For every thousand or so of the soulless calorie dispensaries that make up the corporeal restaurant world, there’s at least one Amilinda (315 E Wisconsin Ave., 414-369-3683): an ephemeral kitchen presence, lurking about after hours on the fringes of the scene, fueled by nothing but grit and perfect-plate dreams, just waiting for an actual home. Or that’s how we imagine it. And that’s how we’ve come to think about chef Gregory Leon’s new place, a brick-and-mortar outpost—finally—for his pop-up dinner stand which has long been moonlighting during off-hours at The National Café.
Savvy, in-the-know diners adept at some kind of Masonic reservation system have been speaking in glowing, hushed terms for years about Leon’s racks of lamb with bell pepper stew and Galician tuna empanadas. Leon, a native of Oklahoma, grew up in Venezuela, lived in Spain, and cut culinary teeth as a chef in San Francisco. His cuisine is a product of everything he’s loved and everywhere he’s been. And while that sounds like the type of fusion we’d be annoyed by—just pick a genre already!—it’s hard to be perturbed when you’ve got word-of-mouth anticipation rolling for the Alentejana-style pork chops. Yes, Amilinda is Portuguese also. And yes, at last, it feels like a new downtown spot worth both the hullabaloo and parking difficulties.
The space: It’s on Wisconsin Avenue, removed from the wannabe Brooklyns of our burgeoning food burg. And in many ways that’s refreshing. It can be hard to remember that if Alem Ethiopian Village were tucked down in Bay View, it would be heralded by locals as an in-the-know ethnic joint, and if Zarletti was in, say, Walker’s Point, Milwaukeeans would view it as a stalwart of passionate old-country cooking and not just as the place your parents always want to go. So much of a restaurant’s personality comes from its ’hood. And vice versa, maybe Amilinda will help bring a dose of hip back to downtown.
It feels that way as soon as you hit the door. At once you’re struck by a rough cream city brick wall, framed canvas work, popping geometric murals, and basically the industrial chic we’ve all become used to from eating at any restaurant opened within the past seven years. But here the ceilings are high and there’s a subtle touch of downtown class, underlined by the likes of Billie Holiday crooning and Lester Young blowing low through the long narrow room. There’s an open kitchen in the bar’s corner, which helps give a vibe of a bigger, airier Crazy Water. We just hope a strip more perused by daytime office workers can support a spot equipped, at least for now, with dinner-only hours.
The service: Three days in to kitchen service, our waitress gave off a vibe like it was Wednesday of week one of a job she was really stoked to have, and the description of seemingly everything was peppered with “great” and “I love it”’s. A bit much, but we understand passion. It’s what always wins. Which is why, despite originally being brought the entrees meant for the next table, we’ll remember our evening as rife with quality attention. Here, even the server bringing the water does it with a smile.
Milwaukee Record’s food: It’s a brief menu, long on esoteric terms. In fact, we haven’t seen such an amalgamation of befuddling terminology since the GOP debate: salmorejo, espetada, alentejana, bacalao. We forged on anyhow, picking at the familiar (gin and tonic, $8 on a pleasantly un-craft cocktail list; something with an egg), ogling the obviously inspired (there’s a chorizo broth!), and pretending to know about stuff such as garlic scapes.
Turns out the egg, of the six-minute variety, was on board the “Salmorejo,” ($8) which, Saveur tells us is gazpacho’s “richer, deeper cousin,” originating from the south of Spain. It almost didn’t matter it was one of the best eggs we’ve tasted, cooked right and soft with warm yolky runniness spooling out over the chilly soup surface. Combined with a sharp brace, via a “tropea” onion relish, the cooled tomato broth—thickened with bread, lush and subtly roast-y—would have undoubtedly been the soup of our summer regardless.
After learning the grilled sardines ($11) came in whole body form, and would thus be too much work by drink number two, we went instead toward the blood sausage ($10). Our adventurous spirit was rewarded by sliced, charred linkage that was approaching the state of chorizo. Salty, garlicky, it could be cut with a fork, but still held body enough to stand sturdy with the accompanying sweet corn and scapes (the bulb of the garlic plant, it so happens). The bits were near-black on the outer crust and paprika reddish inside. Enjoying each bite, we didn’t even fear what was certainly happening to our breaths, now buoyed by a beer (MKE Brewing’s Hop Happy, $5), or worry about which type of the many varietals of blood sausage in the world we were noshing. We simply soaked it in, letting meaty essence blow our minds naturally toward the Mediterranean, faraway spicy accents, girls with olive skin, and guys with lots of chest hair. Simply, we were converted.
This is usually the point (and joint) where we’d be heartened by small plates—the correlating price tag lessening wallet penetration. But we always order at least four anyways. So what’s wrong with a couple of 20-something entrees? And what of that chorizo broth anyhow? So we started with the pan roasted cod ($23). Tomato confit topped the fish hunk that sat in a deep sea swell of meaty juice. Said chorizo broth was salty, hearty, but somehow less satisfying than we had hoped. Not that we didn’t ask for a spoon to slurp up the post-fish remnants.
But everything seemed like a precursor to the entire point of our evening: Pork Alentejana ($21). It’s the traditional pig dish of Portugal, originating in the Alentejo region, where we hear they eat pork near daily. Here, the inch-plus thick slab comes in a deep bowl, swimming in a stew seemingly comprised of wine, tomato, and peppers. Our meat had a juicy, just-past-pink middle, crusty black skin spots, and a considerable caveman bone sticking out. A handful of clams hovered next to the meat like a symbiotic pack, and each popped out of their home with only mild fork prodding, soaking up the rich gravy below. It was as festive and exotic a surf ’n’ turf we’ve encountered, but with good old-fashioned Midwestern meat comfortable and satisfying—the essence here like trying to describe why your old man’s pork chops are so good. If your old man was a Portuguese fisherman.
The verdict: It didn’t even matter they brought us milk instead of cream for our post-meal coffee ($1.50), or that the chef was out from the kitchen and schmoozy post-meal. Here, it felt gracious, Leon rightly proud of his new digs and formidable pork chopping. With Amilinda we have a brand new, but somehow old-shoe addition to the big leagues of Milwaukee foodism, where smiles, passion, easy hipness, and crispy blood sausages carry the day. And it’s all a tasty realization of a dream deferred, now realized.