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Monday, Dec. 29, 2008

A Very Good Year

Reviewing the meals of 2008

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2008 was another busy year for the local restaurant industry. The most noteworthy accomplishment occurred when chef Adam Siegel won the James Beard Foundation's award for Best Chef in the Midwest, placing him in the same rarefied air as Sanford D'Amato. Siegel is head chef at two fine restaurants: Bartolotta's Lake Park Bistro and Bacchus.

Last year also saw the opening of two major construction projects: the Harley-Davidson Museum and the expanded Potawatomi Bingo Casino. The museum boasts a café and a full-service restaurant named Motor, which offers a sleek dining room of steel and glass along with a rather casual menu geared toward large portions, while the casino relocated its top restaurant, Dream Dance, to a new location on the ground floor. Dream Dance chef Jason Gorman's revamped menu focuses more on Wisconsin ingredients.

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Two other restaurants, RuYi and Wild Earth, also joined Potawatomi's dining scene. RuYi has an interesting pan-Asian menu that ranges from Peking duck and Thai papaya salad to Korean barbecue beef and numerous noodle dishes. Wild Earth brings a contemporary menu and warm décor. The strip steak is excellent for the price and every meal begins with a serving of fry bread, an American-Indian treat.

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The suburb of Brookfield has added some restaurants as well. Although many are chains with predictable fare, three are quite different: Agave, Haute Taco and Wasabi. Agave's ambitious menu with Mexican-inspired tapas doesn't always hit the mark-but when it does, the results are tasty. Haute Taco runs with a small menu of tacos that have upscale twists, including slow-cooked duck meat and short ribs. Another star, Wasabi, brings Japanese food and presentation into the 21st century. The kushi yaki and sunomono are novel and memorable.

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Small-plate dining continues to grow, as evidenced by Swig reappearing in the Third Ward after a noticeable absence and Ginger opening in the site of the former Barossa. Both employ an international tapas concept instead of a strictly Spanish approach. On the more casual side is Fat Abbey, on the Milwaukee River, and the new Café Centraal, in Bay View. Both feature a great, if pricey, list of beers devoted to Belgium. Centraal also serves several preparations of mussels.

In June, a French café named Le Reve opened in Wauwatosa. The original menu of salads and sandwiches has grown to include some fine entrees, all in a pleasant Parisian setting. The former Brew City has been revamped by owner R.C. Schmidt as Trinity Three Irish Pubs. The place now owns three separate bars and dining areas with unique characteristics, and the outdoor patio has never looked better. Schmidt also purchased the neighboring Harp and improved its menu.

The Third Ward added Rustico, a casual place for great pizzas, from the same owners of Café Zarletti. Another pizza hot spot is Transfer, which has an abundant choice of toppings (the roasted garlic sauce is particularly great).

The city also saw two new Asian restaurants in Mai Thai and Mekong Café. Brady Street's Mai Thai, which has lovely décor and a comfortable bar, offers Thai food with a lighter touch than usual. The Mekong Café covers the foods of all of Southeast Asia. The Vietnamese ban xio are terrific crepes seasoned with turmeric. The only downside is that the service here can be slow and spotty.

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As you would expect, the year also saw some closings. Two steakhouses, Yanni's and Cameron's, closed their doors, and a restaurant that served food dubbed "American Pirate Fusion," Shiver Me Timbers, changed course and became Four Seasons.

The highlight of the year for new restaurants is the opening of a second Umami Moto on Milwaukee Street. The menu differs from its Brookfield counterpart, thanks to the talent of Dominic Zumpano, a chef with remarkable promise. The Kobe beef sliders are excellent, and be sure to look for heirloom tomatoes next summer.

More new restaurants are scheduled to open soon in the Downtown area-one with a pan-Latin theme and the other a Japanese steakhouse. Here's hoping that 2009 will be just as interesting as 2008.