Thursday, February 17, 2011

Carnevor Review - Milwaukee, WI

*This is a restaurant review I wrote when I lived in Milwaukee. I thought it was on the blog. It wasn't. Here it is. If you're ever in Milwaukee and want a superb dinner. Go here.*

With no more than twenty-five feet of restaurant façade, Carnevor’s nondescript and dark exterior is not easy to find. In the upper right corner of the restaurant front, ‘Carnevor’ is written in lettering no taller than a foot and no wider than five feet. As I stood outside examining the exterior, its subtleties comforted me. Carnevor lets its reputation, and perhaps the occasional Lamborghini parked in front of its door, speak for itself.

My wife and I were there in search of Milwaukee’s best steaks. It was also my birthday and no employee at Carnevor let us forget it. The host immediately wished me a happy birthday and led us back into the dark, split-level restaurant. Immediately to our right was an orange-lit bar with dark clad employees waiting behind it who nodded to us as if we were regulars. Carnevor’s interior is modern and clever, using arced wood on the ceiling and vertical bamboo to separate the dark pockets of the restaurant. We were led to a secluded corner table on the third level where our waiter took over by handing us menus with ‘Happy Birthday’ printed on them. Not a few seconds later a bar attendant ran down the drink menu and left us to make our first decisions of the night.

If you are anything like me, there is no reason to hold back when you choose to go out to a high-end restaurant. The majority of us are going to be paying maybe up to four times more for a night at Carnevor than compared to our typical fare. So don’t hold back in an attempt to keep it cheap. Trust me, you are already screwed, but read on to find out if it is worth it.

Carnevor’s martinis are reasonably priced at $11. We were served superbly mixed drinks with top shelf liquor that hid its potency under the smoothest of finishes. I ordered the effeminate sounding Bloodytini, which is Carnevor’s Bloody Mary disguised, perhaps, for the purpose of getting more mid-day and evening orders out of a traditional brunch drink. Even though it is served in a martini glass, the Bloodytini still packs a punch with Ketel One vodka and plenty of Tabasco and Worcestershire. My wife ordered the Cosmopolitan, a wise choice, because if a restaurant can’t do the most popular drinks very well it starts us worrying. This wasn’t the case here though. The Cosmo had a beautiful, translucent shade of pink, not too cloudy from too strong a dose of lime or lemon juice.

Bread with herbed butter is complimentary at Carnevor. It was a hint of the delicious appetizers to come. We chose the crab cake ($16), yes singular, and a cup of the special butternut squash soup ($9). Luckily, the crab cake was big, with truly large lump crab served with garlic saffron aioli which we took alternating swipes at to drench the crab. The soup was thicker than expected, but inventive and adorned with a tantalizing heap of beef.

By now we had noticed that servers in Carnevor are, without a doubt, some of the best we have seen, comparing only to the service we once had at Ocean, the now defunct seafood eatery in Denver. The waiters were hiding out in a dark corner of the room, seemingly busy, but never letting an eye leave our table. As soon as we were done with our dishes they would swoop in and clear the table, taking away our silverware and giving us a new set for the next course. Water glasses were never close to empty and at one point I brushed a crumb aside. The waiter must have seen, coming in the next minute to wipe down the entire table. This may all sound like it was distracting to the serenity one might desire while eating out, but it wasn’t at all. It was subtle, but we obviously noticed their attentiveness. But don’t worry; it didn’t speed the dinner up at all.

Appetizers, or as Carnevor calls them, ‘Small Plates’, range from $9 to $16. You are mostly going to find experimental twists on traditional dishes like Panko Calamari ($9), tomato dusted and served with roasted garlic aioli and a cocktail sauce. They have even jumped on the sliders train by serving Steak Tartare Sliders with chives, shallots, Parmigiano-Reggiano, fried quail eggs, mustard oil and mushroom salad on toasted brioche buns.

The larger appetizers, designed to share at the table, are seriously big portions of Seafood ($45 to $85), Mac & Cheese ($11) and a Wisconsin Cheese Plate Sampler ($9 to $17). The latter two might seem a bit out of place, but not if you live here. It is expected for a restaurant in Wisconsin to offer at least a few dishes that prominently feature cheese, Wisconsin’s pride, second only to the Packers.

