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Food for Thought 2011

Our yearly review of the dining scene.

Say you want pizza… for lunch… and you’re at the office. You’re about to face a series of decisions based on one simple craving: Who serves pizza, within a reasonable distance, and do they deliver? How do you want it made and with what toppings? Then you have your dietary demands: Suzie says hold the cheese and Greg is a vegetarian.

Why is it, that when it comes time to decide what we’re craving and where to eat it, we’re stumped?

Turn “stumped” into “stuffed” by studying our annual recap of the Fox Cities dining scene. This is Food for Thought.

Start of Something New

With a name suggesting confusion and bedlam, you’re not sure what to expect before wandering into The Madhouse Grill. Perhaps the name implies that diners are rushing like mad to get their mitts on one of the restaurant’s specialties, like the Cabernet-Cherry Lamb Burger.

Having just opened in downtown Neenah’s historic Marketplace building in January under owners Dan Grady and his wife, Jennifer Weiler, the restaurant serves contemporary American with flavors of international cuisines.

The menu includes American favorites, such as hand-cut French fries, potpies and burgers, and Mediterranean fixtures, like tapas, falafel and pecan encrusted lamb T-bone. Recently, grilled pizzas were added to the menu.

Since the location had once been home to restaurants like Big Tomatoes, Luna and Zuppas, Grady recognized the need to revitalize the place. He added a rounded bar built by local contractor, Dreambuilders, and barstools made by an Amish furniture maker in central Wisconsin.

Executive chef Bryan Maves took the location into serious consideration and noted there wasn’t a sit-down restaurant serving brunch or American-spun dinners in Neenah. “If we’re full on the weekends, we even offer diners the chance to eat from our menu at Bogart’s (Wine Bar) next door,” Maves explains. “It helps us both.”

Bogart’s specializes in wine and whiskey, the latter piquing Maves’ interest. He hopes to work with the wine bar in the future to create a Scotch-inspired dish.

Every day but Sunday, the restaurant serves brunch from 10:30am–2:30pm in addition to the lunch menu. Grady recommends the smoked prime rib and egg sandwich, bananas foster French toast or corned beef hash and eggs.

The menu is dotted with several smoked salmon entrées, all made easy with what Maves calls his “new best friend”—a smoker in the kitchen.

A few doors down from Madhouse Grill is downtown Neenah’s sweetest addition, Cherry on Top Ice Cream Shop. From scoops and sundaes to shakes, malts and floats, the parlor covers all the bases, including whipped cream and its namesake, a cherry on top.

To most, there’s nothing thought provoking about a burger. To Marc Waltzer, owner of Appleton’s Wild Truffle, they are a top priority at his second Fox Cities restaurant, Serious Burger. It is scheduled to open May 1 in the old Po’Boy Sandwich Co. space on Mall Drive in Appleton.

Giving diners the ultimate burger experience, the restaurant will use all-natural meat, artisan Wisconsin cheeses, Nueske’s bacon, Manderfield’s-baked brioche hamburger buns and handcrafted sauces, such as truffle ketchup and roasted garlic aioli.

He says the restaurant will build on the demand for refined foods. Trendy is the style of taking popular, simple foods––like pizzas and burgers, in Waltzer’s case––and enhancing its likability with other favored ingredients.

For example, the Steakhouse Burger will be garnished with wood-roasted crimini mushrooms, caramelized balsamic onions, Swiss cheese, the “Serious” signature steak sauce and topped with sunny side up egg.

“It will be no different than Wild Truffle,” says Waltzer. “Knowing my customers and knowing what we’ve been able to do with the pizza business… I think we can do the same for the burger side of the business.”

Aside from high-quality meat and high-end ingredients, guests will enjoy a low-key setting necessary for chasing a bang-up burger with a hand-spun milkshake!

In January 2010, pizza and pastimes coalesced to form Stevi B’s, an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet targeted at children and families.

