The Sparkling Season

Heather Kanter-Kowal

I am a geek for sparkling wines.  This is one of my very favorite seasons as there are so MANY occasions to elegantly sip Champagne and share toasts with my friends and family.  I cannot imagine a Christmas Eve dinner at my house without a few bottles of something bubbly chilling in my outdoor cellar (AKA-the snow drift on my patio), patient a Christmas morning without Mimosas and waffles, or a tiring but rewarding night at the restaurant on New Year’s Eve without toasting at midnight with my battle weary co-workers.  Here are a few of my favorite brut Champagnes and few other international sparklers that make me feel festive!

  • Krug Grand Cuvee Brut of Reims, ampoule Champagne.  As my pals at the American Club used to say, “No Krug? No thanks!” ( usually when being offered anything else bubbly).  If a budget is of no concern to you, this is the real deal.  This is the bottle for when you really have something fabulous to celebrate!  The Grand Cuvee is made from all three permitted grapes of the Champagne region, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, but is predominately based on crazy good Chardonnay.  This is a more full bodied and bold style of Champagne that screams for osetra caviar.
  • Heidsieck & Co. Monopole “Blue Top” Brut of Epernay, Champagne.  I recently tasted this again for the first time in years at the sparkling wine event that we hosted at Mason Street Grill on Monday night.  Really impressed with the depth and quality of this wine!  Buttery, toasty, with baked bread, pear and apricot notes with hint of smokiness.  Pinot Noir is the dominant grape in this cuvee.  A dash easier to locate than Krug, and a great deal more affordable.
  • Argyle Brut of Willamette Valley, Oregon.  Made from classic Champagne region grapes using classic Champagne production methods, this is a fun number from here in the States.  Their entry level brut is bright and racy with flavors of apple, lemon, and more of that baked bread nose.  Delightful and crisp, yet again, more budget friendly.  If you want to try something really special, track down their “Extended Tirage”, and taste it side by side with your favorite vintage Champagne.  Prepare to be shocked.
  • “Naked on Roller Skates” by Some Young Punks of South Australia.  I wonder sometimes if that name were in French if it would still seem as naughty… This bubbly is made from Shiraz and Mataro grapes.  Yes, this can happen.  No, this is not a sweet wine.  It has a darker reddish/pinkish color than you may imagine, and is dry yet balanced with flavors of red berries, spices and dark fruits.   Bring this to a party as a hostess gift, I dare you.  Your bottle will be an unwitting topic of conversation ALL NIGHT.


Heather Kanter-Kowal

The Good Life in Blu (is a cocktail too)

Patrons enjoy Afternoon Tea on a Friday near dusk. Your table waits in the foreground...

Last night I was able to listen to a concert with pianist Dr. Jeffrey Hollander. The good doctor plays every first Thursday of the month on the 23rd floor at Blu, the cocktail lounge which looks east over Lake Michigan. Patrons sat at tables which radiated from the piano. Couples sat close to one another in a piano-dangled warm quiet until the last few songs, at which point I began looking for a singer who appeared to my ears from of the middle of nowhere. I looked around the room to find someone now accompanying the piano. I then realized there wasn’t a singer who was sharing the floor with Jeffrey. The entire room had joined in song for the last few numbers in a way that happens often in black and white movies but rarely in color ones.

While listening to the concert I ended up speaking with a gentleman named Bill. Evidenced, I suppose, by his being seated next to me, Bill remarked that he preferred to enjoy a *ding-time* 6pm workday whistle cocktail in Blu. I asked where he was in town from and he chuckled that he worked a few blocks away and this was his nightly cool-down. No traveler was Bill at the moment, this was his customary place to relax once the office turned dim before heading home.

Prior to this position I’d never considered spending time in a hotel in my city (or any other city for that matter). I traveled for business when I was younger and that traveling amounted to seeing an airport, freeway, hotel, and identically designed retail location. Wash, rinse, repeat the process for 55-70 hours per week for a few years. The corporation who employed me had a very cost-conscious mindset so many of the hotels (er…often motels) I slept at were not the type of place one felt incredibly welcomed. After the first few trips I didn’t bother to pack a swimsuit and brought a book to read instead of assuming there might be cable television. The definition I’d learned a hotel to be was a bed and shower acting as the peanut butter and jelly sandwiched between 13 hour workdays.

