This should not happen.
Not happen in the sense that it is least likely to, or rather, it would be fine if they screwed this one up.
What I am referring to is a burger, a very good one, and at, of all places, The Harbor House.
There is an old saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” This is rarely true, however, in the chef world. Those that can, do.
In the case of Paul Bartolotta, he has trained a legion of well-known and well-respected chefs — the least of which is a Wisconsin boy and soon-to-be global star chef, Michael White.
Bartolotta’s got his own mastery of the Italian seafood, dual James Beards in two regions, a premier Las Vegas restaurant and from here I’ll just add, etc. With Bartolotta’s extraordinary dexterity with seafood, he and brother, Joe, and Beard-wining executive chef Adam Siegel, it should be no real reach to turn out a swell seafood spot. But here’s my point. What’s with the burger?
I am a strong believer that what one can have at the bar of an establishment tells you volumes about its strengths and weaknesses. What you can have at the bar at The Harbor House is unaccountably good for the price, but moreover, as I said to a friend the night after I first had the burger as a follow-up to some oysters and beer, “If they were going to phone in anything on the menu, it would be OK if this was it.” After all, it is a seafood place.
Others have waxed more then poetic about burgers before. Lots of others. My friend, Josh Ozersky, wrote a book about burgers and their history. It’s a fine read and, if that is your sort of thing, sincerely, I recommend it. This is not the place for that.
What The Harbor House serves up via its burger is almost too simple. A light Brioche bun from Breadsmith, a grilled 80/20 USDA quarter-pound certified Angus beef chuck patty. Crisp fresh lettuce, tomato and grilled onions if you want them. My cheeseburger came spread with Merkts Cheddar, a nice riff on the usual “slice.” On occasion the Harbor House kitchen has patties from Neesvig’s and if they do, skip the fish for sure, as it is a name mentioned among burger geeks the way the name Tiffany elicits squeals at wedding and baby showers alike. When I asked Siegel about the burger he said, “Our approach is simple, well-executed with what we consider great raw materials.” Since the Milwaukee landmark out of the window over my left shoulder cost millions more than it was proposed, I ordered a modestly priced second Schlitz to pair with the burger. I wanted the Châteauneuf du Pape, a wine that’s great with a good burger. In light of the view, I thought the Schlitz was the sensible choice. They work well together to say the least.
I know, I know. Dissenters may fill this magazine’s e-mail inbox with missed and merited burger gems, screams of my suburban blind spots, and poorly researched story, as if instead of talking burgers I am a junior senator on the floor reading from his list of favorite Americans in history, and some how omitting Frederick Douglas and Susan B. Anthony all in one inept swipe. Guilty for sure. And here are just a few more that might be under the radar.
Rupena’s at the Milwaukee Public Market.
This is the best burger in the city for less than $5, in my opinion. They do a quarter-pound 100 percent chuck blend that comes out surprisingly lean and put it in between a butter bun from their Breadsmith neighbors across the aisle. The classic lettuce and tomato duo accompanies. Grab one and take it around the corner to the Thief Wine counter and pair it with glass of either Steak House Cabernet from Colombia Valley in Washington, or if you want to go Francais, the Château Lascaux which is a Syrah, Grenache and Mourved blend. Both available by glass.
Iron Horse Hotel
The burger that newly installed chef Jason Gorman is putting out is quite simply extraordinary. It is a 10-ounce burger patty made from a specially ground mixture of chuck, brisket and sirloin. Gorman tops it with psycho-good, award-winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese, a small batch of smoked onions, ketchup made from red wine, lettuce, tomato and puts it between a Miller egg roll. Oh, and there are Iron Horse homemade pickles to boot. This $14 burger should be $25. It’s like your own personal burger Groupon.
Chef Dominic Zumpano’s Mangia burger is made from Hidden Creek Farms beef, good to be sure, but here is where it leaves other mere “bacon added” burgers in the dust. Instead, Graffito’s burger is topped with speck, that extraordinary air-dried pork delicacy often seasoned with laurel or juniper, it then flavorfully smoked after that. Put it this way, if Prosciutto is the Cadillac of cured pork, then speck would be a hand-built Mercedes/AMG. Because it would be wild to stop there, Zumpano also tops the burger with lardo (cured strips of seasoned pork backfat, the best of which is cured in Carrara marble vats) and a local four-year aged cheddar. Graffito garnishes with a housemade tomato jam, romaine lettuce and fresh cut fries. The bun is also house-made in a riff off of a classic Brioche recipe.
This is a French place in New Berlin that does a great Angus burger. And why wouldn’t you open a French place in a suburb named after the German capital? A little spiky perhaps, like, well, the French. Chef Andy Tenaglia, formerly the executive chef at Miller Park (you may have heard of it) has struck out and done well after handling “everything from tailgating to fine dining” at the ballpark. In that he comes from this arena, it is no surprise he can pull off a killer burger. In my mind it is a true ingredient trifecta. First, his burger is a grand patty of 25/75 chuck/sirloin blend made of American Wagyu from Snake River Farms in California. Next he uses a 10-year cheddar from Vern’s in Chilton. I am no expert cheese monger, but I know some experts and the three I called all agreed that Vern’s 10-year is one of most undervalued aged Wisconsin cheeses presently available. Lastly, Tenaglia puts all this and lettuce and tomato between a housemade bun called a Pain auí late. Translated as “milk roll,” it is made from a rich dough flavored with a Wuthrich Swiss style butter from Grasslands Dairy. Imagine a gourmet, slightly sweet, Wonder Bread-type bun. If you live downtown or on the North Shore it is worth the drive.