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Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2008

Never a Dull Moment

Specials at The Social

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The Social came from modest beginnings, having started in a small, former bar in Walker’s Point. At that time, the kitchen occupied the spot of the old back bar, and the chefs would perform their magic directly in front of you. Three years ago, however, The Social made a big move north, to the site of a former foundry near the Milwaukee River.

Some of the former touches remain, including the massive wooden columns and exposed brick. But the newer Social is more spacious, with a sunlit bar and a large dining area that features a comfortable red sofa for relaxing. The much larger kitchen is still in view, but the bartenders now have the bar to themselves.

The larger kitchen has allowed the menu to expand. The signature item at the original site, mac ’n’ cheese, remains on the current menu ($14.95). The macaroni comes adorned with luxuriant goat cheese, roasted chicken and fresh rosemary. It was quite a novelty when it first appeared, and still remains compelling. A second version, “part deux” ($22.95), substitutes lobster, peas, tarragon and mascarpone cheese.

The menu now offers numerous appetizers and raw bar selections, although raw oysters are not always available. This prevented an opportunity to sample one of the three oyster shooters served with gin, vodka or sake. When this location first opened, the grilled naan bread pizza proved to be a work-in-progress, as the dough was very underdone. Now, however, the pizza is worth ordering at lunch ($9.95) or dinner ($10.95). Naan bread is a bit of a loose term. The dough may be made from the same ingredients, but it’s thinner, firmer and even crisper—all of the hallmarks of a good pizza.

Dinners offer one daily special while lunches have a few choices. A wise pick, and a very nice vegetarian option, is the pizza with marinated portobello mushrooms and onions. The marinade adds a hint of tartness, and the mild mozzarella and thin coating of marinara on the crust quietly fades into the background. Shrooms ($8.95)—a large bowl of button mushrooms poached in marsala and served with slices of toast—is definitely an appetizer for sharing. These mushrooms really belong on top of a thick steak. Unfortunately, the pierogies ($9.95) are a failed attempt at Polish food. The stuffing of wild mushrooms and caramelized onion is perfectly fine, but one is overly tough as a result of frying and the other is far too chewy despite being steamed. Order these only at Polish restaurants.

There is one item on the pierogies that does stand out, however: the topping of fried kraut. The sauerkraut is fried like haystack onion rings and brings an addictive tart tanginess. The kraut appears on one of the entrees, beef stroganoff ($15.95). The kitchen takes some liberties in the preparation of this stroganoff. It is served over a bed of spaetzle, which is good, if a bit Bavarian. The beef is perfectly tender, but sour cream is served in large dollops—and what are chunks of carrot doing here instead of mushrooms?

Do not give up, though, for there is a good grilled escolar ($18.95), a firm-fleshed fish that has just enough char. Accompaniments include a fine goat cheese mash, fired arugula and drizzles of white balsamic reduction—a delight with the fish. Then there are the chanterelles, those superb mushrooms that are more expensive per pound than the fish. While I always enjoy a fresh morel, chanterelles, especially the golden variety, are equally tempting and deserve to be on more menus.

The Social is showing signs of maturity. The menu, while not perfectly consistent, keeps its edge with a spirit of playfulness. There’s rarely a dull moment here. It is a casual setting that doesn’t lack for style, making it the perfect spot for a glass of wine and some shrooms.

THE SOCIAL 170 S. First St. (414) 270-0438 $$-$$$ Credit Cards: MC, VS, AX Smoking: At bar Handicap Access: Yes

The Social | Photos by Tate Bunker