Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ward's House of Prime: How would you like YOUR steakhouse?

Sometimes food blogging has its perks.  One of the benefits is being given the opportunity to check out some of the new restaurants on the block.  And that makes for some pretty delicious field trips.

This weekend, we had the pleasure of attending the soft opening for a new Milwaukee steakhouse. And, despite the fact that we're not your typical meat and potatoes folks, we were pretty curious about Ward's House of Prime.

The question at the tip of our tongues all evening was: "Does Milwaukee really need another steakhouse?" After all, Ward's is located on the corner of Mason and Jackson Streets in Downtown Milwaukee (in the spot formerly inhabited by Yanni's) -- just blocks away from the Zagat-rated Carnevore Steakhouse Moderne, Mason Street Grill, and not far from the Milwaukee location of Mo's... A Place for Steaks.

But, Ward's is making some pretty hefty claims -- high-end entrees at reasonable prices,  an "upscale yet relaxed atmosphere," and an extensive 500-bottle wine list that promises to be one of the best deals in the city.  So, we were eager to give them a chance.

We arrived early, figuring we'd beat the crowds; but, we found quite a number of curious onlookers had already arrived to check out the scene. Attentive wait staff were just beginning to offer bite-sized portions of menu staples. The bar was open and the house wine was flowing.

The Menu
Ward's menu includes standard steakhouse favorites, including prime rib, filet mignon, New York strip, and rib-eye, as well as a nice selection of seafood and chicken dishes. We were most disappointed with the menu's lack of regard for the vegetarians among us. Certainly, the emphasis here is steak. However, there is an increasing demand for vegetarian entrees in Milwaukee -- particularly at upscale restaurants which seek to "wine and dine" Milwaukee tourists and corporate travelers. The one vegetarian entree on the current menu is fair, but none-too-inventive -- butternut squash ravioli in boursin cream. Other veggie options could include stone-fired flatbread pizza or salad, and a fair selection of vegetable add-ons (including seasonal brussels sprouts, asparagus, the prerequisite creamed spinach, and green beans almondine); but, it's always a shame when the vegetarians in the crowd have to settle for the side dishes. Deal breaker? Probably not.  But, we'll be interested to see if Ward's can expand their menu to be a bit more inclusive.

In today's economic times, starting a business can be risky; but, Ward's appears to be saddling up for the challenge. One of the distinguishing aspects of Ward's menu is its "all inclusive" nature; entrees are served with a choice of soup or salad, and potato. While many downtown steakhouses feature pricey entrees with a la carte side dishes, Ward's provides the whole shebang at a price that won't break your pocket book.

Ward's also plans to offer a bar-only menu that will feature more casual food.
"I don't want this to be known as just a 'special occasion' restaurant," says owner, Brian Ward, "I want this to be an everyday sortofa  place.  Casual, but upscale."

How the menu looks is all well and good, you say, but how does it TASTE?
Well, we did have the opportunity to give a number of the major offerings a try -- and we found that Ward's food lived up to the hype. 

We sampled:
  1. Smoked beef carpaccio -- tender, smoked beef on crisp crostini with just a hint of briney goodness from the black olive tapenade.
  2. Chicken brochettes -- grilled chicken, pineapple, green pepper, and onion with a sweet hoisin glaze.
  3. Succulent shrimp cocktail -- nothing too exciting about this basic appetizer; but the shrimp was fresh and tender, and the cocktail sauce more along the lines of a petitely diced salsa than a sweet puree.
  4. Vegetable flatbread -- al dente zucchini, summer squash, tomatoes and a caramelized glaze topped this crisp pizza appetizer.
  5. Caprese salad smartly featured bright cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and sweet basil with a pleasant olive-oil vinaigrette.
  6. Mushroom risotto -- delicious al dente rice with earthy mushroom flavor.
  7. Prime rib -- succulent, well-seasoned beef. Tender and perfectly cooked.  Definitely worthy of the Ward's name.
  8. Bacon-wrapped water chestnuts -- the classic appetizer. Flavorful smoky bacon wrapped around crisp water chestnuts. Peef was in heaven.
  9. The Prime rib chili was probably the most disappointing dish we sampled -- a bit too sweet for our taste, with few seasonings to note.  Unique concept -- but definitely not the best use for an otherwise delicious prime rib.
The Guys Behind the Steak

