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Still Hungry: Dinner at Central Standard Crafthouse & Kitchen

Mar. 14, 2022 at 12:30PM

[Editor’s note: This article was written off Central Standard Crafthouse & Kitchen's Late-December 2021 menu]

When I was in high school, I had an inside joke with my friend Annika about my undying love for dill dip. If memory serves, it was something about dying a happy death, drowning in a bathtub full of the stuff. If left to my own devices, I would gorge myself on entire tubs of the thick mayonnaise-laden stuff. Carrots, a mere vessel for the creamy, fattening gobs. My friend wasn’t wrong to point out my gluttonous approach to snacking, and while I aim to eat nourishing, nutritious foods most of the time, the hill I will die on has a trail leading to the summit paved with mayonnaise and all iterations of it. So, this story starts with dill dip. 

A few weeks ago, my partner and I were driving through downtown Milwaukee and noticed the sign for Central Standard Crafthouse & Kitchen, glowing in the sepia-toned light of a late November afternoon in Wisconsin. He immediately whipped out the phone to see if there was something behind the glow. As he read through the menu, I gawped at nearly every menu item—it was a tour of my favorite foods. Perhaps it’s the deep loneliness that comes with working remotely or my tendency to find meaning in everything, but I felt the menu matched my tastes perfectly. 

Maitake mushrooms with their petal-like, meaty appendages. Earthy butternut squash soup, velvet on the tongue. Caramelized short rib. Crispy fries with aioli (fancy mayonnaise). Tangy, herbaceous green goddess salad. Rich, flourless chocolate cake. Dill dip. Yes, dill dip. I was sold. I was practically drooling at the wheel.  

And as I felt the excitement build in my system, I had a realization: Since the pandemic started, we’ve largely cooked at home, and when we do order food it’s a carousel of fast-casual Mexican, poke bowls, and the occasional burger and fries. You know. Quick. Relatively cheap. We haven’t explored a single new restaurant since the pandemic started.

It wasn’t intentional, this movement towards our own kitchen. It just happened, like a culinary transmutation away from the clatter of cutlery and overheard tableside conversations. As a former professional coffee taster, a recipe developer, an almost culinary school attendee, and a frequent visitor of the city's restaurants—I hardly know what happened to my love of food. Regrettably, the inertia of fear, financial strain, and the need to evolve with the reality we all faced in 2019 led me down a pathway where I not only stopped eating out but also stopped ordering to-go from restaurants that provided me with any gastronomic stimulation. 

After I took in the sense of loss, the awareness of yet another side effect of the pandemic, I was firm in my resolve that we would gorge ourselves silly on food from Central Standard Crafthouse & Kitchen and soon.

Buckle Up: Our Meal From Central Standard 

Not everything went according to plan with our meal, which I expect in the trajectory of COVID-19. The unexpected is now the norm. I was hoping this piece would start with nostalgia and end on a triumphant note. You know, something about how restaurants are emerging from a tough moment with renewed vigor and creativity. Instead, I tried to choke down an expensive and at times, inedible meal. A meal that skipped past stumbling and fell on its face. I want to be clear with you: My face sank when I started taking my first bites because I knew I couldn’t maintain my integrity and write a glowing review. So this is the truth about my meal from Central Standard. 

Corn Soup: Creamy But That’s All Folks

We started with the soup, as you do. It promised basil oil, jalapeno, and roasted kernels. Instead, it delivered a flavorless oil spill sheen, a creamy spoonful, and an endnote of capsicum burn. However, the texture of the puree was pleasant, the amount of cream appropriate for the dish. Unfortunately, the basil oil did not taste like basil, just oil. The whole dish was one note at a time and it desperately needed something to lift the flavor profile—basil oil that actually tasted like its namesake, some fresh herbs, a touch of acid to add balance. I didn’t hate it but I wouldn’t order it again. 

Veggie Tray: It Pains Me to Talk About This 

Moving on to our next brown cardboard to-go box, we peered in and saw an array of vegetables—radishes, red pepper, carrots, and cucumber. Okay. Not a bad start. Everything looked fresh and sliced to eat. Then we noticed the small to-go container of “dill dip.” Yes, I’m putting that in quotations because it doesn’t deserve to confidently label itself as the tasty dip of my youth. It was an imposter. Sus. A tub of mayonnaise with a dill postscript. Where’s the dill, people? Where’s the onion? Where’s the cracked pepper? The squeeze of lemon? Where is the FLAVOR? And for $15? You’re out of your mind. [Editors Note: the aforementioned tray of veggies]

If you decide to give Central Standard a try, please do not waste your time ordering this appetizer. If I could give it zero stars, I would. The only redeeming quality is that I could repurpose a few of the fresh vegetables into Thai curry during my weekend meal prep. But you might as well go to the grocery store for cooking needs. It’s significantly cheaper.