Mary Keppeler's harp accompanies Friday Afternoon Tea

I thought about the hotels I’d stayed at for business and they were never like this. Sitting in one’s room with a book felt like being sequestered in a hospital room. I’d walk downstairs to the lobby and they might have a couch but not the type of couch you’d ever sit on because you wanted to. The type of a couch you’d only sit on only if you were stuck waiting. I’d walk across the street, or a few blocks away, or to the other end of the strip mall where there was a chain restaurant and the meal tasted boringly identical to the meal they’d serve in Birmingham, or Seattle, or Hoboken. I’d try to strike up a conversation with the staff or neighboring patron but all of the 14 sports games on 72 televisions commanded the room’s entire attention. The staff seemed confused as to why you would want to engage them in conversation. They had no idea I’d come from Milwaukee to Brick Town, NJ, for four days and wanted to ask about their town. Aside from that, I’m a human and we’re social animals.

There are many reasons to like this bar: calming ambience, incredible view, the free concerts. But all that aside Bill said it was the people who attracted him to Blu. Both the clientele and the staff. The bartenders are social and their conversation stretches far beyond the weather. If there’s a game you’d like to watch they’ll turn on the TV but it’s not the mouth-gape focus of all the room’s energy. Neighboring patrons don’t find it strange when you ask how their day went, or if there’s a museum in walking distance, or what book you’re reading at the moment.

The Good Life at Blu is all a-glitter once the sun goes down.

The funny thing is I started this blog post to write about the cocktail I had in Blu. The drink is called The Good Life. It’s an exquisitely simple combination of fresh lime, cucumber, mint, raw suger, and Veev Acai Berry Liquor. The sipper tastes every flavor all at once in an even, balanced manner. None of the flavors shout for your attention in a way that would seem obnoxious or out of place. Jason, the vested and Windsor knot necktied bartender, suggested I try this as my invitation to the drink menu. Then I had another one, which I suppose that’s the ultimate endorsement. But that cocktail is just one detail, seemingly unimportant by comparison, to the candlelight speckled chandelier city glow surrounding the miles around me.

This really is a preferable way to travel- even if you’re just a tourist in your own town. Bill is right. The drinks are well-poured, yes, the food is as advertised and requested, he says this and shrugs. Those are all great but it’s the people and the experience which resonate in one’s memory. It’s Milwaukee, you can have a drink nearly anywhere. Where else can one relax while the golden coast touching Lake Michigan gradually turns to a shimmering tapestry and the bartender asks if you’d like your usual? It’s that intangible combination of service, location, and amenities which combines to create this brilliant ambience.

I was about to click the Publish button on this blog entry but then there was a sudden bit of “ooohs” and “aaahhhhs” and brief applause which distracted me from the current task. I asked the bartender what had happened. Jason leaned in and explained that a man three tables over asked the woman sitting to his right if she’d marry him. I look over and the woman’s head is on the man’s shoulder. Her fingers take turns tracing the lashes underneath her eyes. She’s giggling and sniffling all at once. How can I write about just a cocktail?

“Wine-ing” about Winter

Heather Kanter-Kowal









Good grief.  It has already snowed in Wisconsin.  Yes, for sale I have lived here my entire life, but no- I won’t ever welcome the snow.  I don’t ski, snowboard, snowshoe, sled, ice skate, or anything else wholesome and Nordic.  I like to overdress for the cold, grumble, and hibernate.  Here are a few of my favorite beverages that help me cope with the joys of living in the Midwest.

