Hit the Milwaukee Public Market on a Friday afternoon, try the Benelux rooftop or Wicked Hop patio or the new Colectivo on any warm-ish day of the week, and it’s pretty clear the Third Ward is the new Milwaukee it spot. Unless we’re talking small plates—then it’s neighboring Walker’s Point. That means one foot in each quarter should be the ideal restaurant locale. But the weird spot with the garage doors on Pittsburgh Avenue, right on the cusp of both neighborhoods, has had trouble with longevity. First the building couldn’t maintain Moct and its industrial-vibed, dance club-cum-corporate event space. And then Prodigal Gastropub lasted barely over a year, despite an executive chef with Bacchus and Charlie Trotter experience.
Chef Andrew Miller has notions of permanence even if, gastrointestinally speaking, he’s cooking in a combination as fluid as the confluence of rivers just below Merriment Social (240 E. Pittsburgh Ave., 414-645-0240). Formerly of pizza pioneer Salotto Zarletti (now Zarletti Mequon), Miller has opened his first restaurant with a focus on Americanized dim sum, and, in reverse, Asianized small plates. And so it goes: chefs move around, foods fuse, restaurants close, then open, then close and open, and Milwaukee’s former warehouse district gets another place for drinks and food. And so our job goes, with ghosts of gastropubs of yesteryear and that time somebody tried to charge us $10 to see a DJ in this same building, lurking just below the surface of dinner.
The space: While we know very little about either adjective, we suppose Merriment Social could be described as both merry and social. There’s an undeniably bright, updated feel about the sprawling space. Modernized, airy, HGTV-approved open concept-ish, it’s still a touch industrial. There’s also an overlying pop art motif. Andy Warhol is very much in the air, and it couldn’t be more apt: MIAD is down the street, and loud are the nouveau-ish, yuppie-dom echoes from Milwaukee’s surrounding condo corridor.
The service: Our waitress was the tatted cool kid varietal we’re more attuned to finding in Bay View, but in the best way possible. Laid back but passionate, knowledgeable about the menu, she agreed with us on some problems and supported us in many a life decision, even if that meant over-ordering and over-indulging in the lengthy and impressive beer list. It certainly felt like she’d been there awhile, even though it was week two of business.
We’re not sure if the same could be said of the plethora of servers milling about—greeting us, asking us if everything is okay, the now-standard “How are you liking your first few bites?” coming from somebody we hope was actually an employee, a man pushing a sort of serving cart. Actually, the man with said semi-squeaking tray of mystery plates turned out to be pleasant enough, and the multitudes of employees, borderline discombobulating, all added up to some kind of WD 40-ed functioning machine.
Milwaukee Record’s food: As to that cart: we’d always thought of dim sum as the stuff you eat when you’re travel-emboldened and adventurous in, say, San Francisco’s Chinatown, or New York’s Lower East Side. But here we have a cart, and a guy with the knowledge of a few rotating things, and the likes of a ghost chili pepperoni with Mexican-style elotes ($3), or pimento-stuffed olives ($3), with ham hock bits and buttermilk breadcrumbs. Yes, it is an interesting time to be eating in America, but we’re not sure for how much of that time each of our dim sum examples had already been around. Both were room temp-ish, and felt a little thrown together. The pepperoni was good and slightly zingy, the corn a little cream-ish, smacking of mayo and chili powder. But the hocks and olives seemed like overly simple, salty morsels, and not much more. There was nothing to get excited about aside from very good happy hour-ing (Black Husky Double IPA for $7, Deschutes Fresh Squeezed for $8), and each seemed like an impulse buy at the checkout line: Well, I’m here for a minute, and there’s some calories, so, okay. But maybe it’s the curse of hindsight, because by the end of the night we had enjoyed so much else.
For instance, the cheese curds ($8). These are not going to change your life or diet or notion of Milwaukee’s favorite bar snack. But they are baked, and swimming in melted, creamy fontina. That’s cheese curds in a cheese soup. We especially liked the blackened tops on some of the ranch-y chunks, the bread crumble scattered over like a mealy crust, the cast dish served nicely alongside toasted focaccia. Also, there were wings ($12). We kind of ignored the pork belly pancake underneath, because these were just right on their own, with slight spice and Asian fried-ness (double-fried, so it seems), a light and flaky breading, and a popping homemade Sricahi-knockoff on the side.
Then there are the fried brussels sprouts ($6), a strange alchemy of fried vegetable, piecrust, pecans, fermented honey, and thyme-crème fraiche. The amalgamation left more head-scratches and furrowed brows than coherent taste analysis, as we’ve rarely encountered a dish with bites so baffling, so thrilling. It’s a dish Zagat might call “intriguing,” while simultaneously a Chopped judge would deem it a “mess.”
But uncertainty was the last thing in mind with the burger ($10). The meat is a homemade mash of cheek, chuck, short rib, and brisket, served on a homemade milk bun (buttery, pillow-y), with house-churned, homemade American cheese (melty, immaculate), and a heady homemade sauce made of mayo, BBQ, and mustard (creamy but subtle). You get the idea: fetishistic DIY. With bacon. And perfect proportions. Merriment is decidedly not a burger joint, and this is not one of those Peter Luger fancy restaurant burgers either. It’s a meat sandwich that simply offers everything coming together—from so much delicious grease, dripping down our fingers toward the wrists, to bountiful homemade pickle wedges, everything leading to an impossibly juicy package of ballsy, double-patty heaven.
By the close of such gut-bombing, tiny cream puffs ($4) were all we had room for. And while each of the trio was so petite it felt like a comedy-less kitchen-punk, there was still quite a burst of peanut butter flavor. Making for a perfect metaphor: it was a largely delicious, mixed nut bag of a night.
The verdict: An innovative idea—so much so, that upon reflection we almost feel bad that all we’ll take away is one of the better burgers in recent, no, scratch that, in all of Milwaukee memory. Here’s hoping this is at least enough to keep those big garage doors open for business, because we’d very much like to come back.