Harbor House Serves Great Seafood with a View

*** 1/2 (very good to extraordinary)

by Carol Deptolla, JS Online, October 28, 2010

In recent years, the restaurants that occupied 550 N. Harbor Drive at the lakefront lured diners with a glorious view, probably the best in the city.

Unfortunately, they didn't have the food to match. That changed when Harbor House opened in July.

Operated by the Bartolotta Restaurant Group in partnership with philanthropist Michael Cudahy, Harbor House focuses on precisely prepared, impeccably fresh seafood, served in a sleek but relaxed dining room.

The result? A restaurant that's frequently full, even three months after opening. Reaching a dining table many nights still requires maneuvering past a bar area filled with movers, shakers and generally beautiful people. It's amazing what a lovely dining room - with understated nautical touches - a million-dollar view and the promise of a delicious dinner will do.

The dining room has that buzz of people glad for a night on the town in a new restaurant, that unmistakable energy. Its bank of windows looking out on the lake and the city - foremost the nearby art museum - demands your attention.

Quasi-casual as it is, the dining room nonetheless has polish (think white tablecloths) and style, with clustered drum lampshades as light fixtures below the whitewashed ceiling. Touches of brass and a discreet blue-and-white color scheme - principally on table runners imprinted with the tall ship that's the Harbor House logo - establish a waterfront feel without going, ahem, overboard.

I still think the menu could do more to showcase Wisconsin, giving a better sense of place to visitors drawn to this defining Milwaukee setting. The menu isn't groundbreaking, but it is broadly approachable - a raw bar; fish and shellfish entrées; some meat, like a tender filet ($34.50) with béarnaise sauce; sandwiches for a casual meal; a vegetarian option among several pastas.

It's possible to dine on less than $20 a person by opting for sandwiches or some pastas at dinner, or visiting for lunch. But Harbor House is more of a splurge, or a special-occasion restaurant, with most dinner entrées ranging from about $18 to $31. Certainly, seafood - good, fresh seafood - isn't cheap.

But the rewards are abundant.

The striped bass ($31) in particular was a shining dish, beginning with the distinctively flavored fish, its skin scored and seared until crisp. The bass - a surprise among the sea of typical fish on the menu - was set over a savory broth, studded with clams, leek, tender fingerling potatoes and deep green arugula.

A special with Asian flavors proved to be so popular that it joined the regular dinner menu: yellowfin tuna steak ($27.50), seared and served with soy-sake broth, baby bok choy and, when I had it, white asparagus. Tiny hon shimeji mushrooms topped the fish along with crisp chips of garlic - browned and thus treading perilously close to bitter.

A buttery sauce enriched delicate whitefish ($22.95) from Lake Superior, topped with breadcrumbs flavored with herbs and anchovy. Half-moons of zucchini and cherry tomatoes gave the dish color.

The risotto is a Whitman's sampler of seafood ($16.50 small, $24.75 large): Mussels, calamari, lobster, scallop and shrimp in bite-size pieces dotted the creamy rice. Flavors were addictive, but the rice was more like typical American than Italian risotto - that is to say, too soft.

Pure seafood flavors come from the raw bar. To point up the freshness, the menu of oysters ($2.25 apiece) from the East and West coasts is printed with the date and the day's forecast.

Cooked and chilled seafood included red king crab bites ($10.95). They seemed like a good idea - the small cross-sections of halved crab leg made it easy to extract the bite-size pieces of sweet crabmeat - but ultimately a pain: The hard tendon running through the crab was difficult to find and extract.

The freshness of the seafood comes across in appetizers as well (and they're all seafood, save for haystack onion rings), as in the fried surf clams ($8.95), Maryland crab cake ($11.95) and shrimp scampi ($11.95).

A lovely salad, one of seven offered, paired discs of lightly creamy shrimp and crab with tender butter lettuce and orange segments ($14.95 or $22.95 as an entrée).

Desserts are simple, even homey. A pecan tuile-like cookie jazzes up a slab of carrot cake ($6.95) with cream cheese frosting; a small scoop of hazelnut ice cream distinguishes Harbor House's version of molten chocolate cake ($6.95). The creamy buttermilk panna cotta ($6.95), dotted with vanilla bean seeds and garnished with orange and grapefruit segments, was about as elaborate as desserts here get.

At night, diners can see the lights of the city's skyline, and the thick marble-top bar looks lovely, lighted from beneath. But with the sun setting ever earlier, the best opportunity for a view of the lake comes at lunch - and the dining room is quieter, too.

In addition to a dozen entrées and several entrée salads, there are sandwiches like a Maine lobster roll ($19.95 lunch, $21.50 dinner) with first-rate fries, and a juicy pork loin sandwich ($13.95) with Italian flavors - melted fontina, coppa and some pop from peperoncini.

Service, for the large part, was what diners expect from a Bartolotta restaurant - spot-on and accommodating. But a server at lunch who returned a used fork from an appetizer plate to the table, sloshed water into - and around - glasses and began clearing dishes before all diners were finished wasn't yet up to Bartolotta standards, a reminder that this is a young restaurant that's still developing.

Still, at this location, Harbor House is an improvement over its predecessors as vast as the lake it overlooks.

*** 1/2 (very good to extraordinary)


Dining is more than just a lakefront view at Harbor House

by Carol Deptolla, JS Online, August 19, 2010

I've never heard a siren song, but I suspect it might go something like this: new Bartolotta seafood restaurant at the lakefront.

