When chef Jonathan Manyo left his native Milwaukee to cut culinary teeth on the scene in California, Cincinnati, and Portland, Walker’s Point was but a hodgepodge of old Rust Belt decay, gritty artist types, and cream city brick. Now the neighborhood is a medley of repurposed decay, gritty service-industry types, and revived cream city brick. And restaurants. Which is why the announcement of Manyo’s freshman restaurateur foray, the very farm-to-table sounding Morel (430 S. 2nd St.; 414-897-0747), seemed at once like no surprise, and like a dangerous flirtation with cliché. With Braise, c. 1880, The Noble, Blue Jacket, and A.P. all within about 10 square blocks and opened in the past three years, one should naturally wonder: Does Walker’s Point need more mason jars, locavorism, and diminutive platters?
The space: The rustic-farmhouse-repurposed-open-concept thing was comfortable, as we sat amongst Edison bulbs and wood for days. But it wasn’t much of a jump to philosophize on how something so nice, so lovingly crafted, so, yes, warm, cozy and comfortable, could be such an aesthetic snooze. Maybe it’s all that lumber, and our lifelong fear of splinters. Perhaps it’s just the current over-saturated dining vanguard. Or maybe this particular neighborhood is reaching something equating to Maximum Beard—soon nowhere will have any identity of its own.
The service: One could say friendly and engaging (there’s no arguing with the essence of fine food knowledge); another could say self-satisfied. Everything we ordered was positively supported, pat-on-the-head-like, with a reinforcement of “delicious,” or something like “that’s one of my favorite things ever.” A cynic could instinctively, actively dislike such a place. But the smells wafting from the open, we’re-doing-serious-work-here kitchen, and active bustle around the room both exuded care. Perhaps we’re just calorically jaded. Pride in your craft is universally a positive, and you’d have to be hangry or some kind of we-could-have-just-gone-across-the-street-to-Philly-Way dick not to notice the attention, the thought, and the overall effort to excel.
Milwaukee Record’s food: A morel is a honeycomb-looking mushroom, prized by French cooks for its delicate flavor, and sought in the wild for the thrill of the forage. But even if you don’t dig on fungi, there’s much to sate the appetite. Words like “tatsoi,” “mizuna,” and “sugo” pepper the menu, leaving much to ponder on the not-insignificant amount of time it takes the bar to make its very-craft cocktails. Here we went with two, straddling summer and fall feelings: the KK Smash ($8) was refreshing enough with Kinnickkinic Whiskey, lemon, mint, ginger ale, and bitters; while the Kitty Wildflower ($10) is barrel-aged—“five weeks!”—and thusly softened, the Rittenhouse rye and sweet vermouth maybe lacking their designed, get-drunk kick.
Along with the warm-ish rye and creamy butter, it was a pleasant-enough place setter for the obvious pork belly dial-up ($10). Here the piggy is mulled in red wine overnight, making for impossibly soft, light, near-gooey innards, with a centimeter blackened crust on the outside of the fat. It was sided by a cauliflower purée that went down like baby food, a nifty corn hash that is fall epitomized, oyster mushrooms for thematic purposes, and pork jus to send it all properly over the top.
It was delicate, obviously plated with exactitude, and somehow led to us imagining great things even from the flatbread ($12). Herbs lightly accent said carbs, which maybe could have used a few more seconds of grilling to really hold firm. But alongside heaping billows of burrata, roasted nectarine, and fennel, it was like an assembly-required, fine-dining Pizza Lunchable. We were worried about the potentially dominating sweetness of the nectarine, but it felt not far from a tomato in acidity, and mixuna (turns out it’s basically arugula) works as one of the better, fresh-feeling ’za toppings. For our ’Sconnie-tempered gut, the burrata was the obvious show-stealer—creamy, salty, fancy-curd-ish, and satisfying.
It didn’t make it easy to save room, but room is exactly what you need for the hefty duck confit ($24). Alongside the greasy bird leg, served in its own jus, was a wide-girthed homemade duck sausage, with as much smoke essence as a night at Landmark Lanes pre-cigarette-ban. Countering this ducky snap is a creamy polenta, which in its silky decadence comes off somewhere between grits and ice cream. The entire package makes for piles of meaty richness upon piles of meaty, smoky richness. The green beans and almonds do little to break up the heavy consistency. It’s an overwhelming dish, almost tiring, and a bit one-dimensional in the Germanic abundance. But, it’s also impossible to stop gnawing upon, like a caveman with a Saveur subscription.
It made fork efforts at the Rainbow Trout ($25) almost too much. We gave it a try, noting perfect char marks on our farmed lake-food, and a pleasant, somewhat salty turnip green-brown butter combo that gelled with the fishiness and all its B12, healthy glory. But we were already leaning at a pants unbuttoning and eight hours of fat-guy, sated sleep.
On our way toward bed we sampled the Yelp-endorsed goat cheesecake ($8). A bit more crunch on the graham cracker-y crust would have maybe better countered the subtle flutter of goat in the cream. But, with blueberry, raspberry, and citrus crème anglaise, and noting the inspired inclusion of the Scotch list on back of the sweets menu (featuring the Willets of the whiskey world, etc.), it would have been hard to stay mad long. Like the sausage, like the duck, like yet another belly of a pig down our gullet, Morel proves that too much of a good thing may indeed be too much. But it’s still very good.
The verdict: Perhaps it’s not Morel’s fault—it being the new kid on the block and all, with a stylish haircut we’ve seen plenty of times before. But damn if we wouldn’t like the next guy to have dreads or a Mohawk—hell, even some kind of a culinary mullet.