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Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010

Café at the Plaza Adds Local, Seasonal Ingredients

Chef Karen Bell’s new lineup at a classic diner

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What foodie hasn’t sat in a restaurant that wasn’t living up to its potential and thought, “A few key improvements and the right chef, and this place could be one of the city’s favorite restaurants”? The Café at the Plaza was one of those culprits until recently, when its owners, the Shoreline Real Estate Co., decided to invest the resources needed to transform it from a dingy diner (albeit with a small but loyal clientele) into a charming café that serves a menu brimming with local and seasonal ingredients.

Located in the Plaza Hotel on Milwaukee’s lower East Side, the café’s interior was already in place—it just needed some love. The room the café occupies was constructed with the building in 1925, but wasn’t transformed into a café until the 1940s. Relief panels line the walls and the ceiling is framed by elaborate decorative molding. The charming U-shaped counter remains; the original tile floors were restored; and new light fixtures, kitchen equipment, furniture and linens were brought in.

Central to the Café’s reincarnation was the addition of a new chef, Karen Bell. Raised in Milwaukee, Bell earned her culinary arts degrees from Milwaukee Area Technical College and Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. She worked for acclaimed chefs in Chicago such as Charlie Trotter and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and later moved to San Francisco, where she became sous chef at Farallon. After working as head chef of Toma in Madrid, Spain, Bell opened her own small restaurant, Memento, serving California-style cuisine. Chef Bell and her husband recently returned to Milwaukee to be closer to family, and she began working for Shoreline in August.

One can develop an intense bond with monosodium glutamate (MSG), making it hard to say goodbye when your favorite can of Classic Sysco corned beef hash is replaced with the real thing, made from scratch using fresh ingredients. Bell experienced resistance from some die-hard regulars who liked the food the way it was, but she recognized the growing base of customers willing to pay for meals made with local, seasonal foods.

“I’ve tried to improve the quality of the ingredients, so everything we serve is made from scratch, not dumped out of a can,” Bell says. “Another priority for me is to support local, so we’re working with Braise RSA.”

Braise RSA stands for “restaurant supported agriculture,” and it was created to make local seasonal ingredients easily accessible to area restaurants. Bell orders the café’s dairy, grass-fed meat and as much produce as she can from Braise RSA. “When we first started making these menu changes in the beginning of September, 85%-90% of our produce was coming from Braise,” she says.

Serving breakfast and lunch, the Café at the Plaza offers much of the same hearty comfort food that it did in the past, with several new additions that will satisfy those who have a more adventurous palate. Breakfast, which is served all day, includes a twist on the sides traditionally served. Customers have an option of chive hash browns, café potatoes (a compelling blend of red and sweet potatoes with onions, peppers and rosemary) or fruit. Eggs are available to order, but also appear as fluffy omelets stuffed with your choice of ingredients (the usual suspects are there, but the list is bolstered by the added deliciousness of chorizo, Nueske’s bacon, Gruyere cheese and fresh artichokes). The French toast—three pieces of battered bourbon bread pudding served with almond butter and syrup—and the latkes—fried potato pancakes served with smoked salmon, horseradish cream, capers and red onions—are a must-try.

On the lunch menu, classic favorites such as a flank steak sandwich and a build-your-own burger share real estate with more innovative selections like tarragon and caper egg salad, as well as a ratatouille, a stewed vegetable dish made with eggplant, zucchini, pepper, onion and tomato, served on ciabatta bread with goat cheese. The menu is rounded out with a great drink selection that includes hometown products like Sprecher sodas, Rishi organic loose leaf teas, and Alterra coffee. Wisconsin’s more heady drinks make their appearance as well. Rehorst vodka can be found in the Plaza’s cocktails, Stone’s Throw Winery is on the small but selective wine list, and the beer list is comprised of 10 bottled beers from in-state.

Café at the Plaza is located at 1007 N. Cass St. For more information, call 414-272-2494.