) 292-0100
Major credit cards accepted – reservations encouraged.

Recipe for Chicken-Fried Steak (serves two)

Chicken Fried Steak

Chicken Fried Steak

Speaking of lost in translation, I’ve found the name of this southern favorite confuses northerners who are uninitiated to it. It’s large, wide medallions of tenderized beef round steak coated and fried like Southern fried chicken. I love it!

2 cube steaks (tenderized round steak), ¼ pound each
¾ cup whole milk, plus up to an extra two cups for the gravy
1 large egg
½ cup all-purpose flour
Salt and ground, black pepper, to taste
¼ teaspoon ground, cayenne powder or your favorite Creole seasoning (see additional recipe below)
Enough oil to fry the steaks

Chicken Fried Steak

Chicken Fried Steak

Preheat your oven to 200° F.  Beat the egg in a shallow dish, then mix in well the ¾ cup milk with it. Mix the flour with the cayenne or Cajun seasoning in a second dish.

Season both sides of each steak with salt and pepper; dip the steaks, one at a time, in the milk-egg mixture. Dredge the meat on the plate of seasoned flour. Turn to coat thoroughly. Place the meat back into the milk-egg mixture, turning to coat. Place back in the flour and turn to coat. Reserve the seasoned flour to make the gravy.

Make sure you’ve got a good inch or two oil in a large skillet or saucepan – enough so that the steaks are submerged halfway in it. Heat the oil over medium heat to 300° F. Fry the steaks until golden brown, about a minute each side. Remove steaks to parchment-lined baking sheet with wire rack in preheated oven to keep warm.

Chicken Fried Steak cut

Chicken Fried Steak cut

Pour off all but ¼ cup of the grease from the pan. Sprinkle ⅓ cup of the reserved seasoned flour evenly over the hot grease. Using a whisk or wooden fork, mix flour with grease, creating a golden-brown paste. Keep cooking until it reaches a deep golden brown color. If the paste seems too oily, sprinkle in another tablespoon of flour and keep whisking.

Turn the heat down to lowest setting. Whisking constantly, pour in milk and deglaze the pan. Cook to thicken the gravy. Add more milk if it becomes too thick. Add salt and pepper, to taste, and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, until the gravy is smooth and thick. Check seasoning.

Serve the steaks with mashed potatoes, all smothered with gravy.

Recipe for Creole Spice Mix (yields about ¼ cup). Mix the following ingredients together thoroughly:

1 tablespoon hot Hungarian paprika
1 teaspoon smoky, Spanish paprika
1½ teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1½ teaspoons onion powder
1½ teaspoons cayenne pepper
1½ teaspoons dried oregano
1½ teaspoons dried thyme

Store in an airtight container. Keeps for months unrefrigerated.

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