  • Hot Buttered Rum.  The first thing that you are greeted with at our annual family Christmas gathering is a soul-warming mug of booze.  Many aMilwaukeeblizzard was made far more entertaining by the buffering comfort of a Hot Buttered Rum.  A stick of un-salted butter, no rx a cup of brown sugar, a pinch each of cinnamon, nutmeg, all-spice, and crushed cloves all mashed together are placed in the refrigerator to cool into a spoon-able texture.  Find a generously sized coffee mug; add an ounce and a half of dark rum, diagnosis a heaping teaspoon of the sugar and spice mixture and top with piping hot water.  Stir and enjoy!
  • Scotch.  I love Scotch.  One of my favorite wintertime sippers!  I enjoy complex, layered, and viscous styles of Scotch such as any bottle that Balvenie has ever made (my heart really goes out to the 14 year Caribbean Cask Balvenie…aged in rum barrels!).  Also a big fan of Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or, Bunnahabhain, and Bruichladdich.  I’m looking for bolder flavors, whether it is from a smoky/peaty character or the more luscious notes that can be translated via barrel aging.  Generally neat, but sometimes with one tiny cube of ice.
  • My Goodness, My Guinness.  Rich, toasty stout enjoyed fireside in the “Saint’s Snug” at Co. Clare.  I could watch snow fall all night!  And no, I don’t think that Guinness is “too filling” or “too heavy”, it just looks naughty.  It is actually a fairly low calorie & low alcohol brew.
  • Zinfandel & Syrah.  So zesty, brambly, rugged, bold, and just plain spiked sometimes!  But I can give the generally high alcohol nature of these grapes a pass in the colder months.  Homemade pizzas, mushroom risotto, a filet with a Bordelaise sauce are delightful matches.  Also, fond memories of enjoying a bottle of big, bad Syrah with an Artichoke ala Mode pizza at Pizza Man on theEast Side, watching the North Ave bar crowd trudge through the blizzard in their party dresses.

Maybe, Wisconsin winters aren’t so bad after all…


Heather Kanter-Kowal

Bubblegum, Bananas & Wine, Oh My!

Heather Kanter-Kowal

Every year on the third Thursday of November, health no matter where I work or what I do, the same thing happens every year.  Everyone in the world wants to know where we are hiding the Beaujolais Nouveau on our list.  Often, I will feature Beaujolais but never a Beaujolais Nouveau.   Inevitably, we must talk about why these are not, in fact, the same thing.

Beaujolais (Bo-zho-lay) is technically a sub-region found at the southern foot of larger region of Burgundy in France.  Most of the wine produced within Burgundy will either be Pinot Noir (some of the finest you can drink on planet Earth) or Chardonnay (white wines that can make a grown man weep).  Beaujolaisis known for something else entirely- Gamay.  Gamay produces a light bodied, high acid red wine with soft, fruity flavors such as cherry, raspberry and strawberry with some notes on the nose of flowers like roses or violets.  The delicate nature and high acid of wines produced from this grape can be really fantastic for food pairing possibilities…roasted turkey, chicken, guinea hen, rabbit, ham, funky French cheeses (think Camembert or Brie) and even some hearty fish entrees.  The best Beaujolais will be found with these names of villages (or windmills) prominently featured on the label: Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly.  These are wines that can be enjoyed for several years past the vintage date.

And now, for something completely different:  The Nouveau.  This is the wine that is made from Gamay grapes from the same region (but never the villages listed above) that are handled in a very similar fashion.  When the hand-harvested grapes come back to winery from the field, they are thrown in vats as whole clusters, allowing only gravity to crush the juice out the grapes at the bottom.  The uncrushed grapes will begin to ferment within their own skins, rather than the usual process of juice and grape skins being mashed together over time.  In short, this process called Carbonic maceration, reduces the amount of oxygen in a tank, increases carbon dioxide, naturally occurring yeasts react to the sugar in the grapes, and VOILA- the magic of fermentation!  Big difference between BoJo Novo and Cru Beaujolais besides the actual plot of land the grapes lived at…how long it sits in the fermentation state.  The process can take as few as four days in the production of Beaujolais Nouveau, which is not much time for the finished wine to gain tannins or color from the grape skins.  The wine is then pasteurized, bottled and ready to drink only 6-8 weeks after harvest.

