Lost in the endless stream of new Fifth Ward/Walker’s Point restaurant openings was the unfortunate shuttering of Marchese’s Olive Pit. On top of missing the Pit’s Chicago-esque thin crust pies—maybe the best in the city—we were certain that another tenant/landlord rift would leave one more vacant eyesore on the S. 1st St. corridor.
Not the case. c. 1880’s prompt takeover demonstrates the unstoppable tide that is farm-to-table dining. Culinary Institute of America-trained (“C.I.A.” for Food Network-ies) Thomas Hauck recently left behind his prominent post as sous-chef at the James Beard-bitch-slapping Citronelle in Washington D.C. to open this, his first joint in his old hometown. Still grieving for a table-dominating, tongue-torching Peter’s Pepper pizza—preferably with Goodfellas subtitled on the flat-screen—we shrugged and ironed our pants for a Friday night immersion in emulsions, palate cleansers, and the second sous-vide cooker in a one block radius.
The space: You’ve been here before—or somewhere like it. Despite a slick overhaul from LP/w Design Studios, including a stellar refurbished portrait of late 19th century Milwaukee and an overriding theme of “invention,” much here feels universal: dark, rustic tones; curtains; apothecary jars; tarantula leg-wired Edison bulbs; tin ceiling; staid bar; speakeasy leather booths; and, of course, wood. Can we go anywhere these days without the ramshackle, repurposed wood? From a worn, weathered look, to the name (1880 was the birth year of the building), to the old-timey cocktail list (bourbons and bitters, gins and lime, etc.), the place and its brethren—including a couple down the block—reek of idealized nostalgia for a bygone era. Nothing wrong with that—until it’s been over-cooked, over-served, and the formula starts to feel like week-old, reheated leftovers.
The service: Convivial, warm, dashing. After negotiating with a maybe-trying-too-hard host, we were seated and whisked into the practiced hands of our waiter, Robin. Talkative with zero intrusion and endless with menu knowledge without a hint of recitation, here was one of the truly great waiters to preside over any meal in recent memory. And when he playfully busted a move to Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder” with a co-worker, we felt safely removed from the stuffy environs that these prices might imply.
The A.V. Club’s food: Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: “Circa” takes its food sources seriously. “Freshest,” “seasonal,” and “local,” aren’t just buzzwords, but phrases revered with Alice Waters-is-God, cult-like gravity. We can’t be sure, trying as we were to avoid potential brainwashing, but the slogan “Art of the Earth” may have letter-headed the entire second page of the menu.
It’d be a bit easy to give the granola-crunchers in the kitchen a bit of our long-pent snark if it all weren’t so delicious: Whole lump crab salad ($11) came with pickled jalapenos, cilantro, a cucumber emulsion busting with lime, mint, and shaved egg whites (somebody’s good with a Mach-3) sprinkled over the top “like snow.” Pork Belly ($12) came with an arugula puree, smoked Gruyere cheese, and pickled baby bell peppers that had been consensually, lovingly penetrated by a Chinese mustard seed. Smoked Salmon ($11) tasted fresh enough to have been wrangled from nearby Lake Michigan. But it didn’t kill us, so we put our continued faith in Robin’s easy grace.
Next, the table-maestro wrought us lamb ($28), picked from the small, simple lot of more-than-I-make-in-two-hours entrees. Served two ways, the first was deconstructed, taken-off-the-bone, seared Sous-vide, offered perfect medium-rare and next to a shitake mushroom puree. The second was lamb belly turned into crispy bacon-like strips of cured gaminess. It was the latter that seemed to best sum up the artisanal food movement: “Give me bacon or give me death.”
Dessert was the real notebook-breaker. The simply titled “Strawberry” ($9) was really a granite-plated wrecking ball of honey ice cream, dehydrated strawberries, black pepper merengue, and basil cream inside a pastry puff—there may have been more, but we ran out of writing space. Yet through it all, what got us were the subtle touches: an asparagus Vichyssoise unexpectedly poured tableside between appetizers and entrees; a homemade sorbet-and-foam palate-cleanser; and a post-dessert offering of Belgian chocolate “petit fours” (to sweeten the fact we were about to peep the bill).
The verdict: Foodies will undoubtedly clog bandwidth with clamors of “on point.” Others will bemoan “pricey.” Both will be, more or less, correct. But the final verdict will only come from the neighborhood and time itself: Can an area centered on intelligent motor control and industrial components, already ripe with the likes of La Merenda, Braise, and Jacques, really support yet another high-end dining establishment?