Owners and Appleton natives Jason and Kelly Buchinger were looking for a franchise business to open in the Fox Cities. Inspired by the old Appleton favorite, Shakey’s Pizza, the Buchingers settled on Stevi B’s because it is a younger, smaller chain (the Appleton location is the 41st in the county). Stevi B’s has 11 pizzas, four desserts and a salad bar on the buffet at all times.

Besides the standard sausage, pepperoni and cheese pizzas, the signature creations are all the rage. The Cheeseburger captures the attention of burger lovers with the help of marinara, mustard, ground beef, pickles and copious amounts of cheese. The Loaded Baked Potato, Chicken Fajita and Macaroni and Cheese are also pleasers.

Bring the clan in for the Sunday night buffet where kids eat for 99 cents after 4pm. The pizza makes the game room seem like the added bonus––well, at least to the adults!

In 1988, Greg Gorgolis opened his first Niko’s Gyros in Waukasha. Ten years later, a second location opened in Oshkosh. Then in August 2010, he opened his third in Appleton.

After his parents emigrated from Greece to Milwaukee in 1970, his dad worked as a chef. Running a restaurant comes naturally to Gorgolis, and he lets the food speak for itself.

Serving gyros, Italian beef and sausage, Chicago-style hot dogs, pita sandwiches, Cajun fries and even honey-drenched baklava, Gorgolis says that his prices are the biggest draw. Except for two or three items, everything on the menu is under $5. “Value is a big selling point,” he says. “A sandwich should have a stack of meat in it!”

Building anew on Mall Drive, Bennigan’s is known for putting an Irish twist on American favorites.

The pub-like restaurant is charming the retail neighborhood with its warm and friendly atmosphere and stands out with a list of 18 tap beers.

The baby back ribs, Monte Cristo sandwich, hand-battered fish and chips and Guinness-glazed bacon cheeseburger are just a few fan favorites.

The Appleton franchise is the first in Wisconsin to phase in tabletop kiosks called Ziosks, an appliaction that allows a diner to view the menu, happy hour specials, read USA Today and play games. The device also has a feature allowing diners to pay their bill.

Come summertime, diners can unwind on the outdoor patio that features high-definition flat-screen TVs and a fire pit.

In July 2010, a small but able Asian eatery called Mai’s Deli opened on the corner of College and Memorial in Appleton.

The owner and matriarch, Mai Vang, along with her husband, Fong, and four of her six children, work to serve homemade family favorites, like stuffed chicken wings, year-round.

The wings won over the hearts of farmers market foragers in downtown Appleton long before Mai acted on her dream of opening her own restaurant. She has since gained support of other wing worshippers.

Mai’s also serves egg rolls, pad Thai, vermicelli salad, drunken noodles, green, yellow and red curries, and purple sticky rice.

Also fulfilling Asian fare, Sapporo Sushi in Buchanan delivers sushi by boat. Diners sit at an oblong, “community” counter facing the sushi moat. A server takes drink orders and offers soup and rice, but the moat supplies the sushi staples.

Powered by a sturdy current, the boats circle the counter, each one carrying a few plates of sashimi, sushi or salad at the diners’ disposal. The plates vary in color according to cost (starting at 99 cents); when it comes time for the check, the server simply adds up your stack and hands you the bill.

Just around the corner from College Avenue on Richmond, Tinner’s Sausage & Deli opened in March to serve its meats to the masses. The owners, Dave and Cathy Meyer, have been a food fixture at the downtown Appleton farmers market for almost a decade, selling their Polish and Italian sausages, brats and hot dogs.

In the eatery, a limited menu will also offer pizzas, sandwiches and soup.

Building Boom

Have you noticed the ‘For Lease’ signs on Fox Cities vacant restaurant spaces are disappearing?

The old Grazie’s/Lucky’s Bar & Grill building space on the corner of Kensington and Calumet (Hwy KK) became TJ Thai Sushi and Japanese Steakhouse in November 2010.

The area’s new Asian triple threat draws folks in for three different cuisines: Thai dishes, Japanese hibachi and sushi.

