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The Engine Room : An Evening At Hinterland

It's an unnerving time inside the world of food. With restaurants closing at a record clip and the beleaguered economy still gasping for air, I've had to accept – with bemused resignation – the need for restaurants to lower the bar to turn a profit.

Out of this bankruptcy of innovation has sprouted a reductive fad that threatens to strap working-class communities firmly in the back seat to finer dining utopias like Chicago, New York and San Francisco. The fad is a concept known as "classic with a twist."

The idea is that you take a throwback that everyone knows and loves and you put a modern spin on it. It makes sense and is sometimes profitable but often lacks the actual "twist." And let's be honest; restaurateurs are loath to consider being on the cutting edge before revenue.

While the intention may be self preservation, Milwaukeeans, as a result, sometimes find themselves eating a suspiciously twist-less mac 'n' cheese while the rest of America's metro areas enjoy the spry and invigorating cuisine of the 21st century.

One of the fine-fettled saplings of this push for the classics is the modern American gastropub. The gastropub tag has been dubiously worn by many. Without staging a war on the definition of the popular concept, let's just agree that nachos and buffalo wings do not a gastropub make.

For my continuing series, "The Engine Room," I paid a visit to another 2012 James Beard nominee and marquee Milwaukee gastropub, Hinterland –home to Chef Dan Van Rite. Here, classic dishes get worked over like dusty rummage wear into chic designer threads.

The concept was first opened in Green Bay, Chef Dan's hometown, where it continues to do a solid business. The Hinterland owners are long-time compadres of Chef Dan, who was the opening chef behind their first venture. After a drifting odyssey that took Chef Dan through places like Portland, Minnesota, Nantucket and Colorado to name a few, the Hinterland owners looked to open Hinterland-Milwaukee and felt that they already had their man.

I arrived at the Erie Street Gastropub at 4 p.m. on a lovely, almost hot, clear-skied Wednesday afternoon. I was led by bartender Russell (still in his civvies) down a long corridor to a back bar and dining room I had previously not known existed and into the rear entrance of the open-ended kitchen. Music from a local rock station blares as black coat-attired men dance the dance of prep and set-up before service.

I say men because these are not wide-eyed, wet-behind-the-ear, recent culinary grads dipping their toes into the deep end. These are grizzled vets. Whether the bearded and bandana'd Dan T. looking like Hemingway or the dark-rim bespectacled New Yorker Micah looking like Ginsberg, these guys have been and seen and done.

It's amusingly appropriate that the witty and wry brigade of one-time head chefs in their own right are led into battle by Chef Dan, who is a dead-ringer for Chuck Norris. However, it's at looks alone where the "Walker Texas Ranger" likeness dissolves. Chef Dan is a man of few words and unlike most ego-driven artists, he isn't entirely comfortable sitting down and talking about himself.

Chef Dan graduated from Western Culinary in Portland – now a Le Cordon Bleu School – after losing interest in a career in architecture 23 credits short of graduating from UW-Milwaukee. I got the impression that Chef Dan could've easily ended up as a roadie for the Allman Brothers Band (who he was getting ready to see in New York the next day) and been perfectly happy with that.

Fortunately for the rest of us, Chef Dan began to cultivate an interest in food somewhere around the time he worked a prep station at the pre-fire Beans and Barley on the East Side. He did his internship out west, cutting his teeth at the renowned Caribou Club in Aspen, an exclusive celebrity-affiliated, members-only club. He also worked as a private chef for the former COO of Goldman Sachs, Jon Winkelried, who left the firm in 2010 ("before all the [stuff] went down," Chef Dan explicated).

The Hinterland menu, by Chef Dan's own admission, is influenced mostly by his varied travels. The fish of Nantucket; the elk and game of Colorado. So organically realized is Chef Dan's style of cuisine that he was stumped when asked to define it. His menus are about what he's seen, where he's been and what he's done. Not about what Food & Wine magazine tells him are the ingredients or dishes that are currently "trending."

