Anchorage sizzles even in cold

By Dennis R. Getto
Journal Sentinel dining critic

Published: Jan. 13, 2005


With all the new restaurants opening in the Milwaukee area, I sometimes forget about the old places. And in the case of the Anchorage - the riverside restaurant at the Hilton Milwaukee River in Glendale - rediscovering a good spot was especially rewarding.


The last time I'd reviewed the restaurant, 12 years ago, it had just been remodeled to include a rear bar area that was open to the dining room. At 9 p.m. the bartender turned up the volume on the TV so loud that all of us in the dining room could hear it. Any chance for tranquility at the end of our meal was gone.


In the years that followed, I liked the Anchorage best during warm months. The leaves on the trees hid the streetlights on Hampton Ave., giving the impression that I was dining at some secluded place in the country. And food service was available on the restaurant's beautiful riverside patio, where I could watch the river roll by at a lazy summer pace.


In the last month, I've learned that dinner at the Anchorage can be a great experience on a cold winter's night as well.


The dining room is done in deep green and features brass accents and nautical touches such as carved boats and duck decoys. But don't be surprised if these details escape you - the Anchorage's main visual appeal comes from a bank of windows overlooking the Milwaukee River.


This January night, the river's flow had shrunk to a narrow ribbon of reflected light in the middle of a snow-covered ice strait, and the Canada geese were huddled on the bank like a football team in charcoal jerseys. But inside, the Anchorage's staff made my dining companions and me feel welcome, and the Anchorage's chef, Jerry Taylor, delivered well on dinner.


The Anchorage's strong point has always been seafood, and three of the entrees we sampled could compete with the fare served in cities much closer to the ocean.


The Anchorage's scallops ($20.95) were a standout. There is nothing new about accentuating the flavor of sweet scallops by wrapping them in bacon, but the execution can be tricky. Use bacon that's too thick or too smoky, and you overpower the sweetness of the shellfish. This version featured five plump scallops with a fresh flavor that came through perfectly. Just a light layer of hollandaise added a buttery quality and dash of lemon flavor.


The salmon may well be the best thing I tried in the two dinners I enjoyed at the restaurant. Done on a chargrill to give it a tinge of smoky flavor, the fish was pink and creamy in the center. Lemon dill butter nicely complemented the fresh fish flavor.


The third standout was a nightly special of mahi-mahi ($22.95), a rich-tasting fish that stood up well to marinating in Jamaican jerk spices. Sauteed to a lovely light brown, the fish was topped with avocado and pineapple salsa. Mesquite-grilled squash on the side added just enough extra flavor to summon up images of a fireside meal on a tropical beach.


Crab cakes ($19.95 as an entree, $8.95 as an appetizer) were almost as good. They were packed with crab meat and very little filler. A spicy remoulade sauce was creamy and cool at first taste - before its peppery chile spark took over.


When it came to meat entrees, my dining companions and I batted one for two. A 12-ounce New York strip steak ($23.95) developed real character when we ordered it with a crushed black pepper crust that accented rather than overpowered the hearty beef flavor. We ordered the steak with garlic-herb butter on the side, but found the butter didn't stand up to the pepper and ate most of the steak without it.


The miss came on Veal Oscar ($20.95), and specifically on the thicker of the two cutlets that made up our serving. More pounding in the kitchen would have tenderized it to the level of the first cutlet. And in this case, the hollandaise sauce was overdone; it was just too thick, and it clouded the other flavors.


Fresh green asparagus accompanied all of our entrees (the crab cakes also had still-crisp matchstick carrots) and added both color and texture contrast to our plates. Three choices of a side dish - baked or boiled potatoes or citrus rice - were offered, and each had its own appeal. The baked potatoes were served with our choice of toppings (butter, fresh chives or sour cream) already applied in the kitchen while the potato was piping hot. This allowed the potatoes to better soak up the topping flavors.


The new potatoes had been cut in the shapes of large mushrooms and the rice was scented with just enough fruit to make it a perfect seafood accompaniment.


Reasonable prices were another attraction of the Anchorage: Similar entrees would cost $5 to $10 more downtown and not include the choice of a colorful mixed salad or a well-made Caesar salad, as ours did. Fresh warm rolls and focaccia were served with the meals.


If I hadn't been in the mood for a full meal and wanted to nosh and sip wine (the Anchorage has a respectable list, with several half-bottles for those who want to try more than one), I would have just ordered the Anchorage appetizer sampler ($13.95) - a towering three-tiered affair that held coconut shrimp, miniature crab cakes, spicy Buffalo wings, fried calamari rings, wispy onion straws and blackened chicken strips. It would have been enough to satisfy two diners at lunch.


Desserts were above average as well. A wild berry tart ($6) mixed levels of flavor, with a shortbread crust, pastry cream and, finally, tiny raspberries and blueberries. Two other desserts (each $6) delivered different intensities of chocolate - a rich fudgy flourless cake that tasted like a dark chocolate truffle, and a lighter, mocha-tinged torte with layers of delicate cake interspersed with cocoa-flavored cream.


Those excellent desserts, combined with a feeling of friendliness that was shared by the staff made the Anchorage a place that I'm sure to remember.