Libiamo – Milwaukee

June 7, 2007

Short Take: OK Italian food in an old German tavern. Spotty service.

Long Take: On the last day of the Downtown Dining promotion, Higgins decided to try and wring some last culinary crumbs out of the vast array of downtown restaurants offering pris fix specials. Unfortunately, word of mouth had increased the popularity of the event and participation was very high. Most of the restaurants were full up, no seats or reservations available. Finally, Higgins found room for lunch and dinner at Libiamo. Higgins ate lunch with a co-worker. Willamina joined him at the same place for dinner.

Finding the restaurant proved to be somewhat difficult. It is located on an alley off of a one way street which is under construction and is on the other side of the river from the downtown. This could explain why it had availability while the other restaurants were full. The location used to be a german tavern/inn in the basement of a brewery. The old European style, with dark wood panels, a marble topped bar, and antler chandeliers still dominates the decor. The new Italian style shows up on the paintings on the walls of the small dining room. The effect is a little odd, but relaxing.

Libiamo was very busy for lunch, and the service reflected it. Both diners ordered only water–and the refills were slow to come and infrequent at best. The server was always moving quickly and didn’t seem attentive or friendly. At dinner, the room was busy again, though the host (owner?) was very friendly and attentive. The small room was extremely loud, but that was because of the large group of fifteen who thought everyone should be graced with their voices and laughter. The service was friendlier at dinner but again, was rather slow. It looked like they had only one or two people working the small room and perhaps more would be helpful.

On to the food–

Bruchetta Medley – Three bread triangles with three different spreads: kalamata olive tapenade, sun dried tomatoe, and basil pesto. Garnished with lightly dressed greens. The three spreads were very flavorful. An excellent starter for the meal.

Antipasto Salad – Kalamata olives, marinated artichokes, spicy salami, tomatoes, provolone cubes, lightly dressed in a vinagrette and garnished with greens and a slice of grilled peasant bread. Again, a very nice mix of tastes.

Toasted Ravioli – Toasted cheese filled ravioli covered with a marinara sauce. Nothing special. Not bad, but we’ve had better.

Spedini Panini – Thinly sliced steak rolled with seasoned breadcrumbs and cheeses. Three small meat rolls served on a large bun with mufaletta and spiced salsa. This was not what we expected. While the bun was lightly grilled, we were under the impression that a panini was grilled and pressed. Perhaps a misconception. No matter, the meat roll-ups were very tasty and they made for a very good sandwhich. The sandwhich was served with waffle cut fries which were less crispy than they should have been.

Scillian Meatloaf – Standard meatloaf with a capicola ham and provolone cheese center. Sounded like a good idea, but was a little too spicy for Willamina and Higgins. (This is a recurring problem for them.) Neither of them was able to finish it and they were still tasting it hours later. Served with green beans and mashed potatoes which were prepared well, but not spectacularly.

Parmesan-Crusted Salmon – Pan seared salmon served with asparagus on (you guessed it) mixed greens. The salmon was very tasty, but it was undercooked slightly. The asparagus was cooked correctly.

Tirimasu – The serving was quite small, though that could have been due to the pris fix menu. Higgin’s guest ate it but wasn’t impressed.

Amarreto Cake – This was just odd. It came in a small dish. It appeared to be a cream-custard with an ammarreto-soaked madeline soaking in the custard. Other than the alcohol being a little strong, it tasted all right. It was over before began.

Opera Cake – A layer of white chocolate mouse and a layer of chocolate mouse separated by white cake and covered with a layer of chocolate ganache. These piece of cake were large enough and were appealing to both eye and tongue. A delightful way to finish the meal (though the lingering spices from the meatloaf did overwhelm it a little.)

Higgins and Willamina did peruse the regular menu and were underwhelmed.
They may or may not return.


Uno Chicago Grill – Elm Grove

May 28, 2007

Short Take: A brand new menu, lots of options, and very tasty. A good choice for a chain.

Long Take: Higgins and Willamina both had a craving for pizza and decided to hit the local Uno’s. They hadn’t been there in years– in that time, Uno’s Pizza has changed its name to Uno Chicago Grill and has completely changed their menu– adding many non-pizza options.

We walked in at 2 pm on a Saturday and were seated immediately. The host led us to a table– we asked if we could have a booth. The host graciously led us to a booth–we asked if we could have a different one that wasn’t sandwhiched between two families with bouncing children. (Higgins and Willamina are childless by choice–mostly because not every child behaves like these kids do.) The host graciously, with a smirk, led us to a booth in the back corner next to some adults. (Yes, Higgins and Willamina are high mainteance. Why do you ask?)

Our server, Mark, started off seeming aloof and less than friendly. We assumed this was part of the “Chicago theme” of the establishment. After much menu reading– the menu is completely different from what we remember–we decided to share a Ranch Chicken salad and a Shroom! pizza.

Ranch Chicken Salad – We substituted regular ranch dressing for the BBQ ranch the salad normally comes with. The salad arrived with two warm, cheesy breadsticks and plates to share. It was a very good mixture of lettuce, egg, corn, bacon crumbles, tomatoes, shredded cheddar cheese, and crispy fried chicken strips. The chicken strips were very good. The salad was supposed to have tortilla strips on it, but they weren’t there and weren’t missed. The dressing came in a side bowl without our asking for it that way. The cheesy breadsticks were delicious. It was, more salad than Higgins and Willamina could finish– if we wanted any room at all for the pizza.

