After a few years of doing occasional pop-up dinners at restaurants like The National and losing hope of opening a full-service restaurant, Gregory and his business partner and husband, Orry León, took a chance earlier this year on an East Wisconsin Avenue storefront badly in need of a renovator. All it took was Gregory seeing the stove hood left from a previous tenant while he and Orry were walking past the building one day.
Each represents a side of the restaurant coin. Orry, who oversaw the interior design, is out on the dining floor, amid the line of two-tops and the bar, which is accented with a large, brightly colored rooster centerpiece. The room has the unearthed, rustic look of a place released from years of plaster buildup, ugly old ceramic tile and a dropped ceiling. Walls of exposed brick with quirky pockets, a high ornate ceiling, and an old black-and-white mosaic tile floor now define the storefront.
To his partner’s service and décor skills, Gregory brings his kitchen expertise. Of all the worries related to opening a restaurant – which the formerly San Francisco-based chef had not done in his long career – the cuisine was “the least” of his apprehensions, he says. Amilinda – named after Gregory’s parents, Amilcar and Linda – used the pop-up experiences to establish a reputation in Milwaukee, he adds, and build a clientele that would “understand what we do.” Gregory’s interest in Portugal – whose rich cuisine was shaped by Africa and Asia – grew out of his longstanding love of Spain. (Born in Oklahoma, he was raised in Venezuela by an American mother and Venezuelan father.)
Although the pop-ups laid the groundwork, Gregory is writing his own rulebook, which advocates patronizing Wisconsin farms, making as much as possible in-house, and changing the menu whenever the mood strikes (often). His asparagus pâté ($8) was a memorable first-course item back in August. On the same menu was a warm Spanish chorizo and apple “salad” of chewy, smoky sausage mixed with finely chopped apple ($13). Spooned onto hunks of Amilinda’s stretchy, crusty home-baked bread, the dish was attention-demanding in all the right ways. Finishing the sausage, though, meant giving up precious stomach territory. And these are just first courses. Another starter – lamb chops with pepper-almond stew ($15) – would have made a copious second course for one person: three flavorful little chops laid across two oblong, light flatbreads topped with what might be called a mirepoix – that’s a French sauté of chopped vegetables, although mirepoix doesn’t typically include almonds. It was that unexpected topping, along with a fermented honey aioli, that made this dish.
Rabbit had a good run on the late-summer menu as the focus of an entrée (and may still have a presence indefinitely). One week, Amilinda led with homemade rabbit sausage, served in a crock of pimento cheese grits and arugula salad ($23), and offered a trio of braised hind leg, fried front leg and a link of sausage, with beautiful long, slender carrots and Swiss chard ($24). Centermost was the meat, and its richness and earthy flavor melding into the meat broth. A more intoxicating broth came with the pork Alentejana ($22), a thick-cut, tender braised chop towering out of a bowl of spicy tomato-red pepper broth that’s so good you need to take command of it with a spoon. But don’t ignore the clams in this classic Portuguese dish. Even better than the pork that night was a skirt steak ($21), strips of which were bathed in a rousing salsa verde. With it came a soufflé-like starch called milho frito (fried cornmeal) that could have stood on its own as part of a vegetarian dish.
Another way of interpreting “Amilinda” is by its variant spelling – Amelinda, which is Spanish for “beloved.” That couldn’t be more the case for the Leóns vis-à-vis the restaurant. But it also may be true with guests. It’s difficult to not be moved by the care they put into everything here.
Amilinda 315 E. Wisconsin Ave., 414-369-3683. Hours: Dinner, Tues-Sat. Prices: Entrées $19-$23. Service: Enthusiastic; knowledgeable; staff is quick to seek answers for what they don’t know. Reservations: Recommended.