[August 23] I think I was still suffering from a post trip consumption coma today, but no matter as I would ease back into healthy, local foods with….a trip to a tapas restaurant?

After a weekend of relative dining debauchery in Kansas City including the highly recommended Phoenix Jazz Club (302 W 8th St), the hangover-preventing Pizza Bar (1320 Grand Blvd), and the institution Arthur Bryant’s BBQ (1727 Brooklyn Ave), I slowly got back into farm mode today by harvesting cucumbers and squash and working on some assorted weeding tasks.

The workday ended early, which helped my cause of getting to Milwaukee on time. I was able to shower up and make it to La Merenda (125 E National Ave, Milwaukee) about 6:30pm to visit with a group of Eat Local Challenge volunteers already in progress with their meal. La Merenda has been chosen the Eat Local Milwaukee Restaurant of the Week as a month-long buildup to the September Challenge (learn more here).

I’d never been to La Merenda myself, but had heard some great things about the restaurant and was looking forward to the evening. The building itself is in a location I wouldn’t have pictured, and obviously didn’t as I turned the wrong way on National when I first got there from 1st Street. The exterior is unassuming, but the real attraction is, of course, what is conjured in the kitchen inside.

La Merenda building

La Merenda building

My group had a later reservation than the other Eat Local folks, so we congregated in the bar over drinks (and half-priced bottles of wine on Mondays) while arriving. As I checked out the nightly specials board, my attention drifted to the list of local ingredients board just next to it. It was quite the lineup of products.

The Boards

The Boards

At the table, I was bombarded with plate after plate of great food. Sitting with the large group provoked lively banter and discussion, and also provided a chance to sample many more plates than I might have done alone or with a couple of people. While I couldn’t dedicate absolute concentration to the food, the sheer volume of different tastes I was handed more than made up for it.

For starters, my side of the table ordered Bravas y Chorizo (potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce partnered with aioli and chorizo) and the Local Artisan Cheese and Meat Plate (farmstead cheeses and meats served with kalamata olives and crackers). The chorizo dish was not as spicy as I had hoped, but was solid. The cheese and meat plate featured good standard stuff.

Artisan meat & cheese plate

Artisan meat & cheese plate

The Caprese Salad (homemade mozzarella rolled with sautéed spinach and roasted red pepper, served with heirloom tomatoes, basil, and balsamic glaze) was a pairing of comfortable flavors in a cleverly constructed rectangular shape. Empanadas combined tender Wilson Farm Meats pork with apples in a fried pastry. I passed on the Chinese Spring Rolls (Wilson Farm Meats pork combined with shrimp and other ingredients) which looked inviting but used peanut oil.

Chinese spring rolls

Chinese spring rolls

Now, in my mind, is when the magic started happening. The evening’s special Thai Curry dish with chicken was flavorful and very satisfying. Next came one of the highlights: Tomato Basil Ravioli. The handmade ravioli was filled with Carr Valley Benedictine cheese, Parmesan, Asiago, and ricotta, tossed in a basil cream sauce, and topped with summer squash. A wonderful presentation awoke the senses before the first bite danced on the taste buds. Great stuff.

Tomato basil ravioli

Tomato basil ravioli

Duck Confit Crepes with mushrooms and rosemary cream sauce inspired one of the evening’s best quotes from the table, “When I go, I want to be cooked slowly in my own fat.” Right on. Veal Osso Buco (braised Strauss Free Raised veal on a bed of roasted red pepper risotto) was an absolute pleasure and another highlight. As someone commented, the dish would have been worth it alone simply for the risotto.

Veal osso buco

Veal osso buco

Wrapping up the evening was a sample of Beef Wellington (tenderloin in puff pastry with Carr Valley cheese, mushrooms, sautéed spinach, and horseradish aioli) followed by dessert. The absolute highlight and the pot of gold at the end of my recent dessert-hunt rainbow was the Irish Car Bomb. A Guinness cake soaked in Baileys Irish Cream and assorted sugary goodness was just what the doctor ordered. It certainly wasn’t local, but that didn’t matter to any of us.

My palate was pleased, my stomach mostly full, and my wallet now awake and anxious. With one beer and sharing all the plates in my group, the dinner cost me roughly $30 before tip. It was a pleasant way to spend an evening and an excellent way to encounter many different styles of food.

I’m now looking forward to the next time I can visit–my favorites have been identified and will be in the cross-hairs.

La Merenda on Urbanspoon