Tuesday, September 28, 2010

La Merenda

Well, if we have any readers left after that little hiatus... awesome. I owe you guys (and girls) an apology for our broken promises -- August was a tough month for us! Weddings, DJ'ing gigs, Photography gigs, and going back to school full time has taken a toll on my spare-time-to-write-food-blogs. But! We're here now, and that's what's important. Shall we take a moment to reflect on tapas?

My first contact with La Merenda was back in 2007, when I was working at Magnolia Hi-Fi at Best Buy (they don't deserve actually being linked to, btw). A gentleman came in, looking for a good sound system for a restaurant he was opening up. He told me it was going to be an International Tapas Bar. In Walker's Point. I thought... hrm, a stylish restaurant in the 'Point. Gentrification claims another victim.

Fast-forward four years, and suddenly I'm writing a food blog... and an International Tapas bar in the 'Point sounds like a pretty cool idea. Enter, La Merenda:

La Merenda is located on National Ave., East of 1st street, right next to Triangle Bar. The building is unassuming, and the signage isn't the most noticeable, so keep your eyes peeled. There is street parking, however, it's scarce and not metered, and you're in competition with every bar and club in the area, so you might end up walking a little bit. Don't worry... the walk is worth it.

The first rule of La Merenda is, it's always busy. ALWAYS. You may wait a few minutes for a table. That's okay. 

The second rule of La Merenda is, it's close quarters. The dining room is large, but there's lots of tables, and it's pretty comfy. If you're agoraphobic, take a few Xanax before you go for dinner.

The third rule of La Merenda is, tapas is lots more fun with a big group -- and the awesome wait staff will gladly accommodate such a group -- so bring your friends.

I've always had a dream of opening a restaurant that would adhere to the No Dogma concept of dining: having absolute no set rules or bounds other than awesome dishes, perfectly prepared. A place where Chinese, French, Italian, Greek, Mexican, and Thai can all exist on the same menu, and all ring true of their respective traditions. A place where I can make all of my favorite dishes and serve them in small amounts to large crowds and allow people to experience an entire range of cuisines in one dinner. La Merenda is this restaurant. 

La Merenda is the epitome of the No Dogma concept. Mis-matched chairs and tables litter the helter-skelter dining room floor. Wonky light fixtures illuminate loud orange walls. The interior is chíc, but not pretentious, fun without being silly. 

For this review, we attended La Merenda twice: once in early August as just diners, and once again, later in August, as a warm-up for the Milwaukee Eat Local Challenge.   Both times, we tried an insane amount of dishes, some seasonal, some more permanent on the menu... and I'll try my best to summarize all of the tapas insanity below.

We started things out with a cheese plate, featuring, of all things, Wisconsin Cheese! The star of our selections was a gouda with fenugreek, made by one of my favorite creameries, Marieke Gouda from Holland's Family Farm:

The smooth, creamy gouda was the perfect match the maple-syrupy sweet fenugreek, and Lori from Burp! immediately commented on how the cheese would be perfect for stuffed French Toast. But that's a different show. The cheese is served with a selection of nice 'n' salty cured meats, and kalamata olives. 

Next up: Duck Confit Crêpes with rosemary cream sauce. 

Good God are these rich. And delicious. Rich and delicious. But I think that the order should change... delicious, then rich. The duck is tender, flavorful, and fatty in the best possible confit-way. The crêpes were nice... a little crispier than I'm used to, but when I make crêpes at home (and yes, I do make them...), they're always the consistency of a whoopee cushion. The woody flavor of the rosemary was a perfect counterpoint to the strong fatty flavor of the duck. An absolute victory.

Cut to the Veal Osso Buco. Osso Buco is Italian for This Is So Damned Delicious I Think I Just Wet My Pants:

Tender, tender Wisconsin veal, in a stew of approximately fifteen gallons of red wine, served with a red pepper risotto that was good enough to warrant ordering the whole dish again. And again, and again, and again. There are simply no words for the veal. No. Words.

