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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Downtown Beer Garden

Byron’s on the river

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While many restaurants are going out of business, some are just being revamped. Chef/owner John Chitko converted his high-end restaurant Yaffa into Byron’s, which he calls a beer garden and bistro. Yaffa’s pan-Mediterranean format has nearly vanished—gone are the Moroccan tagines and that great vegetarian platter. But the new menu offers more affordability with appetizers, salads and a few entrees, all for less than $20.

A large portrait of Byron Kilbourn, one of Milwaukee’s founders and the restaurant’s namesake, greets visitors as they enter. The rest of the dcor has seen few changes. The bar now has a foosball table, an electronic golf game and a flat-panel television, but the dining room and lounge area retain their elegant furnishings, which frankly seem too good for foosball fans. The outdoor seating, with great views of the newly restored City Hall, is perfectly suited to the beer-garden concept on a prime section of the RiverWalk.

While the appetizers lack the Mediterranean edge of Yaffa, they are appropriate for this new format. Among the best is the tempura green beans ($5.99), batter-flavored with Blue Moon beer. A sprinkling of fried cilantro leaves provides a novel touch and the side of soy-ginger dipping sauce adds a hint of Asian flavor. This is good finger food.

Starters also include the all-in chili ($5.99). Oddly enough, it brings back memories of Yaffa. Made with smoked pork, chicken, beef brisket and lamb, this is no ordinary chili. Nothing is ground. Other ingredients include corn, hominy, black beans and tomatoes. The spices are the key to success, creating a rich flavor like a really good curry, even Afghan in character. Rosemary-seasoned croutons lighten up this rich chili. The serving seems a tad small, but that might be because this is just such a pleasure to eat. The clam chowder ($6.99) is also a small serving, but is loaded with littleneck clam meat—some of it still in the shell—and rosemary croutons.

Entrees fall somewhere between bistro and pub fare. Mac & cheese matches steer tenderloin with a peppercorn mushroom crust. The Strauss lamb meat loaf ($14.79) is accompanied by sauted spinach and mashed sweet potatoes. Moroccan spices caress the lamb and a great pomegranate barbecue sauce elevates this meat loaf from humble fare. The barbecue Kobe beef brisket sandwich ($10.79) includes beef that is smoked and cooked until the brisket nearly falls apart. The French bread roll may be a bit soft and the butter pickles too sweet, but there is everything to like about the beef.

Fridays offer seafood specials. After all, a Milwaukee beer garden needs a fish fry. Blue-Moon-battered cod ($10.79) is impressive for the serving of three large pieces. However, the batter seemed a bit underdone and the fish was a little oily. The Wisco sampler ($14.95) is a better bet, a combo of bluegills, shrimp and smelt. These smaller pieces of seafood cook more evenly. Fries are served in abundance and, in addition to tartar sauce, a creamy condiment flavored with ginger and wasabi is offered. The pungent wasabi is used sparingly.

The bar seems as popular as the dining rooms. The beer list is not huge, though it includes a sound selection of domestics, microbrews and a few imports. The wine list is also restrained, with about a dozen picks by the glass ($6.50-$8.50) and a few more by the bottle ($23-$38). Service is good, but the restaurant was never exceptionally busy during any of my visits. Perhaps Byron’s new format will work out. It’s only unfortunate that Yaffa is the restaurant it replaced: I still miss the flatbread with a spice dusting of za’atar.

Byron’s Beer Garden and Bistro 106 W. Wells St. (414) 223-0101 $$ Credit Cards: All major Smoking: At bar Handicap Access: Yes

Byron’s | Photo by Don Rask