Maitake Mushrooms: The Start of the Undercooked Phenomenon 

I love maitake mushrooms. They’re my favorite mushroom, and if you haven’t yet tried them, now’s the season. Sauté them in olive oil or butter with garlic, salt, and cracked pepper. Toss in some fresh parsley and thyme. Done. Perfect dish.

The maitake mushroom dish from Central Standard was trying way too hard. The mushrooms came served in large chunks that needed to be broken apart by a fork to fit in our mouths. The soy/tamari flavor was overpowering, like it was the only seasoning used. And the mushrooms themselves were undercooked, still spongy and dense. They came on a bed of unremarkable pale green cream sauce. The menu mentioned pistachios and jalapeno. There was a spicy pop but I tasted zero pistachios. I trust pistachios were somewhere in the dish but the jalapenos and cream obliterated any chance of the subtle pistachio coming through. Maitakes, you dreamed big, but stayed earthside.  

Green Goddess Salad: It’s My Fault

I’ll take the blame for this dish. I chose to order it knowing fully well the menu listed three ingredients: gem lettuce, fines herbes, and green goddess dressing. I am still docking points for the lack of fines herbes. I felt lied to, Central Standard, and I don’t appreciate that. I’m not convinced the salad leaves were all gem lettuce. And the green goddess dressing was overwhelmingly salty, detracting from the herbaceous, bright flavor that drew me to order the salad in the first place. 

I love salt. I eat olives for a snack. When I’m stressed out, I’ve been known to eat an entire bag of chips. Feta is my favorite cheese. I don’t play small when it comes to salt but when I find a dish barely palatable because of the salinity—it has too much salt. Period. And why is this salad $9? Toss in the pistachios that disappeared in the maitake dish and the sliced radishes and carrots from the veggie tray, and THERE’S your $9 salad.

Fries & Aioli: How Do You Fuck Up Fries? 

I love fries. And I judge heavily when the fries don’t stack up. When you ruin my fries, you ruin my day. I am giving credit where credit’s due on this dish first: The portion size actually matched the price. But the fries were soggy and frankly, undercooked. I’ll own the soggy texture as we did take our food to go in brown boxes, which are glorified condensation traps. However, you can’t ignore that the starchy interior of the fries were dense and gummy. The whole box smelled and tasted like overused oil, imparting a slightly rancid flavor with every bite. 

As an experiment, I turned my oven on to 400°F and tossed the fries in there for 10 minutes. Transformed. They developed toasted brown edges, crisped up, and the interior was light and succulent. Y’all need to cook your food longer. 

The aioli was fine. But the menu promised parsley and lemon. There was not a speck of green on these fries. I get restaurants need to cut costs where they can to survive but don’t promise me fresh herbs and then fail to deliver. It’s deceptive. 

Braised Short Rib: What the Funk

After the fry adventure, we decided to move on to our entrees. We opened the box with the short rib and just looked at each other. An aroma wafted out of the box that neither of us could place and neither of us appreciated. It smelled vaguely fermented, like the old beer smell at one of my favorite dive bars from college but with a fraction of the charm. I was a bit afraid to see if the meat matched the smell. So I tried the mashed potatoes first. The mashed potatoes ended up being my favorite part of this meal; they were light, creamy, and flavorful with the sprinkle of breadcrumbs on top adding a pleasant crunch. Central Standard does show a deft hand when it comes to making dishes creamy. A tip of the hat to the chef. The meat, however, was another story. 

I’m going to start with the good: The texture of the meat was spot-on and tender. The flavor was inedible. So much so, we didn’t finish the dish and I’m 100% part of the Clean Plate Club, mostly because I ABHOR food waste. Wasting this short rib was painful. My partner actually made Korean barbecue-style short ribs for my birthday the previous week and they were bang on. Maybe it’s because of that secret ingredient—love—but I’d take those over Central Standard’s any day.

