Much as the 1960s marked a turning point for culture in America, the Movido Madrilena marked a new beginning for post-Franco Spain. No longer bound by the strict social structures enforced by the dictator, the Spanish people rode a wave of hedonism and cultural change.
Limits were pushed, boundaries were broken, and Madrid became the center for a counter-cultural shift that can still be felt today in its art, theatre and music.
Since that time, the culinary scene in Spain has blossomed. During the 1970s chefs like Juan Mari Arzak and Pedro Subijana – in the Basque region – laid the course by translating concepts from French nouvelle cuisine into "nueva cocina vasca" (new Basque Cuisine).
By the 1990s, icons like Ferran Adrià, of El Bulli on the Costa Brava, gained international attention for outrageously inventive 30-course menus that showcased both the science and art of high cuisine. He also gave rise – and training -- to chefs like Spanish-born José Andrés, who is often credited for bringing the concept of small plates dining to America.
And thanks to the influence of such prominent, talented chefs, dining out today in modern-day Spain continues to be one of the most intellectually stimulating, provocative experiences imaginable.
But, even if you can’t make it to Madrid, you can glimpse a bit of the cuisine you’re missing just by heading to Walker’s Point.
Movida, 524 S. 2nd St., aims to give Milwaukee a taste of authentic modern Spanish fare with dishes that pay homage to the past while giving a nod to modern techniques and flair.
Formerly the home of INdustri Café, the exterior remains relatively unchanged, with the exception of the new restaurant sign hanging above the door.
But, patrons will see a difference as they walk inside where cream city brick walls are hung with canvas prints of Spanish figures and international celebrities, including Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and Jacquelyn Kennedy Onassis.
"These are things that bring us to Spain, and tell the story of what Spain was," says Andrei Mikhail, one of the owners of Movida. "They tell the stories of famous bullfighters and the culture."
The space, he says, also tells the story of a more modern Spain.
"There’s no flamenco dancers dancing around your table. No Spanish flag hanging. Now there’s a very modern, minimalist sense of décor when you walk in. There’s an attention to detail.
"In terms of the atmosphere, and what we’ve tried to do here … (guitarist) Evan Christian is here on Tuesdays. He gives a nice representation of what flamenco is now, incorporating urban beats and strumming into a more modern space."
And Mikhail, a native of Fox Point, knows a bit about modern Spain after living there for the past 13 years.
"My parents actually met in Spain. My father was from Milwaukee, but he moved there when he was 20," he says. "My mother is from Peru. She moved to Spain and was working there when she met my dad."
Throughout his childhood he traveled with his parents to and from Spain. And when he graduated from college and began a career in international investment banking, he made his home in Madrid.
"Spain was always my second home," he said. "I had friends there, and I was comfortable with the culture. So, it only made sense."
Eventually, after leaving the banking industry, he took a turn in retail ownership and management before accepting a job in management at Serrano 41.
"We’d turn over 1,500-2,000 people a night," he says. "It began as a bar and dance club, but a restaurant was added later."
Mikhail says the dream to start a restaurant in Milwaukee started there.
"I wanted to see something that was a fair representation of Spain," he says. "There’s always been a need in Milwaukee for a Spanish restaurant – a place that’s true to the authenticity, but offers a view of the contemporary.
"The project came to fruition about a year and a half ago," he goes on "Hamad [Fadaifar] and Aaron [Gersonde] came out to Spain to visit. My cousin, Sean [Schoenecker], was there with me. And we all came together and talked about it."
Turns out their skill sets created a perfect storm for opening a restaurant. Gersonde has expertise in front of the house, as well as handling the financial end of the business. Meanwhile Fadaifar handles marketing and social media while Mikhail manages the back of the house, including a menu that aims to transport guests on a culinary tour of Spain.
According to Mikhail, the must-haves on the menu include the croquetas, gazpacho, lomo tosta (pork loin served on toast with brie and pickled apricots), and the salt cod fritters.
"People love their Friday fish fry – and salt cod is big in Spain," he says. "So, we feature the salt cod fritters with roasted tomato aioli. It’s so delicious, and people are loving it.
