This did not look promising.
But then again, Milwaukee’s culinary scene has its surprises.
Xee Yoo is one of them.
I entered with arrogant trepidation; as it turned out, such an attitude was uncalled for. The curried fried rice was superb. For many years I have been searching for a reputable version of the type of Americanized fried rice I grew up with (in the mid 60’s) at the long-gone New China Cafe on Colfax Avenue and Clarkson Street in Denver. The first forkful of this dish at Xee Yoo conjured up the ghost of the New China’s propriator, Mr Herbert Wong, and memories of the restaurant’s velveteen and tasseled menu that seemed, to my ten-year-old eyes, to be an artifact from Marco Polo’s luggage:
This restaurant (and my initial unfounded attitude to it) reminds me of an embarrassing incident from my musical past.
Many years ago a friend came to a chamber music party mistakenly bringing, instead of the Haydn we had planned to play, an edition of the complete string quartets of Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf. I had a scene. I have long since apologized for how I behaved that night. “Ditters von Dittersdorf…how could you? This will be miserable music. There is a reason why no one plays his stuff.” And on and on.
I was wrong. Dittersdorf’s music was superb. His quartets were like Xee Yoo’s fried rice. Damned good.
Its a long drive from Glendale to 107th Street, but not as long as it is to The New China Cafe on Colfax and Clarkson in Denver. The New China is no longer there. It was torn down in the 70’s and replaced by a liquor store. Mr. Wong is gone as well; lovingly carried off by a parliament of velveteen tasseled menus to where Marco Polo is. But Xee Yoo and the quartets of C. D. von Dittersdorf are very much still here. The restaurant is across town; the music is, no doubt, to be found somewhere on the internet.
I plan on revisiting both of them soon.
A remarkable occurrences in Beethoven’s music happens in the adagio movement of his opus 18 no.1 string quartet. At a moment of almost unbearable drama, he silences all instruments for one measure. Since the music is slow, and each measure contains nine beats, the resultant grand pause seems to be longer than the combined length of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The silence becomes noisy in the mind; it becomes a proclamation that is somehow both cacophonic and eloquent. If silence in music can be so meaningful, is it too far a stretch to perceive a bit of air in a baguette to have a similar weight? Not a stretch at all. This is one of the triumphs of the bread made at North Shore Boulangerie in Shorewood. Their baguette is everything a baguette should be; at once crusty, flakey and soft all in the right spots. But let us not forget the empty places. It is the airy interior that make this bread even better. It contains a congregation of peep-holes that allows you to see through to the world beyond.
All the better if that world is a garden.
There was a time when life was hard in Mil-town. To get a bite of quality Thai food, you had to drive 90 miles to Chicago’s loop and pay the equivalent of half the value of a viola lesson to park. Those lachrymose days are over. Instead, head over to The Mekong Cafe on 60th and North. Damned tasty and you even save on tolls. Here is their Ban Xeo; a sublime concoction of ground and curried chicken and shrimp wrapped in a delicate rice-flour casing. It looks a bit like a blintz in technicolor, but the taste is revelatory rather than comforting.
One of my table companions proclaimed the dish to be one of the best starters available in a Milwaukee restaurant. He should know; he is a scholar of many different culinary traditions. His latest passion is making Kimchi. Anyone who has the patience and smarts to do that has my ear. But do I really need his stamp of approval?
I don’t make Kimchi but I do play the viola.
That must count for something.
Through thirty years of blizzards, hideously humid Julys, and political turmoil, there is something in Milwaukee that has, for me, remained reassuringly unchanged: the cheese quesadillas at Beans and Barley. The dish has always been a quintessential simple food; rich queso blanco cheese compressed between the folds of a delicate and perfectly browned flour tortilla, a few scallions and black olives carelessly sprinkled on top almost as an aleatoric afterthought. There is no effort here to be imaginitive or flamboyant; the dish doesn’t need to be. Just as a good tune doesn’t require over-orchestration and is able to stand on its own, so Beans’ impressive cheese quesadilla is able to do the same. This food is not a tone-poem by Richard Strauss; is is a melody of Rossini. May it remain tuneful for another thirty years!
Although it looks like an omelet….
…this is Thai-namite‘s take on Pad Thai. Inside the impressively thin egg casing was a tasty commingling of thin noodles, scallions, shrimp and a sauce that made me think for a moment that I had been whisked away from Brady Street in Brew-town and deposited directly into a booth at a place in Chicago’s Loop where the Thai food is really good.
The noodles were enjoyed in the company of three friends who instinctively knew what good table-talk is made of. Our conversation touched on many topics; a bit of gossip, reminiscences, observations both witty and wise. It was serendipitous that two of these friends came from the same wonderful country as Robert Louis Stevenson. He knew how memorable this sort of conversation can be:
There can be no fairer ambition than to excel in talk; to be affable, gay, ready, clear and welcome; to have a fact, a thought, or an illustration, pat to every subject…
Add some respectable Pad Thai and two Kirin Ichiban‘s to the mix and the afternoon became as happy as a Haydn symphony.
Sometimes finding a good table requires only the simple act of walking out the side-door into a garden where an obligato of hostas accompanies a pour of Sancerre and a ripened avocado. Perhaps this is the kind of meal that Dr. Johnson enjoyed when he said to Boswell: We could not have had a better dinner had there been a Synod of Cooks.
Next time you have a yen for purple sticky rice, Phongsaven is the place to go. North 76th is, to my spoiled suburban eye, the ugliest street in the world. G.K. Chesterton could well have been describing it: “the long roads…seemed to shoot out into length after length like an infernal telescope….it was one of those journeys on which a man perpetually feels that now at last he must have come to the end of the universe.” But the purple sticky rice makes the trip to this bleak neighborhood worth it. If you are going to travel to the end of the universe, (or to North 76th Street) you might as well reward yourself with some good sticky rice. The purple of the dish adds a welcome dose of color to counteract the grubby industrial landscape that surrounds this exotic cafe.