The Rumpus Room
Even if you’ve only had Lake Park Bistro’s brunch once because it was on your parents’ celebratory dime, or the closest you’ve gotten to a whiff of dinner at Bacchus is through Anthony Bourdain’s visit on the Travel Channel, you know it’s tough to argue with the Bartolottas’ aptitude with a spatula. So when the ’Tosa clan moved to occupy the vacated cavern of Eagan’s downtown, it was only a matter of time before we found ourselves hunkered on Water Street, buying the ticket and taking the ride, due entirely to past successes.
The Rumpus Room continues the brothers Bartolotta’s entrance to the burgers-and-fries (not frites) realm of affordability. And while the entire notion of “gastropub” is beginning to jump from “trendy” to “cliché,” it was still with excitement that we ventured toward the theater-going/collar-popping downtown strip on a recent Friday night.
The space: “The Girl From Ipanema,” Victorian chandeliers, a faux-tin ceiling, swank curtains, bearded young professionals in ties and on dates, and the kind of dark wood hues that inspire Scotch drinking (or in this case, bourbon) all fuel the “big night downtown” aesthetic. Enhancing the shabby chic are signs that read “Toillette,” hanging pig diagrams, and the preordained Edward Sharpe jam “Home” on the playlist—all seemingly shipped directly from IKEA’s “Restaurant” aisle.
But none of this casts as large a shadow as the bar: hulking, ladder-necessitating tall, and Usain Bolt-sprint long. It’s just the totem of yuppifed culture to fill a vacancy across the street from the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. And to justify $10 craft cocktails.
The service: A dose of friendly mixed well with inevitable hipness. Our waiter was eager to please, sufficiently attentive, and well-rehearsed in the menu. Even if he didn’t exactly hold up to our Goren-and-Eames level of interrogation on the wing sauce, we could excuse him. We were ordering chicken wings, after all, not a vintage Barbarossa. Such genre confusion could be a slippery-slope challenge for a Bartolotta outpost in the bar-food world—or maybe it was a hint to ditch the postulating and get down to the drink-and-snack order.
The A.V. Club’s food: The Boulevardier ($10)—Bulleit bourbon, Carpano Antica, Campari, Reagan’s orange bitters—looked like cough syrup in a chalice, but it was a stiff and supple lubricant for the hurt we put on the generous wedge of Hooks six-year cheddar ($3). On the other hand was the Paloma ($10)—Milagro Blanco, grapefruit and cardamom gastrique, agave, fresh lime juice, seltzer. There’s no screwing up a lime-seltzer-grapefruit combo on a balmy August night, but it felt mostly like an upmarket, fancy-named margarita. This also could be said of the parma cotta mortadella ($3). Then again, if the best endorsement is “it’s like baloney,” it may be best to go a different way.
Whoever decided to put pork belly in the beer-cheese soup ($8) surely spent many nights drunkenly philosophizing their munchies in a frat-house kitchen. And whichever one-upper decided to add spiced popcorn to the mix has long since graduated (with honors), and should ideally be hosting your next Super Bowl party. Still, on its own, the soup was salty, heavy, and unremarkable enough to feel no different than the slow-cooker beer-cheese recipe in every other home kitchen.
Rumpus’ wings are served with a harissa sauce and whipped blue-cheese crème fraiche (a.k.a. blue-cheese dressing). The “ketchup of Tunisia,” the harissa hints at faraway-ness, and insinuates “you’re going to be on the toilet tomorrow” with plenty of cayenne and serrano. It could have been saucier, it could have been meatier, but it felt like a neat alternative to honey mustard.
Capping things was the lauded Rumpus burger ($12). Good on the Sciortino roll, perfect with the vintage, melted cheddar and thick beef; but why such a river of Russian dressing? The unmitigated flow was overpowering at worst, over-salty at best. A tasty burger, sure, but with such staunch Russian aftertaste, we get what it would be like to have Ivan Drago orgasm all over our patty.
The verdict: If Ristorante Bartolotta is The Godfather, and Lake Park Bistro The Godfather: Part II of the family’s franchise dominance in Milwaukee fine dining, Rumpus Room is akin to, say, The Rainmaker. Sure, this one’s based on the work of John Grisham and, no, there’s no Pacino or De Niro, but it is still Coppola. To us, the biggest difference between Rumpus and down-the-block Water Street Brewery seems to be eight Zagat points, buzz, and a deep-pocketed restaurant empire with the scratch to stock a million beers and endless craft cocktail accouterments. It might be worth another shot, especially pre-show if we end up scoring some tickets to Wicked. But it also just may be above-average bar grub masked by a way-above-average restaurant group.