The Fitz is a culi­nary rein­ven­tion in­flu­enced by its ho­tel’s Great Gatsby-era cre­ation.

Milwaukee Magazine - - Dining -

COCK­TAIL MEAT­BALLS are fea­tured among the ap­pe­tiz­ers at THE FITZ, the new restau­rant at the Am­bas­sador Ho­tel. Like the 1920s-era lodg­ing, which has decades of sto­ries from its his­tory, culi­nary direc­tor Ja­son Gorman uses the menu to tell tales too. He mod­ern­ized his recipe for the retro cock­tail meat­balls ($12) – which riffs on his mom’s grape jelly ver­sions – with ground veni­son and a fresh black­berry chut­ney. They’re de­li­cious meat­balls that make me think about fam­ily potlucks when I was a kid. My own story un­folds in my head. That’s the beau­ti­ful, mem­ory-trig­ger­ing thing about food.

The Am­bas­sador, old mar­ble floors and plas­ter­work car­ry­ing over into the din­ing room, re­cently re­vamped its food and bev­er­age pro­gram, hired new staff, re­named the restau­rant and lounge and sought to recre­ate the era when the ho­tel was built – the Roar­ing ’20s. Some menu items are in­spired by pop­u­lar dishes from those times (Wal­dorf and Crab Louis sal­ads). Gorman – of Dream Dance, the Iron Horse Ho­tel and, most re­cently, Mil­wau­kee Art Mu­seum’s Café Cala­trava – says he no longer feels the pres­sure to cook in a cer­tain style. He just wants to make food that tastes good.

That’s a re­fresh­ing take, and the nos­tal­gia-meets-mod­ern culi­nary theme sounds like a good fit for a his­toric ho­tel. But other vari­ables come into play. Din­ers on a given night could in­clude busi­ness trav­el­ers stay­ing on-site, con­cert­go­ers headed to the nearby Rave, peo­ple af­fil­i­ated with Mar­quette Univer­sity and des­ti­na­tion din­ers – peo­ple with very dif­fer­ing goals.

Per­haps the un­pre­dictabil­ity of that crowd’s size was the rea­son for a very sub­par visit to The Fitz one week­night this sum­mer. The ad­ja­cent Gin Rickey lounge was packed, and the Fitz’s din­ing room quickly filled up. We had a reser­va­tion and were seated promptly, but as more din­ers filed in, ser­vice lagged and our food cour­ses ar­rived in fits and starts. The staff seemed caught off guard. Of the ap­pe­tiz­ers, most in­ter­est­ing and fla­vor­ful to my palate was “fish and chips” – light, puffy prawn crack­ers topped with whipped salt cod, yuzu may­on­naise and ser­rano chile ($8). (A few weeks later, that dish was no longer on the menu.). Gorman’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of pigs in a blan­ket ($9) uses a fresh,

rather plump Chi­nese-style pork sausage that spills out of the spongy rice bun. But the fla­vor (en­hanced by the rhubarb-BBQ sauce) is good. The best parts of the ru­maki ($12) are the won­der­ful fried chicken liver and dark-rich soy caramel with Sprecher root beer. Thick seared pork belly rounds it out.

En­trées (at two vis­its) were a mixed bag. The mar­ket-price roasted fish (mahi mahi, $29) went back to the kitchen be­cause it was un­pleas­antly salty. The kitchen re­sponded by send­ing out a fresh piece of fish, which was the op­po­site of salty – bland. The risotto of the day (roasted corn, $19) was too al dente and again met a too lib­eral salt shaker. Best was hi­bis­cus tea-cured duck breast (medium-rare and quite ten­der) with duck con­fit and ter­rific spicy green-curry gnoc­chi dumplings ($29). Also good was the scal­lops cordon bleu ($32) – per­fectly seared shell­fish, not tra­di­tional cordon bleu style (which would have in­cluded cheese and a bread­crumb coat­ing). In­stead, crispy shaved guan­ciale (an Ital­ian cured meat) stood in for baked ham, and the po­lenta-Parme­san broth served as an ef­fec­tive fla­vor com­ple­ment.

The Am­bas­sador’s his­tory makes this nos­tal­gia-in­spired menu sound like a per­fect fit. But my up-and-down vis­its have nagged at me. Is this the menu that suits the clien­tele? Can it be ex­e­cuted well? And get­ting des­ti­na­tion din­ers to choose this restau­rant over so many oth­ers may well be a strug­gle. Right now there’s a lot of room for im­prove­ment.

The Fitz’s take on ru­maki – pork belly, fried chicken liv­ers, Sprecher root beer soy caramel and black lime

Hi­bis­cus teacured duck breast with duck con­fit and green-curry dumplings

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