Simple Cafe brings anything-but-simple cuisine to the East Side
What does it say about the foodie vanguard that a spot labeled “Simple” offers “cider reduction infused maple syrup,” “pureed mung beans,” “shaved kimchee,” and a menu due to change tomorrow? In a world where food trucks preach “handcrafted” and the pesky overachievers on Chopped act as today’s surrogates for Julia Child, elitism is the new way of the everyman. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We love walnut pesto as much as the next guy. And Simple Café owners Tom Hartz and Young Cho have already established their farm-to-table dogma with a much-loved café and bakery of the same name in Lake Geneva. But, locally sourced or not, whether the almond milk is made in house or out (it’s made in, of course), we’d be here for a try. Maybe most important: the Farwell Avenue omelet-pushers can finally offer some alternative to the weekend table-wait-kings over at Comet Café.
The space: It’s easy, and often accurate, to view brunch as a restaurant’s chance to let its best cooks sleep in, while the B-team slings tepid hollandaise and some overpriced vodka to the hordes of weekend malingerers. And while Simple is geared toward breakfast and lunch, a re-imagination and strict focus on the morning meal seems to be its bread and butter (which is very good). Simple closes at 3 p.m. every day, and doesn’t bother with a drink list since it doesn’t have a liquor license.
Given the morning-person focus, the space itself makes sense: it’s a long, pulsing cavern of bright sunshiny colors and perky caffeinated types. There’s some old cookware fashioned into light fixtures that scream DIY Channel kitsch, while the crowd is fashioned by North Face and speckled with freshmen parents lending a yuppie-ish vibe of a Portland, or maybe Portlandia, “it” spot. But there’s parking space—on the East Side? Could it be?—and a welcoming bottle of Cholula on every table. So, foodie fatigue be damned, here lies the gentlest of landing strips for our hangover hunger.
The service: Smiles, attention, menu knowledge. What else could you ask for? Coffee to go on the way out? No need: our waitress offered before it crossed our minds to ask. Maybe it was this, or the brightness and seemingly endless space, but the attitude felt way more than the quarter-mile it lays from the can’t-be-bothered vibes so often felt just south on Farwell.
The A.V. Club’s food: We get it, kind of: liquor licenses are expensive. But sometimes all the syrupy Alterra ($2.95) in the world can’t clear the lingering cobwebs of Saturday night. Such it was that we found ourselves on a recent Sunday, in eyebrows-raised disbelief, unexpectedly shot down by the teetotalers running the joint. While our waitress was nice about it, it’s impossible to really be nice while telling someone there’s no booze.
We pushed on, straddling the menu lines of breakfast and lunch. The chorizo sweet potato benedict ($9.95) started things off, with a sweet potato and masa sope, black beans, zucchini, poached eggs, and spicy hollandaise. If, like us, you’re turned off by sweet potato’s overwhelming tone, you should instead be turned on by the unique fact that a crisp tortilla cake is bedding your eggs, gravy, and fillings. Those eggs, by the way, are near perfect in the running department, and that hollandaise offers the whole presentation a swift kick of cayenne. And, oh yeah, there’s chorizo—the perfect antidote to zucchini’s benign presence, and insurance policy that the primitive portion of our tongue, the part uninterested in the “building lasting relationships with farmers” quote on the menu, was sated.
By now deserving of a lunch break, we dug into the carnitas tomatillo sandwich ($9.25). The green sauce was thick and generous, leading to a hoagie more saucy than porky, structurally maintained by a toasted ciabatta. What sounds on paper like a disparate and too-lengthy list of toppings (pico de gallo, black beans, low-fat mozzarella, swiss chard and kale, shaved cabbage) assembled cohesively in stew-like teamwork. We’re still made uncomfortable by the open claim of “low fat” cheese (if you’re going to serve cheese, serve cheese), and the whole thing certainly could have been bigger, but these are quibbles of a sandwich you didn’t hate. Light fried potatoes made a perfect, starchy side, especially alongside dropped slathers of semi-crispy pork, while also giving us something to use and overuse the Cholula on.
The roasted chicken and rice soup ($3.95) was a tad generic, and while our mother would approve, it only left bitter taste memories of the winter and our last flu-time Campbell’s. But, if in need of a pre-meal warm-up, the black bean soup ($3.95) gets the job done, existing more like a healthy, garlicky dip for the warm, toasty roll that sided our cup. Comforting, filling, earthy, delicious, another template by which to go crazy with hot sauce.
The verdict: Simple? Hardly. Pretentious foodism? Whatever, haters. This is solid, lovingly prepared grub with even better service. Still, brunch in Milwaukee without a Bloody Mary just isn’t really brunch in Milwaukee. So here’s a cheers to hoping this misstep is rectified, and to purchasing a breakfast-ready flask for the meantime.