Oh, there has to be one in every crowd, doesn't there? Like the lady who breaks wind in church, or the guy who yells "Free Bird!" at every concert, everyone and their uncle is trying their own version of spring/summer/fall/winter/egg rolls. La Merenda does a Cantonese Spring Roll with pork and a menagerie of veggies and oyster sauce:

They're good. But a bit on the oily side. Perhaps par-fried, and finished in the Frialator again before serving? I have to say, I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about them. But Asian cuisine is touchy... if French cuisine is all about sauce making, Asian cuisine is all about flavor marriage: combining domineering flavors like fish sauce and fermented soy beans into a harmonious chorus. It's a difficult task, and I don't fault anyone for missing the mark. 

Oh, look! It's a Caprese Salad!

Wisconsin tomatoes, Wisconsin mozzarella, and Wisconsin basil. Did I hear even the Balsamic was from Wisconsin? Maybe I'm losing my mind. But it really doesn't matter where the vinegar was from, 'cause tomato season was over ten minutes after our salad came out to the table, and hot house tomatoes are one step above eating acidic beach sand. This is most def a seasonal menu item, and rightfully so. When tomatoes are one of only four ingredients, they have to be spot-on.

To be fair, the La Merenda Caprese has sautéed spinach and roasted red pepper rolled in the mozzarella, so there are a few more ingredients. And this may still be on the menu coasting into fall, although at the end of August, we were told that it was the end of local tomatoes.

Empanadas, no caramel apple. Well, no caramel, at least: 

Tasty little Colombian versions of the pocket pie, filled with seasoned pork and apples. The sauce supplied with said little pockets of porky joy was divine, and the spicing of the filing was dead on tasty. Perhaps a little pedestrian, but sometimes comfort food is the best interlude in a parade of crazy...

Thai curry... chicken, peppers, and potatoes in a coconut milk based gravy. Tasty, for sure, and I would have no problem eating a whole plate of it if it were my only entrée. But we're back to the Case of the Asian Food again, lacking a certain pop or flash that really makes your taste buds bounce around like kids on a sugar bender and your eyes roll back in your head. A good outing, but not the strongest offering on the menu. Which is fine, because it was a special that week, anyway, and was not on the permanent rotation of items.

And then there was the Prosciutto and Sweet Pea Arancini. Which is Italian for Delicious Enough To Drive You Mad. As you slice open the GBD alien pods bobbing about in a home made red sauce, you immediately notice the nice slices of prosciutto. Taking your first bite, bright green sweet peas pop in your mouth like Pop Rocks, and the salty goodness of the ham and risotto take over your soul:

Is this on the list of Must Try? Oh yes, it is.

Ahh, the Tomato Basil Ravioli. We were wondering when you'd show up...

Delicate little pillows of home made tomato basil pasta filled with Cheese Rock Star Sid Cook's Carr Valley Benedictine cheese, along with a host of others, with a light-ish basil cream sauce. The Benedictine lends a very, very nice funkiness to the pasta, while the dough itself cooks up tight and firm, with a good chew and excellent tomato and basil flavor throughout. Simple, reserved, but very well executed. 

Ever wonder what Heaven would taste like? It would taste like La Merenda's Beef Wellington:

A classic dish, with a Carr Valley twist. Which is fantastic, because you could serve Carr Valley Casa Bolo on an old shoe from a leper and it would still knock the socks off of anything you can find in a fast food joint. 

Here, the grass-fed beef tenderloin (which is an odd turn of phrase, by the way... the beef tenderloin never ate anything. Imagine the absolute shock and horror of seeing herds of tenderloin primals grazing away in a field somewhere. *shudder*) is stuffed with more Benedictine, ricotta, mushrooms, and rolled in a tasty tender blanket of puff pastry, served over sautéed spinach, and topped with horseradish aioli. Imagine an angel coming down from the sky, singing the most beautiful song in the world, whispering in your ear the absolute and total truth of the universe, and then punching you in the puss with a solid-gold brass knuckles. That's this Beef Wellington. 

My favorite part: the horseradish aioli, which, not unlike peanut butter and chocolate or LaVerne and Shirley, just makes perfect sense with the, er, beefy beef.

My least favorite part: the plate was finite. 

I believe the tenderloin was a bit over done, but I'll let that slide. Maybe. If you give me another plate of it.

Remember how, at Prom, there was the one kid you always thought was a complete dork and you never wanted to acknowledge that they were alive, and all of a sudden, they were out on the dance floor doing moves you only saw on MTV (back when they actually played videos...)? Well, the Sambal Goreng Udang is that kid.