The menu tells me these short ribs were cooked with miso and garlic. There was a burnt umber smear on top of the meat but both of us felt it looked and tasted like it was added after the braising process. There were no brown edges or completed Maillard reactions you come to expect with braised, saucy meat. And the taste? It was funky in a bad way. Not like the glorious funk of ripe, pungent kimchi. Bad funk. Like the fermentation process took a sharp left turn. Which is what we did when we opened our next box.

Chicken Sandwich: I am Sad 

The chicken sandwich was so fucking sad. I was really excited to try it because it has Duke’s mayo. DUKE’S! I lived in North Carolina for two years and wanted to savor the flavor of the south again, with each bite of my sandwich. First of all, if you’re going to give me a chicken sandwich, you better spread the mayonnaise across the entire bun. Second of all, two pickles? You need, bare minimum, four pickles to cover the diameter of the bun. Somehow, the pickles were soggy. But at this point in the evening, I wasn’t surprised. 

And the chicken patty? I’m happy to be proven wrong but I fully believe it came from the depths of a meat grinder, frozen for some period of time in its unnatural square shape, coming to Central Standard straight off a food service truck and into a fryer where it accumulated rancid oil in-between the peaks and valleys of it’s corn starch crumb topping. Chicken isn’t expensive and I don’t understand why this sandwich comes with a glorified school lunch patty. Like, it’s this easy: 

Chicken breast + seasoned flour + buttermilk +  more seasoned flour + fryer = delicious

At this point in the evening, we were cleansing our palettes with soggy French fries and laughing in amazement in-between bites. 

“Is this really happening?” 

“Am I being an asshole? Or is this meal really this bad?” 

Hysteria had set in, and both of us struggled to not gaslight ourselves out of our experience. Our bellies full but our hearts broken. We placed all our remaining hope on a slice of flourless chocolate cake. Big mistake.  

Flourless Chocolate Cake: Flourless and Flavorless

Y’all. Do you not know the knife trick? Run your knife under warm water to get a nice clean edge on your desserts? With its ragged edges, I had a gut feeling dessert would be underwhelming to match the tone of the rest of the meal.  I slid my fork into the edge, plunging into the truffle-like texture (points here!). And as I raised my fork to my mouth, depositing the chocolate cake, I tasted… Hershey’s chocolate syrup? To be fair, we plowed through a box of luxury chocolate truffles earlier this week so my palette was too spoiled for a standard flourless chocolate cake. At the same time, the cake tasted like poor quality chocolate and somehow lacked richness, which was hard to comprehend because flourless chocolate cake is like ½ chocolate (both high-quality cocoa powder plus melted dark chocolate). Hopes dashed.

Take My Money and Get It Together

So I end with a question. Chef/sous-chef/line cook, are you okay? I looked you up after our meal and your resume sounds legitimate. What’s going on in the kitchen? 

There were patterns throughout the menu that indicate growing pains. A few of our dishes were undercooked. There was an overabundance of oil. A lot of the food was soggy and one-note. 

Are you understaffed and under the gun? Is money too tight and quality ingredients are the first to go? I want to believe in you. I want to support local restaurants and talented chefs. I wanted to go to bed satisfied. But days later, I’m still left wanting. Thank heavens we didn’t order this meal for my birthday dinner, as originally planned.

Maybe it was the cost of taking the food-to-go. Brown cardboard boxes don’t exactly make the food shine. Maybe it’s a, you had to be there situation. Benefit of the doubt and grain of salt.  

I wish I could give a more positive review of Central Standard Crafthouse & Kitchen. Really, I do. The food needs work. That’s obvious. And other reviews on Google echo similar sentiments. Here’s my recommendation: Try a dish here and there to accompany your libations but until the kitchen gets its groove back, I’d hesitate to order a full meal due to cost and quality issues. 

I’ll in turn extend empathy. I can’t imagine the toll COVID-19 has taken on restaurant workers. Lost wages. Lives uprooted. The experience of a crappy meal pales in comparison to what many of you have gone through in the last few years. I appreciate you’re trying to get back on your feet. As a long-time supporter of restaurants, I hope you’re able to get there soon. I don’t want my money back; I want our hard-earned cash to bolster your kitchen and get it to a place where the quality is undeniable and you can take your place in the Milwaukee food scene. Here's hoping.

About the author

Caitlin Knudsen

Propagator of succulents, hobbyist baker, healthcare by day, pug wrangler always.