As the saying goes, we Milwaukeeans are outdoorsy only in that we like getting drunk on patios. And if we really want to go all John James Audubon, all we need is a water view alongside our al fresco libations. So once Russ Davis decided to openly flaunt Midwest geography and celebrate the wonders of FedEx frozen shipping logistics with a full-fledged Crab Shack smack dab in the middle of an old boat storage building on the Menomonee River, it was only a matter of time before we strapped on the flippy-flops and sunglasses and dove into the Twisted Fisherman. Knowing that the days for outdoor hanging in Milwaukee were strictly numbered, we were more than ready to toast the end of the summer drinking season.
The space: Down the street from the Harley Davidson Museum, past the hulking, churning St. Mary’s cement factory, and nestled across from the smoke-stacked WE Valley Power Plant sits the Twisted (and very lonely looking) Fisherman. If the setting sounds enticing, wait until the view overtakes you: the Marquette Interchange (from below no less) sits in all her bustling glory to the east, while the boxy Armour Self Storage building calls out in alluring neon-lit orange to the north. Out yonder, just over the opulence that is I-94, an Allen Edmonds billboard boasts some very sharp loafers. There’s little doubt that this is the business end of the Menomonee, and despite the sand and picnic tables, Jimmy Buffett is not walking through that door. Not that that’s a bad thing.
The building itself is part stiff-boothed restaurant, part plastic-walled beer tent, and part outdoor waterfront chill-out spot. Walls of corrugated steel, neon beer signs, slick new wood, the inevitable fish netting, nautical signs, Christmas lights, beers in an old canoe, beers in steel buckets, the old guy from Jaws watching the Brewers on a flatscreen at the bar, a dilapidated boat, and endless wooden tables offer a maritime visual smorgasbord. It’s hard to tell where the kitsch ends and the charm begins—just like it’s hard to tell where the industrial waste finishes and the river itself starts.
The service: A bit awkward, but no complaints. We’ll let the uncertain “just-opened” vibe slide, and the fact that we were met by a heaping mess of empty summery tables on a gray October Wednesday is neither the fault of the host nor the bartender. But there’s no need for an emasculating scoff just because we’d like a Little Dinghy ($7). You’re the one that poured this aqua blue embarrassment of a Cruzan rum cocktail. But once our ship was righted with the solid seafood-accompanying suggestion of a Sprecher Black Bavarian ($5), we fell in step with the slow but steady presence of our waiter.
The A.V. Club’s food: For starters, the Slap Yo’ Face Shrimp Cocktail ($8) will do nothing of the kind. Six chilled jumbo shrimp came with questionable darkness on the tails, while the non-spicy “spicy” cocktail sauce necessitated that we open the plastic container ourselves. Milwaukee Chowder ($3.50) may sound like a locally flavored, ill-advised sexual maneuver, but in actuality it was a chunky, creamy, buttery, and great take on the New England comfort classic with smoked trout, Wisconsin cream, sweet corn, and potatoes.
“When in Rome” precedent required at least some crab. Snow Crab ($19.95) fit the bill (while doubling our actual bill). And while we’re always happy to see an entrée come with a mallet and side bowl of liquid butter, the snowy bits of meat seemed miles, and even more days, removed from the salt water.
The Fish Fry ($13.95) was more our speed. The deep fried Lake Erie Perch came in a gigantic mess of fried, sheeny, flakey fishiness—crisply coated, easily cut with a fork, and begging for the inundation of hot sauce and tartar. In Lake Erie fashion, it might as well have come with a to-go box; even our fat asses weren’t walking out without a doggy bag. Adding to the fulfillment were the sides: the Mac ’n Cheese was deep goopy goodness, and the cheesy mashed potatoes were more like velvety, potato-tinted butter. In fact, the success in the realm of side dishes seeded the thought that it would be best to stick to a secure, comfortable “can’t-miss” like a Tilapia Sandwich ($8.95) or a Twisted Crab Cake Sandwich ($11.95). Both would also leave far more wallet space for drinking. And speaking of, how about one last Milwaukee Sunset ($7) for summer? With Cruzan guava, white rum, and grapefruit juice, this was a fine, final refreshing cocktail, putting a resounding period and satisfying “last call” on another season of outdoor drinking.
The verdict: Less character and in-the-know charm than Barnacle Bud’s, and less bro-dom than Horny Goat, the Fisherman is a strange, at-least-try-it-once dive, with a potential for excellence in the out-of-the-way summertime meet-up-spot game. But if you’re expecting greatness from a “Coastal” seafood joint in Milwaukee, you should consult a map.