Shroom Deep Dish Pizza – When the pizza arrived, Higgins and Willamina were a little puzzled. The pizza was covered in small, whole button-cap mushrooms– not the expected slices. The puzzlement continued with the first bite– no pizza sauce. In looking at the menu after the fact, we realized the Shroom pizza does not list tomato sauce as an ingredient. (We made the mistake of assuming this was a default setting for pizza.) We asked our server about it and Mark explained it to us (still not too friendly, but attentive and informative.) He then brought us a dish of tomato sauce to dip the pizza in (which was unasked for and a nice touch.) Well, we were wrong. The pizza sauce didn’t work with the Shroom pizza. The mushrooms, cooked whole, are marinated in a white wine sauce. The white wine flavor is quite good and clashes with the tomato sauce. Willamina isn’t fond of whole mushrooms (a texture thing) but the taste was quite good. All in all, a unique, tasty pizza. And the crust, like all Uno Deep Dish pizzas, was delectable– a little greasy, but good.

The dessert menu looked quite yummy, but our heroes were stuffed after the salad and half of the regular pizza.

Oh, and Mark, our server, was much friendlier by the end of the experience. Apparently, he isn’t from Chicago– he is just slow to warm up to people. We tipped him well for his attentive, beyond-the-call service.

We’ll be back to try out other new menu items.

The Olive Garden

May 13, 2007

Short Review: Fun for appetizers, drinks, salad, and breadsticks; entrees are average at best.

We had a guest visiting us yesterday and when it came time for dinner, we decided to go out. He decided that we was in the mood for Italian. W suggested we go to the Olive Garden, which is right around the corner from us.
H, with his natural bias against chains, said, “We do have a couple of other close Italian places we could go to.”
Our guest asked, “Are any of them better than the Olive Garden?”
After a few seconds of thinking, H said, “No, not really.”

Lesson learned, we headed off to the Olive Garden.

The beautiful thing about chains, the reason they are so popular, is that they all look the same. If you’ve been to one restaurant in a chain, you pretty much know what to expect in every other one in the chain. Which isn’t entirely true. Some restaurants have different menu items than others based on geographical location. The Olive Garden website has a full menu listed, and has the added touch of linking to your zip code for accuracy. We’ve eaten at this Olive Garden before, so no surprises. This review will focus on the items on the menu that we’ve tried.

Sampler Italiano – a sampling of two or three appetizers. You can choose from calamari, stuffed mushrooms, fried zucchini, chicken fingers, fried mozzarella, or toasted ravioli. We are a sucker for these sampler offerings. We’ve tried most of them in this list.
Calamari – a light batter, fried, but very good. The calamari is the right texture.
Stuffed Mushrooms – Not bad, but not a favorite. Lots of moisture/grease.
Fried Mozzarella – Always good. Can’t go wrong with fried cheese.
Toasted Ravioli – Very tasty. Fairly basic, but everyone likes ’em.

Smoked Mozzarella Fonduta – this was a new item on the menu. A dish of oven baked fondue including mozzarella, provolone, parmesan, and romano cheeses. Often, when a restaurant serves a dip or fondue, they skimp on the spread or on the dipping breads. This is NOT the case here. We received a fondue that could feed 4 people, and enough toasted bread slices to make a dent in it. We did run out of bread slices before we ran out of fondue, but we couldn’t eat any more. (And Olive Garden provides all-you-can-eat, fresh, warm bread sticks, so we could have had more cheese-delivery-devices if we had wanted them.) Folks, this was one yummy dish. There was just a hint of red pepper flakes to give it some bite, but not enough to offend our sensitive mid-western taste buds. We will be ordering this one again.

Tour of Italy – Our guest ordered this entree sampler. It includes a portion of meat lasagna, a piece of chicken parmigiana, and a small sampling of fettuccine alfredo. The chicken parmigiana was tasty and not soggy (a common problem with that dish.) The lasagna was acceptable, but nothing to write home about. (W makes a much better one. One of the reasons we are so fussy, really.) The fettuccine alfredo– well it was mostly forgettable. Not bad, but not good either.

Steak Gorgonzola-Alfredo – H ordered this entree. It was…a major disappointment. The gorgonzola alfredo sauce was a little over-powering, and not in a pleasant way. Worse, however, were the steak pieces. H ordered the steak to be medium. Somewhow, even though all the similairly sized pieces were cooked together on one skewer, they were all done differently. They ranged from well-done all the way to dangerously rare. (H has been known to eat a good steak tartare– but meat should be served raw only when ordered as such.)

Ravioli di Portobello – We’ve ordered this one in the past. Portobello filled ravioli in a creamy smoked cheese and sun-dried tomato sauce. It sounds better than it its. The ravioli were a little gummy and didn’t match well with the portobello mush within. Some may like this, but we haven’t ordered it again.

Stuffed Chicken Marsala – An oven roasted chicken breast stuffed with Italian cheeses and sun-dried tomatoes, topped with mushrooms and creamy marsala sauce. W ordered this one. She was underwhelmed. The chicken was cooked right, so kudos there. Unfortunately, the marsala sauce was a little greasy. And the stuffing tasted more like breading than like sun-dried tomatoes. Our guest tried some and found the breading stuffing to be off-putting. It wasn’t a bad dish, but certainly not a memmorable one.

Sangria – W is a big fan of sangria. She is also, you guessed it, fussy about her sangria. She wisely asked for a sample of their white sangria. It was, and this was a shocker to us, too sweet. Terribly sweet. H tasted it and believes it is a sangria mix that includes corn syrup. It left that subtle film on the tongue consistent with high fructose corn syrup. Ewwww. Strangely, our guest found it quite yummy.

Veneitan Sunset – A pretty mixture of Martini & Rossi Asti with pineapple and cherry juices. H ordered this one. (Yes, he was slightly disappointed when it didn’t come with the tiny umbrella.) It was delicious. Not too sweet. Not too sour. Refreshing and just plain good. Best of all, it didn’t make H all loopy (he is such a cheap date.) We might have to both order one of those next time.

No room for dessert this time.