Milwaukee, Kohler: fine dining in fun formats

A great meal isn’t just about the food. It’s also a mesh of memorable circumstances, be it a pretty plate presentation or an exquisite setting, plus dining companions who are congenial and engaging, if not treasured. 
 
It also is easy to find a fine dining experience to quell your appetite for adventure as well as culinary excellence. Consider these options, which are especially good fun for small groups of friends on special occasions.
 
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The last Kohler Five Diamond Dine Around for this season is March 16, and this first-season experiment became a fast success because of its diversity, high quality and intimacy. Around two dozen people participate, and there is group seating instead of tables for two or four.
 
This is a progressive meal that involves five restaurant properties, one course per location. Diners meet and chat with the executive chefs while being exposed to elegant to backwoods restaurant surroundings. The dinner lasts three hours and the cost is $95 per person, which includes tax, gratuity and wine/cordials with each course.
 
For these exceptional chefs, the twice-monthly winter Dine Around has been an opportunity to try new recipes and get feedback. There also is good-natured competition, as each chef tries to outdo his peers.
 
Diners begin at The Greenhouse, a small and comfortable building at The American Club resort. Although best known for its ice cream treats in summer, this also is a cozy reception space, good for mingling. We lounged while sipping a California chardonnay and nibbling on delicate hors d’oeuvres: slices of mushroom strudel, crab cakes with Cajun dipping sauce, sushi and nori rolls with a zing of ginger and wasabi.
 
Toasty vans shuttle guests from one course to the next. We moved to Cucina, at the nearby Shops at Woodlake, a more festive and less private space. The offerings had a Tuscan flair: handmade ricotta and veal ravioli, porcini mushrooms, fava beans and Pecorino Toscano cheese. 
 
Next was the rustic and looming lodge at the Blackwolf Run golf course, where coconut-almond fried shrimp was paired with a spicy fruit relish and vanilla cream sauce. The entrée – walleye with crab/tomato hollandaise, or beef tenderloin with béarnaise and horseradish mashed potatoes — was generous in size and presented at the Wisconsin Room, back at The American Club.
 
Dessert was a poppyseed lemon tart, plus lemon ice cream, served at the Winery Bar, adjacent to the resort’s elegant Immigrant Room. Lean shot glasses of tangy Lemoncillo and creamy Amarula appeared, too, as did coffee.
 
This first-season experiment will be repeated, but not during peak tourist times, because the restaurants already are busy with their conventional customers. Menus will vary with the whims of the chefs.
 
The Five Diamond Dine Around is the newest addition to the area’s growing culinary season, which begins with the three-day Kohler Food & Wine Experience (demos, lectures, tastings) each October. There also are Kohler chef cooking demos at The Shops of Woodlake on several Saturdays, November through April.
 
For wine lovers: The Winemaker Dinner Series takes place on Thursday nights, November through May. Cost for the four-course meal, plus wine reception, is $75.
 
Most of the season’s remaining dinners feature Californian wines, with the exception of Prunotto wines of Piedmont, Italy, on March 17; Domaine Drouhin of Oregon, March 30; and Miguel Torres Winery of Penedes, Spain, April 27.

For more about any of these events: 800-344-2838 and www.destinationkohler.com.

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Careful wine-food matches are made at Milwaukee’s Dream Dance, too. The Potawatomi Bingo-Casino restaurant is one of the rare AAA four-diamond properties in Wisconsin.

An unusual menu option is the Dream Pairing, which is $75 per person ($55 without matching wines), and the meal is described as “a four-course culinary adventure.” What makes it so? It is a mystery; diners rely on chef Jason Gorman to dream up something great that is not on the regular menu.
 
So you have to trust the chef’s judgment on this one, and not everyone who requests a Dream Pairing gets the same thing. Our table of seven typically had at least three customized creations per course. We shared, traded and hoarded them – depending upon our taste preferences. Each creation had a one-on-one wine match.
 
It certainly was a prime way for Jason to show off and stretch his culinary skills. The time to bring up boundaries – an allergy to shellfish, or a curiosity about kobe beef — is at the beginning, not after the courses began to appear.
 
The appearance of Laguiole knives, for the entrees, is an unusual touch. Waitstaff bring out a blond wood box that contains three variations of these handmade French steak knives. Then the diner chooses a rosewood, horn or olivewood handle.

If you like it enough to buy, the cost is $100, or $540 for six. A great novelty, but my kobe prime rib was tender enough to cut with a butter knife. The meat comes from Snake River Farms, Boise, Idaho.

Dream Dance presents more conventional wine dinners, too, and the next will be April 18. There is a Q&A with a Napa Valley vineyard rep, as well as food matched with wine. The cost is $75.

For something less expensive, yet over the top, consider The Ultimate Fish Fry, every Friday during the Lenten season. The unconventional menu includes shrimp, crab cakes, Maine lobster, cod, Alaskan king crab, with corn fritters, creamed potatoes and tarragon slaw. The cost is $45 per person.

For more: 414-847-7883 and www.paysbig.com.

The Dream Dance dinner was a part of a recent Midwest Travel Writers Association board of directors gathering in Milwaukee. The Kohler Five Diamond Dine Around was experienced while on a magazine assignment at The American Club.