Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Milwaukee Part II: From Cheese Curds to Custard

(Read Part I, “The Unexpected Coolness of Cream City,” if you haven’t already.)

I wasn’t alone in having my comeuppance on Milwaukee. Our whole group did, with the exception of the friend who’d suggested it. Her parents had moved there recently, and she enthusiastically vouched for it. The rest of us were, as you can guess, deeply skeptical. But ultimately her proposal (a free lakefront condo and car to use) was too good to turn down. Even then, though, I was still scratching my head about why I was buying a flight to Milwaukee. Electively, no less! I kept thinking about all the “geographic crushes” I’d yet to visit.

Happily, the confusion started to wane the first night, when we strolled through East Town’s massive, four-day Bastille Days festival, hit up the $6 wine stand and nibbled on fried cheese curds while lounging in a grassy park listening to a great blues band. Don’t know what cheese curds are? I didn’t either. Turns out they’re the solid parts of curdled milk. It sounds gross, but they are a big Wisconsin specialty. You’ll see them in all sorts of varieties (as the photo above shows), and you’ll also see them fried with marinara or ranch dipping sauce. They’re a little chewy, a little sour, and a lot of tastiness.

By the next day, I couldn’t even remember why I’d been confused. Randomly, I picked a hike and a lunch spot that were both winners. The Seven Bridges Trail in South Milwaukee’s Grant Park Beach took us past forests, streams, meadows and an isolated beach (pictured above). Everything you’d want in a little nature detour. From there, we drove back along the quaint neighborhoods along scenic Lake Drive, which hugs Lake Michigan, and headed to Barnacle Bud’s on the Kinnickinnic River. The Milwaukee Express, the local weekly, had called it “the place to be in summer…if you can find it.”

They weren’t exaggerating. Hidden on an industrial street that looks abandoned at first, Barnacle Bud's is the offshoot of Skipper Bud’s, a boat storage facility. Delightfully ramshackle with picnic tables and beer served in buckets of ice, Barnacle Bud's was serving up its Friday Fish Fry to everyone arriving by car and boat. I opted for the outstanding crab cake appetizer (voted Best in Milwaukee for good reason) and a brat (aka bratwurst sausage) on a bun instead. As we clinked our cold beers together, things were seriously looking up.

That night, we perused Glorioso Brothers Italian Foods market, picked up some provisions (including cheese, of course) and enjoyed a delicious spread on the porch of our lakefront condo. By Saturday, we were refreshed and fully in vacation mode. With a new zeal for exploring this now-intriguing city, we headed to the Historic Third Ward, home to tons of new, happening places to eat. We settled into a rooftop table at Benelux and studied their menu, which focuses on the cuisine of Europe’s Lowlands (Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg). We started with Bloody Marys, which in Milwaukee all come with a refreshing beer chaser (it IS a beer town, after all), and decided to split two Pannenkoekens (huge Lowlands-style crepes).

From there, we walked along the nearly-three-mile-long River Walk to downtown and took our obligatory tourist photos with “The Bronze Fonz” (aka a statue of actor Henry Winkler). As you may recall, the classic television sitcoms “Happy Days” and “Laverne and Shirley” were both set in Milwaukee, and TV Land apparently commissioned the statue in 2008. (A rerun ratings strategy?)

We then crossed the river into the charming Old World Third Street area before swinging back to East Town for one last walking tour. We cut through Juneau Park to the waterfront to see the modernist architecture of the Milwaukee Art Museum, originally designed by mid-century legend Eero Saarinen, with an amazing “movable sunscreen” and outdoor pavilion area later installed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. This wing-like structure opens every morning at 10 a.m. See the photo below of it rising upward, halfway open. It’s a perfect analogy for Milwaukee, a city rising to a comeback in shocking (and striking) fashion.

