I've owed the guys from Ultra Fidelis in Milwaukee a nice meal for a little while. All are followers of Road Tips and have turned me on to - or have taken me to - some pretty nice places in the Milwaukee area over the years. On this journey to Milwaukee, they suggested going to a place called Meritage in the Washington Heights neighborhood on the city's west side. On a rainy evening, we drove over to the place on W. Vliet Street. (see map)
As with Meritage wines - a blending of different varieties of grapes to create a Bordeaux-style of wine - chef Jan Kelly blends a combination of locally grown foods that work well with the wines she has on hand at Meritage. The menu at Meritage changes with the seasons allowing Kelly to get the freshest foods from local farmers and producers.
Jan Kelly comes from a culinary family and has her own rich culinary background. Her parents ran a unique fine dining gourmet restaurant in Southern California called The Hobbit. The Hobbit is housed in a Spanish-style home and offers only one seating an evening serving a seven-course meal. Jan Philippi, as she was known then, didn't necessarily want to get into the restaurant business, but she found that working in the kitchen was fun and rewarding. Her idea of being an animal training soon waned and she ended up moving up to Northern California to work in other restaurants.
Philippi took a fill-in job in a kitchen in a restaurant in Santa Cruz, CA, making salads and shucking oysters. It was there that she found her first mentor, a classically-trained French chef. Had she not had that experience working with that chef, her career in cooking would have ended when the full-time worker came back. She ended up going to work for another restaurant in the Santa Cruz area, this one headed by a Swiss-trained chef, eventually becoming the pastry chef.
After her brother took over The Hobbit, Jan Philippi eventually moved back to Southern California to become the chef in the family restaurant. In the meantime, she met and eventually married Gary Kelly, a former speed skater who had trained at the Olympic speed skate track in Milwaukee and who attend the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. Each summer Gary and the-now Jan Kelly came back to Milwaukee to visit. Jan Kelly fell in love with the city and when her husband was offered a job in Milwaukee in the mid-90's, she jumped at the chance to follow him to the Midwest. It was quite a leap of faith for a girl who lived her whole life in California.
Jan Kelly's first job in Milwaukee was as the sous chef at the old Delafield restaurant, with other sous-chef stints at a couple other restaurants. She had a couple of other jobs at other restaurants around Milwaukee before she became executive chef at Barossa in the city's Walker's Point neighborhood. When Barossa closed in 2007, Kelly and her husband took another leap of faith by opening Meritage in what was formerly the Highlander restaurant, but had most recently been a martini bar.
Kelly's goal is to make people get out of their comfort zone when it comes to food, to allow her customers to trust her when it comes to the clever blending of ethnic foods and ingredients. Kelly says that she likes to give her patrons a new flavor within a familiar dish, trying all the time to have fun with the food. And it's worked. A couple years ago, Kelly was named a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation award for best chef in the Midwest.
It was a rainy night when we went to Meritage. Parking is on the street only in the neighborhood and I got a little soaked running from my car a block and a half away to the restaurant. But inside, I found a small, cozy and comfortable place with a bar area off to the side. I was joined by Jon - one of the co-owners of Ultra Fidelis, Bob - who had just come off knee replacement surgery, and Chris - a part-timer at U.F. whose main vocation is a traveling sales guy like me, and who has shared with me some of his favorite places to eat in the Midwest. We were seated at a table near the bar and we were greeted by our server that evening - a 20-something young man with an urban hip look to him. He dropped off menus for us and told us of a couple specials that evening. One of the specials was a sea bass entree. It sounded intriguing, but so did a couple of other things on the menu.
Not knowing what to expect, I immediately saw that I, indeed, needed to think outside my culinary comfort zone at Meritage. There was a mix of Mexican, Asian and European influenced foods, sometimes in the same entree. The Duck Stir Fry entree consisted of a braised duck leg with carrots, daikon (an Eastern Asian type of radish), and bok choy served in a black pepper sauce with Udon (Chinese) noodles and fried duck wings. The Stacked Enchilada featured layers of grilled shrimp, smoked pork rice and corn tortillas served with adobo sauce. The Pork Tenderloin at Meritage consisted of a juniper berry-encrusted pork chop topped with a parsnip and celery root puree, and served with an apple, arugula, beet, fennel and walnut salad. And I thought the prices were pretty reasonable. Each of those entrees were $19 or $20 bucks. There was a lot of stuff going on in those dishes.