On to the good stuff—the meat. That is why we were there after all. Carnevor features two classes of cuts, ‘Carnevor Prime Cuts’ and ‘Reserve Cuts’. I noticed right away the first difference, price. The prime cuts range from $34 for a ‘Barrel’ cut 8-ounce filet mignon to $55 for a bone-in 16-ounce filet. The reserve cuts are priced from $52 for a 14-ounce New York strip to a mind-boggling $160 for a 7-ounce Imported Kobe ‘A-5’ filet mignon (Carnevor being one of a handful of restaurants in the U.S. that serves this Japanese delicacy, they brag) with tosa zu dipping sauce and wagyu beef jus.

Our waiter was very helpful, explaining the difference between the prime cuts and the reserve cuts. All prime cuts are wet-aged, meaning the steak ages for one to four weeks in vacuum-packed plastic where it doesn’t lose any weight. Here it is tenderized, but there is no flavor development as there is in the dry-aged process, which is used on some of the reserve cuts at Carnevor. Also, wet aging is cheaper, thus much more common. Dry aging is when the steak ages in an open-air, refrigerated environment. There it forms a crust that is trimmed away eventually leaving a juicier, tender cut. Dry aging can make a steak lose much of its original weight, not ideal for cost-cutting, mass market steak processing. Thus, it is very hard to find now, reserved only for those who are willing to spend half a week’s wages on one steak dinner. I am not one of those people.

At Carnevor, it is completely up to the diner to pick the toppings and sauces for the steaks. We inquired about ideas for our steaks, which arrived, like all steaks there, sans side dishes. You have to order those separately and you can do no better than the truffled mashed potatoes ($11), which is enough to serve two. Sides range from $7 to $11 and include a variety of vegetables to truffled frites. I went with the 20 oz. ribeye au poivre with béarnaise sauce. My wife, a filet mignon devotee, ordered the barrel cut with two sauces on the side, roasted shallot wine and a shiitake and brandy reduction.

Everything had been good up until the steaks, but that is when the night truly became memorable. The béarnaise complimented my steak wonderfully, calming the somewhat overwhelming and impenetrable peppercorn covering on my ribeye. The steaks were perfectly cooked. Filets are often delivered as damaged, overcooked goods, but not at Carnevor. The steak was served pink throughout and the sauces on the side weren’t necessary, but the shiitake and brandy reduction was our favorite of the two. The roasted shallot wine had a great oniony flavor, but it didn’t pair well with that specific cut.

One must take advantage of the wine list at Carnevor. Featuring glasses of reds, whites and champagnes from $8 to $15, there is something for everyone who doesn’t want a bottle, which at Carnevor is going to cost you quite a bit. The cheapest bottle is $35, and there is only one. After that the prices jump to more than fifty and then sky rocket to an impossibly high $4500 for a DRC La Tache ’05 Burgundy. I opted for a King Estate Pinot Noir ’06 from Oregon. It was smooth, but I admit it may not have been as great if I wasn’t drinking it with the finest steak I had ever been served.

We were served Carnevor’s donuts and dipping sauces (chocolate, raspberry and vanilla) as a birthday bonus. These delicately fried dough balls were a not-too-sweet ending to a memorable meal. You may want to end the night with dessert so ask your waiter for any recent additions, but if you are in the mood for chocolate you can’t go wrong with their torte.

Maybe a Scotch is in order if you want to continue the trend of spending more money on a meal than you ever have before. A modest 10-year Talisker is offered at $13 a glass and, on with tradition, there is a 30-year Macallan for $130 a glass just in case you are determined to have a final bill with four digits left of the decimal point.

As you can imagine, Carnevor’s clientele is unique. We saw a few groups of businessmen and businesswomen clearly spending on the company credit card. Besides those groups, there are many patrons celebrating special occasions and a few couples who were eating so casually that you just knew they were regulars. Little known to this diner, there is actually a celebrity watch site for Carnevor and other eateries on Milwaukee Street. Celebrities, in Milwaukee? Yes, at least celebrities to upper Midwesterners. The Brewers, Bucks, and Packers have all frequented Carnevor. If you are in town and have the need to be seen and to spend a lot of money, this is the place to go. But my wife and I weren’t itching to spend this much on a dinner. This clearly wasn’t the case with most people inside. We just were in search of Milwaukee’s best steaks. We found them. You will too.

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