X is for Wildcard: Harbor House



Since there are no ‘X’ restaurants in Milwaukee, we decided to make this round a wildcard round.

Harbor House is one of Milwaukee’s premier restaurants because of its location. Set out into Lake Michigan between Discovery World and the Milwaukee Art Museum, Harbor House’s best tables allow diners a picturesque perspective of Milwaukee’s skyline and its changing reflections upon the lake.

Besides its view, Harbor House is known for seafood. Everyone but Mike had been there (it was Michelle’s submission).

Shannon's bloody mary

Shannon’s bloody mary…see her review here.

Mike arrived first. He said:

I’m waiting for everyone when some rich old snob tries handing me his valet ticket. “Here ya go” he says. At first, I thought it was something nice, like a discount off a meal or something. While I was trying to wrap my head around what was happening he says “Oh, that isn’t you?” I quickly realized he meant the valet – I didn’t use the complementary service so I wasn’t sure what the ticket looked like.

The rest of us arrived moments later and laughed at Mike’s story. We had lunch reservations, but they only seemed necessary to secure a set table for seven, the place was maybe two-thirds full. Our table was a few rows off the window, but still provided a spectacular view of the city.

The name is really suggestive of the feel of restaurant; it is aptly nautical, bright and clean–but not antiseptic. TJ said:

I don’t think there is a better place in the city to see the skyline. Also, the space is beautiful. It basically looks like a Pottery Barn magazine and what 90 percent of people strive for in their own homes.

We waited more than 15 minutes for our waitress to greet us and, when she did, she told us she had to do a wine presentation and then she would return to take our drink order. After she served a nearby table wine, I saw her interact other tables, before finally returning to us – it was an apt omen for the spotty service that would plague our lunch.

It would be more than 40 minutes before we finally had our drinks. Shannon said:

We were in good company and the wait didn’t bother me… I was just very hungry.

Crab cakes

Crab cakes

Appetizers and opening course

I ordered one of the special beers Lakefront brews for Harbor House. Several online reviews were suggesting the beer was just Cream City Pale Ale – I’m not sure. It was just fine … nothing special. Like all diners, we received a complementary plate of rolls and butter.

The crab cakes were adequate, but there was nothing special about them. They came with a tasty slaw and were about what I expected they would be. There were stringy, but flavorful, pieces of crab, however each of the two cakes was rather small. I wouldn’t recommend this appetizer for groups bigger than two.

Onion strings

Onion strings

The onion strings were good, skinny and salty–they prompted us to reach for our drinks often. The dipping sauce was nice, it tasted like ketchup mixed with mayo and horseradish. The portion was hearty.

We all enjoyed the appetizers and finished rolls and butter, the crab cakes, then the onion strings, while we waited for our meal.

Crustcean bisque

Crustacean bisque

I ordered off of the $17 Express Menu, which included soup or salad and an entrée. For the soup, I got the crustacean bisque. It was excellent…creamy and flavorful with some small bits of seafood mixed in. I love a good bisque of any kind, and this one certainly delivered. It was the best thing I had all day. Michelle tried mine, she said:

I wish I would have just ordered a bowl for my meal.

Beet salad

Beet salad

Main course

After another wait, our food came. Cindi had soup and a salad. She said:

I ordered a cup of New England clam chowder along with a beet salad. The soup was delicious! The beet salad was good but I’ve had better for a lower cost.

Chicken club

Chicken club

Mike selected a turf dish–the chicken club. He said:

It was really good, but I feel like I should have tried some seafood and taken advantage of what Harbor House is known for.

Swordfish tacos

Swordfish tacos

Michelle and Adam both opted for swordfish tacos. Adam said:

They were fine for fish tacos. There was nothing exceptional or memorable about them, but they were satisfying enough.

Michelle said:

Not the best fish tacos I’ve ever had but also my first time having swordfish tacos, so maybe that’s how they are meant to taste. They were bland but visually appealing.

