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Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008

Downtown Deli Bistro

Gourmet lunch on a budget

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Every once in a while a city gets to experience the rare but fortunate occasion when a chef from one of its best fine-dining restaurants decides to take the leap into restaurant ownership and open his own place. At Downtown’s Laissez Faire—think equal measure New York-style deli and Parisian bistro—diners get gourmet food at lunch-counter prices. Laissez Faire co-owners and chefs Thomas Schultz and Adam Majewski met in the kitchen of Lake Park Bistro nearly 10 years ago. The two combined their respective experience—Majewski attended culinary school and Schultz helped open eight different restaurants, including Dream Dance and the Bartolotta Catering Co.—and opened Laissez Faire in late summer.

The quaint, smoke-free bistro is adjoined by the Grand Wisconsin apartments and penthouses on Third Street in a refurbished space once occupied by Maxie’s Diner. The huge chalkboard menu mounted next to the order counter reflects Schultz and Majewski’s philosophy on restaurant development and ownership.

“It’s not that we’re taking a hands-off approach to the business; we would just rather the place develop itself,” Schultz explains. “You need to have a restaurant take on its own personality and that’s more of a laissez faire approach of allowing things to develop and be what they are. That’s why we have chalkboards to erase and put up what we want.” When Laissez Faire first opened, the menu was twice the size it is now. The majority of the French Riviera-style food wasn’t well received by customers, so the chefs simply erased those dishes from the menu. What remains is a small, refined selection of carefully prepared sandwiches, soups, salads and pasta.

While living in New York, Majewski fell in love with the way the city does lunch. So the chef brought home ideas based on standard deli favorites, like pepper pastrami with provolone on marble rye, and enriched them with a gourmet touch, like mushroom truffle aioli. The most popular sandwich is the DLT—duck, lettuce and freshly sliced tomato with a balsamic orange aioli on toasted brioche.

Sandwiches can be complemented by an order of crunchyon-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside, Belgian-style pommes frites with Belgian aioli. “The majority of the soups come from me asking the clientele, ‘What’s your favorite soup?’” Schultz adds.

“‘Well, I love squash soup.’ Two days later I have squash soup on the board.” Spending years working with a culinary family known for its fine Italian food, Schultz picked up a thing or two. “I have been fortunate enough to follow in the footsteps of some wonderful mentors like Paul Bartolotta, Mark Weber and Marco Canora. They’ve opened up a lot of doorways for me. They sent me to Paris and I made my way to Florence to learn.” The salads and delicate pasta dishes resonate with Schultz’s passion for cooking. The chef includes a special pasta dish on the menu each day. The ricotta ravioli with fresh tomato and basil are triangles of thin noodle dough filled with ricotta, mozzarella, asiago, parsley and aged Parmesan. The sauce is an expertly rendered tomato fondue with a velvety texture and rich taste. Laissez Faire’s selection of wine is diverse enough to pair well with any dish.

Schultz and Majewski designed the kitchen at Laissez Faire to accommodate their catering services, which, along with box lunches, include a distinguished menu for any event. “The catering shows people what we can do, instead of seeing us just as a deli,” Schultz explains. “Because of our experience, we can fit into whatever niche we want to.”

724 N. Old World Third St., Milwaukee, (414) 319-4277. Open Monday-Friday: 10:30 a.m. -9:30 p.m. and Saturday: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Closed on Sunday.

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