Cubanitas – Milwaukee

August 27, 2007

Short Take – Cuban cuisine done well. Colorful, fun setting. Very affordable.

Long Take – Some weeks ago, Higgins and Willamina met two friends, Ludmilla and Pavel, for dinner in downtown Milwaukee. They were looking for somewhere new, somewhere fun, somewhere all of our food preferences would be well served. (Pavel doesn’t eat red meat. Ludmilla is a vegetarian. And Higgins and Willamina? Well, they are rather “particular.”) After looking over a few options, Cubanitas was chosen.

Cubanitas doesn’t accept reservations, but when Higgins called and spoke to the hostess, he was told that seating wouldn’t be difficult if they arrived before 6:30 pm. Higgins and Willamina arrived at the restaurant around 6 and had their choice of tables in or out. Not a fan of dininng on sidewalks, they chose a table inside, near the back (not under one of the many speakers hanging from the ceiling.) Pavel and Ludmilla arrived a little before 6:30. At the time of their arrival, there was only a couple of tables left open.

Cuban cuisine is spicy without being hot, flavorful with fruity marinades and sauces. It also commonly uses cumin, something Higgins isn’t very fond of. It is not normally known for its vegetarian options– though Cubanitas addresses this directly in their menu, suggesting that vegetarians combine appetizers to make a full meal. Ludmilla did just that.

We started with some Apertivos.
Empanadas – Higgins and Willamina tried the Picadillo con Queso (ground beef and cheese) and the Pollo (chicken with olives and raisins). Each order came with two medium (3 bites) empandas. We were a little leery of the chicken/olives/raisins combo, but it was very good. Ludmilla and Pavel tried the Espinaca con Queso (spinach and cheese). All of the empanadas were well filled, deep fried without being greasy, crispy and flaky on the outside, and extremely tasty altogether.

Croquettas de Jamon – Higgins and Willamina also ordered the ham croquettes. They were not as we expected. The were tubular in shape, served three to the plate. Inside, the texture was that of a creamy ham salad. It was amazingly good.

While deep frying isn’t a part of traditional cuban cusine, these empanadas and croquettes were wonderful. We almost ordered more of them. We decided to save room for the main menu.

Sandwich Cubano – The classic cuban sandwhich with roasted pork, ham, swiss cheese, a dill pickle, and a mustard spread all pressed between Cuban bread. The menu states “Change it and it’s not a Cuban sandwich!” Admonition not withstanding, Higgins ordered it with mayonaise rather than the mustard spread. The waitress was very gracious about the change and the cooks didn’t come out to express their disgust with his culinary infraction. Cuban Bread is absolutely necessary for this sandwich and makes the whole thing. The bread Cubanitas uses is as authentic as anything in Ybor City. It was, simply put, a delicious sandwich. It went even better with the Black Bean Soup, Higgins ordered as a side dish.
Higgins also ordered a root beer. They didn’t carry the Virgils listed on the menu, but offered a root beer he was unfamiliar with. It was a very good root beer with a very distinctive taste. There was a fruitness to it which normally would have been offputting but worked amazingly well in this brew. Higgins ordered a second one to finish off his meal. (Higgins doesn’t recall the name of this Cuban root beer, but intends to call and find out. When he does, we’ll be sure to let you know, dear readers.)

Pollo Tropical – Pavel ordered the tropical chicken. A chicken breast marinated in tropical juices. As Pavel said, “Chicken and fruit, what isn’t to like?” The chicken was well flavored and cooked properly. It was an enjoyable dish. Pavel was disappointed in his decision to have the Frijoles Colorados (red beans) as his side dish. The red beans were somewhat bland– not nearly as flavorful as the black beans.

Lechon Asado – Willamina ordered the roast pork. Willamina had high hopes for this marinated, slice pork dish–and she was not disppointed. Higgins was looking forward to trying the side of Mojo the meal came with– but once it arrived he changes his mind. (Pieces of boiled Cassava floating in a watery garlic and onion oil. It didn’t look very appetizing.) Willamina assuaged his disappointment by allowing him to have some of the delicious roast pork.

Ludmilla, as mentioned previously, created a vegetarian meal by combining several Ordenes Indviduales (side orders): Platanitos Maduros (sweet plantains), Frijoles Negro (black beans), and Ensalada de la Tia (Aunt’s salad – roasted peppers, tomatoes, and onions in a balsamic vinaigrette.) Ludmilla and Pavel had never had the sweet plantains and ordered them at Higgins’ and Willamina’s strong urging. (They ordered a plate for themselves as well.) The sweet plantains were very tasty. The black beans were also very good. While Ludmilla enjoyed the salad and the dressing, she wasn’t as fond of the overabundance of and oversized nature of the onions it contained. To round out the vegetables, Ludmilla ordered a side of yellow rice, which was mellow, flavorful, and well prepared. Ludmilla also ordered her first Mojito– the national drink of Cuba. She described the drink as “strong, interesting, and very minty.” She didn’t finish it (Ludmilla reminds everyone that her lady-like constitution and good manners preclude her from finishing strong cocktails.)

For Dessert
Flan – Higgins ordered the flan. Higgins is a fan of flan- though his standards are rather high. This flan was not up to his standards. It wasn’t very creamy and the burnt caramel sauce leaned way too much towards the burnt side of the equation.

Brownie con Helado de Coco – Pavel and Ludmilla split this Brownie sunday with coconut ice ceme and rasberry sauce. The brownies and the ice cream were enjoyable– and the portion served was almost more than the two of them could finish.

By the time the four left the restaurant, the tables and the bar were full– and there were people waiting to be seated. The volume level (remember those speakers) is rather high, so low conversation isn’t possible. But, the atmosphere and food isn’t really intended for such a meal. Cubanitas is a place you go to eat, drink, and and be merry with friends and family. It is a place for fun.