Rich, creamy with coconut milk, and packed with shrimp and diced tomatoes, served over coconut mashed potatoes. The gravy was infused nicely with sambal, and I was really surprised by how much I loved this dish. My only gripe? My shrimp was a bit iodine-y. But I think I've become hyper-sensitized to this flavor as of late, it may just be me. 

If there was one dish that I flat-out didn't like, it would have to be the Jamaican Jerk Trout. While on paper it seems to be a winner, in execution, it fell flat:

The fish, steamed in a banana leaf, was still a bit fishy for me. I was immediately taken back to the Friday nights during Lent when my father would go down to our chest freezer, pull out a bag of cryogenically preserved fish we had caught years before, and proceed to batter them, drop them in a gigantic pot of smoking oil, and light the entire kitchen ablaze. 

Wait, what were we talking about? Oh, right. The trout.

It had the same murky freshwater flavor that I just don't have a hankering for. The jerk seasoning wasn't half as potent as I like, and the presentation was sort of sad and anemic. The rice, however, was fantastic! See, I'm not all doom and gloom. There was something positive to the dish!

Phew. Full yet? Yes? Well, tough titty toenails. It's time for dessert! 

Crème Caramel, anyone? 

Heavy, rich, decadent custard with a sugar-crack crust on top, sprinkled with the Official Taste of Up North Wisconsin Summer, blueberries. The half of this ramekin I was able to eat wasn't enough. Maybe two of them. No, three. 

If you're not a custard fan, this will totally freak you out. Crème Caramel is very sweet, and very rich, with a texture softer than flan, but heavier than a standard custard (since the principal ingredients are sugar, eggs, and heavy cream!). If, however, you're a fan, then La Merenda's version won't disappoint.

I wasn't able to actually try the unfortunately named Irish Car Bomb cupcake (I'm not a fan of glorifying violence through food... I understand the origin, I don't like the notion), but I was told it was the absolute end. I did, however, snag a nice picture:

Walking into La Merenda, one is greeted by a large chalkboard proclaiming the ever-changing list of local ingredients included in dishes:

With our large and lively group, 

we were afforded the opportunity to both speak with the chef himself,

and try a massive number of his creations, running the gamut of traditions and influences. If you've never tried a tapas restaurant, La Merenda is like starting at the top: local ingredients, brilliant pairings, and ever-changing specials. I like that there's a few dishes I tried that I didn't like: it means the variation on the menu isn't safe. When chef takes risks, exciting things happen. Go ahead, try it. I bet you get addicted to the Osso Buco. Mark my words!

Report Card:
Atmosphere: A-
Funky, cool, and totally No Dogma. But a bit crowded, and with concrete walls and floors and metal ceilings, it can get loud in there. If you're looking for a quiet, romantic dinner, find a place with shag carpet. 

Prices: B
Oh, this is a tough one to grade. Each plate ranges from $4.50 to $9, which isn't half bad. But keep in mind, for two people, look forward to ordering at least two to three rounds of two or three plates each. Things do add up, but this is dinner as experience, after all, and the experience is downright thrifty compared to a world tour. Individual items are fairly priced, but your tab will be substantial. Deal with it. The food is fantastic. 

Service: B+
The wait staff is harried and dodging chairs and tables, but friendly and will gladly suggest items if you get stumped by the massive menu. 

The Food: A
Marvelous. Lots of wins, and a few stinkers, but every single one a valiant and deserving effort. It's not every day that your dinner challenges you... here, you get to step outside your comfort zone a bit, explore some new options, and maybe come away with some new favorites. 

The Details:

La Merenda International Tapas Bar & Restaurant
125 E. National Ave. 
Milwaukee, WI 53204
(414) 389-0125

La Merenda on Urbanspoon


  1. I think you're spot on with this review. The restaurant is loud and almost always crowded -- so not great for intimate dinner conversation. But, the food is interesting -- and in Milwaukee, that wins big. Too many restaurants play it way too far over on the safe side!

  2. Joe, great review. Your pictures absolutely rock. We should start a regular group dinner/review night with some of our food blogger peeps. Keep up the great work.