Now the party is ready to start.  What began as a simple marketing gimmick by Georges Duboeuf to move some inexpensive wine with a “Race to Paris” between other Beaujolais producers and his own company has become a worldwide event.  Beaujolais Nouveau is a huge sales event in the United States, Asia and still, Paris.  Boxes of Nouveau sit around the world with tape sealing them shut, declaring that it would be illegal to sell this vino until the third Thursday of November.   Many are shipped over via air freight (quite uncommon for wine to be sent this way) just to ensure that it arrives at the destination in time.  Air freight adds a few dollars to the price of this non-expensive bottle, so if you were wondering why the same bottle costs $15 on Beaujolais Nouveau day, but only $12 on December 17th, the rest of the shipments come over on boats.  The Beaujolais celebration is noted with balloons and banners that declare “Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé!”  Many restaurants and wine shops will be pouring wines from producers such as Drouhin, Bouchard, and of course, Duboeuf.  Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau will be stacked in every grocery and bottle shop across the land, adorned with a fresh new abstract label to denote a fresh new year.

To put things quite simply now, this is wine that was rushed from the field to your table.  It was intended for near immediate consumption, it is low in alcohol, has the tannic structure of a white wine, tastes like cherries, bananas, bubblegum, and cotton candy.  It should be served chilled, and quaffed like punch as this is not a wine to sit and ponder the complexities of vitis vinifera.  Beaujolais Nouveau is a fun wine for Thanksgiving dinner (such a soft fruity wine is great for a drier bird like turkey) and can be served with flair throughout the holidays.  A word to the wise, do not try to cellar this wine, or hoard it past Valentine’s Day.  No added benefit will come of aging this particular Beaujolais.  Don’t try to wax cerebral over this one, just kick back on that Thursday night and chug wine like a real Parisian.  à votre santé!


Heather Kanter-Kowal

How I Stopped Loathing, and Started Loving the Screwcap

Heather Kanter-Kowal

I am a sommelier, decease and my most important job is to recommend the right wine for the right meal for the right guest at the right price.  After a thoughtful question and answer session with my diners, I will go to my cellar and produce a bottle that has been agreed to meet their specific parameters and desires.  Some nights, recipe the bottle is sealed with a screwcap….oh, the horror!  The husband looks nervously at his wife…she looks with scorn at the bottle.  “We don’t drink cheap wine”…”I like the romance of a cork being pulled”…”Is this really going to be any good?”…

I’m ready and braced for this level of distaste and realize that they are now questioning my sanity as a lady in fine dining restaurant that have the audacity to recommend this plonk to enjoy with their delightful dinner.   I like to take that  time to share this story, and it was a tragic one.

A few years ago, I went on a lengthy tour of Europe with my family, thanks to my Riesling loving Mom.  I was already a student of all things vino and was excited that I would have the chance to collect some bottles that I could not buy in Milwaukee.  Mind you, this was in the olden days when you could still fly with luggage stuffed with liquids.  Shampoo, contact solution, Absinthe, Bordeaux, who cares?  I loaded up my backpack (and that of my siblings) with every bottle that I could afford to bring back.  I treated these wines like treasures when I was back home.  They were stored in the coolest darkest places, gently resting on their sides, and absolutely not disturbed until the evenings that I had declared that this was the right year to open this bottle.

A few delightful bottles and then….the duds.  The  soul-crushing experience of pulling that cork and having the smell of musty cardboard waft up at my face.  These bottles were  affected by Trichloroanisole (TCA for short or “cork taint”) and I would never be able to enjoy them.  TCA is a nasty fungal metabolite that won’t harm a wine drinker, but destroys the taste of anything that resembles wine.  Funny thing is, is has a keen attraction to natural cork, and is quite rarely found in bottles that are sealed with a screwcap.  I had brought from overseas, and cherished three bottles ofBordeauxthat were rendered useless simply because of the way the bottle had been sealed.