His homage to his roots and what he likes to cook has served him well, as he is now a three-time James Beard nominee. However, if you ask him what the accolades mean to him, his answer is precious little.

"It's good for business," he tells me. He admits that he has little control over it and that, with or without acclaim, he and his team would do little, if anything, different.

As we began to talk food, Chef Dan was all too eager to share his culinary process. His kitchen is one of trial and error. He and his team love to research and experiment with techniques and ideas to see how they'll be received by their surprisingly adventurous diners. We talk about veal versus pork brains and a clever dish on the menu that, in concept, is pasta bolognese. But, instead of pasta, they slice strips of pig skin into "noodles" and simmer them, finishing them to order with a bolognese and Carr Valley's Marissa cheese.

The most prized piece on the service line is a wood-burning grill. "There's something about wood fire I love," Chef Dan tells me, further explaining that it's a challenge to control and maintain but the results are worth it.

Rounding out the team of cooks on this mid-week night was charcuterie maven Paul Funk, who is pictured prominently on the cover of the Food section of the day's Journal Sentinel, which sat, crinkled from handling, at the pick-up window.

The team was diffidently mortified to be caught reading their own press but I conciliated them by sharing that plaques of my past exploits line the walls of my home office. There's nothing wrong with being proud of your work. And these fellas ought to be. I commented to Chef Dan that it's interesting to see a recognizable and well-reputed chef deferring press to a member of his team. He shrugged unassumingly, "I could care less."

Funk was grinding brisket in the back for their house burger, which is served with house-cured bacon and, obviously, house-cut fries. But the menu is highly diverse. In addition to an extensive charcuterie menu that includes a trio of spreads, smoked kielbasa (smoked in-house, of course), Hungarian sausage and Luna Stout ham butter, the menu, which is tweaked nightly, includes spot prawns served with a vinaigrette made from a bourbon barrel-aged fish sauce that packs a punch and depth of flavor I've never before found in any standard fish sauce.

Other off-beat dishes include grilled octopus, which I found surprisingly soft and tender with a pleasant crunch along the edges where it had kissed the grill, and the ricotta gnudi, which is a mixture of house-made ricotta, mascarpone and Pleasant Ridge reserve cheese that is piped into a bowl of semolina flour, where the dollops are gently tossed to coat. Then, they are dropped in hot water and cooked like ravioli. The result is a creamy trio of cheeses encapsulated by a paper-thin pasta shell. It's fun to eat and a brilliant idea executed perfectly.

Sublime ingredients reside throughout the kitchen and coolers. Live Taylor Bay scallops (which I've never seen in person) still in their beautiful coral and gray shells. Live Washington Kusshi oysters. Swordfish. Sturgeon. Striped bass. All fresh and the best from whence they came. Chef Dan admits that the profit margins on some of these dishes are slim but concedes that "If it sells, great. If not, we take it off."

Foodies should know that many Milwaukee chefs with whom I've been lucky enough to spend some time really want you to order their offal. Pronounced awful, these are things like the thymus gland (or sweetbreads), brain, heart, stomach, tripe and so on. Most people are turned off by the very idea but prepared properly, these items can make for some incredible dishes.

As service neared, Micah called out, "Where's the veal heart?" A search ensued. The back burners of the line include a pot of duck stock, blanching water and boiling pig ears, which will be a special on tomorrow's menu. The process for slicing the pig skin "noodles" was proving to be laborious, so Paul and Micah were trying to work the thick flap of swine rind through a pasta machine.

It wasn't working. So, back to the tedious manual technique of rolling the skin as you would leaves of basil for a chiffonade and dragging a chef's knife through them.

At 5:30, the first ticket rang in. It's an order for tuna and swordfish. The line was bookended by Chef Dan on saute and Dan T., formerly the chef at Honey Pie in Bay View, who manned the grill. Tickets rolled in slow and steady.

Dan T. called out, "Really close to resting that pork if you want to drop those noodles." Garde Manger was handled around the corner on the back line by Micah, former chef at Sheffield's Smokehouse in Chicago.

