Bacchus aims for, reaches stars - 2009

By Dennis R. Getto
Journal Sentinel dining critic
Published: May 21, 2004-2009

I watched as my dining companion spooned up her first bite of chocolate-hazelnut mousse cake ($8.50) at the new Bacchus restaurant.

She closed her eyes for a moment and smiled.

"You're not going to believe this," she said.

"I'm not much of a chocoholic," I told her.

"You won't say that after you've tried this," she answered.

So I took one small spoonful from the cake as its dark filling - made with Valrhona chocolate from France - softly oozed out onto the plate. I lifted it to my lips.

The restaurant, which is named after the Roman god of wine and revelry, stocks 230 wines.

It tasted rich, round and not at all bitter, like something that had soaked up the flavors of rich earth and tropical sunshine. And for once I understood why people make so much noise about good chocolate.

It wasn't enough to make me abandon my Coconut Bavarian Cream ($7), a lighter dessert made silky by the addition of gelatin to a cream-and-coconut mixture. But it deepened my appreciation of the overall quality of both the food and experience of Milwaukee's newest elegant restaurant.

Named after the Roman god of wine and revelry, Bacchus is a 160-seat, sleek restaurant that replaced the long-revered Boulevard Inn on the first floor of the Cudahy Towers. With its 1940s dark wood trim and shiny hardwood floors, it may be the biggest undertaking yet for Joe Bartolotta, the man who heads the Bartolotta Restaurant Group. The other restaurants in the group are Lake Park Bistro, Ristorante Bartolotta, Mr. B's Steakhouse and Pizzeria Piccola.

This is a top-dollar destination. While main courses at the new Bacchus come with bread, vegetables and a starch, the rest of the menu is a la carte. A meal that includes an appetizer, a main course, a dessert and a glass of wine (Bacchus stocks 230) could cost as much as $75 per person.

But there is an alternative: Bacchus offers a prix fixe three-course dinner that delivers a soup or salad, a choice of one of three entrees and choice of one of three desserts for $32. I sampled a couple of the dishes that could have been part of that three-course meal and found them just as good as the dishes that were not on the prix fixe list.

So is it worth it?

After two recent dinners at the new restaurant, my answer is a resounding yes. Almost everything at both meals, from the first bite of asparagus and lobster soup ($9.50) to the last lick of luscious chocolate mousse cake, was outstanding.

Here are some details: These days, with many diners concentrating on reduced calories for their waists and healthy oils for their hearts, many restaurants offer salmon. I just wish more of them would send their cooks to Bacchus to taste salmon as it should be done - lightly browned in olive oil and slightly crisp on the outside, creamy and warm, but not dry on the inside. Its rich flavor tasted as if the fish had just been brought in from the water. Fresh artichokes and shiitake mushrooms had given their flavors to a white wine sauce that gave the fish an even more complex taste.

My dining companion and I might never have known what "day boat" halibut was if we hadn't seen it on the Bacchus menu and asked our server about it. Many halibut fishermen, she explained, take their boats out for days and keep their catch on ice on the boat until they return to port. Day-boat fishermen return to port each night and get their fish into commercial channels immediately. The result is fresher fish on the restaurant table.

That fresh fish ($26.50) had been roasted, and then served in an equally fresh vegetable broth made with asparagus, spring onions and carrots. The broth tasted as delicate as the perfectly cooked halibut and the fresh leaves of spinach that had been seared and served on the side along with baked fingerling potatoes and sauteed oyster mushrooms.

In the meat department, a "steakhouse cut" New York strip steak ($29.50) had been cut horizontally along the bone of the loin to ensure a more tender slice of beef. Tender it was. This was one of the softest and most flavorful New York strips I've eaten - slightly firm and full of earthy flavor. Ordered medium, it had been done to a perfect warm pink center, drizzled with a fresh peppercorn sauce and served with sauteed Swiss chard and expertly made au gratin potatoes.

Rack of lamb ($29) was of the same impeccable quality. Like the beef, it had been perfectly roasted so that it remained moist, firm and full of the restrained flavor that lamb lovers cherish. That wonderful mild flavor was accented by a roasted garlic-thyme sauce. A baked polenta cake and slightly sweet, aromatic caramelized onions and carrots rounded out the plate.

Appetizers engaged us as much as our entrees. The most extraordinary, a baked custard called a Parmigiano Cheese Royale ($12.50), brimmed with the flavor of fine imported cheese. Spring peas, dainty asparagus tips and slowly cooked ramps (an onion-like vegetable that grows wild in the eastern United States) bathed the rich custard with the flavor of spring.

A Maine lobster salad ($17) had at its heart a small, tender chilled sweet lobster tail with a rich seafood cream sauce and crunchy radish sprouts and other tiny greens on top.

More lobster, flaked out of the shell, lay at the heart of a spring asparagus soup ($9.50). Our server brought a large, shallow porcelain bowl to our table with the lump of lobster in the middle, and then poured the warm, silky asparagus soup around it. The result was a rich spring celebration that combined the best of the vegetable and seafood worlds.

A roasted beet salad ($8) looked like something from a glossy food magazine - thinly sliced yellow and red beets circled creamy goat cheese and mesclun greens. Small drops of balsamic vinegar dressing dotted the plate.

One dish, a buttermilk blue cheese salad of frisee with walnuts, walnut vinaigrette and Serrano ham ($8) delivered the only disappointment of the two meals. Someone in the kitchen had used large-crystal sea salt on it. When we bit into those crystals, they made the salad unpleasantly salty.

Those two earlier-mentioned desserts put a sumptuous finish on our meal as did a napoleon of fresh strawberries ($8) - three crisp cracker-like sheets of sweet pastry separated by fresh strawberries and sweetened whipped cream.

Almost as important as the food at Bacchus was its superior level of service. My bread plate was never empty more than a moment before a server came up to offer my choice of French, olive-rosemary or raisin-walnut rolls. Another kept water glasses filled without our having to ask. Empty wine glasses and plates disappeared at just the right moments.

Yet with all that service, no one hovered - I never felt pressed to speed up or order another drink. As my friend and I walked out to the parking area, the attendant asked us what we'd had for dinner.

My friend, still entranced from her dessert, said one word - chocolate.

"Isn't it great?" the attendant added. "Later at night, we get some people who come into the bar just for dessert and a glass of wine."

I intend to keep that in mind the next time I come downtown for a show.

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