When Milwaukee’s Braise was named one of America’s 50 best new restaurants in the September issue of “Bon Appetit,” it came as little surprise to those familiar with the Walkers Point eatery. The magazine’s brief mention of its only Wisconsin entry brushed across many of the restaurant’s unique features, but it failed to paint a complete picture of the Braise model, which is focused on supporting sustainable agriculture, and how it’s poised to change the way we think about food.
Braise chef/owner David Swanson is one of Wisconsin’s foremost “locavores,” a term that describes people who prefer eating locally produced foods. Rather than court passive consumption, as most restaurants do, Braise has the potential to serve as an active bridge between diners and farmers, endowing consumers with the capacity to act as partners with food providers to offer healthy nutrition with a fine-dining flare.
“Growing up in European kitchens, I learned the value of seasonal, local produce and knowing what tastes best,” says Swanson, 42, who cooked in France and across the U.S. prior to settling in Milwaukee.
The Lake Villa, Ill., native attended the Culinary School at Kendall College in Evanston, Ill., and Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. He worked at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans and La Francais in Wheeling, Ill., before settling in as chef de cuisine at Milwaukee’s Sanford restaurant. He launched “Braise on the Go,” a traveling culinary school in 2006, and opened his restaurant just last year.
“Supporting sustainable agriculture is important for restaurants and society because it helps broaden our understanding of where our food comes from and helps create a relationship with our farmers,” Swanson says.
Braise, located at 1101 S. Second Street, embraces the locavore esthetic with a seasonally changing menu. Comprised of small and large plates, a “butcher board” selection, “Braise bites” and desserts, the menu is a cornucopia of options for diners who are dedicated to eating locally. Each entry appears designed to stimulate the mind as well as the taste buds.
Consider, for example, a roasted bone marrow and pickled radish salad with olive oil jam ($4) or a Swiss chard tortilla with smoked paprika vinaigrette and crispy ham ($6). There also is baby beet gazpacho with lime cream ($7) and game sausage with white bean salad, pickled onions and Romesco sauce ($22), topped off with rosemary cake, rhubarb-rose conserve and sour cream ice cream ($8).
Creativity isn’t the only factor that goes into creating a menu, Swanson says. Seasonality, locality and nutrition are equally, if not more important characteristics of the dishes at Braise.
“We strive to make our options a viable alternative for those who choose to eat healthy and support farmers and local sustainable food,” Swanson says. “I think the issue will become more prevalent as people learn more about where their food comes from, start raising kids or become aware of health concerns. This in part creates a more informed buyer.”
But the restaurant is just part of the equation for the culinary enterprise located in what was once a bowling alley in the shadow of Allen Bradley’s “Polish moon.” Braise has home delivery services of its fresh and freshly made foods. Fans filled its Sept. 9 “Tour de Farms” culinary bicycle tour to capacity. And Swanson plans to open an on-premise culinary school at the end of September to teach consumers how to cook with local produce.
Braise has established itself as a promoter of restaurant supported agriculture. Through RSAs, restaurants pre-pay a portion of farmers’ food production costs, bringing in immediate revenue for the farmer and mitigating the economic uncertainty of the growing season. Restaurants benefit by gaining a steady supply of quality produce without taking the time to forage for it