Brian Ward, Owner,  began his restaurant career as a busboy at Open Hearth Restaurant in Milwaukee.  After training in MATC’s culinary program, he served as Head Chef at Smith Brothers Fish Shanty in Port Washington, General Manager of Highland House in Mequon, and most recently, General Manager of Mo’s – A Place for Steaks. 

Bill Baumann, Executive Chef, is a self-taught chef who began his career at Milwaukee’s landmark German-American restaurant, Karl Ratzsch’s. After leaving Ratzsch’s, Bill honed his craft as Sous Chef for Ristorante Bartolotta. In 2000, he became the Executive Chef of Mo’s – A Place for Steaks, where his culinary skills helped the steakhouse become a Milwaukee favorite. It was a few years into his tenure at Mo’s that Baumann began working with then-General Manager Brian Ward.

The Verdict

Ward's House of Prime officially opened its doors to the public yesterday (Monday, November 16th). 

While it isn't the most original restaurant to come out of downtown Milwaukee, it appears that Brian has a good gauge of his prospective audience. Milwaukee is a fairly traditional town, which means that uber-trendy establishments usually get the boot after a year or two (at best).  Ward's brings a modern twist to the traditional steakhouse with affordable "full plate" entrees, an impressive (but not daunting) wine list, and a downtown neighborhood feel.

Our kinda place? Probably not. But, it's exactly the sort of spot we'd probably take our parents the next time they're in town.

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  1. You guys should come out to Waukesha. In the last couple of years a number of terrific places have opened up downtown. First off, try Generations at Five Points. It's tapas style stuff--excellent. Even the sliders are exquisite. And if you like sushi, there's Sakura. It's a first-rate sushi restaurant, and I've been to a few before.

    I'd love to read about your Waukesha tasting adventures...

  2. A review of a place that aims to serve steak and a large chunk of it concentrates on a lack of vegetarian options? Not sure what you were expecting going to such a place. There's plenty of other restaurants for vegetarians in Milwaukee. Often when a place tries to do too much and satisfy too many, the place as a whole suffers.

  3. I ate at Ward's on opening night, the 16th. 2 in our party had pasta and thought it was wonderful! The butternut squash (none too inventive, as you call it) was rich and creamy--perfect! Loved it! I ordered the pasta special which was a pesto pasta (that I chose to have with chicken but could come without) and it had a great, traditional pesto flavor. I for one appreciate that they make an effort to serve people who don't like red meat or seafood. It's nice to have a place to go where I can eat along with my meat eating friends and get a good meal at a GREAT price!

  4. Glad you had such a great meal at Ward's! I'm glad to hear that they were so accommodating with the pasta special. Doesn't surprise me. One of the things I failed to mention in the post is that the wait staff was awesome!

    Like I said, everything we tried was really good... and we're looking forward to going back.

  5. Yep, pasta and pizza as the vegetarian option gets boring quite fast. I firmly believe a great chef can create dishes for both audiences, but most chefs don't even try to think outside the box.

    Looks like a nice place though. Glad you got to try it for the soft opening.

  6. This was a really good restuarant review. I am glad they lived up to the hype. Like you said, Brian Ward knows his audience. Let's hope that it is successful.

  7. Thanks for the honest review, usually when I;m in Milwaukee I'll end up dining at one of the many brewery/restaurants. The last I went to was the Water St Brewery. Great pretzels.
    Thanks and looking forward to more of your reviews.

  8. Ward's House of Prime just added outdoor seating for diners to enjoy Monday – Saturday from 4 p.m. to midnight. It's a great way to enjoy an evening in Downtown Milwaukee!


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