As we waited for service to pick-up, I took the opportunity to find out where and what Chef Dan likes to eat on his time off. I found out that he's a pizza junkie with a tickle for Zaffiro's and Classic Slice. He also talked of a hidden Pakistani take-away joint he likes to stop at on his way to work in Cathedral Square. Beyond that, he tends to patronize the restaurants captained by chef-friends like Sanford, Umami Moto and the Rumpus Room.

A short time later, a bowl of the pig skin "noodles" returned to the kitchen. I was certain that the diner in question had altogether recoiled at the realization of what pork skin "noodles" actually are. Not so. The bowl was minus the "noodles," as he had slurped them all up and was asking for more.

The simplest ideas are the best. Chef Dan tells me that the first dish he put on the menu was an andouille sausage-crusted striped bass with a red hot butter sauce, which is made by reducing Frank's Red Hot to a paste and mounting in butter and finishing it with cream. It's a decadent and unruly sauce.

It's 7:30, and hanging on the rail was two hanger steaks, two bass, four chorizo tacos, fish tacos, sturgeon, tuna, pork belly, quail and veal brains. Between Dan T. and his chef, there was little conversation.

Chef Dan's mind is a seemingly calm and peaceful place. There is an arrestingly cerebral element to his food, yet it somehow lacks any kind of pretense; butter sauce is butter sauce, not beurre blanc. Like Jerry Rice running pass patterns, there were no wasted motions as he pirouetted between his mice en place and a ten burner range, which was full throat.

By 8 o'clock, new orders rolled off the printer at a sped-up pace. Sensing that the line was becoming deluged by so many orders in at once, Paul Funk suddenly appeared unprompted in the middle of the line to "wheel"– a term we use for calling out tickets and plating. An eight-top of first and second courses rang in and Dan T.'s grill was lined with three pork chops, five hanger steaks, lamb sausage and grilled romaine.

"Hanger medium sells!" said Paul to complete a four-top, including a sturgeon and two striped bass impeccably plated. Articulate presentations of hamachi, house spreads and pickled salad came to the pass from Micah around the corner. More plates to the window – one of which is the wood fire-grilled octopus appetizer. There's a trail of black powder garnishing the plate.

I asked Dan T., "What's the black stuff?" He responded, "It's like a squid ink tapicoca." Then, like only a good host would, he diverted from his grill laced with chops, steaks and now fish to offer me a tasting spoon of the mysterious looking concoction. It was good. Sweet in the front, bitter in the back. A smart flourish to the octopus.

As the 9 o'clock hour approached, Micah was plating desserts and the rush, as suddenly as it descended, began to plane out. Chef Dan called for a beer shot. It arrived almost before he finished the sentence. Meanwhile, I'd been waiting for a Sprite for the last half hour – as if there were any doubt who's king here.

As my bad knees started to ache just from watching them, I say to Chef Dan, "That was decent, hey?"

"It was alright," he says. "I was expecting more."

Moments later, he got his wish.

"Firing, two oysters, two sashimi, two tartar, two scallops, two gnudi, two veal brains, two quail, two pork cheek." Chef Dan and Dan T. racked 'em up and got ready for another round. As the flames began to spit back up through grates of the wood grill and the cast iron pans began to sizzle, an almost made-for-TV button was fastened on the end of this stellar night.

The gregarious – and not surprisingly bearded – bartender, Russell, arrives with my Sprite and a laugh, confessing, "Here's the Sprite you asked for a half an hour ago!" I downed it in one uninterrupted swig and a short time later, I happily accepted his offer of a Hinterland Pub Draft, a creamy English ale infused with nitrogen. It's a smooth home-brewed beer and before I knew it, I was enjoying a shot of Rehorst Kinnickinnic Whiskey with him and recounting our hospitality industry adventures.

It has been from those weaving and unpredictable adventures of Dan Van Rite that this incredible restaurant has hit its pitch. But when I ask him, "When are you going to write your book?" he smiled like all humble men and claimed, "Never."

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