Once a cozy spot for families to enjoy a fish fry or a round at the bar, the interior has been transformed into a calming yet chic lounge. A dim, neon-lit main seating area accommodates those looking for curries and noodle dishes (Thai) and sushi (a large selection different from other Fox Cities sushi sources). The back of the restaurant is the hibachi area including a smaller side room to hold parties up to 30 people.

“Some people come for sushi and sit down in the front room, but then they hear the hibachi going on and say, ‘What’s that?’” says owner Cindy Li, who has gathered about 16 years of restaurant experience while living in both New York and Florida.

The eighth Glass Nickel Pizza Co. location in the state opened in Appleton’s old Friar Tuck’s/Los Compadres building in June 2010. But before you grouch, “just another pizza place,” consider its menu.

The popular local pizza provider serves outgoing specialties such as Lotta Enchilada (creamy enchilada sauce, cheese, chicken, corn, green chilies and cilantro), Border-to-Border (spicy classic sauce, tomato, cheese, pineapple, Canadian bacon and jalapeno) and Chicken Cordon Bleu (honey mustard sauce, fried chicken strips, ham, Swiss cheese).

Along with a build-your-own-pizza option, the pizzeria also features the originals and a few veggie options. Sandwiches, salads, pocket pizzas, pasta, fish and shrimp are also on the menu.

Seven months ago, Appleton native Ger Xiong and his brother Tong Ziong opened Phonsavan Restaurant, Banquet Hall and Nightclub, a southeast Asian eatery, in the old Grillin’ Steak House and Lounge space.

Xiong made a few interior changes, which included knocking down a wall to create one big banquet hall suitable for weddings and corporate events. The menu offers traditional Hmong foods, such as egg rolls, pho soup, stir fries, noodle dishes and chicken feet.

Just north, Rancho Azul opened in the old Dafina’s Restaurant spot on Wisconsin Avenue in Appleton.

In midtown Neenah, the old Griddles/Cafe Neenah location reopened as Twin City Diner with new owners Ali Useini and Agron Bekteshi.

Restaurants Revived

A handful of restaurants closed and then reopened with the same name but under new management.

In April 2010, downtown Appleton’s beloved Muncheez Pizza went bust. By August, it reopened with new owner, Paul VanderLinden.

VanderLinden worked as a delivery driver for Muncheez for three years before the shop closed. After leasing the building, he altered the name slightly to Muncheez Pizzeria, and livened up the joint with a coat of fluorescent green paint, new seating and an HD projector to show movies.

Food-wise, he ditched pre-cooked sausage for fresh Italian sausage with better flavor, added a few items to the menu (including beer) and continues to grant free delivery and a free order of “cheezy” breadsticks with every medium or large pizza.

For hog dog devotees, the closing of 1910 Sausage Company was the “wurst,” but it reopened with a new owner in August 2010.

Although the sausages and bratwurst keep the doors swinging at the casual cookery, “dogs” aren’t the only thing you can find between the buns at this diner. Mini burgers and chicken sandwiches, as well as soup, pub pickles and fries are also popular.

It’s always been Italian for one Trasino Park venue. In May 2010, Kerry and Rick Gasman reopened Johnathan’s Italian Bistro. The “all day, every day” $10 bottomless wine deal has been reinstated and a sharp focus has been put on the essence of Italian cuisine: fresh ingredients.

This spring, executive chef Shawn Covill will introduce an express lunch menu to accommodate the busy schedules of mid-day diners.

Some folks might remember when Dorn’s Supper Club used to be Little Chicago Dining & Spirits. After about 35 years of business, Dorn’s closed its doors in October 2010. But Butch Kolosso, owner of Lake Park Pub in Menasha, leased the building and reopened it as Little Chicago in February with plans to stick to the supper club classics of steak, seafood, chops and chicken.

The former co-owner of Dorn’s, Kathleen Friebel, will run the show at downtown Little Chute’s Flying Dutchman (previously Jacks or Better, where Friebel worked for more than 10 years). After a year of intermittent operation, co-owner Gene Kobussen reopened the restaurant in March. A handful of Dorn’s menu items will be revived on the Dutchman’s dinner menu.

