The Sheer Joy of Amaranth Cafe
I can’t really review it. There were no flaws, just great food and happiness.
When I park in front of Amaranth Bakery and Café in still summery weather, I notice a few picnic tables ready for al fresco dining, and behind them, a large garden. Shades of green catch my eye, a patch of spinach and a patch of gorgeous pale green lettuce. One person tends the garden. Her name is Ning. She’s Hmong, came to Milwaukee in 1979. She is very proud of the garden and Amaranth, where everything possible will be sourced from this garden, just a few steps for the spinach and the lettuce to travel from the soil to the table.
In 2006, David Boucher and Stephanie Shipley opened Amaranth in a neighborhood that’s slowly being rehabbed. I heard about it four years ago from friends in Brookfield who come regularly for the exceptional bread, soup, scones, and pastries. For people who live in the burbs, it’s a destination. On a recent lunchtime visit, I met friends from Glendale, Wauwatosa, and Menomonee Falls.
It’s not really possible to review Amaranth; we found our lunch flawless. Instead, I’ll write a few paragraphs in an attempt to describe what we ate and why the kudos piled up as we enjoyed lunch in this small café. Mismatched chairs and tables, art on the walls, and a bookcase for browsing create a space where it’s easy to relax with a book, food, and a cup of coffee.
As one friend orders Veggie Soup, Boucher says, “There’s no Parmesan, so it’s vegan.” A lump of pesto made with walnuts, not pine nuts, floats on the soup and tastes as if someone made it five minute ago. The soup comes with a piece of Cheddar-Poblano bread, spongy, chewy, and crisp from the cheese. Someone mentions all the veggies are hand-cut, rather than machine-cut into perfect cubes, giving it a rustic character.
The Quiche of the Day, spinach and onion, baked in a flaky, buttery crust hints of nutmeg and garlic. That would be the spinach I noticed in the garden as I arrived. Likewise, my friend’s salad, greens with walnuts, craisins, and gorgonzola is made with the lovely lettuce I had also admired in the garden.
At this point someone comments that’s he’s often been here when there was a line out the door. I would absolutely line up for the sandwiches I sampled, the one I ate at the café and the one I took home.
The Veggie Sandwich with havarti on ciabatta has a pickled mushroom that adds pizzazz. The Turkey, also on ciabatta, includes tomato chutney. When I eat it the next day, I notice there’s enough heat in the chutney to warm my lips, but not enough to leave a burn. The tomato in the chutney makes the turkey flavors pop, adding a surprise to what could be an ordinary sandwich.
We note the absence of scones. Someone at a nearby table says, “If you want a scone, it’s a good idea to call ahead.” He tells us they are not overly sweet but, “Oh so buttery.” His favorite, macadamia nut, is available only occasionally. “They fly out the window,” he says, noting that he’s a regular. “If there is a certain bread you want, call ahead for that, too.”
I ask Boucher about the bread and what makes it special. He explains that he and Shipley drive to New York for the flour because there’s a mill they like and it’s too expensive to ship. “The flour is organic and very finely sifted.” He says they tried local flour made in small batches but it lacked consistency and didn’t work for his bakers. “We had to adjust for each batch. It’s easier to drive to New York.”
He uses a heritage sourdough starter. That means the bread is naturally fermented and takes longer to rise giving it that spongy chewy texture.
That’s when our friend at the next table overhears our conversation and says, “There’s nothing like it in Milwaukee. It reminds me of the bread we ate in Germany. You can’t get this in mass-produced bakeries.”
We agree. For dessert we share a Chocolate-Pecan tart. It tastes as if it just came out of the oven, like a chocolate chip cookie tastes when the chocolate is still warm and oozy. I eye the crumbs left on the plate. My friend across the table has the same idea. She gets to them first. I sigh, and order one to take home.
On the Menu
- Trade Name: Amaranth
- Location: 3329 W. Lisbon Ave.
- Phone: 414-934-0587
- Hours: 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Tue-Sat
- UM Rating: 4.3666666666667 stars (average of Yelp, Trip Advisor and Zomato)