Balzac – Milwaukee

August 25, 2007

Short Takes: First-rate gourmet Small Plates off of Brady Street.

Long Take: Willamina and Higgins enjoy tapas. Perhaps it is the appreciation for smoked meats and cheese one often finds on a Spanish inspired menu. Then again, it could be the overall environment of sharing and trying new flavors.

Willamina went searching for a new restaurant to try on a Saturday evening. A reservation was made for Balzac Wine Bar for 6:30 pm, and when they arrived the restaurant was empty. They had a choice to sit in the stylish, candle lit dining room or on the pleasant patio. Due to the gorgeous evening and the very loud rap music pounding inside, they opted for the patio.

The waitress was pleasant and attentive. Balzac is known for its very large collection of wines from around the world chosen by a sommelier on site. They have wines by the bottle, glass or “tasting.”

Willamina and Higgins started the dinner with a cheese plate, opting for an apple wood smoked cheddar and a mild white cheese. The cheese plate was artfully arranged, surrounded by crackers, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, apple slices, walnuts and thin slices of french bread.

It was pleasing to the eye and the palate.

Willamina and Higgins then had panchetta wrapped asparagus in a wild mushroom cream sauce. This was a delicious and well executed plate, from the slightly crisp panchetta to the perfectly cooked asparagus. The mushroom sauce was a great backdrop to the dish. Higgins remarked that it was only missing bread as an additional means for enjoying the leftover sauce. The waitress, upon hearing this, kindly brought a small basket of bread to the table.

The final dish was a plate of three pan-seared scallops with a sweet potato mash and wilted spinach sautéed with garlic. The scallops were beautifully caramelized and tender. Higgins remarked that the sweet-potato mixture was a tad bitter from an overabundance of cinnamon, but when eaten with the scallop was quite good.

The dessert menu had about 5 options including a “creme brulee flavor or the day.” Willamina was disappointed to hear that they did not have this dessert available, despite it being on the menu. Mildly disappointed but sated, Higgins and Willamina headed off into the Milwaukee skyline sunset to make their way home.

They plan to return to Balzac again, possibly with friends equally interested in sharing a small plate or two.

The total cost of the meal (2 cheese plate, 2 small plates, 3 wine tastings, and 2 glasses of juice) came to $60.

The Sushi Box – Madison

August 12, 2007

Short Take – A family owned, operated Sushi store-front restaurant. Not only the best sushi place in Madison, but the best place we’ve eaten sushi (second only to an expensive place in Kauaii, Hawaii.)

Long Take – A few weeks ago, Higgins and Willamina were traveling through central Wisconsin on their way to a family event. They were hungry and wished to eschew the typical offerings that impersonate food (fast or otherwise.) Higgins and Willamina, having spent some time in Madison, remembered a favorite fast food option. A quick call to an old friend revealed that the the Sushi Box was still in business and still located on the near west side, at the corner of Highland and Old University. Granted, this location was in no way “on the way” to where they were headed– but the detour would be well worth it if the food was as remembered.

It was.

The Sushi Box is very small and is not known for its atmosphere. There are five or so tables inside and a counter-top along one one wall with stools. Since our last visit, they’ve added to the stereotypical sushi posters a large flat screen television. Don’t worry– no day time television blaring at you. The flat screen is linked to a camera over the sushi chef’s station, so everyone can watch their rolls be made (just like a traditional sushi bar.)

The matriarch of the family is behind the register, near a hot station with deep fried shrimp sticks, potstickers, and other special tidbits. Higgins and Willamina avoided those–they are all right, but were closer to the fast-food side of the continuum and were avoided on principle, this time.

The patriarch of the family, or one of the sons, is directly behind the counter area making the freshly prepared sushi. If you ignored the flat screen TV, it was as if Higgins and Willamina had never left– a little memory bubble come to life.

And the sushi? The sushi, if anything, was better than we remembered. We ordered a Philadelphia-Maki (Smoked Salmon and Cream Cheese), an Ebi-Maki (Shrimp Tempura and Cucumber), and a Tekka-Maki (Tuna). Total cost: $14
It was prepared before our eyes, assembled artistically into one large to-go container with a container of fresh soy sauce and a container of fresh eel sauce (a habit Willamina picked up from a fellow foodie friend), and handed to us with a smile in less than 5 minutes. As we prepared to walk out the back door (the Sushi Box has two parking spots behind the storefront in what looks like a person’s driveway), the matriarch smiled and invited us to come back again– and not wait so long this time. (She actually remembered Higgins as a customer. Very touching.)

Higgins and Willamina got back on the road and ate their sushi. A little less than civilized, but possibly the easiest and healthiest fast food option in the world. The Philadelphia rolls were stuffed with large pieces of smoked salmon that were bursting with flavor. Along side them, within the rice blankets, were equally large pieces of real Wisconsin dairy cream cheese. The Sushi Box does not skimp on its ingredients. The combination was wonderful– a mixture of melting flavors in our mouths. The Shrimp Tempura rolls were also well filled–the shrimp being quite large and yet still flavorful and tender. The tempura was light and still a little crispy with no hint of the greasiness that so often occurs in cold, fried foods. The Tuna Roll? Well, even with our expectations set high and then set higher still, the tuna was a surprise. One does not expect fresh, flavorful sushi-grade tuna in the middle of the American heartland. It was layered with subtle flavors and was creamy in texture. The only place Higgins and Willamina remember having tuna that fresh and that good was in Hawaii.

Higgins and Willamina are glad the Sushi Box is still offering their tasty treasures to the masses– but with quality and friendliness like this, it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. When next we travel through or by Madison, we’ll be sure to stop in again.