Circa 1880 is a recent addition to the Milwaukee fine dining scene. After reading some Yelp reviews and studying their menu – more specifically their prices – , I expected a great experience and fantastic food. The good news is that Circa 1880 boasts a very talented chef adept in the art of culinary craftsmanship, a friendly, patient staff and tasteful decor.
A native of Milwaukee, chef Thomas Hauck graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York and honed his skills in France. Upon returning to the states, Thomas worked as a line cook with Michel Richard at his flag ship restaurant Citronelle in Washington D.C. Within nine months, Thomas was promoted to Banquet Chef. Within the year, Thomas achieved the title of Executive Sous‐Chef. For the next two and half years, Thomas worked side by with one of the most acclaimed chefs in America, Michel Richard. Thomas moved back to Milwaukee in 2011 with a vision to open his own restaurant featuring farm fresh produce and food from local artisanal farms.
Chef Thomas Hauck certainly lived up to the bio posted on their website. The only bad news is that the location did not live up to the food or prices – more to come.
The restaurant is decorated with distressed wood tables, hanging incandescent lights and has a post-industrial revolution feel – very inviting. I started with a drink at the bar. The barkeeper started to make my whiskey sour and informed me it was actually a “scratch whiskey sour”, indicating they made some part of it in house. Unfortunately the drink lacked the punch I am used to elsewhere and the whiskey was not counterbalanced by any other flavors.
My colleagues joined me and we were seated in their back lounge area with wrap-around seating. There was an unused fireplace and some warm decor. I studied the straightforward menu for a moment and decided to order three different appetizers – the pork belly with smoked potato, baharat and heirloom tomato, the steak tartare with peanut, rye bread and yolk, and, finally, the crab with cantaloupe, macadamia and serrano. The pork belly absolutely melted as I sectioned a piece using my fork. I have to admit that I had never had pork belly before, but I imagine this is just about as good as it gets. The steak tartare was just a notch below the pork belly, but that could very well be my bias to saltier food. Unfortunately, the crab was objectively bland and the restaurant is audacious enough not to leave salt on the table. 2 out of 3 is not bad!
On to the entrees… I wanted to be able to provide an apples to apples comparison so I went for the scallops. If I were to put these up against the scallops from Lake Park Bistro, these would just edge out a win. The reason is that there was a depth of flavor not present in the Lake Park Bistro scallops. Don’t get me wrong, Lake Park Bistro has fantastic scallops, but these had just the extra touch of a modern culinary master. Of course the scallops were just one part of a symphony of flavors; the dish had a few very interesting heirloom tomatoes that were saturated with some sort of balsamic vinegar. The vinegar explodes in your mouth followed by the sweet tomato flavor. That intensity was carefully crafted with a balance of dill and olive oil over the rest of the vegetables.
For dessert I chose “Blueberry”. Yes, it was simply called “Blueberry”, however, the dish was anything but. The crème fraîche was delicous and went very well with the blueberry sorbet. There were two ginger infused honeycombs flanking the sorbet center and they quite literally attacked the dish with an overwhelming sweetness. I elected to leave them mostly untouched. Would I order it again? YES! Delicious!
The night had come to a wonderful close with dessert so we headed for our cars. Here is where it gets bad. One of our cars had the back window completely smashed out and several valuables were stolen out of the trunk. There is nothing that could have more quickly ruined such a wonderful experience short of being mugged leaving the building. I have read other reviews on Yelp and it seems we are not alone. So, after several hundred dollars for the meal and several thousand dollars for the break-in, I would have to say it was definitely not worth it. If Circa 1880 has any plans to remain in business, they should do themselves a favor and hire someone to sit outside and watch the parking areas. Given their prices, they can certainly afford it.