My mind was open to trying something new.  I had also turned my nose up at bottles with screwcap tops for years, for the same reasons that people give me funny looks when I bring it to the table now…”Gee, this must be garbage”.   I discovered that quite a few top Aussie wineries were sending their wine over sans cork. New Zealand was on-board, sending fresh, clean and crisp Sauvignon  Blancs. California“Cult” Cabernet Sauvignon producers like Plumpjack  got in the game. Washington & Oregon are sending out gorgeous high-end juice without natural corks.  Lately, even Europe, the root of my sorrows on this topic, has started to send over selections capped with screwcaps.  I am not going to hold my breath and expect Chateau Petrus to change their ways, but I applaud the move to send out less funky, musty wine to the consumers.    Vive le screwcap, you aren’t just for plonk anymore!


Wine Swirls…at the Joseph Phelps Wine Dinner

Heather Kanter-Kowal

It was a cold, click rainy and miserable night in Milwaukee. Not so long ago, we had been basking in sunshine of an Indian summer…but this had clearly come to an end. A bowl of tomato soup with a grilled cheese enjoyed while snuggled up in a blanket while watching a funny movie seemed to be the only cure for such a gloomy day.

Better yet, how about a soul warming glass of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with seared elk loin? A little less traditional, but I promise that no one was thinking about the chilly weather anymore. Mason Street Grill invited Chris St. Marie, medical the National Sales Manager of Joseph Phelps Vineyards, to talk about this revered Californian estate to a sold-out room of food & wine lovers. The evening began with a crisp and refreshing glass of Joseph Phelps Sauvignon Blanc and oysters as guests entered the room. Chris began his talk by asking the room “How many of you have been to Napa Valley?”, and shockingly the majority of the room raised their hand! He then went on to explain how the “Judgment of Paris” was possibly the moment in time that Napa Valley wines rocketed onto the world stage of wine. The “Judgment of Paris” refers to the tasting that Steven Spurrier hosted in 1976 with a panel of French wine experts. It was a blind tasting of very celebrated Bordeaux and some not yet celebrated Cabernet Sauvignon from California for the reds, nurse and high-level white Burgundy competing with Chardonnay from California. Mr. Spurrier was the owner of a not incredibly profitable wine shop in Paris, and was using this tasting as a stunt to demonstrate the superior quality of French wines. The winner of the white tasting was a Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena (sounds French, but this was from California!) while the highest score for a red went to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. A reporter from Time Magazine was at this tasting and reported the news to the world that wine from California was worth taking seriously. The movie “Bottle Shock” was based on this story and is quite entertaining (there is even a shout-out to Milwaukee if you listen carefully!).

Joseph Phelps founded his family winery in 1973 and was a man in the right place at the right time. The first vintage of their Bordeaux-inspired blend (also known as a Meritage) was bottled in 1974 and bore the name “Insignia” and was truly the first of its kind. Before Opus One, Quintessa or Dominus, there was “Insignia”. Readers of Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator know “Insignia” as a perennial blue chip Meritage that ALWAYS garners a score in the 90-100 point range (which is tremendous) and has acquired a blue chip price tag that is well-deserved along the way. The Mason Steet Grill patrons had the privilege of enjoying the 2006 Insignia with some very tender Wagyu beef, candied shallots, and hay smoked potatoes. The smell of the hay smoke in the afternoon while Chef Weber and Chef Hauck prepared for the dinner gave a really delightful autumnal scent to the restaurant, like burning leaves in a bonfire. I almost forgot that I was sitting at my desk in a modern restaurant in bustling downtown Milwaukee.

