Breakwater is a happy departure from the former Bourbon Street Grille in Monona, and this is the perfect time of year to eat there.
The night I stopped in, most everyone was eating on the two-level deck, but the weather was too muggy for me. I also wanted to experience the indoor ambiance, which is refined and relaxing.
The entryway, however, hasn’t quite shaken the ghosts of the former restaurants, which before Bourbon Street was the Muskie Lounge & Crab House.
Reassuring once you get up the stairs is one of those colorful chalkboards touting some of the nearby farms where the food comes from. It’s the first indication you’re in for a nice meal.
Seven house cocktails are priced $7 to $12, and if I could have a do-over I’d try the white sangria or the mojito. The Breakwater Blast ($8) was a middle-brow affair with white, spiced Captain Morgan and Malibu rums, pineapple and orange juices, and grenadine. It was better as it got watered down.
We had more luck with the five giant braised beef croquettes ($9), even though there was no beef to speak of. Still, the puffy, breaded balls filled with whipped potatoes and Gruyère cheese were excellent, as was the rich tomato sauce they sat in.
Another good place to start is with the Brussels sprout salad ($12), a giant platter filled with mesclun greens topped with deep-fried Brussels sprouts. Tiny cubes of butternut squash added a lot, as did candied bacon, chevre, pickled red onions and dried cranberries. The lemon vinaigrette dressing was ingeniously blended with ‘nduja, a smoky, spicy spreadable sausage. In total, it was a brilliant combination of ingredients.
The menu offers sandwiches and pizza, as well as more formal entrées, but either way the food isn’t cheap.
A pulled pork sandwich ($11) came on a wonderfully soft grilled bun, and was packed with lean meat. It would have benefited from more of the extras that came on it: Asian slaw, bell peppers, carrots, scallions, ginger and chili plum sauce. The sauce wasn’t detectable and may have been left off.
An entrée of bone-in chicken marsala ($20) came sliced and stuffed with ground mushrooms. It was served over roasted gold potatoes, grilled peppers and onions.
“I’m amazed by how much I liked everything,” my companion said. “It’s one of the few restaurant meals I’ve had where the flavors of everything came through without being overwhelmed by sauce or salt.”
My daughter had the mac and cheese ($6) on the kids menu. When our server brought it out, her eyes lit up, and, as she reached for the massive bowl, she said “ooh, thank you!”
She lost interest halfway in, since the cavatappi noodles turned out to be rather bland, covered in sauce that was more creamy than cheesy.
Dessert brought a superbly tart key lime pie ($5) topped with fresh whipped cream, and exceptional blueberry blondies ($5) filled with berries and nuts. Neither was overly sweet and both portions were generous.
What explains the success of the food here is chef/co-owner Brandon Reid, who opened Breakwater in mid-July with partners Nick Pazour and Tim Trpkosh. The La Crosse native spent a year as a sous chef under Dan Fox at Heritage Tavern, and his last job was as executive chef at The Cooper’s Tavern. Reid’s also worked at Steenbock’s on Orchard.
The 261-capacity space includes a patio that can seat 120, and there is boat access from the Yahara River, where you’ll see paddleboarders coasting by as well as motorboats observing the no-wake zone.
The main dining room has been painted a fresh baby blue, while the adjoining bar area uses lots of light barn wood in a look Reid describes as “cabin meets hipster bar.” Centerpieces on top of black tablecloths feature glass jars with plants and stones.
Classic rock of the John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen variety played a little too loudly over the sound system on an otherwise quiet weeknight, but at least the two TVs in the dining room were muted.
My friend didn’t seem to mind the music. “I’d come back here in a minute,” he said. “From my perspective, this guy really knows how to cook.”