Airy, mod­ern Stella Van Buren bucks the stereo­typ­i­cal man-cave steak­house am­biance.

Milwaukee Magazine - - Dining -

WHEN THE THIRD WARD’S 10-year-old Hin­ter­land closed in Au­gust, one rea­son the gas­tropub’s owner cited for the shut­ter­ing was the in­tense pres­sure of the din­ing mar­ket here. The Third Ward and Down­town are far dif­fer­ent to­day than they were a decade ago. Now all eyes are on Down­town, with cat­a­lysts like the new North­west­ern Mu­tual tower, the Bucks arena and soon-to-be 44-story mixed-use Cou­ture build­ing. In the­ory, this will at­tract more vis­i­tors, the rai­son d’etre for an­other swanky ho­tel – the 220room Westin, con­nected to the U.S.

Bank Cen­ter.

While the Westin opened this sum­mer with less fan­fare than the Third Ward’s Kimp­ton Jour­ney­man the year be­fore, the Westin has put a sim­i­lar em­pha­sis on its sta­tus as a din­ing des­ti­na­tion, with its

STELLA VAN BUREN. It’s a mod­ern Ital­ianAmer­i­can steak­house that doesn’t pay homage to men in smok­ing jack­ets who in­dulge in a post-meal snifter of cognac. (That’s the an­tithe­sis of, say, nearby Rare Steak­house on Michi­gan Street.) The light-suf­fused, 45-ta­ble din­ing room is neu­tral-hued and com­fort­ably fur­nished with curvy booths and plush ban­quettes. Serv­ing staff, dressed in the same soft room col­ors, sets the ca­sual but pro­fes­sional tone.

In the lo­cal din­ing land­scape, Stella shoots for the “every diner” base, as ho­tels of­ten do. A James Beard Award-nom­i­nated cor­po­rate chef co-cre­ated the menu, which con­tains some good dishes and oth­ers that are miss­ing lus­ter. Both lunch and din­ner menus fea­ture an ar­ray of br­uschetta, which could func­tion as an ap­pe­tizer or a light meal. The chewy, lightly charred bread sets a strong foun­da­tion for win­ning top­pings like goat cheese with straw­ber­ries, smoked al­monds, arugula and truf­fle honey ($8); and bur­rata cheese with heir­loom tomato, basil and white bal­samic vine­gar ($11). An­other top­ping, spicy tuna tartare, has a creamy-crunchy salsa-like con­sis­tency com­bined with chopped av­o­cado and pis­ta­chios, but the clemen­tines in it add an off-putting acidy sweet­ness ($13).

Rem­i­nis­cent of breaded cala­mari steaks I’ve loved at Ital­ian joints, the squid fries are ten­der, thick, un­fishy sticks ($11), if not quite as suc­cu­lent as the best of mem­ory. Dip them in tangy lemon aioli. A very mild red sauce cov­ers the dense, al­beit del­i­cate meat­balls, good with grilled slices of cia­batta ($10).

Sal­ads cross over from lunch to din­ner menus (and quite a tasty moun­tain­ous toss is the Tus­can kale, with Brussels sprouts and roasted grapes in a Parme­san vinai­grette, $11), as does the fine (but not ex­cep­tional) burger ($15, topped with fontina, bal­samic onions and tomato jam). On the lunch menu, a grilled chicken sand­wich ($13) re­tains the yearned-for sum­mer-like charred fla­vor through the gen­er­ous ap­pli­ca­tion of sour cherry mostarda, melted smoked moz­zarella and caramelized onion. The prob­lem is just too much onion – it makes the sand­wich a drippy mess.

An­other day-to-evening menu cross­over, the sen­sa­tional al dente house-made spaghetti with gulf shrimp ($19 lunch; $23 din­ner), is tossed in a spot-on heir­loom tomato-basil sauce. And Stella be­ing a steak­house, the cal­iber of beef (USDA prime) is cen­tral. That’s clear in a mar­bled, full-bod­ied 22-ounce dry-aged rib-eye, its sea salt-sea­soned crust very sim­ple but fla­vor­ful ($49). But­tery fried Brussels sprouts and chunky smashed rose­mary-gar­lic Yukon Golds are ex­em­plary com­pan­ions ($8 each).

In­dus­try peo­ple rarely point this out when they’re detri­men­tally af­fected, but com­pe­ti­tion pushes ev­ery­body to work harder. The ar­rival of higher-end ho­tels with am­bi­tious restau­rants (the Kimp­ton Jour­ney­man, for one) raises the stakes for other lo­cal ho­tels. The Westin’s model isn’t with­out flaws, but with time and a lit­tle ef­fort, it has great po­ten­tial.

Clockwise from top: shrimp spaghetti, br­uschetta with goat cheese and straw­ber­ries, smashed pota­toes, bone-in rib-eye, clas­sic meat­balls, fried Brus­sel sprouts

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