Cari Taylor-Carlson

Lovely Patio Dining at Cafe at the Plaza

New evening hours are a great addition, while it’s still reliable for brunch or lunch.

By - Jul 6th, 2015 03:40 pm
Café at the Plaza. Photo by Cari Taylor-Carlson.

Café at the Plaza. Photo by Cari Taylor-Carlson.

Every time I enter the art deco lobby of the Plaza Hotel on Cass Street, I think of Eloise, the precocious six-year-old girl who lived in the penthouse at the top of the Plaza Hotel in New York City. In Kay Thompson’s books, Eloise roamed the hotel looking for adventure and trouble. She would have loved the lush courtyard behind Café at the Plaza, the small restaurant hidden inside the Plaza Hotel. She could hide in the greenery, or practice summersaults on the oval-shaped counter, while she watched the chefs flip burgers on the grill.

My history at the café dates back to the 1990s when it was Sheila’s Café at the Plaza. Not much has changed since the days when Sheila attended to every tiny art deco detail, right down to the ashtrays. Recently, the current management (John Crichton owns both the hotel and restaurant) have updated the tables and chairs, but kept the curved counter with its prime viewing seats to watch chefs work in the open kitchen as they turn out beautifully plated dishes. The vintage black and chrome ashtrays are long gone.

For something new this year, the owners opened the patio Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evening for small plates, local wine and beer, and live music on Friday and Saturday. With that in mind, a friend and I came to dine on a Friday evening. It was chilly, so we appreciated the heat lamp adjacent to our table. It’s cozy on the patio, a long narrow space slipped between two ivy-covered apartment buildings. We noticed several windows barely visible underneath the ivy and thought of the voracious plant in Little Shop of Horrors. Tiny lights strung overhead added a romantic twinkle. A single jazz guitar player kept things lively as we enjoyed our first al fresco evening of the season.

We started with the Cheese and Meat Board. The $15.00 board allowed three choices. We picked Hook’s Five-Year-Cheddar, Roth Kase Buttermilk Blue, and Satori Bellavitano Gold. Served with 5 Lilies blueberry-lavender-peach jam, the cheese plate was a fine way to ease into small plates.

In my case however, small was not exactly what came from the kitchen. I’ve ordered poutine at other local restaurants and found it tasty, albeit tending toward gluttony. This poutine, whose sauce was heavily influenced by Mexican chilaquiles, could have fed four people. Chorizo sausage gravy buried a pile of waffle fries and large cheese curds with crisp edges reminiscent of Swiss raclette. Two perfectly poached eggs and a drizzle of avocado cream sauce finished the dish. A little heat, maybe Siracha, would have brightened the multiple flavors.

My friend raved about her small plate, five chicken taquitos, served with pico de gallo, and that same avocado cream sauce. Taquitos, or little tacos, are deep-fried, and in this case, were corn tortillas stuffed with Mexican pulled chicken.

The limited small plate menu also lists Seared Scallops, Mushroom Crostini, a Fresh Vegetable Tart, and “Juicy Lucy” (beef) Sliders with caramelized onions and crispy potatoes, and Sprouted Grain Flatbread with Prosciutto, goat cheese, pesto, arugula, sunny-side egg and balsamic gastrique.

I soon returned to the cafe for its popular Sunday brunch. What could be lovelier than a mimosa in a courtyard on a perfect sunny day shared with a good friend, followed by a memorable Vegetarian Eggs Benedict?  Memorable, not just because the benedict was absolutely delicious, but because it didn’t bottom out with the usual English muffins, or as my friend remarked, “the bread filler.” Instead the chef roasted potatoes with garlic and parsley, topped them with Sugar Bee oyster mushrooms, caramelized onion, bits of crisp asparagus, two poached eggs, a lemony hollandaise sauce, and finished it with a shot of sweet tomato jam. Delicious.

As this is a popular Sunday morning gathering for eastsiders and families, all the tables were occupied, but we never felt rushed and the service was efficient and friendly. We felt a bit foolish when we left around noon to find a crowd waiting in the hotel lobby. Perhaps we should have been quicker, but our server was too polite to ask us to move on.

Another breakfast/brunch item that warrants a mention is the Pork and Spaetzle, pork schnitzel over house-made spaetzle with caramelized onion, bacon, mustard cream sauce, and two eggs. Maybe next time…

Cafe at the Plaza does two things especially well, caramelize onions and roast tomatoes, and both are often on the menu, including dishes I’ve tried on other visits. The Cobb Salad, for example, has chunks of juicy roasted tomatoes, a unique addition, but one that ramps up the flavors and plays well with the blue cheese and the bacon. A roasted tomato also shows up in the Salmon BLT along with lemon-dill mayo. The large chunk of salmon however, doesn’t need the bacon; it would be better served with just lettuce and tomato.

The Caprese Grilled Cheese with wilted spinach, fresh mozzarella, roasted tomato, and basil pesto, needed more basil pesto to quality as a caprese. It would have been a better sandwich without the spinach stuck to the fresh, albeit stringy mozzarella. The verdict: delicious but messy.

The Plaza Burger wins the blue ribbon. In our family we consider ourselves aficionados of burgers. Oscar’s, Sobelman’s, Bomber’s, Solly’s, Kopp’s, Elsa’s, all serve big juicy burgers. But in our opinion, the Plaza Burger stands apart from the masses. It could be the light buttery brioche bun, the five-year-cheddar, the caramelized onions, the bacon, the aioli, or just good beef, grilled to perfection.

As for Eloise, check the bushes. She could be there looking for her dog Weenie or her turtle Skipperdee. And watch your plate. She’s been to Paris and she especially likes Smashed Potatoes and Funny French Fries.

On The Menu

Café at the Plaza

Café at the Plaza
1007 N. Cass St.
Hours: 7:00-2:00 daily, 5:00-10:00 (serving till 9:00) Thursday, Friday, Saturday

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us