Chris also talked to us about a newer project from Joseph Phelps that we poured that evening. In 1999, the family acquired a new piece of land in cooler Sonoma Coast AVA to pursue their dream of making Burgundy inspired Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. This plot of land put them in Freestone, a quiet bohemian community which was not interested in being home to a big, wasteful, corporate winery. I believe the words “hippies” and “growing weed” may have been tossed around. The decision to be environmentally aware and utilize bio-dynamic farming practices have quelled these fears. We poured the Freestone Chardonnay with poached langostinos with compressed melon, keeping all of the flavors bright and clean. The Freestone Pinot Noir was a comforting match for a hearty bowl of garganelli pasta with roast pheasant in a rich marscapone sauce. After the aforementioned Cabernet Sauvignon and elk loin course, and the Insignia and Wagyu beef pairing, it was time for something sweet. We were fortunate to obtain a few bottles of the very allocated “Eisrebe”, a dessert wine made from the Scheurebe grape, a wine so intense with floral, peach and apricot notes it evoked a spring picnic. Chef Carlson baked a delightful apricot frangipan tart to highlight that sunshine trapped in a glass.

It was a cozy and delicious way to spend a bitter fall evening, and it was entertaining to hear Chris St. Marie’s anecdotes about the wine business. Quite honestly, any day at work that ends with a splash of something as beautiful like Insignia in my glass reaffirms why I have the best job in the world. I look forward to talking about our next events for the winter, which include a fun holiday sparkling wine & Champagne event in early December.


Heather Kanter-Kowal



“Pfister Mary” Reigns Supreme

Valerie and the Pfister Mary

On Saturday October 15th the Pfister Hotel participated in the East Town Associations, ed “Heat It Up:Milwaukee’s Bloody Mary and Chili Challenge,” taking place during the Farmers Market inCathedral Square.  With over 20 local restaurants vying for the coveted award, participants took in all the different offerings during the crisp Saturday Morning.

In the Chili competition, awards were given out in two different categories.  “Best Veggie Chili” and “Best Beef Chili.”  Chef Andronico Guzman Rivera of the Pfister Café entered with his Signature White Bean Chili.  While his Chili was enjoyed by the masses, Chef Andronico took honorable mention.

In the coveted Bloody Mary competition, participants were judged by two specific criteria, “Bloody Mary Display,” and “Best Tasting,” both scores combined for one Grand Champion.  Taking that award was Valerie from the Pfister Lobby Lounge with her signature “Pfister Mary.”  Val had the longest line of all competitors with people actually getting a cocktail from other competitors, so that they could drink it while they wait in line for the Pfister Mary and it’s cornucopia of accoutrement.

We are very proud of our two participants. They were a great display of sportsmanship and healthy competition for theMilwaukeearea.  Congratulations again to Chef Andronico and Valerie on their Pfister Spirit!

Stone Crab Fishing with Chef Mark Weber

Mason Street Grill has always been committed to provided the freshest seafood possible. As a testament to Mason Street Grill’s commitment, Executive Chef Mark Weber was invited along on a stone crab fishing excursion in the Gulf of Mexico with our new crab distributor. Read along as Chef Weber tells us about his first day at sea.

Wow what a great day of fishing!

I was on the boat at Marina at 4 a.m. to help load bait and meet the crew. They ventured off to visit a few of their trap lines set close to shore as we waited for news of stone crabs via radio. The crab harvest was light near shore so the boat headed up to Clearwater to check traps up there. About 9 a.m. they started really hitting good crab traps and called us to come out. We hopped into a 1050 HP 35 foot Kingfishing boat and sped off to their location. We had a reporter from Newswatch channel 9 with us and our videographer.

When we got to the boat, they were about 18 miles up the coast and a few miles off shore. The wind and the waves were very choppy and made it really hard to take photos. We got some really good action shots from our boat and then transferred over to the fishing boat.

The crabbing went well with lots of good sized claws and multiple crabs in most traps.

After lots of filming, playing with crabs, and pigs feet, we loaded up about 150 pounds of crab and headed back. That Kingfishing boat does about 75 mph on the water! We got in after about 40 minutes and unloaded the crab.

Back at the dock we took some more film and loaded up the crabs to take back to the processing plant for cooking

We got back to the processing plant and went through the HAACP process for handling the “green” claws from start to finish. Its crazy, the green claws are packed in sea water and they are still alive. If you touch them they will still close and try to pinch you! After a couple of hours of weighing, cooking, sorting, and re-weighing, the claws were ready for restaurant delivery. All of the claws we brought in were delivered to local restaurants.

