Odd Duck is a strange bird. Tucked in a low profile space in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood, the nearly year-old restaurant looks more like something one might find in, say, Iowa City or Belfast, Maine, than Milwaukee.
There’s exposed brick, high ceilings, DIY lights and a small kitchen carved out in back. The space feels bright, energetic and a bit hippy.
Dining critic Carol Deptolla termed the space ‘urban rustic,’ but that description doesn’t quite nail the airy, down-to-earth, eco-friendly, kitchen-café feel of the pressed sorghum tables and cork bar. It’s more hip eclectic-cantina or locanista neo-cafeteria.
I’m digging for the description because it is important.
Important, because I think Odd Duck, despite flaws, is capturing the current dining zeitgeist in a compelling and groundbreaking way.
There are trendy small plates, riffs on street food, Spanish tapas, shareable larger plates, craft cocktails, smart beer and wine choices, charcuterie boards, Boy Foods (as Jonathan Gold calls meaty offerings like those at restaurant Animal), Asian classics, Indian dishes, haute stoner cuisine combinations (think Momofuku and Au Pied de Cochon), locavore ingredients and enough vegetable dishes to warrant their own half of the menu.
The kitchen does all this– and this is crucial– inexpensively. On a recent night, six filling plates plus a $40 dollar bottle of wine came to $100.
What I find fascinating is how Odd Duck brings a mix of dining trends together to offer something new. Unlike big city establishments that pushed the small plates revolution originally, there is less emphasis here on the number of innovations per dish than on total overall variety. The food is neither as creative nor as focused as spots like Son of a Gun, perhaps the best of the loose genre, nor even Momofuku. But the kinetic style, wide-ranging curiosity and conceptual freshness of the best urban tasting-focused kitchens is replicated. And unhinged.
A meal can start with duck flautas, move to New England-inspired lobster pancakes, switch to feta-stuffed mini-peppers, shift again to a Southeast Asian mushroom bowl with chopsticks and then suddenly turn Indian with a curry. These wholly eclectic dishes will be good to great preparations, and will be $6-$10.
While this sounds like a hot mess, and sometimes it is– as when your plate becomes a wreck of harissa and sweet Asian broth from two wildly different courses– it largely works. And while I miss the innovation that drives small plates elsewhere, I am enamored with the idea of spinning that same energy, that same sense of adventure, into another, more straightforward, more accessible, form.
This new lo-fi accessibility is a big part of why Mission Chinese in New York is proving to be such a landmark. It’s a blast and it won’t drain your pocketbook. There’s a sense that something is happening, just as there is at Odd Duck.
It’s disconcerting how obvious reproducing the tasting-adventure formula– but dropping price and pretense–is once you experience it. What took so long?
As the appetizer-entree-dessert blueprint continues to wane, and new tasting-adventure-styled restaurant prices lower, more unlikely hybrids like Odd Duck will appear.
But right now, this hard working kitchen in Milwaukee is paving the way.