Chef Gregg Des Rosier does not necessarily want you to conjure up thoughts of hibiscus or camomile, nor perfectly triangular prosciutto and avocado tea sandwiches on tiered wrought-iron display stands when you think about the restaurant that he's called home for the last eight years.
So much so, that when I recently extended kudos to him for the tasty chicken curry and rice soup that I had enjoyed for lunch at the Anaba Tea Room just a few weeks earlier, he swiftly extended an invitation to sample his new fall dinner menu at the Garden Room restaurant, 2107 E. Capitol Dr., on the crust of Shorewood, during an "industry-only night" six-course sampling (all free, by the way) of his new vittles.
But, make no mistake, Chef Gregg did not invite local restaurant servers, hotel line cooks or lowly freelance food writers to taste his latest creations for the purpose of flexing his culinary muscle or divining a platform from which to exalt himself as the dernier cri of East Side chefs. His goal was to receive, from us, honest, direct and unapologetic feedback. His six-course taster menu card was bedecked with check-boxes for diners to note whether or not they thought the dish was "good," "menu-worthy" or even if it "needs work."
Food aside, this alone was an impressive and inspiring display of confidence and modesty. But, his openness and willingness to be criticized didn't stop there. In fact, he spent more time in the dining room personally bringing plates to tables and talking with customers than he did in the kitchen with his brigade, admitting that it was a prime opportunity for his team of cooks to get comfortable with the new dishes as well.
After choosing our table in the back center of the basement dining room surrounded by local art and canopied by hanging greenery, Chef Gregg earnestly instructed my wife and I to "Be honest," further adding, "Any tweaks we need to make, I want to make now."
The 45-year-old chef has endured a challenging road to reach the position that he now candidly says, "changed [his] life." He admits that when he first sought the position at the Anaba Tea Room, he considered it less of a "new beginning" and more of a concession. "What did I know about a tea room?" he said.
After being dismissed from a past job for looking the other way while his manager cooked the books and later wrangled out of his own restaurant partnership, Chef Gregg thought he'd hit rock bottom. That is, until a close confidant whom he had mentored from a young age – having towed him along through his career as a dependable right hand – was paralyzed in a car accident along with another friend who was killed. His world became dark, as he receded into a cloister of insulation, barely seeing the light of day for five long months.
As they say, it's always darkest before the dawn. In 2004, Chef Gregg took the reins at the Anaba Tea Room, bringing a vision that paired local and scratch-made dishes with the restaurant's wide array of teas, along with a previously missed insight to feature Asian techniques and ingredients.
The ownership at Anaba has, likewise, fed into his zeal to create authentic Asian flavors by sending him on exploratory missions to the likes of China and Vietnam. He has returned with an honest approach to simple cooking and a reverence for the culinary process that involves, first and foremost, ensuring that his customers like his food.
The meal kicked off with a "small plate" that looked like something out of an episode of "The Flintstones": a foot-long cow femur, cross-cut (courtesy of Wisconsin Meadows Grass-fed Beef Co-op) to reveal a true delicacy within – rich, succulent, lip-smacking bone marrow, seasoned and roasted perfectly. It was served with crostini on which to spread the unctuous protein, along with a side of sauteed cabbage to add texture and an Asian flair.
When Chef Gregg approached our table after we had devoured the marrow like desert vultures with a glossy sheen of fat outlining our lips, I noted that it needed perhaps only the addition of some sort of acid, like citrus or something to cut through the decadence. He received the critique graciously, adding, "Maybe a squeeze of orange – or, I know – I have some lime powder."
In any event, if you partake of the bone marrow this fall at Anaba and find a delightful addition of some sort of citrus element, you can thank me. Unless of course, you hate it. In which case, I had nothing to do with it. Gregg's the chef; he can do what he wants.
Course two was a Thai shrimp soup served table-side. The lovely presentation included strings of carrot, fresh cilantro, a miso spoon of shrimp and a concentrated paste of Thai spices. A fortified poultry broth was then poured over all of it from a tea pitcher, awakening the flavors and creating the soup. Before serving it, the server warned that it was "spicy."
She wasn't kidding, either. But, while spicy food can often be all heat and no flavor, this offering brought plenty of deep umami notes and shellfish-y sweetness to the party. The heat was nothing to be trifled with and it even left my lips tingling, but the flavor was full and round, not to mention a perfect choice for anyone needing to clean out their sinuses.
Course three was, for me, the home run of the night. It was a steam bun filled with pull-apart tender pork belly, a cherry and brandy reduction and bleu cheese alongside delicately crisp Japanese yam chips. It was the best three or four bites of food I've had in awhile. In fact, I commented to Chef Gregg that the only problem with the steam bun was that I wasn't served 14 of them. The bun was pillowy soft and the balance of flavors and textures from smoky to meaty to salty to sweet to bitter to crunchy was as close as any chef can hope to come to perfect food.
Course four was Chef Gregg's ode to a Wisconsin favorite, Oysters Rockefeller. The serving consisted of a single baked oyster topped with spicy Chinese sausage and hollandaise. It was a simple classic, done well. And, as with the previous steam bun and the still-to-come slider, Anaba smartly sells them by the each, making menu portions (and price) highly customizable.
Serving as the final savory course before dessert, Chef Gregg delivered a kimchi slider with more Wisconsin grass-fed beef. The meat was folded with house-made kimchi and topped with bacon, Muenster cheese and gojugong mayo. The slider was skewered with a few slices of pickle which I ate separately, later wishing that I had put them inside the burger for a little added crunch. The portion was perfect and the ratios of ingredients made for a well-rounded and balanced palate of flavors. My wife, who is not a fan of hamburgers, commented that it was the best burger she'd ever had.
The evening's closer was a tofu "panna cotta" served with a scaldingly hot, house-made butterscotch sauce, pistachios and black salt. Note that panna cotta is in quotations. This is because the dessert was conceived in the spirit of panna cotta but is not actually panna cotta. This doesn't mean that it wasn't good. The butterscotch sauce was truly outstanding, and the inclusion of the black salt brought it into that sweet spot for contemporary desserts of not being cloying.
Chef Gregg seems to be a chef who has ripened with age. As his experiences with food and personal trials have humbled him and honed his craft, his confidence may be his greatest gift. As an artist, to create something and present it to a savvy public, then stand front and center awaiting to hear their unembroidered opinion about whether or not it was any good takes some real – well, I'll just say it – balls.
You can find the latest versions of these dishes, along with other fall-flavored offerings, at the Anaba Tea Room now.