Nightfall brought us to a wine tasting event at Bastille Days, where we took in more great bands while sipping wines from around the world. A perfect ending to a big day. On Sunday, with only a few hours (and a tiny bit of energy) left, we relaxed at Bradford Beach, a beach right in East Town where you can rent cabanas and beach chaises. On the way in and out, you can also grab burgers and custard at Northpoint, the famous custard shack located right in the beach parking lot. While the custard was cold and creamy, I have to say the burger was the thing that struck me: a truly mouth-watering hamburger on Cioppino bread with pickles, my favorite classic condiment.

An hour later, I left Milwaukee full in all senses. Not only was it a fantastic reunion with old friends, but it was a great “blind date.” Out of left field, I discovered another place I think I could live. The only downside I can see is that teensy weensy detail called winter, as I was reminded when I saw a license plate that read, hilariously, H8WNTRS. But the upside of a serious winter region like the Midwest is that nobody does summer quite as exuberantly. I noticed this when I was in Michigan the summer of 2009. After such a long winter, you can tell how uber-grateful everyone is for summer. Just look to the zillion festivals crammed into every summer weekend.

In Milwaukee, and the upper Midwest, there’s an urgency and passion to summer. I really like that, and I just wonder if someday I might need to have a seasonal pad in Milwaukee. For example, a cool riverfront loft in an old industrial brick building with its own boat slip.

You just never know.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Unexpected Coolness of Cream City (aka Milwaukee, Wisconsin)

When I first saw that Milwaukee’s nickname was Cream City, I assumed this was a reference to the dairy industry. After all, the one thing I knew about Wisconsin is that cheese comes from there. (It is, in fact, the number one cheese producing state in the US, with more than 600 varieties of cheese produced.) But that’s not what Cream City refers to. It’s a special type of creamy-golden-yellow brick that was produced in Milwaukee in the 1800s and used to construct many of the city’s well-preserved historic buildings.

This revelation was one of many last weekend, when a group of friends convened in Milwaukee. I realized that not only did I know nothing about this metropolitan city of 1.5 million – apparently a shared condition given that I would tell people I was going to Milwaukee and they’d wish me a great time in Minnesota – but I really couldn’t explain why. It simply wasn’t on my radar. Inexplicably, Milwaukee has the same (lack of) appeal as say Baltimore or Detroit.

But the truth of the matter, as I’m prepared to set straight today, is that Milwaukee is a very cool place. First, Milwaukee has a lovely setting right on the western shore of Lake Michigan. That means vast ocean-like views, clear water, sailboats, waterfront parks and biking trails, and nice beaches within walking distance. Then there’s the wide Milwaukee River cutting through it, creating an impressive downtown River Walk area with stately riverfront buildings and tons of dockside eateries that you can visit by boat. I personally think it eclipses the San Antonio River Walk, which is far better known. As if that weren’t enough, there’s another smaller river – the Kinnickinnic River – which is quite fun to say.

Beyond this aquatic bounty, there are great urban areas like the Historic Third Ward, where industrial buildings have been transformed into hip lofts, food markets and rooftop restaurants; or the Old World Third Street area, where modern wine bars abut multi-generational sausage shops; or East Town, an upscale district full of parks and museums. Frankly, I didn’t see any downtown area that wasn’t comely, and I was looking for it. For a city with a declining population (another hallmark of a poor reputation), I saw no rundown areas, strangely. Instead, I found Milwaukee immaculately landscaped, carefully preserved and more lively than depressed.

The fact that the cost of living is so reasonable (e.g. luxury three-bedroom waterfront condos between $200-$300K) doesn’t hurt. Another major ingredient is that this is a young town, which I definitely noticed. The median age is 30.3 years, which is six years younger than the national average of 36.8 years. Fittingly, Milwaukee is only second to Las Vegas in the number of bars, clubs and restaurants per capita. It was also named one of the top ten best places to be single by Forbes. As a result of all these surprising things, as well as the fact that its population loss has slowed to a trickle in the last decade, The Street recently named it one of the “America’s Five Most Underrated Cities.” I couldn’t agree more.

Read Part II of my head-turning date with Milwaukee here.