To say diners have been flocking to Harbor House - the successor to Pieces of Eight and, briefly, Harbor 550 - doesn't give the full picture. Maybe this does: Calling for a reservation and feeling lucky to snag a table four days hence.

Or this: OpenTable, the online reservation service and rewards program, lists Harbor House as its most-booked restaurant - for all of Wisconsin.

Hands down, it's drawn the most interest from readers and acquaintances of any new restaurant in the past couple years: "Have you been there yet?" Perhaps it's the location, or the Bartolotta name's cachet, or the hankering for more good seafood restaurants in this city on a Great Lake.

Time to take a little peek, then.

It's really too soon to present a full review. Harbor House opened in mid-July, and restaurants should be allowed at least six to eight weeks to iron out the kinks - even for the Bartolotta group, which seems to have made running restaurants both a science and an art.

But with this much interest in the restaurant, situated on public land that's being leased from the city by the Bartolotta group and partner Michael Cudahy, I wanted to check it out.

I was dubious when I heard the extensively remodeled restaurant - nearly $3 million worth - evoked Cape Cod. Hmm. On a prime Midwest location beside Lake Michigan, an iconic Milwaukee landscape, why not make the building's shell more design forward like its museum neighbors, or evoking more a sense of Milwaukee?

That lost opportunity doesn't mean the gray-shingled Harbor House with crisp white trim isn't handsome. It's certainly a lovely place to dine. Everything looks better with the lake as a backdrop, granted, but outside seating for drinks is appealing, too. Next summer, meals are to be served outdoors.

Inside, a bar topped with thick marble stands between the entry and the dining room. High-top tables surround the bar and - what's this? - a couple of flat-screen TVs infiltrate the area. Stop in after work, and the bar is likely to be crowded; I felt lucky to find two open seats one evening.

With TVs in the bar, you know this restaurant is much more casual than Bartolotta's Bacchus or Lake Park Bistro, but it doesn't sacrifice niceties. White cloths are draped over the tables in the dining room, where the look is Modern Masculine meets New England seaside: fresh-looking white-wash walls and ceiling with dark wooden floors, half-moon booths and tables with wooden chairs, padded with black leather for comfort and trimmed with nail heads.

There is, of course, a bank of windows that looks out on the lakefront for an amazing view, one of the best views of the Calatrava addition to be had. Look the other way, and the view is pretty interesting, too: It's the long, gleaming, open kitchen clad in white subway tiles, exposing the hustle and bustle to diners.

Those tiles lead back to the restrooms, where the look is early 20th century - and the sole soap pump for three sink spigots in the women's room was empty at the tail end of a busy night.

Like Lake Park Bistro, Harbor House can get quite loud: All that chatter, bouncing off that wooden floor and ceiling. At the back of the restaurant, through French doors, is a wood-paneled room that looks like quieter dining. With a large flat-screen, it's outfitted for business gatherings and other private parties down the road.

The mood is light at Harbor House, with its beers - from craft brews to Schlitz on tap - specialty cocktails and a wine list with nearly as many whites as reds. A separate menu lists wines by the glass; another lists that day's half-dozen oyster varieties. The restaurant reports selling 300 or more oysters a day.

The drinks support the dinner menu, with its beautifully fresh raw bar offerings, sandwiches, several pastas, and fish and shellfish entrées, along with a couple of steaks, a veal chop and roast chicken.

The seafood lineup includes the usual menu suspects - broadly popular salmon, swordfish, tuna, halibut, crab legs, shrimp.

A couple of entrées are more representative of Wisconsin, among them trout amandine ($24.95). The butterflied trout was excellent, with moist and flaky delicate flesh, nutty with brown butter and almonds. Roast fingerling potatoes and thin green beans, more crisp than tender, were served on the side.

Sandwiches include fried lake perch ($12.95), but there's nothing to suggest Wisconsin among the appetizers - the crab cake, the mussels, the clams, the calamari, the perfectly prepared sautéed scallops ($13.95). I knew I shouldn't expect smelt or Ma Baensch's, but a little smoked fish couldn't hurt here.

The dessert menu has a homey bent - carrot cake with pecan cookie, brownie with vanilla ice cream, seasonal fruit cobbler ($6.95) - along with Key lime pie, crème caramel and sorbets. Served in a shallow dish with about as much oatmeal topping as fruit (blueberries and seemingly juiceless peaches, at that), the cobbler was a rather dry proposition, the sole flat note among the few plates I sampled. Otherwise, excellent ingredients and sensitive preparation marked the dishes I tried.

The tab can rise quickly for dinner at Harbor House. The least-expensive entrée is the roast chicken at $17.95; highest is the filet mignon with lobster tail at $65. Most fish entrées are in the $20 to $30 range. But sandwiches - with the exception of the lobster roll ($21.50) - allow a diner to spend less than $20 in a special setting.

There's a parking lot, with valet parking only ($4). John Wise, the restaurant group's director of operations, said that's to ensure enough spaces for restaurant customers' cars in an area where parking is at a premium. The $4 charge doesn't cover staff and insurance costs, he said, and valet service will be free during lunch when it begins Sept. 15.

With two other restaurants at the lakefront, the Bartolotta group clearly appreciates the importance of location, location, location. But it's good to know this restaurant now has an operator that knows location isn't the only thing.