Café Centraal and The Abbey (which was known as the Fat Abbey Biercafe as of a couple weeks ago) share the same ownership (along with local hotspots Trocadero and Cafe Hollander) and similar menus (both beer and food) I figured I would write about both of them together. While the menus are similar, there are definite differences among them. Cafe Centraal leans towards being more adventurous, while The Abbey seems to have more upscale and interesting takes on traditional bar food like burgers and wings. What draws me to both is my love of Belgian beers and the never ending quest for excellent french fries. Fortunately both restaurants delivered.
Café Centraal, located at 2306 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. in Bayview is very spacious and is in a neighborhood filled with other great bars and restaurants as well as people you would like to drink around, for the most part. The fact that Cafe Centraal features mussels, just adds to their allure.
Abbey Biercafe, located at 134 E. Juneau (just off Water Street) is a the more intimate and features two levels. I am sort of surprised at the choice of Water Street for this venture. If this was in the Third Ward, Milwaukee Street, or even North Avenue, I think it would be a better fit. The problem is that Water Street is filled with a bunch of drunken douchebags, woo-girls, and other people I would generally prefer not to drink around. I disliked the Water Street scene when I was in college and now that I am in my mid-30s I absolutely hate it. My concern is that this neighborhood has never been able to support nicer bars and restaurants. Swig recently relocated from Water Street to the Third Ward) and Terrace Bar is now Tequila Rita’s. The name change from Fat Abbey Biercafe to The Abbey and the plans for a revamped menu (according to OnMilwaukee.com ) makes me think things aren’t going as well as the owner’s would like.
There are some impressive appetizers at both restaurants, including Artisanal Cheese Flight (Cafe Centraal), Flatbread Pizzas (both), and chicken wings (The Abbey) Trappist wings served at The Abbey proved to be a delicious combination. The wings are bathed in a sauce with Chimay Trappist Ale, soy sauce, and ginger and then sprinkled with black sesame seeds. Instead of the usual heaping mound of wings, these are presented on a long, rectangular plate with each wing spaced equidistant from the next one atop a pool of the slightly sweet sauce. But feng shui plating doesn’t mean shit if they don’t deliver. Fortunately the flavors of ginger, soy, and beer in the sauce was great with the only complaint being that the skin on the wings wasn’t crispy enough for my liking, they were just a tad too rubbery.
The Centraal Burger (tried at Café Centraal, duh!) was excellent with the smoky black salt adding an interesting taste to the beef, which is topped with Gruyere cheese and mushrooms. The Delirium Burger (tried at The Abbey) was good, but despite an ingredient list that included chipotle onion marmalade and chipotle lime sauce, I barely detected a hint of the spicy smoky chipotle. Don’t get me wrong it was a nice burger, I just was hoping for a tad more heat. I’ll give the edge to the burger at Café Centraal as it was closer to the medium rare I ordered at at. The burger at the Abbey was more medium well with barely a hint of pink hue.
While Café Centraal prominently features mussels, Abbey does not, which is probably a safe bet near a street more geared towards pub food. I love mussels and was torn between the three options at Café Centraal; Abbey Ale (ale, shallots, carrots, celery), Classic (white wine, basil), and Curry (curry, coconut milk, special seasonings). My nudged me towards the Curry and I am happy she did. The creamy coconut curry sauce sort of reminded me of Thai Tom Ka Gai soup, one of my favorites. My only complaint, and one I have with many places serving mussels, is the lack of bread to dunk into the remaining broth after you have finished the mussels. Basically you are left with a pool of delicious sauce. You can use a spoon and eat it like soup, but a nice crusty mini-loaf of bread would me much better.
Whatever you do be sure to order frites either as an appetizer or as an accompaniment to your sandwich or mussels. Both of these places make some incredible fries, probably the best I have ever had in Milwaukee. The fries are absolutely perfect; crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, served piping hot and perfectly salted. I enjoyed dipping them into a side of sriracha mayonnaise. The bracing heat of sriracha is toned down with the creamy mayo making it the perfect accompaniment. If the srihacha mayor doesn’t appeal to you there are numerous other dipping sauces running the gamut from curry ketchup to chipotle lime.
Reviewing these restaurants without discussing the beer menu would be irresponsible as the beer frames the whole experience. If you like Belgian Beers like I do, both restaurants are pure heaven. The higher prices for Belgian taps and bottles is probably one of the reasons The Abbey isn’t crammed to the walls with drunken Water Street buffoons. While I didn’t have beer when I visited Cafe Centraal, I did try a lot at the Abbey. The Abbey features 12 taps (well over half are devoted to Belgian brews). Between my two friends and I, we worked through most of them, though one guy had to break from the pack and grab a Miller Lite towards the end of our visit. With Belgian beers whose alcohol content can rise to 9% or more, I guess I could see why.
The star of the show, in my mind was probably the Tripel Karmeliet, which the server was also a huge fan of. I love Tripels because of their complex character and this one hit all the right notes, it has that light toasty malt flavor with a bit of sweetness. The hops are there, but are relegated to a supporting role, letting the malt and higher alcohol content taking center stage. I also really liked the Fat Abbey Strong Ale, a Belgian style ale crafted from the folks over at Lakefront Brewery. Delerium Tremens is a strong pale ale which is known for the ceramic looking bottle and the pink elephant on the label. Abbey has it on tap and it is spectacular. Citrus notes and that familiar sweetness imparted by the large amount of malt used. Each beer has a special style of glass that it is served in. The Lindeman’s Framboise, an effervescent tart raspberry beer comes in a tall, narrow glass reminiscent of a champagne flute. I don’t think I could drink more than one of these but if you are a fan of Lambecs and other fruity beers, this one is for you.
The beer menu at Cafe Centraal is even better with 23 tap offerings, almost all of them being Belgian or American brewed Belgian Style (such as Furthermore’s Fatty Boombalatty). They also feature a tasting pallate where you can try 4 of their 23 beers for $12. They also have a “Rarities, Odities, and Limited Edition” section of the beer menu where they feature eclectic and rare beers from around the world. They also sell “table” large bottles (about the size of a wine bottle) of beer for sharing.
Both restaurants are a great place for a casual meal and some tasty brews. If forced I would give the edge to Cafe Centraal. Their menu is a little larger and includes mussles. Also, while I like the intimate setting of the Abbey and their great looking outdoor beer garden, I also like the energy of Cafe Centraal, which is right in the heart of Bayview. Service at both places was excellent with no flaws whatsoever.
Cafe Centraal is located at 2306 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. Milwaukee, WI 53204. Phone: (414) 755-0378 http://www.thecafecentraal.com
The Abbey is located at 134 E. Junaeu Ave. Milwaukee, WI 53202. Phone: (414) 755-0333 http://www.theabbeybiercafe.com