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Thursday, Dec. 29, 2011

2011 Year in Review

Milwaukee's dining scene adds new gems

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If new restaurant openings are an economic indicator, then 2011 should inspire confidence in the Milwaukee area. Many more doors were opened than closed in the city's dining scene.

Eagan's was quickly replaced by the Rumpus Room, the Bartolotta restaurant group's take on a gastropub. It already is a local classic, a European-style beer hall with a menu that ranges from a basic sausage plate to an entrée as refined as duck confit. And the smoked meats are a must-try.

Fusion and small plates have emerged as a noticeable trend. Asian borders are blurred at Meiji, Screaming Tuna and NaNa Asian Fusion, all of which have sushi bars but then diverge from there. Meiji, the best new Chinese restaurant to open in years, has a separate dining room devoted to Sichuan Chinese fare. Screaming Tuna goes even more international, with a menu that offers tastes of South America and Korea. The ceviche made with salmon is exceptional. NaNa, the newest of the bunch, offers entrees with origins in China, Korea and Malaysia.

Add Zaafaran and Juto to the fusion list. Zaafaran's menu wanders the lands of India and Thailand, and Juto is even more diverse, with Asian and European small-plate dishes. On weekends try their Vietnamese pho, which ranks with the very best.

Latin American restaurants also made a good showing this year. Two Peruvian establishments opened, Mr. Sebass and La Parihuela. Both restaurants serve homey fare at inexpensive prices. Kafe Kultura explores nations throughout Latin America, with items like Puerto Rican mofongo, Colombian tamales and Argentine churrasco with a splendid chimichurri sauce. It's one of the year's highlights.

Another notable opening was the Mexican eatery Revolucion. The far-beyond-ordinary fajitas are prepared with three types of chile peppers. Also be sure to try the Oaxacan tamales.

The Third Ward remains a draw. The Milwaukee Sail Loft, which replaced Rip Tide, offers an enticing seafood menu. Ryan Braun's Graffito is notable, as it marks James Beard-nominated chef Dominic Zumpano's return to Milwaukee. Zumpano was nominated as the chef at Umami Moto, an Asian fusion restaurant. Graffito adds contemporary twists to its roots in Italy. Try the appetizer of gnocchi and an entrée of pappardelle with an intense duck ragu.

The new summer hot spot is Café Benelux, located a short distance from the Milwaukee Public Market. The specialty is pannenkoeken, a large Dutch crepe that is served throughout the day. The beer list, mainly Belgian, is exceptional.

Farther north, on the Milwaukee Street restaurant and bar scene, is Catch 22, with its catch of 22 different types of sliders.

The best new restaurant experience of the year took place at Beta by Sabor, the offshoot of the Brazilian churrascaria restaurant. Beta has a unique small-plates menu, and their serving of braised veal and halibut cheeks is decadently delicious.

2011 has been a year rich in new restaurant openings. Here's to a continuation of that good fortune in 2012.
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