Living in Milwaukee for several years, I’ve learned that there are many diverse neighborhoods within the city that have their own distinct personalities and help make up Milwaukee’s overall character.
Naturally, for a newcomer it could be a struggle to find the right niche. That’s why when Swig originally opened on Water Street, Milwaukee’s biggest bar district, its martini lounge meets small plate dining concept didn’t exactly appeal to the beer bingeing, college-age bar hoppers who patronize that area. Knowing the restaurant/lounge wasn’t as well served on Water Street as it could be elsewhere, Swig closed its Water Street location last summer after 30 months of undesirably slow business.
Swig wasn’t forever gone, though. When Sauce closed after eight years of food service, the opportunity to move into its Third Ward location finally arrived. At last, Swig reopened this spring at 217 N. Broadway, which instantly became a perfect fit, combining elegant cuisine and creative cocktails with swanky lounge grandiosity.
After noticing that Swig had moved, I was determined to check out the new space. Conveniently, I could still partake in Downtown Dining Week, which provided a great opportunity to try another new restaurant. So, that Wednesday night, I eagerly met Rose at Swig’s Third Ward location for dinner and drinks.
Finding parking in the Third Ward is always tricky, but eventually a spot opened on Broadway and I marched over to the restaurant. Inside I was greeted by two very chirpy hostesses. They took my name and indicated that there would be a 30-minute wait, so they gave me one of those vibrating gadgets to hold onto. I was a little vexed by the wait, mostly just because I was starving. I guess I figured that because it was Wednesday night, we wouldn’t have to make reservations because it wouldn’t be especially busy. But, apparently Downtown Dining Week was successful in attracting droves of patrons interested in checking out the place for the first time. Go figure.
With the buzzer in hand, I slid into one of the tall, plush cushioned benches adjacent to the bar and thought about ordering a cocktail. Instead, I decided to wait for Rose and just scanned the scene.
The entire place was packed with late 20 to 30-something professionals. Everyone there that night had a subdued trendy air to them that was both chic and stylish, but never supercilious or standoffish. Come to think of it, the clientele was very much like Swig itself. The Third Ward space exudes comfort and warmth that’s tempered and cooled by a perfect dose of class and allure. Basically, Swig is modest and refined all at the same time.
Once Rose arrived we took over the only two vacant seats at the bar, which offered an easy place to chat. We were immediately handed a drink menu that proudly proclaims Grey Goose as the spirit of choice while offering a variety of additional libations. Off the extensive wine list, Rose ordered a glass of Merlot, which she got for free when she joined their email list. Meanwhile, I glanced over the respectable selection of microbrews and domestics, but settled on one of their house infused cocktails.
These drinks were amazing! At the center of the bar were various shiny glass jars filled with delicious vodka and fresh fruits like peach, pineapple, kiwi and cherry. The fruits are left in several gallons of vodka until the liquor soaks up the flavor. The bartender said that people generally add tonic or Sprite to the concoction, but I decided to have mine on the rocks like a big girl.
The bartenders were genuinely courteous and attentive, which is something I value. Empty glasses were quickly filled and replaced with a fresh tumblers filled to the brim, a mixer that was slightly heavy on the tonic was graciously exchanged with an apology, and when ordering a martini, the server never walked away until the drink was sampled and it was certain that it was mixed to the patron’s liking. That kind of over-the-top pampering made me an instant fan of the place.
After waiting for exactly a half hour, our, er, thingy began to simultaneously buzz and vibrate. Immediately, we were lead to a table in the elevated seating area that was in front of an enormous garage door window, which overlooked Broadway Avenue and the couples dining outside.
Just like the bar staff, our waiter provide stellar service. He was in tune with the menu and took the time to explain the food preparation and also suggested how to have the food cooked when I asked. However, the couple behind us might disagree with my review of our server seeing as he tripped up the stairs while carrying their coffees and spilled them all over the tray and onto a woman’s jacket. Despite the minor calamity, he really went above and beyond to make our dining experience memorable and virtually flawless.
Under a flickering orange ting from the tea light at our table, we studied the menu. The lunch menu caters to hungry downtown workers by offering sandwiches – burgers, clubs, panini and pitas – and soups and salads that run at less than $9 per dish. After 5 p.m., the menu transforms into a bountiful array of adventurous dinner selections that boast the old Swig’s small-plate dining concept and a new entrée section with seasonal seafood offerings, pastas and meat dishes, again, all moderately priced.
I opted for the Downtown Dining special while Rose chose off the standard carte du jour. She was eying some of Swig’s “signature” entrées such as the Chilean sea bass and the spinach gnocchi with fennel and sun-dried tomatoes, but she ultimately decided on the rustic pasta – fresh fettuccine, homemade pesto, artichoke hearts, snap peas, roasted red pepper and aged Parmesan. Doesn’t that sound good? Unfortunately, I forgot to photograph her dish. Bad blogger!
My starter, the pan seared Ahi tuna, came out quickly. It was panko crusted tuna cooked medium rare and garnished with fried leeks and served Japanese-style with shoyu, wasabi and gari. Ever bite made me crave the next more and more! To ward off my gluttonous impulse, I offered Rose a few nibbles since there was definitely enough to go around.
Next, we were served our entrees. I ordered the pan-seared tenderloin, which smelled scrumptious as the plate was slid from the tray and under my nose. The beef was tender, but slightly over cooked, which was entirely my fault because I ordered it medium well when it should have been prepared medium. Apparently, I’m still learning how to eat fancy food. The portion wasn’t huge, which I actually preferred – the tenderloin was an ideal four ounce cut – and was well-paired and garnished with wild mushroom risotto and savory roasted tomato coulis. Such inventive flavor combinations make me long to try everything on the menu. I’m already keyed up for my next experience!
Lastly, it was time for dessert. After a savory dinner, there’s nothing better than experiencing something sweet. I was supposed to choose one of the two options: New York style cheese cake or chocolate cake. Instead I got both. Very small, bite-size samples of each, that is. I’m assuming that the kitchen was running low on full pieces, so to ration the desserts, they cut each into smaller portions. Whatever. It’s not like I needed more food!
The cheese cake was rich yet light and velvety, and the raspberry preserves added a sweetness that was fresh and delightful. The small cube of chocolate cake was decent, but not my favorite. It was overly rich and very dense – more like a brownie – and had whipped mascarpone on top. But when these two mini morsels merged, a whole new world of sweet and divine tastes mingled in my mouth.
While dabbing my lips, I though to myself, WOW! Swig is without a doubt one of the best recent experiences I've had dining in Milwaukee. It's definitely one of the city's finest upscale casual restaurants to boot.
With superb service, excellent food and an updated atmosphere, I’d say Swig has finally found its niche in Milwaukee!
217 N. Broadway
Milwaukee, WI 53202
Open daily at 11 a.m., serving food until 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and until 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. The bar stays open later