I am going over to the processing plant this morning to see how things are going. They have crab lined up for processing all day and all night so I would like to see how they handle this volume.

A Knock at the Door

Knocking once, Blake calmly sings out, “Rooooom ser-vice.”

Silence.  Through the door, we can hear the sound of a television.  Blake raises his hand slightly, the one that isn’t balancing a tray, considers knocking again when a voice comes from within, “Just a minute.”

The door opens.  “Evening Ms. ——, how are you?”

One hand on the door handle, the other removing an earring, she replies, “tired, and very hungry.  I’m so happy to see you,” moving aside to allow entrance.

A moment later, he reappears, backing up and closing the door behind him as he grants the guest a good stay.  We step back onto the service elevator, the colorful halls and warm lighting giving way to the humming machines, humid corridors, back halls and fluorescent lights that make up the halls below ground.

We make our way past the tables draped in white cloth, hiding warmers underneath while prepped on top with small bud vases and tiny salt and pepper shakers.  Blake removes his jacket, hanging it on a doorknob in order to keep it clean, and turns in his tip.  Tips are split among all the servers working a particular shift.  Deanna, parked on a stool in front of the phone and computer where orders come in, waves a slip of paper in the air, indicating another order has just come through.  Blake immediately begins setting up a tray for the delivery, snatching miniature jars of ketchup and mustard from the small shelves where they reside next to other, equally miniature, jellies, jams and A-1 Sauce.

“I started out waiting tables at the Radisson,” he tells me as he arranges silverware, “I like this better than waiting tables, it streamlines the service work.”  He picks up a dish from Freddy, the chef currently on duty.  “I like to cook, so watching the chefs down here has been great.  If you observe and study, you can catch on and learn.  I’ve learned a lot about reduction sauces, how to use butter and wine for fish – stuff like that.”

You can’t pass through the halls of the Pfister’s lower levels without coming across Freddy.  Born in Belize, he lived in Louisiana for two years at age 11, before his family moved on to Chicago.  Through helping his family of nine siblings, and on to five years in the Navy, he always loved cooking for people. After signing up to work for the U.S. Post Office, a chance encounter in the halls of a community college made him drop everything and go to culinary school.  “I followed a pretty girl in a culinary uniform who said to me, ‘What do you got to lose?’ and so I signed up right away.”  He proudly shows off his red pepper coulis, chorizo and gives me a sample of creme brulee.  “I have fun doing this,” he says, gesturing over his entire work area, his domain for the last 15 years.

We walk up a ramp and into a different elevator to make a stop on the historic side, delivering a meal to a businessman on his first visit from Charlotte, NC.  As we walk, Blake explains the basic order of operations: first, a call comes in to the order taker.  A time quote is offered, based on the order, though the average time is 30 minutes.

Next, the order goes to one of six chefs who work in the department.  In addition to Freddy, there’s also Darin, a quiet chef who is doing mostly prep work during these third shift hours.  And Zachary, a line cook for the last year and a half, who came over from Fratello’s.  Originally he was hoping to learn pastry work, but the only opening was in room service dining.  “My mom was a stay-at-home, I cooked for friends in college, eventually going to work at a friend’s restaurant.  I worked at Bartolotta’s for awhile and loved learning how to make gnocchi pasta.” I ask for a hint.  “If you mash the potatoes too much, it makes it glue-y.”

In between orders, the servers chat while cleaning and organizing supplies, pre-setting trays and carts.  I meet Miguel who transferred from Lake Geneva, where he did “a little bit of everything – bakery, banquets, coffee service, everything.”  Originally from Guanajuato, he loves Wisconsin, especially its seasons.  Fall is his favorite, but he’s partial to the beauty of the snowy days and nights, and enjoyed helping decorate the resort every year for Christmas.  Now in Milwaukee for two years, he’s found he likes doing room service for its consistent schedule and personal, face-to-face interactions with guests.  He smiles big, his eyes crinkly a little around the edges, when he says, “I really love serving people.”  I believe him.

