Glimpses of Greatness and Grilled Cheeses

The last two evenings were spent completely (or maybe just somewhat completely) outside of my comfort zone. Wednesday, Sasa and I went to a Farm to Table dinner at La Merenda, in support of the movie Fresh which is screening here next week (4/19-21, 2010 at the Downer Landmark Theater). La Merenda is in the industrial Walker's Point neighborhood, just north of the Allen Bradley clock, as you can see:

We arrived just before our 7 o'clock dinner reservation, unsure of what to expect. It is a very intimate and somewhat dark space, with poured concrete counters and floors, but tastefully lightened by brightly painted cinder block walls. A smiling bartender when we walked through the front door was my first impression, and a lasting one as he recommended a great Spanish Tempranillo that Sasa enjoyed.

Our dinner was four courses, with a focus on local and sustainably farmed meats and produce. Photography skill is put to the test in a room like this, and I think I failed to capture the ambiance, which really was quite lovely. Chef Peter Sandroni talked briefly on the restaurants commitment to local food, and thanked us for supporting the local restaurant scene.

This may be where it gets a bit tricky... since parts of each course were truly great. Amazing even. But as a whole, each dish left just a little something that I wanted to love and just didn't. One thing I did love was this amazing cheese on the first course: a Montchevre Honey Goat Cheese from Belmont, Wisconsin. It was lightly breaded and pan fried, and was really outstanding.

As the evening progressed, I have more and more dimly lit pictures. I actually liked the sodium light colored hue the orange walls added to the atmosphere, although it really does nothing to accentuate my food photography! I have a slew of pictures over at flickr that I will annotate with other happy moments in this dinner. I am also planning to check out La Merenda again, and try some additional small plates.

Last night, my Husband and I carpooled with Peef and Lo, and Sonja - another blogger from Milwaukee by way of Boston. We had full circle discussions about food on our ride out to Madison for the celebration of the new website Grilled Cheese Academy. This site, produced by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing board is drop dead gorgeous - full of inspirational cheese sandwiches of the grilled variety. You may not think twice about a grilled cheese, but it is indeed inspired eating, especially when prepared by L'Etoile's Chef Tory Miller.

The small Cafe Soleil rests beneath its parent restaurant, where unfortunately, I have never eaten. I was a little wrapped up in chatting (further reading will have to be done here after meeting another Milwaukee food blogger - Mel!), and not as conscious of my surroundings as I am when I'm alone... but when my Husband noted that Chef Miller looks really excited about what he's doing, I had to pay attention and agree. This is the type of passion that makes everyone as excited about a grilled cheese sandwich as he is - and not to mention that the sandwich combinations that the Grilled Cheese Academy showcases on their site are solid recipes. Epicurean grilled cheese sandwiches for people who love to cook, and some that are easy enough for a quick throw together. There is also a section for recipe submissions, so if you feel that you have a worthy contender, you can submit!

The above specimen was one of my favorites: The Monroe. Bacon, Limberger cheese, spinach, onions and fig jam happily playing together in one sandwich. I have never eaten Limberger before, and I have to say it was much different that I was expecting. It was delicious! Another of my favorites was this one:

The Biloxi. Pulled pork, coleslaw and bread and butter pickles. I actually ate two samples of this one, even though I ran out of room and it meant I didn't get to try each variety. Next to each plate of grilled cheese samples, were a couple of different varieties of Wisconsin beer, and I have to say I was more than a bit surprised how expertly paired up they were. Granted, I could have been more scholarly and written everything down, but that would have deterred me from my gusto in sampling. I forgot to mention the rocky piles of cheese cubes, little bites of Wisconsin cheese in a nice range of every flavor imaginable: blues, fontina and even a raspberry one that was particularly good. I have also downloaded a set of photos to flickr, and will try to annotate later today as I remember...but do remember that the Grilled Cheese Academy website has a recipe for each and every mouthwatering photo on their site! Way to go, Wisconsin Milk Board! Also be sure to check out other Wisconsin blog and food blog pages over the next few days to read more on their takes of this event as well.

When it comes down to it, I think the past couple of days have taught me a few things. I love to eat, I can have a critical palate, and I definitely know what I like and why, but what I really love is being enslaved to my kitchen, concocting and tweaking and testing - and then writing about it. I have a deep sense of appreciation for professionals that are able to make food and serve others, and it is fun to go and see what is out there, especially when the whole food experience is akin to live theater. But to have the pleasure to cook and bake in my own home is much more rewarding to me than reviewing.

I recall writing some paper in college in which I used this quote, and I believe that it was to the same effect: that I would rather "stoke the star maker machinery behind the popular song" (that was Joni Mitchell, by the way). I am not introverted, but do walk that fine line. While attempting more events is no doubt in my future, I am absolutely content to keep my "day job", blissful as it is, and immerse myself fully in the wonders of flours and other such things.