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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Molly Cool’s Heats Up Downtown Dining

New seafood tavern brings inviting menu, ambiance

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Despite their best efforts, some restaurants just don’t last very long. Kincaid’s opened its doors at the former Third Street Pier about 15 months ago. An extensive remodeling filled the interior with dark wood and added a second bar. But even with its new look, prime views of the Milwaukee River and a large, varied menu, Kincaid’s recently shut down. However, unlike at other shuttered locales in the area, it didn’t take long to find a new occupant. It’s now Molly Cool’s, part of the Minnesota-based Premier Restaurant Management group.

 

The name Molly Cool is unique to this location, as Premier tries to give every restaurant a distinct personality, but the setting remains similar to Kincaid’s. The woodwork, furnishings and layout are largely unchanged—the biggest addition is a lobster tank that takes center stage near a bank of large windows. The attitude is more casual, with servers wearing black T-shirts and gallons of Tabasco sauce spicing up the decor.

The menu focuses on seafood, which is appropriate for a waterfront restaurant. You’ll find lower prices than on Kincaid’s menu and a higher emphasis on generating business at the bars. Weekdays feature happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m. and Fridays offer free oysters on the half shell. The Friday offering is popular and the oysters, properly served over shaved ice, sometimes run out. If this happens, there is also a special on peel ’n’ eat shrimp at $3.95 for a half-pound. The shrimp are larger and more flavorful than the norm.

The menu changes daily—this is most noticeable in the “Fresh Catch” category, which lists fresh fish options, and the “Raw Bar,” where the oyster selection is found. Ahi tuna, swordfish and halibut frequent the menu. The oysters ($2 each) tend to be a more diverse lot, with picks from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts as well as Canada. Live Maine lobsters start at 1.25 pounds. ($29.95) and larger ones are often available. There is a $19.95 lobster special on Sundays, but at this price they often sell out.

Another lobster option is the Maine lobster roll ($19.95). This sandwich is not new to the Milwaukee area, but other attempts tend to miss the mark—mainly by getting too fancy. The roll should be simple, little more than a hot-dog bun, and the lobster salad should not be too complicated or fussy (skip the cilantro aioli, please!). This one hits the target. The brioche has a nice bread texture and the salad is simple with some celery, red onion, mayonnaise and plenty of sweet, fresh lobster meat. There must be at least a half-pound of the salad.

The “Fresh Catch” section offers an 8-ounce serving of fish prepared three ways—grilled, blackened or broiled—with a choice of four sauces. The Pacific swordfish ($19.95) lends itself to a simple grilling. Order a side of the lemon basil beurre blanc with this option. Bolder sides like the wasabi and ponzu seem better suited for ahi tuna. Alternately, you can skip the sauce and just add a bit of lemon. After all, a good piece of fish needs little help. Complimentary sides include grilled asparagus, fries or mashed potatoes. The asparagus stalks are on the large side, but still remain tender. The homemade fries are a bit salty, so opt for the mashed red-skinned potatoes topped with a dollop of herbed butter.

Consider starting with a salad. The Caesar ($4.95) is chopped romaine lettuce with tasty croutons, Parmesan and—most important—anchovy fillets. So many restaurants shy away from serving them, even though they make for a critical ingredient. The dressing is also on target, but I prefer shaved Parmesan with a bit more aging than this less-flavorful grated Parmesan.

Most of the appetizers lean toward seafood. An exception is Cajun beef bites ($8.95), small pieces of steak that are a little overcooked (the server did warn of this) but still juicy. The Cajun seasoning is more salt than spice, but it is neutralized by the horseradish cream sauce. This item is most noteworthy for its generous size.

Wine lovers will find the choices quite limited, but beer connoisseurs should enjoy the list. The service is a bit inexperienced, but servers do try hard. At one point a server came rushing to the table with a fresh knife just a minute after serving the entree. Otherwise things ran smoothly, even at a Friday happy hour when the bar was packed and the servers and kitchen were put to the ultimate test. Lunches seem to be more tranquil, a time to request a table by the window or perhaps an outdoor one. Sit back and watch pleasure boats pass by, along with the occasional mallard out for a swim. This is a prime Downtown setting.

Molly Cool’s Seafood Tavern1110 N. Old World Third St. (414) 831-8862 $$-$$$ Credit Cards: All major Smoke-free Handicap Access: Yes

Photo by Tate Bunker

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