Comfort food is having a major moment. But for Paul Funk, executive chef at Saint Kate — The Arts Hotel, simple food beautifully prepared has always had its own cachet. It’s a philosophy carefully honed since Funk was a kid in Racine, cooking beside his grandma.
And while Funk’s work experience has taken him across the nation and across the pond, Wisconsin’s agriculture and food traditions have always held fascination. So when the time came to reimagine the menu at ARIA, Saint Kate’s fine dining restaurant, ahead of its post-pandemic reopen, Funk naturally stuck close to home. Drawing inspiration from the state’s melting pot cuisines, tried and true favorites from his youth, and treks up north, Funk created a menu he describes as “what Wisconsin, what Milwaukee, what upper Midwestern food is, without it just being cheese curds, bratwurst and schnitzel.
“I started imagining a picture in my head of the lake, the loons, the hunters, all of those things,” he says of a cool-weather northern excursion that inspired ARIA’s duck breast entree. “It’s these Wisconsin things, whether it’s a product like cherries or duck, or a menu item that’s a common tradition here. So I make a Wisconsin maple spaetzle to go with the duck, and then the cherries … [and take] that supper club thing that usually disappoints me, take our technique and my background, and make it into something that I’m really excited about.”
A particular point of pride is the Long Bone Short Rib Pastrami, a jaw-dropping, weekends-only indulgence that blends Wisconsin’s historic devotion to cured meats and Funk’s love of artful simplicity.
“Northern and Eastern Europe, where most of our food culture comes from, that’s why we know smoked meats, smoked ham, smoked liverwurst — because they had to smoke it to preserve it,” Funk says, noting his own preference for the curing traditions of Western Europe, while, he grins, “Grandma was eating Braunschweiger and smoked hams. So, while pastrami isn’t really a Wisconsin thing, it’s something that I love. It’s more than that style of curing and preserving, and I wanted something that was really memorable.”
Creating the meaty masterpiece requires both a special cut of beef and a dose of patience for the process.
“I did it as a short rib and I left the whole bone,” Funk explains. “That’s about an eight- or a nine-inch bone, so it is just show-stopping.” Then he continues with the most highly relatable of descriptions.
“If you were Fred Flintstone and ordered that thing that tips over his car, the biggest, roundest part is the rib eye, and the big, long bone would be the plate or the short rib. They saw all those off to make the rib eye and what’s left are these big, long bones. If you happen to separate them and cure them in brine for eight days and then rub them in a blend of peppercorns and coriander and a bunch of other stuff, and soak it and then steam it, you’d have ARIA’s pastrami.”
Topped with haystack onions and served with sauerkraut gnocchi and a caraway-kissed carrot velvet, it’s an enviable dish.
“First and foremost, I want people to remember how great it tasted,” Funk says. “But it doesn’t hurt if they want to take a photo of it or come back to show somebody.
“We served a guy at an eight-top the other night, and there was not anything edible left on the plate within three minutes,” he continues. “This is a lot of food. The server came back five minutes later with an empty plate. I’m like, ‘Did you drop it?!’” MKE
ARIA The Restaurant at Saint Kate
139 E Kilbourn Ave.