The first time I walked into the Red Stag, it was a Who’s-Who of thirtysomething creative hot-shots: Competing birthday party tables hosted a prominent art-buyer, a scenic-studio owner, and a film stylist. Near the coat rack, a girl with a look-at-me hat and mile-long legs pouted while her boyfriend checked his guitar. Whoa. Hip Minneapolis meet your new hot spot.
What’s so appealing? Everything. Kim Bartmann, owner and creative force behind Barbette and Bryant-Lake Bowl, has taken all she’s learned from those places and kicked it up a notch. First, Red Stag is cozy as a backwoods Wisconsin roadhouse (because it’s modeled on one, namely the White Stag in Sugar Camp, Wisconsin). Think big, comfy Ponderosa-style wooden chairs, a long tell-your-troubles bar, and flickering half-campy, half-sexy chandeliers. The food pulls off a shocking twofer: It’s both completely haute and utterly down-home. Foodies will swoon over the ultra-creamy, mac-and-cheese made with bright red chunks of Atlantic lobster meat and truffle, or the roast-marrow-bone appetizer, while the meat-and-potatoes crowd will stampede for its steak and potatoes, which start at the real-life supper-club price of $19. Chef Billy Baskin, formerly of Cosmos (and once on staff at the best restaurant in the world, the Fat Duck in England), has really pulled off something exciting here, infusing the old-hat idea of Midwestern supper club with enough energy and creativity to dazzle even the most jaded globe-hoppers.
On my way out of Red Stag, I ran into a restaurant-decorator from Milwaukee in town to check out the buzzingest, and greenest restaurant in our fair state (it’s LEED certified). “This is crazy,” he told me. “The fried smelt are for real, and look at everybody! We don’t have anything like this in Milwaukee.” Seriously. Who knew snowmobile country could be so rock ’n’ roll?