The Chinese have dim sum. Greece and other countries surrounding the Mediterranean have mezes. Probably the most famous them all right now are the tapas of Spain. Wherever they are, they’re all small plates of foods from those countries, and are my favorite way of eating. I’m not sure why, but I can only suspect that small plates appeal to both the glutton and lush in me. Lots of little plates let gluttonous me taste a lot more things, and small plates in those countries are usually associated with...drinks. Ouzo. Sangria.
Americans don’t have our very own cuisine, let alone our own version of small plates. Burgers, meatloaf, maybe roast turkey, could apply for the position of “American food,” but they’re not small plates, unless you serve White Castles, make meatloaf in a muffin tin, and I don’t know how you’d do roast turkey. We borrow from French and use “hors d’oeuvre” or even have “appetizers,” but those are general terms for any type of food that precedes any type of regular meal. Appetizers and hors d’oeuvre aren’t small plates of American foods the way Cantonese har gow and cha siu are dim sum, Lebanese hummus and baba ghannouj are mezes and Spanish croquetas de bacalao y tortilla espanola are tapas. Functionally, American bar foods could apply since they’re eaten at the bar with drinks. *lightbulb* No wonder I love Buffalo wings and nachos. Then again, nachos aren’t very American (though probably more so than they are Mexican, LOL!)
So what can we do for American small plates? We go to Swig, a small plates restaurant-slash-barlounge, in the most all-American city in America, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Richie Cunningham, Potsie and Ralph Malph spent their Happy Days. For some reason, I just had some silly thought in my head that for dinner with friends the first night out on the second leg of Midwest vacation, we’d meet up with the Fonz at Arnold’s for burgers and shakes. The Swig isn’t quite as all-American as Arnold’s, but Milwaukee has changed since Richie Cunningham was in high school.
Swig has a small, raised dining area with regular dining tables just to the right of the bar, but it seems like the majority of the space is dedicated to socializing in a bar/lounge rather than a restaurant atmosphere. There are high bar tables in front of the bar and the rest of the back area of the restaurant is divided into lounge areas with low couches and cocktail tables that are seaprate enough to be your own space, but open enough to see and be seen. It would have been perfect for us to sit in one of the lounge areas, but our group of over 20 was too big. The restaurant cobbled together about five of the bar tables into one long, high bar table, which wasn’t ideal, but the best they could do. The music, which sounds like the latest volume of the Ultra Chilled series, is a little too loud to be comfortable for a restaurant, but a little too soft to energize a bar.
It takes a little while for a party of 20 to “complete,” so those of us who were there already descended upon the bar as if we hadn’t had a drink in weeks. Swig has a martini menu, but we know how I feel about specialty cocktails. Most of the time, they’re too thick and sticky sweet as a before-dinner appetizer, like Swig’s Choco-tini made with Kahlua, Godiva chocolate liqueur and cream or the Turtle, a concoction of caramel vodka, Kahlua and Bailey’s Irish Cream. It’s funny that the “martini” menu has decidedly non-martini drinks like a sidecar (brandy), buttery nipple, a drink made with Jose Cuervo and one with Chambord; and that Swig proudly features Grey Goose vodka, but there are twice as many other vodkas
like Stoli and Hangar One than there are Grey Goose martinis. Or maybe I don’t know the proper definition of a martini and I just need another Grey Goose Le Citron with soda.
Because Swig’s menu has about 20 small plates, we could have handed our menus back to our server, said “One of each” and been done with it, but that would have meant splitting each plate into 20 bites for each person to try. We decided to get two of whichever dishes we ordered – about 12 different things because really now, do we really want to order a salad? I don’t remember exactly how many dishes we ordered now because by ordering time, I had already finished my second drink, and I’m sure that toward the end of the parade of dishes that made it around the table, I forgot to photograph a few. Bad blogger! Bad! Besides, there were a few significant others who were new to the Delicious dining flashbulb fantasy, and I didn’t want to freak them out. At least not on the first night out. LOL!
Only the gourmet grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup was what I would call “American,” especially with the curly parsley Denny’s garnish! It was pretty on the plate with perfect grill marks, but the bread was a little too thick, throwing the bread-to-cheese balance too far out of whack for my taste. Or maybe I was having flashbacks of the nuclear power plant grilled cheese from the night before. Everything else we ordered was the perfect representation of what American small plates really are: a little bit of everything adopted from all over the place, sometimes as-is, sometimes modified, Americanized, combined with something else until it’s just one big ethnographic slice and dice of a cocktail party at grown-up Richie Cunningham’s house.
We go a little Italian-American with a classic bruschetta topped with fresh chopped tomatoes and basil. I’ve never been crazy about bruschetta, so it wasn’t a bad thing that the plate was empty by the time it got to my end of the table. Breaded three cheese ravioli were also very popular at the table and might have been one of the dishes we re-ordered. Thank goodness the slightly sweet marinara sauce was garnished with fresh basil instead of parsley ;) Spinach and artichoke dip with sliced baguette was fancified with Asiago cheese, and a shrimp pizza was made ooh-la-la with a sprinkling of pine nuts and a tiny bowl of extra virgin olive oil. They tasted good, but I had to wonder if it was necessary to make them...fancy. It’s spinach dip and pizza. LOL!
A few of the small plates were Asian-influenced. Seared Ahi tuna was garnished with fried scallions and served Japanese-style with shoyu, wasabi, and gari. It’s not something I’d order again, not because it didnt taste good, but simply because it was difficult to share in a group. Beef tenderloin was also Japanese, skewered robata style, sprinkled with sesame seeds, and served with teriyaki dipping sauce. The teriyaki sauce was a little too sweet, but the beef was tender and good enough by itself. Too bad we had to share. Little rectangular wontons filled with curried chicken had good intentions, but not-as-good execution. The wonton wrappers were a bit oily, making them more chewy rather than crisp. The cucumber yogurt raita was fine, and the filling was good, but I was hoping for a more aggressive curry flavor, because you know, curry should be aggressive like that. LOL!
A few of the favorite dishes around the table we re-ordered, but nothing was left untouched nor unfinished. There’s a short but sweet menu of very home-y, all-American, diner-style desserts like carrot cake (one of my all-time favorites), cheesecake, brownie sundae, and chocolate fondue. We passed and opted instead for...more drinks. Got to love the Milwaukee friends :)
1127 North Water Street
Milwaukee, WI 53202