8-Twelve MVP Bar & Grill
Last season’s playoff dismantling notwithstanding, Aaron Rodgers would likely have a hard time failing in any local business. Pair him with Brewers slugger and fellow wunderkind Ryan Braun, and it’s as unflappable a commercial combo as Miller and Usinger’s. (Rodgers never gets shit for co-starring in ambulance-chasing TV spots, and Braun’s ongoing PED scandal is continually shrugged off by fans faster than a FedEx Express package.) Last year, the dream team of Wisconsin bro-dom went the restaurateur route with 8-Twelve MVP Bar & Grill. The SURG group (Carnevor, Umami Moto) handles the messy business of actually running the joint (as they do with Braun’s Graffito), Rodgers and Braun enjoy their skim, and we get to consider just how many MVPs it takes to justify a drive out to Brookfield.
The space: Perching itself seamlessly on Bluemound’s row of American homogenization, 8-Twelve is equidistant to both Olive Garden and T.G.I. Friday’s—and spiritually, somewhere just akin. It is the slick, stereotypical strip-mall, medium-upscale steakhouse. (If you don’t know what this means, think Carrabba’s, which is just down the street.) As a grown-up alternative to across-the-street Hooters, it’s inevitably loud, bustling, and, in-step with its very suburban surroundings, sprawling. The walls are every-new-restaurant dark red, there’s mason-jar candles, low lighting, etc. But there’s also a focus on deep, Sinatra-style, crescent-shaped booths. And the unusual pairing of this and the Bucks lightning backcourt running wild on multiple flatscreens left us, somehow, mannishly sated.
The service: Apparently neither of the all-American name/number-sakes at 8-Twelve work on Wednesday nights. Or else they were back in the kitchen, dicing and broiling. We were greeted instead by a host who, while friendly, would probably never even make an Associated Press MVP ballot. Once seated, we were met by a rapid-fire, personal-trainer recitation of hellos, specials, and “what we’re all about”s that gave a feeling less apropos of the black-clad staff and more of training camp. But, once a Lambeau-voiced table behind us cleared out, our waitress relaxed, asserted herself to be helpful, personable, and smoothly efficient—despite the heaping yards she needed to cover between tables and kitchen.
The A.V. Club’s food: The butter is the kickoff. Like someone in the kitchen got a new garlic press for Christmas and couldn’t stop with the break-in period, the pre-dinner compound was pungent, rife, and impossible to stop gooping onto the warm, crusty bread. Championships are often won in the locker room, and positive dining reviews can sometimes be won with the bread.
Lubed-on by an Ale Asylum Hopalicious ($6) and a heartily Wisconsin-themed beer list, we rolled up our sleeves and got down to the pre-game portion of the evening. Cheese curds ($10) came battered in Spotted Cow (acting as maybe the best use yet of that beer), and were as light and fluffy as a Dom Capers-speared defense. The buttermilk-ranch and honey-mustard dipping sauces got the secondary taste-job done, near as keenly as the chipotle bacon ketchup and cayenne ranch that accompanied our house-made cheddar and Gouda tater tots ($7). These monster balls were well removed from the bush league Ore-Ida variety, and based on the size were as filled with HGH as they were with delicious, molten-y cheese.
Obvious skill with the fryer led us toward smoked chicken meatballs ($8), shrimp ’n’ grits ($11), and an all-appetizer/angioplasty course of action. But a real sports bar is only as good as its wings ($9), and here they are wood-grilled. Perfectly white and tender inside, they had that crispy exterior that only comes from love and a high-temp flame. And while the BBQ half was too syrupy and sweet, the sweet chile sauce was tangy and zinging like a back-shoulder toss to Jennings near the goal line of our tongue.
The buttermilk fried Amish chicken ($17) was supple and juicy inside, a tad salty, not un-greasy, with an almost too-light finish that flaked and crumbled during mowing. No matter: house-smoked tomato mac ’n’ cheese was there, on the same plate, like a teammate, catching the scraps, ready to give a pat on the butt and get it back into the game and our mouths.
Our appetite long crushed, the Brauny Burger ($11) was just too easy to squeeze under the nightly salary cap. With a pretzel bun, it had a touch of the ballpark; along with the smoky smoked Gouda, we were but a step away from proudly donning one of those golden-yellow headpieces in full cheesehead revelry. Add a smartly medium-rare patty and the foodie-ism touch of a sweet-onion and bacon compote, and you have something approaching gastropub euphoria: comfort mixing with class, low brow with the high, grease with refinement.
A post-meal Valentine coffee ($3) was like a triple at the end of a cycle game. As impressive as it was unexpected, the inclusion of the dark-horse local roaster showed the decision-makers here are in the weight room, watching tape, and every other sports cliché in the book that signifies paying close attention. In this case, to taste itself.
The verdict: An identity crisis is inevitable: farm-to-table haute cuisine or hero-owned sports-themed pub and grub? The irony is that, for Milwaukee standards, the more unique venture of the two might be a sports bar. The surprise is that 8-Twelve pulls off the balancing act so adequately. But, really, who cares? We’d drive to Mukwonago in a blizzard for a fish sandwich if one of these guys were operating the fryer.