Lake Park Bistro offers a seat in French culinary heaven


Journal Sentinel dining critic

Posted: June 1, 2007 

The trill of a French accordion and a collection of Toulouse-Lautrec prints helped set the stage for one of the best brunches I've had in years. It was just before 2 p.m. at Bartolotta's Lake Park Bistro and the restaurant was filled with families celebrating college graduations.

Our table, in a corner of the western dining room, didn't afford us the spectacular view of Lake Michigan that other diners had. But we had called for our reservation only a day earlier and were happy simply to have a table on so busy a Sunday.

Brunch at Lake Park Bistro is a three-course affair: appetizer, main course, dessert. The entrée chosen determines its price.

I've always preferred served brunches like this to the buffet brunches that are so popular in Milwaukee. I realize the advantages of a buffet - they offer more variety and are less expensive because there's less work for the serving staff.

But I think Sunday is a day to take it easy. On Sunday, I'm willing to pay a little more to have a server bring me my food. It also feels more elegant. This brunch certainly was elegant. By the time my dining companion and I had made our way through three spectacular courses and sat lingering over heady black coffee and freshly brewed tea, we agreed that it was probably the best brunch in town.

Sure, some of it was due to the restaurant's setting. The bistro is surrounded by Lake Park, the crown jewel of the Milwaukee County Park system. The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the same landscape architect who created Central Park in New York.

But the bistro's enchantment doesn't stop with its lovely setting. The chef behind all of the classic French dishes the bistro serves is Adam Siegel, a talented executive chef who has traveled extensively through France and done brief stints in major restaurants there to hone his skills. Franck Loquet is the bistro's chef de cuisine.

In his travels, Siegel captured the magic that is the soul of true French food. His culinary skills won him a nomination as Best Chef in the Midwest from the James Beard Foundation, a national organization that promotes the culinary arts in America.

Our first sampling of the bistro's food came with our brunch appetizers - a seasonal fruit plate for my companion and grilled shrimp for me. The fruit - slices of cantaloupe, grapes, blackberries, strawberries and blueberries - had all been marinated in crème de cassis, a currant liqueur, and were served with a slice of French-style air-cured ham, which added a pleasantly salty counterpoint.

My four medium shrimp had a faint smoky flavor from the grill that played off nicely against the rich shellfish sauce that covered them. They were arranged atop a slice of toasted French bread. Sautéed spinach and roasted tomato added color and even more flavor.

Then it was on to entrées. My companion chose a buckwheat crepe ($22), a thin pancake with a delightful nutty flavor that was filled with more of that French ham, melted Gruyere cheese and sautéed mushrooms.

Two fried eggs topped the delicate yet richly flavored creation.

My entrée ($31) was meatier - a small, perfectly grilled tenderloin with oven-browned potatoes and eggs that had been scrambled with black truffles.

Truffles, those subterranean cousins of mushrooms prized for their pungent flavor, probably top the list of ingredients held dear by the French. And one bite of the eggs, dotted with telltale black truffle shavings, reminded me why.

Their exquisitely woodsy flavor, combined with eggs that had been beaten gently with heavy cream, created so delicious a dish that I would have traded the steak for another serving.

For dessert, I found the bistro's banana bread pudding irresistible. The pudding itself reverberated with the flavor of tropical fruit beneath a rich golden caramel sauce. My companion took the chocolate route. Soon she was spooning up bites of rich chocolate mousse that had been sweetened with crushed praline and accented by a saffron vanilla sauce and homemade mint ice cream.

Dinner a few days later allowed Siegel and his staff to show off more of their culinary skills. In this case, I chose the lighter entrée - true Dover sole ($45) that was prepared simply in classic French fashion. The sole was sautéed in browned butter (a process that transforms the butter into a sweet, nutty sauce), with just a hint of fresh lemon. Half of my delight in ordering the fish was watching our adept server separate the fish from the bones with a spoon and a fork and then lay it, in three perfect pieces, onto my plate.

My health-conscious companion confessed that he hadn't had a steak in a while. And so he ordered filet mignon ($34) done in classic French fashion - crusted with crushed peppercorns and served with a cream sauce accented by green peppercorns and cognac. It was in this dish that I saw the bistro's only failings: The kitchen had rubbed too little pepper into the beef and the cream sauce had been made with the tangier red rather than milder green peppercorns. Those proved to be only minor failings - the beauty of the beef came through so clearly that the sauce seemed like an afterthought.

Dinner began with two classically French appetizers: shrimp baked in garlic butter ($13) and a charcuterie plate ($12). Like the shrimp I'd enjoyed at brunch, these eight had been finished in a sweet, rich shellfish sauce, but their garlic butter and fresh herbs greatly enriched the flavor.

Charcuterie is the word the French use for pâtés, terrines and sausages, and all those represented were outstanding. There was a thick slice of country pâté rich with the flavors of veal and pork and a liver pâté with plenty of restrained flavor (cook a pâté like this too long and its flavor can become overly strong). It came with toasted rustic French bread, small dill pickles (called cornichons), coarsely ground mustard and a sweet, currant-based Cumberland sauce that offset the stronger flavor of the liver pâté beautifully.

For salads, my companion picked a warm goat cheese salad ($9). A chunk of fried, creamy cheese was surrounded by baby spinach, oven-roasted tomato and toasted pine nuts, while an orange-balsamic vinaigrette dressing aptly tied the salad's tastes and textures together. I chose a salad of chilled marinated beets, watercress and freshly shaved fennel ($8) that lured me into finishing every tiny bite with its anise-flavored fennel and creamy horseradish dressing.

For dessert, my dining companion chose a mousse ($7) not unlike the one we were served at brunch - I reveled in the pleasure that crossed his face with each spoonful. Fresh fruit is my weakness, so I went for the bistro's version of Peach Melba ($7), which combined sweet fruit with raspberry sauce, homemade vanilla ice cream and freshly baked lemon poundcake. Personally, I'd have been happy if the dish had been made more traditionally - without the poundcake. But that didn't stop me from consuming every last crumb.

The bistro's wine list is predominantly French with a wide range of offerings. I appreciated the fact that rosés were spotlighted on the night we visited. The one I chose, from a region near Aix-en-Provence in southern France, isn't often seen on local lists.

Service at both meals was as professional as the food preparation. Our servers never missed bringing us clean silverware with each course, and they checked back on us without hovering. Altogether, that combination of service, wine, food and atmosphere made both brunch and dinner two meals that I'm sure to recall on my next trip to France.


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