When it came time to order, however, I was torn between the Machamentales Stew - a Mexican stew consisting of bison meat, green chilies, pineapple and sweet potatoes served with mashed plantains; or the Saffron Pasta and Braised Veal entree that consisted of homemade pasta served with white wine and herb-braised veal chunks with an assortment of seasonal vegetables. When everyone started to order they made the waiters job easy - all three of my guests ordered the sea bass special for that evening. I was just shaking my head when the waiter got to me and I said, "Geez, guys. You were each supposed to order something different so I'd have more time to figure out what I wanted." I did a quick mental "eenie-meenie-mynie-mo" and came up with the Saffron Pasta and Braised Veal. Jon picked out a nice bottle of white wine that I neglected to note what it was.
We each had salads or soups to open the meal. Jon, who was seated to my left, had the beet salad. It was very interesting. It consisted of chopped roasted beets with a horseradish and blue cheese dressing mixed in along with walnuts and arugula. He said, "Boy, this is tough to beat."
I opted for the green chile with lamb soup. I've been on a roll with green chile soups since a couple of recent trips to Colorado. But having the lamb in the soup instead of pork made it even more appealing. I was never really big on lamb until I got deep into Indian food. The soup had chopped cilantro mixed in with the green chile broth. The lamb was tender and flavorful, but the soup wasn't overly spicy. At least not for me. And for five and a half bucks, it was a great bargain to start the meal.
As I said, Jon, Bob and Chris all got the sea bass entree. It featured a fruit blend sitting on top of a pan-seared sea bass filet which was then perched on top of, I believe, roasted vegetables and arugula. It was a healthy piece of sea bass that all three got. And each of them said it was delicious.
My saffron and braised veal dish was a potpourri of colors and flavors featuring large chunks of tender veal that was somewhat shredded and an assortment of veggies mixed in with the homemade pasta. A piece of garlic bread with bone marrow spread on it came with the dish. It was an absolutely fabulous meal.
Afterward, as Jon and I are wont to do when we get together for a good meal, we got a glass of Scotch - The Balvenie doublewood. But Chris was familiar with the bartender, Dave, and his penchant for smoking alcohol such as bourbon. Chris said, "He had this smoked bourbon and he called it 'Campfire'. And after you took a sip of it, you really thought you were drinking the smoke of a campfire." He said it wasn't unpleasant, but had a smooth, silky and smoky flavor to it. Chris asked Dave if he had any of the "Campfire" and he said he didn't. But he had a smoked brandy that evening. Chris got one of those and we asked if we could get a sample for Jon, Bob and me to try.
It was interesting, to say the least. It had the initial smoothness of brandy with a smoky aftertaste. The smoke wasn't overpowering, but had a nice lingering slow fade. I was asking Dave about his technique and he said that he takes a couple bottles of whatever he wants to smoke and puts them into a canister to infuse the smoke into them. I asked him how he came about finding out about smoking alcohol and he said it was sort of an idea that he had after reading about getting a smoke taste into beer. He said the first time he tried it, it sort of backfired on him. "Actually, the first time I tried it, I didn't think I smoked it long enough after sampling it. Then I put it in for, I don't know, three or four hours and it was too smoky. I figured that a couple hours of smoking the alcohol works about the best." That's how long it took him infuse the smoke into the brandy.
Overall, our meal at Meritage was very good. We had great service and it was fun talking with Dave the bartender about his penchant for smoked alcohol. And I thought the price of the meals were very reasonable for all that was going on with our dishes. I can't find much of anything to complain about Meritage. There's a lot of good places to eat in Milwaukee, but if you're looking for something different with out-of-the-box thinking when it comes to the menu, I'd heartily recommend Meritage.