FRESH is currently being screened in selected cities (and homes) around the nation. And the screenings are being accompanied by a series of great events promoting local eating and sustainable agriculture.
FRESH asked us to be the official bloggers at one of their farm to table restaurant events, how could we resist? Of course, we had no idea that our dinner at Meritage would be one of the best we've eaten in the Milwaukee area.
Sure, Meritage has a Zagat rating of "Very Good to Excellent" with comments ranging from "a welcome addition to the West side" to "can't wait to go back." They're soon to be named among the "Top 25 Restaurants" this week by Milwaukee Magazine. And yes -- friends have recommended we eat there many-a-time in the past... but we failed to heed their call. Silly Peef and Lo!
When we arrived at the restaurant, we were seated promptly. The host even granted our request to be seated at the window, where we'd have better natural lighting for our photography. Our waiter, Peter, was an absolute joy. Friendly and knowledgeable, Peter put his 25 years of restaurant service experience to work from the get-go. He started off by walking us through the prix fixe farm-to-table menu:
- Spinach salad with buttermilk apple cider vinaigrette
- Portabella mushroom pizza with feta cheese, spinach, and roasted tomatoes
- Our choice of entrees: Bison ribeye with roasted fingerling potatoes and vegetables OR Vegetable paprikash with tofu, broccoli, carrots, and celery root
- Meritage's signature dessert: Chocolate Lover's Cake
Our entrees were similarly impressive.
The vegetable paprikash was a virtual cornucopia of late winter vegetables -- celery root, broccoli, carrots, and tofu -- encircling a mound of rustic mashed potatoes. The sour cream-based sauce was perfectly balanced, with just the right amount of paprika, giving the dish a warm, yet sweet, flavor. The wine pairing, an Argentinian Malbec from Nieto Senetiner, turned out to be a well-rounded, honest wine with a surprising amount of character. Soft spices and pungent blackberry flavor mellowed into an oaky finish that seemed to balance well with the warm notes of the paprika.
The grilled bison rib-eye was perfectly cooked to a medium-rare -- and covered in richly flavored sauteed wild mushrooms. It was accompanied by a generous helping of sweet, roasted fingerling potatoes, more of the roasted Roma tomatoes, and a luscious pile of roasted celery root. The dish was paired with a Wisconsin gem -- Big Mouth Red by Stone's Throw Vineyard -- a wine bursting with cherry flavor, augmented by a bit of pepper on the finish.
Throughout dinner, Peter was happy to guide us through the menu -- answering questions about the various farms that had supplied the dishes we ate, and running back to the kitchen to check on items about which we had questions. Turns out Peter himself grew up on a farm in Dubuque, Iowa, where his father farmed and his mother gardened and captured the summer bounty by canning and preserving. He learned first-hand what "farm to table" meant -- and it's fed his passion for the restaurant business. His eyes shone as he spoke about his boss, Chef Jan Kelly.
"There's no Milwaukee chef better than Kelly..." he crooned, "she has the restaurant business in her blood, and there's no one who pairs flavors quite like she does."
Peter also introduced us to Chef Kelly, herself, who took the time to talk with us about her philosophy in bringing farm-fresh produce to her restaurant table.
Kelly has been involved with "restaurant supported agriculture" programs for almost three years now. She was a founding member of "Braise RSA" -- the brainchild of David Swanson -- an organization which provides the infrastructure for local farmers to easily distribute and sell to restaurants and businesses who support local food in Southeast Wisconsin. She also supports local farms and businesses like Growing Power, Sassy Cow Creamery, Simple Soyman, Yuppie Hill, Pin-Oak Ridge Farms, and Lakeview Buffalo Farm.
"These are not corporations," Kelly commented, "they're people. And we're supporting families, not just buying product."
Kelly suspects that up to 70% of the food she serves at Meritage is sourced either locally or regionally -- which is pretty fantastic, considering we live in Wisconsin (a lovely place, but not one known for its long growing season).
"This is the hardest time of the year," she confesses, though judging from the meal we'd just finished, she's doing pretty well. "Braise is great," she added, "but Growing power gives us balance during the winter months -- fairly soon we'll be able to get green tomatoes from their greenhouse."
Ah -- the thought of fried green tomatoes made us feel a little bit woobly inside. And we couldn't help but feel excited when she told us that they'd be growing Chinese long beans for Meritage during the next growing season.
We chatted for almost a half-hour as we sipped our locally roasted Alterra coffee. It was difficult not to feel utterly welcome -- as if we'd been invited into Kelly's living room for a visit. Of course, that might not be so far from the truth. In fact, our night ended with a hug from the Chef... and the feeling that we'd just done something pretty awesome.
Of course, one night of awesome only goes so far... we need to stick with it... which is exactly what FRESH is all about. One person at a time, making little changes that have a big impact.
Here are a couple of things you can do right now to bring a little bit of "FRESH" into your own lives:
- If you're in Milwaukee, think about attending one of the remaining FRESH Week events, including one of the movie screenings at the Landmark Downer Theater on April 19-21. We'd love to see you there!
- If you don't live in (or near) Milwaukee, participate in FRESH events in a city near you (upcoming events taking place in Minneapolis, Portland, and Seattle):
Disclosure: We were not paid or compensated in any way for writing this post. We were asked to write about the experience by the crew over at FRESH, but the opinions are our own. In other words, the experience really was that awesome -- which makes it all the easier to share.
©BURP! Where Food Happens