So, what happens when they receive a strange or unexpected request?  The information is noted by the order taker, who politely responds with something along the lines of, “XYZ department usually takes care of that, but I’ll be sure to pass it on for you.”  This achieves a two-fold purpose — the guest now knows who to contact the next time that particular request needs to be made and service is also provided right away.  It’s very rare for even the most unusual requests to go unfulfilled, as proven by Chef Concierge Peter Mortenson when he once had to track down a sugar maple sapling for a Russian ambassador.

Deanna, who has worked in restaurants since she was 16, spending 7 years at one family restaurant where she still works part-time, said her strangest request so far was the call she got where the guest said, frantically, “I don’t have a microwave in my room!”  Deanna calmly replied, “I’m not sure why that is, but I’ll take care of it for you,” and within ten minutes, the guest had a microwave.  And you thought all room service did was bring you food.

YOUR TURN:  Do you order food to your room when you travel?  What’s your favorite thing to have arrive at your door?

Wine Swirls again, with the Pfister Sommelier

A Case for Riesling

I have a confession to make.  I used to drink Moscato d’Asti, ask Riesling, Muscat from California on ice, wine coolers, and Stoli Raspberry with lemonade.  This is a pretty typical roster of beverages that any 21 year old female would enjoy.  I could not stomach a pilsner beer or a glass of Chardonnay, I only wanted to imbibe something that had the sugar content of a can of Pepsi.  No dry wines for me, sovaldi not ever.

Or so I thought.  One night, I found myself at a gathering with some other servers from a neighboring steakhouse.  The grand finale to this soiree was the popping of a bottle of Opus One 2001 to denote the host’s birthday which was the reason for celebration that evening.  The host insisted that I try a small glass, to which I initially  resisted, “I DO NOT drink dry or red wines!  Don’t waste your fancy wine on me!”  The second that delightful blend of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot hit my palate. I was a changed young wine drinker.  The lush and complex layers of chocolate, blackberry, vanilla, and cassis hit me like waves and I knew what it was really like to have a “Eureka!” moment.  I was a big, bad red drinker now, and only the boldest wines in the world would sway me.

It seems that many of us who become aficionados of the California Cabernet Cults start to get a bit snobbish when confronted with sweeter wines at some point.  Yes, of course we give a pass to Dolce and Chateau d’Yquem, but snooty when at Mom’s house and she pops open a bottle of Riesling that she proudly picked up at the grocery store.  Mom, I was wrong.  A few years ago, a great mentor of mine dropped by the wine shop that I was working for at the time.  She had a bag full of German Riesling from Dr. Loosen for me to taste that day.  I groaned, rolled my eyes, huffed and said “Fine.  I guess that I need to learn more about this swill”.

She patiently poured me the samples and tried to plead with me to have an open mind.  While she talked, I admired the way the rich golden juice stuck to the sides of my wine glass, what viscosity!  I inhaled and a wall of late summer flowers came to mind, along with fresh peach and apricot.  On the palate, the current of electric acidity cut right through the rich tropical and honeyed notes, leaving a clean yet intense sensation.  That acidity- just WOW! I could thought of a million things that this delight should be paired with: some sushi, a salad with a fruit component, Thai food, African peanut stew…the list was endless.

I had judged a grape in error for so many years because I had only sampled a few.  My mind was open now!  I learned that Riesling could be picked at different degrees of sweetness, truly expanding the possibilities for food and wine pairings.  Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein, and finally Trockenbeerenauslese from driest to sweetest.   The names J.J. Prum, Dr. Loosen, and Donnhoff are three that I always know that I can expect consistant excellence from.  Yes, some of the finest Auslese in the world may cost nearly the same as that bottle of Opus One, but there is a plethora of delicious Riesling coming from Germany, Washington State, Australia, France, New Zealand, and Austria that is more than affordable.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love the big & bad red, but now I have an appreciation and adoration for something a little more graceful.

-Heather Kanter-Kowal

Heather Kanter-Kowal