Grilled chicken paillard

Grilled chicken paillard

TJ ordered a caesar salad and a chicken dish. He said:

I loved the Caesar salad. The grilled chicken dish was fine. It came with roasted Yukon Gold potatoes, spinach and parsley vinaigrette for 13 bucks. It tasted pretty good and was filling.

Steamed mussels

Steamed mussels

For my entrée, I chose the steamed mussels in a white wine broth. It came with no sides, although they were available on an a la carte basis. I would compliment Harbor House on the amount of mussels, it was a suitable portion size. The mussels were cooked well, perfectly chewy and the white wine broth gave them a very citrusy, fresh flavor. It was good, but not great.

Yellowfin tuna

Yellowfin tuna

Shannon ordered fish. She said:

I ordered the Yellowfin tuna–done rare–and it was very good. The chunk of tuna was the smallest piece! Seriously, so small. I didn’t need more as the accompanying green beans and potatoes were very good.

We opted to skip dessert, but spent a lot of time digesting the experience.

Maybe Harbor House is complacent, assured of its status due to its location and lofty name, however, the customer service was terrible and the food was just good.

Our waitress neither asked us if we wanted refills, nor how our dishes were. Failure to do these minimal tasks is so glaring that I have to assume they were short-staffed, although no one told us this or apologized for the poor service.

Shannon said:

I was conflicted at Harbor House. In my experience, the Bartolotta Group has fantastic service, but we didn’t experience that. Maybe it’s because we were dining with the valet. Maybe our server was just having an off day. I wondered if our age had anything to do with it … looking around everyone was older. I’m not sure.

Cindi said:

I do love an extended lunch and I don’t mind spending a lot on my meal. At Harbor House you are paying for the view, which is delightful! It would be great if the service and food came together to make it a more worthwhile experience.

Mike said:

If you go to a premier place, you just expect better.

TJ brought some levity to the situation, he said:

You should go to the restaurant on a special occasion. This time, the service was bad, but I’ve been there before and know the service can be better. My food didn’t taste any differently because she didn’t ask how it was. Had we been in a hurry, my thoughts might have been different, but we weren’t.

Expectations can be the death of any restaurant. Our bar was set high and our 2-hour Harbor House lunch wasn’t able to reach it. Our rating is too high. It also might be too low.

We went on a beautiful, sunny day, and despite everything else, we enjoyed the view. But sometimes it is raining or cloudy, and that view is diminished, but only for a matter of time. In the same way, each meal is one reflection, one snapshot of a time. This time, Harbor House wasn’t great.

But if you’d like to eat seafood and take in one of the best views of Milwaukee, I wouldn’t tell you not to go to Harbor House. Perhaps your reflection will be better.

Ratings for Harbor House were, as follows:

Adam: 5.75
Cindi: 5
Michelle: 6
Nick: 5
Shannon: 7.5
TJ: 8
Mike: 6.5

Harbor House cumulative rating: 6.3

Visit Harbor House online here.

Losing wildcard nominations were: All Purpose (Mike), Crazy Water (Michelle), Jake’s Burger (Shannon), Kopp’s (TJ x2), La Merenda (Adam x2), Maxie’s Southern Comfort (Nick x2), Palmer’s Steakhouse (Shannon), Smyth (Mike) and Three Brothers (Cindi).

Introduction to the ABCs of Milwaukee Dining
AJ Bombers: 6.8
Beta by Sabor: 7.9
Comet Cafe: 7
Distil: 5.8
Eatery on Farwell: 6.2
Fajitas Grill: 5.3
Ginger: 7.4
Hinterland Erie Street Gastropub: 7.5
Irie Palace: 6.2
Jow Nai Fouquet: 6.9
Kyoto: 6.3
Louise’s Trattoria: 5.2
Meritage: 6.5
Newsroom Pub: 5.4
Odd Duck: 8.2
Pizza Shuttle: 5.2
Quivey’s Grove: 6.9
Rumpus Room: 7.2
Seoul Korean Restaurant: 4.7
Tenuta’s Italian Restaurant: 7.9
Union House: 8.1
VIA Downer: 6.8
Wolf Peach: 7.7
X- Harbor House: 6.3




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