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Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2009

La Merenda’s International Flavor

Wine, beer and tapas come together in Walker’s Point

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If you’re looking for a casual spot with international tapas, La Merenda fits the bill. As the menu explains, “merenda” is an Italian word meaning “early snack”—in particular, snacks meant to be shared with family or friends. Better yet, these shared snacks should be accompanied by wine or beer. Chef/owner Peter Sandroni has been serving tapas and drinks for more than two years at La Merenda’s Walker’s Point location.

The place has a modest exterior, along with a few outdoor tables when the weather is warmer. You enter into the bar area; on busy nights, this area is filled with patrons waiting for a table. The main dining room features oak tables with an assortment of chairs, ranging from press-back to balloon-back. Despite its cement floors and concrete-block walls, La Merenda has warm tones that make for an inviting setting.

The wines consist of an international list with some bottles for less than $20 and only a small number for more than $40. A great special can be found on Mondays, when all bottles are half-price. The equally thoughtful beer list has fair prices as well. Try the La Merenda National Avenue Ale, which is custom-made by Lakefront Brewery.

After deciding on a drink, turn your attention to the menu for a little gustatory globe-trotting. Europe, Asia, South America and North America are all represented. Servings are not large in size, but all items cost less than $10. Plan on ordering at least two per person, or bring a group and sample as much of the menu as you can.

You’ll find more than 25 items to choose from, not counting daily specials. Expect quality across the board: Sandroni is as adept at preparing a risotto as he is a Filipino pancit.

The lumpia Shanghai ($4.50) makes for the perfect starter. This is a Filipino version of a Chinese spring roll. Lumpia can be quite large, but these are the size of a thin cigar. They are filled with finely minced pork, cabbage and ginger, and then perfectly fried.

The menu has no soups, so opt for a salad instead. The Wisconsin roasted beet salad ($6.50) is an artistic presentation served on a triangular plate. Slices of roasted beets in hues of gold, red, and pink edge the center of mixed greens, young green beans, chopped fennel, a bit of onion, and crumbled honey goat cheese. Mustard vinaigrette dressing (with mustard used sparingly) tops this delightful, if small, salad that is expertly prepared.

Seafood items include great lobster and crab arancini ($7). “Arancini,” often found on Sicilian menus, means “little oranges.” Typically they are made of rice and a center of meat, and then fried. Here the seafood is mixed with mozzarella and basil, adding a refined touch. The two arancini are served with a bold marinara sauce that is fine on its own but smothers the flavor of the crab and lobster. Scallop ceviche ($9) hails from Peru. Tortilla chips ring this smallish serving of minced sea scallops. The treatment seems more Tahitian than Peruvian. There is a citrus marinade, flecks of cilantro, hints of chili and bits of bell pepper that are Peruvian enough. But the pineapple and coconut milk make this fine, sweet ceviche stray from Peru and travel far into the Pacific.

Yet the Asian influences make for some of the best items at La Merenda. The Indonesian sambal goreng udang ($8) is a chili paste that comes in many varieties. Here the sambal is toned down with coconut milk flecked with chopped tomatoes. The four jumbo shrimp ring a mound of coconut mashed potatoes in another example of this kitchen’s imaginative style.

Coriander beef ($7.50) stems from southern China. There are no surprises in this dish, as the pieces of New York strip have been fried with spinach and fresh mango and a hoisin-black bean sauce. This is not typical Cantonese fare, but it should be.

Wisconsin reappears on the menu with rainbow trout from Rushing Waters ($9), the name of the purveyor. A few pieces of trout have the skin on and are served over buttery fingerling potatoes with spinach, shallots and garlic. A dusting of dried herbs seems a bit aggressive for trout, but this kitchen never shies away from flavor—one of its strong points.

The service is excellent at slower times, though it can be strained when the place is busy. If it’s crowded, be patient and do not expect everything to arrive at once. Weekend evenings call for reservations. I find that the best time to visit is for a weekday lunch. The entire menu is served and the place is never crowded—even though the restaurant is just a short drive from downtown Milwaukee.

La Merenda
125 E. National Ave.
(414) 389-0125
$$-$$$
Credit Cards: All Major
Smoke-free
Handicap Access: Yes