On first glance, there isn’t a lot to distinguish Meraki, the new venture from Chad Meier, former chef at Blue Jacket. It’s doing the same thing, in the same neighborhood, as most of the rest of the Milwaukee restaurant vanguard (aside from The Vanguard, ironically). Sharable plates, spend-y comfort food, rotating menus, localized focus, obnoxiously christened cocktails—all the of-the-moment buzz items amidst warm wood in the burgeoning Brooklyn of our town, Walker’s Point. Then there’s the name, unfortunately similar to two new joints—Movida, Morel—that are running the same sort of game within five blocks. We’ve seen The Wire. When there are too many slingers for too few street corners, it doesn’t end well. We thought we’d sneak in for a taste during peacetime, before the coming crossfire of charcuterie and mason jars.
The space: Enter the low-slung nondescript 2nd St. post and you’ll see Grandma’s couch and a shipwreck-salvaged coffee table. There’s 50 shades of brick, ornate orb-ish lamps above a trigon step-shaped bar, surprisingly comfortable upholstered bar stools, low lights, muddied mirror, and the only leftover from non-cool days seen in the original front windows. Through a curtain there’s a chef’s table, hinting at the show-off-y bent continued by the yellow-hued spotlight contraption warming the dining room with swatches that scream Architectural Digest. It’s a comfortable, not quite too-cool spot for some post-work beers and relaxed chow at the bar.
The service: Our bartender continued the welcome. It was a quiet Tuesday, and he had plenty of time to not really hustle. But there was a friendly professionalism, one that conveyed I-know-how-to-muddle-but-won’t-be-a-dick-about-it. And despite his unfamiliarity with the boquerones—hell, we don’t know what they were either, and were just curious about pronunciation—with some unhip humility he was happy to get the lowdown from the kitchen. Maybe it was just the first-few-days on the job earnestness, but he had that genuine concern you sometimes feel with servers who aren’t just going through the motions with a rote “How are you enjoying your first few bites?” He proclaimed his own forthcoming dinner order inspiration from our menu choices, and it was the too-rare restaurant connection beyond layers of smiling and singing for gratuity. The kind that makes us want to leave a bigger tip.
Milwaukee Record’s food: Still, it’s hard not to get struck, in the gut, with great force, by the big bold-faced numbers next to the menu items. Those are the prices. And it’s a steep escalation from Roasted Cauliflower ($8!) to Hawaiian shrimp ($25). With so much leaning toward the latter, economic considerations would seem to explain why the place is stuck in the Yelp muck.
Being at once cheap and fat, we tried to fill up on as many of the affordable bites as possible, including the aforementioned Boquerones ($4). Turns out they are anchovies of a southern Spain vein; also turns out they are great. Three flattened silver sardine-like smears sit atop their own grilled beer-scented bread boat. Salty, fishy, vinegary and potent, they make for a grand accompaniment to a serious hopped beer like Burning River ($5), and remind of the savory, essence-of-the-sea smelts at Blue Jacket.
The Cheese Nips ($4) on the other hand, took us back to one million after school snacks. Cottonmouth-inducing and cardboard-y, the salt at least appreciated thirst levels, and made for something to intensify a sappy but boring Kentucky Ginger ($8), with Bulleit and muddled ginger. You’ve had the drink before, and after a few bites and sips we were convinced we’d had the nips before, too—so close were they to out-of-the box Cheez Its, that ubiquitous snack of everyone’s youth. Though the presentation hinted at maybe an all-out act of irony: two handfuls in a china dish of the kind Grandma usually reserves for the holidays.
There was little such disappointment in the Hot Bread ($10). It was a big baked mess of a soft, quiche-like loaf, punctuated with garlic chunks, slick with pesto and olive oil, chock full of zesty roasted sweet peppers, and tingly with pecorino. A warming, wholesome pairing with more beer and the January cold leaving our bones. Sawing and gnawing while Freddie King hit with “Big Legged Woman,” we struggled to remember what we didn’t like about this place.
But then it was time to pony up for the “Large Shares” menu, and subsequent Duck Wings ($20). Wincing a tad, we went in anyway, thinking ourselves quite smart to at least dodge the 19-buck Pork Shoulder. Two biggish wings graced our plate, and some quick math lead to something like a 2-bucks per bite breakdown. Every other one of those bites was a bit fatty, too. And while we knew what we were getting into with duck, we felt lucky to have filled up on bread, otherwise the quite char-y bites and sweet-and-sour tang would have left us wanting. The accompanying “Man-Eating” kimchi was thankfully not Man Vs. Food hot level, but it popped our sinus with a one-two punch, its big leafy red essence clearing us right out—in the same manner many diners may feel about their wallets.
The verdict: It is quite good food, inspired kitchen work, and a stylish, friendly spot, sure. But is it enough to suggest Meraki can stand out in a Lazy Susan of similar foodie options (including Lazy Susan)?