"We also worked very hard on the concept of our gazpacho. We’ve taken lighter, sweeter yellow tomatoes and banana peppers with cucumbers, housemade mini croutons, olive oil and sherry vinegar. It’s so refreshing and delicious. It’s probably one of the items on the menu I’m most proud of."
And, although paella is one of the more commercialized foods of Spain, Mikhail says it’s still an important part of the menu and the story of Spanish cuisine.
"People think of paella and they think of chicken and meat and lemon," he says. "But, lemon is actually an American thing. Our Movida paella is a tribute to what people would eat when they worked in the fields. Some of the only game they could get in the fields was snails. So, what we wanted to do was to give people a taste of that. We included frog legs and snails and vegetables – not the heavy game that you now find in paella."
And unlike other restaurants, which serve paella in the traditional way – in large pans, which are meant to feed a crowd – Movida will serve the dish in smaller, made-to-order, portions.
"As opposed to a large paella, we’re doing six-inch pans," Mikhail explains, "So, everyone can eat what they like and try different things. It’s our way of adapting to the concept for people here."
But Mikhail says he wants people to know that there’s much more to Spanish cuisine than paella.
"Each menu item expresses an element," he says. "Like the classic broken eggs dish that we make with a duck egg. The idea is that you take a chip and you break the egg, and then you scoop it up with the chorizo to eat it. I think the good thing about the menu is that we’ve really touched on all the regions of Spain."
Representation is apparent in the cheese selection which features Mahón, a salty cow’s milk cheese from the Balearic Islands; Canarejal, a creamy ewe’s milk cheese made in Castilla y León; Cabra al Vino, a red wine brine washed goat’s milk cheese typically made in the area southeast of Madrid; as well as Manchego and Cabrales, a picante blue cheese from northern Spain.
Hams and chorizos will include Chistorra, a quick cured Basque style chorizo, as well as Serrano ham. Iberico ham and Bellota Iberico, a variety made from acorn-fed pork, will also make appearances on the menu.
"We’ll be making frequent changes to the menu," he says. "There’s so many different things to incorporate. We’ve been grilling octopus and experimenting with mojo pican, Spanish red pepper sauce from the north of Spain, that we’d like to serve with it. We’ll also be serving potatoes two ways with the sauce."
Cocktails will be executed with a similar sense of detail.
Dan Beres, formerly of Distil, will work with the crew at Movida for the next six months to solidify a cocktail program that’s reminiscent of ones in Spain.
"There are gin bars all over Madrid with balloon glasses and signature cocktails," Mikhail notes. "The craft cocktail movement in Spain is growing like wild fire, and the big thing there is gin and tonics."
In turn, Movida will offer its own versions of the cocktail – including the signature Movida – using fresh juices, housemade tonics and syrups.
"It’s great to see people trying them – people who aren’t gin drinkers – being surprised that it’s so smooth, so unlike what they’ve had before," he says.
The wine list, which features 25 different wines from all over Spain, was chosen with an equal amount of care.
"We were very fortunate that we have a friend who used to be the sommelier at Alinea," Mikhail explains. "And he was gracious enough to give us some time to help us develop the wine list."
Pricing on bottles is $25-30 on average; with some priced at $60 and above. The same wines will be available by the glass for $7-10. Wine flights will also be available in the next few weeks, on Wednesdays, so that customers can sample multiple wines.
"We built this space to accommodate everyone – from date night for two, to larger groups," he says, "And the cool thing is that people are embracing the idea that’s so common to Spain – coming in and eating in groups with friends."
He says the restaurant has been busy since it opened, and that there are plans to expand the restaurant’s offerings to include brunch, starting in late September or early October.
"We’ll also be doing what higher end restaurants in Spain are doing," he says. "We’ll serve cava and oysters, and we’ll be doing that on Thursday nights."
Ultimately, Mikhail says that their hope is to introduce Milwaukeeans to something different – a taste of a Spain they may never have experienced.
"Movida…," says Mikhail, "… it was the Madrid movement when everything changed. People were freed from old ideas, liberated to try new things. That – for me and my business partners – is what we are trying to do with this restaurant."
Movida is open Tuesday through Sunday from 5 p.m. to midnight. Reservations can be made by calling (414) 224-5300.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.