Dining Room Revisions

One of the reasons people dine out is to enjoy an experience radically different from their kitchens. The space in which we feast has a profound effect on our dining experience, and several Fox Cities restaurants have made more room.

The Wild Truffle Trattoria and Wine Bar in Appleton opened for bigger business last June after they nearly doubled in size.

By expanding into the space next door, the restaurant now has dining areas on both sides of a new wine bar. The space that was once the only dining room is now considered the formal dining room and the new section is more veranda-like with big white-bulb lights strung above guests and dark wood accents.

Owner Marc Waltzer installed an additional pizza oven in the new bar area to support the growth. “The new space has really become the appetizer and wine bar area but diners can order off the full menu,” he says.

Outside, the patio increased by 1,200 square feet and now features 20 tabletops under a tent-like roof.

Neenah café Zuppas has debuted The Green Room, an exclusive space for private parties. The 1,500-square-foot room can hold about 40 people for a sit-down event or 50 for an hors d’oeuvres cocktail party.

Owner Peter Kuenzi entertained the idea of an intimate dining room for years as a satellite of the restaurant’s catering business. “We custom design the (catering) menus,” he says. “We want to keep it personal.”

The name choice has many analogies, the main being Kuenzi’s connection to “green” food; he sources local and organic ingredients. He also wants his guests to experience exclusivity similar to that of musicians who enjoy the “green room” before and after a performance.

There’s good news for those flocking to Carmella’s Italian Bistro. In February, they began transforming the old Rapid Refill space next door into a small seating area.“Say there’s a two-hour wait on Saturday; the new area will offer a place for people to linger and have drinks or find a spot they’re comfortable with to have their meal,” says co-owner Nicole DeFranza.

The first-come, first-served area will operate in the front of the new space while the back will be reworked to accommodate for extra baking and kitchen space.

Subtle additions to the outdoor patio, such as a new roof and heaters, will add a few extra weeks to “patio season,” making alfresco dining more comfortable.

Alex Lopez converted his Spanish-Mediterranean Tapas restaurant into Venue, a gourmet burger joint. Shortly after, he started remodeling sister venues Casablanca and currently, Señor Tequilas.

Appleton neighborhood favorite Antojitos Mexicanos received a minor interior facelift.

Josef’s Gyros Kabob has hopscotched to and from several College Avenue spaces downtown Appleton in the last year. In March, the eatery moved into the old Cafe on the Ave space, which offers two entrances–– a street entrance and another from inside City Center.

Owner Josef Sattekeh is working to develop a weekend breakfast menu for the farmer’s market crowds.

Notable Noshibles

  • North Appleton’s GingeRootz Asian Grille is embracing the sushi phenomenon with an upgraded sushi menu.
  • The New York Deli is now ladling out homemade soups.
  • Mexican hot spot El Azteca debuted several new menu items and olé-inspiring drinks.
  • Appleton’s Dick & Joan’s is running more pasta specials.
  • Michiel’s Fox Rivertyme Catering is celebrating 20 years of business.
  • Kaukauna’s Plum Hill Café has a new dinner menu including surf’n’turf dishes, ratatouille, shepherd’s chicken potpie and roasted Norwegian salmon filet.Neenah’s Ground Round introduced a new vegetarian and gluten-free menu.

Closures

  • Steak Escape, Fox River Mall Food Court
  • Po’Boy Sandwich Company, Grand Chute
  • Toros/Los Compadres, Appleton
  • Meng’s, Appleton
  • Grillin’ Steak House & Lounge, Appleton
  • Tapas, Appleton
  • Oslo’s Scandinavian-American Eatery, Appleton
  • Mi Pueblo, Appleton
  • Cafe on the Ave, Appleton
  • The Charcoal Grill, Darboy
  • Aspen Coffee & Tea, Darboy
  • Savore, Darboy
  • Cafe Neenah, Neenah
  • Wendy’s, Neenah
  • Dorn’s Supper Club, Kaukauna
  • Al’s Diner, Kimberly
  • Someplace Else, Menasha

—By Alison Fiebig

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