MILWAUKEE — Drive south from downtown Milwaukee into the Walker's Point neighborhood and the dimly lit streets and empty buildings will make you feel like you should keep going.
Don't. Park, get out and enjoy some of the best farm-to-table food in a city that prides itself on being the heart of America's Dairyland.
Your first stop should be La Merenda, a tapas bar where farmers and artisanal food producers vie to get on the menu. With so many restaurants naming their suppliers these days, serving local food seems unremarkable and increasingly faddish. But Peter Sandroni and a growing group of like-minded chefs have demonstrated the power of buying locally in turning around this neighborhood once known for car break-ins and other petty crime.
When Sandroni opened La Merenda in an old woodworking shop seven years ago, Walker's Point had only one truly notable restaurant, Peggy Magister's Crazy Water, a pricey-by-Milwaukee-standards bistro with a quietly loyal clientele.
Today, its neighbors include Braise, run by James Beard nominee Dave Swanson; c. 1880, operated by Thomas Hauck, the former executive sous chef at Citronelle in Washington; and Blue Jacket, a Great Lakes-themed restaurant that's rapidly making a name for itself after opening last summer. Magister has opened a second restaurant in the area, called All Purpose, or AP.
The restaurants are within blocks of some of the city's most acclaimed artisanal producers, including the cheesemaker Clock Shadow Creamery, Purple Door Ice Cream, Atomic Chocolate Co., Anodyne Coffee Roasting Co. and Great Lakes Distillery, which makes small-batch spirits. Sandroni has made a point of buying from these companies and encourages other chefs to do so as well.
He knew the dark, dead-end street where he opened La Merenda on Valentine's Day in 2007 was a gamble. Customers were afraid to walk too far in a section of the city with few street lamps — a problem that remains. But the artsy and upscale neighborhood to the north had no space left for a newcomer, and the neighborhood just south was rapidly filling with hipsters.
Sandroni's menu has a few staples — ravioli and empanadas stuffed with seasonal vegetables, meat and sometimes fruit. The ravioli on the current menu — filled with winter squash and soft quark cheese from Clock Shadow Creamery — comes in a brown butter that is swoon-worthy. Later in the year, the squash may be replaced with mushrooms or spinach.
Another mainstay is patatas bravas y chorizo, a dish of fried potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce with Spanish pork sausage. The potatoes cut the heat in the sauce, leaving the dish sweet and tangy.
A similar dish with a Wisconsin twist features LaClare Farms goat cheese curds melted on garlic crostini under a tomato and chorizo cream sauce. You might want to order a side of Rocket Baby Bakery bread to wipe up the extra sauce. Or, order the bread just to taste Sandroni's homemade jams and butters flavored with garlic, herbs or spices.
Most La Merenda small plates run $7 to $10 and are designed to be shared among four people. With a group of six to eight, it's possible to order much of the menu and still walk away with a bill of $20 to $25 per person.
The restaurant's top seller also is its most expensive, a $15 Argentinian-style grass-fed beef marinated in chimichurri, grilled and served with mashed sweet plantains. The beef is fork-tender, and the plantains put mashed potatoes to shame.
The cost of the dish reflects Sandroni's recent switch from a national meat supplier to a farm north of Milwaukee. Knowing the cows are treated right, he says, is worth the higher price.