I had a chat this morning with a freelance writer from Chicago, who mentioned she sometimes wishes she could be a restaurant critic there. Near the top of the list of reasons was the fact that there are so few female food critics in the Chicago area. It got me thinking about how many of the critics I've covered in this feature are women -- over half this week! Balance, duality, dichotomy: you should see a thread running through many of the reviews in this week's Flyover Friday.Read More
The end of the year is all about family -- giving gifts, traveling to visit, sending cards -- and so much so that by the time January rolls around, I'm ready for a break. Indeed, the traditional New Year's Eve celebration in my house is a night in with my wife, some takeout sushi, and beer/champagne. (I'm sure I've talked about this before.) No parties, no crowds, just us.
This year, the post-holiday shut-in phase seemed to run its course a little faster than usual. By the end of the month, we were jammed in to breweries and restaurants with friends and strangers alike, eating, drinking and celebrating. The world of food and beer is a whole different kind of family.Read More
As an inveterate fan of a good pun -- the writerly love that dare not speak its name -- I fully expected Chef Tory Miller (Graze, L'Etoile) to dip into that well in naming his forthcoming restaurant in the Constellation building on East Washington and Livingston. L'Etoile means 'the star,' Constellation: It was too obvious. So props to Miller for sticking to what the restaurant itself will be about, and not just the building.Read More
Good food writing is like that old legislator's line about spotting porn: You know it when you see it. But good food writing is definitively not like porn in that it should depict an experience that the audience can fairly easily replicate. The critic should have a palate and an eye for both detail and diversity, and the ability to communicate the dining experience to the reader, facilitating practical application. Do, and then describe. Limber up, it's Flyover Friday.Read More
I have to acknowledge that this edition of Flyover Friday is woefully, unforgivably late. I was trying to do about three different things at once this week; similarly, there's a number of restaurants reviewed in this week's batch of reviews that appear to be trying to get a handle on being more than one kind of thing. Peruvian-Wisconsinite, almost-new, tavern-and-restaurant, or in the case of one review (cringetastically), repeatedly-misspelled and slightly-racist. You'll just have to see for yourselves. It's Flyover Friday -- er, Friday-Wednesday.Read More
I'm not tooting my own horn here, but this feature isn't always easy. Tracking down restaurant reviews from 20-some newspapers throughout the Midwest -- sometimes the review isn't really a review but more of a snapshot or a first look, sometimes the websites are really awful, sometimes the publication date isn't easy to spot, or it's in relative mode and I have to count hours backwards in time to see if it was published under my deadline for inclusion. An RSS feed is a lot easier, but in setting mine up, I'm discovering how shoddy or unhelpful a lot of RSS work is. This includes two of three Madison publications I follow. RSS stands for "really simple syndication," and I'm not sure it's as simple as advertised if so many papers can't get a grasp of it. This week's Flyover Friday will only consider the publications whose RSS feeds are legitimately helpful for readers of restaurant criticism.Read More
Are you ready for some arancini? Because damn, they're happening. The Italian Power Bar. Like Scooby Snacks for foodies. These appetizers ball so hard motherfuckers wanna find 'em. Little fried spheres of, often, leftover risotto, remembrances of great meals past. You can't blame chefs for throwing them onto the menu, as they're practical, potent, and popular. But now, practically ubiquitous at both Italian and modern small-plate American joints. Really, truly, I don't blame restaurants for wanting to serve something popular, but it goes to show that, like convergent evolution, inspiration holds little loyalty toward those it touches. Don't let it get you down, it's Flyover Friday.Read More
There are a couple times a year when beer geeks from Wisconsin and beyond get all whipped into a frenzy: Craft Beer Week, the Great Taste of the Midwest, and a handful of smaller beer parties like Capital Brewery's Bockfest. This last weekend provided the dedicated, the dorked-out, and the drinker -- yes, those with a little disposable income -- with the perfect opportunity to block off three whole days for a little beer vacation. A beercation, if you will.Read More
Aside from being a little late, this week's Flyover Friday is all about timing, and money. Some of this is evident by those publications not represented here. The Chicago Tribune has Phil Vettel's reviews behind a paywall (money); the Cincinnati Enquirer got missed in the last post, and last week's review fell on a Friday, which means it'll be in next week's post (time). (The fact that the Indianpolis Star and NUVO, Indianapolis' alt-weekly, both basically reviewed Taste of Havana's Cuban sandwich doesn't fit thematically with their absence; it just didn't seem necessary to include 'em.) Add to that couple little guys going big-time, one thanks to a Kickstarter campaign, and the stabilizing influence of chain-restaurant money -- this is your slightly delayed Flyover Friday.Read More
Welcome to another Flyover Friday. This week we've got a couple breakfast-heavy reviews, a few steaks, as well as the alternating appearance and absence of accent marks on non-English words like jalapeno, banh mi, and creme brulee. So, with this week's rundown of Midwestern food criticism, a question for my readers: do you want publications to include accent marks on non-English words, or do they come off as pretentious, like an Anglo newscaster over-emphasizing Spanish words? Sound off in the comments section. The meat of this order continues after the jump.Read More
The food website Serious Eats does the occasional review of a hot restaurant, or posts a report from a city's dining scene. It's almost always New York, or somewhere in California, or maybe Chicago. Eater.com (as much as I love 'em for their affiliate and mini-affiliate local sites) does a weekly roundup of restaurant reviews from the past week or so (or did, anyway; Associate Editor Paula Forbes reminds me that Eater hasn't posted one in over a year), and it's all Wells and Sietsema and Gold and the occasional Vettel. Fat chance you'll see a restaurant critic from Minneapolis or Milwaukee or Madison -- and it's not that they all start with M. It's that they're in the middle.
Okay, that starts with an M, too, but that's really not my point.
The point is that they're all in the area of the country that sites like Serious Eats mysteriously fail to cover. There's still a food crit blind spot for the Midwest. But you guys travel, whether it's for work or fun, and if you didn't like to read about food, you wouldn't be here. So here it is, my Midwest-centric roundup of restaurant criticism, because yes, there is restaurant criticism here. Welcome to Flyover Friday.Read More
Happy New Year's Eve, guys. 2014 is breathing down my neck, so quick! Enjoy 2013 in review before next year gets jealous.
Top 3 Wisconsin beers
3. Central Waters Brewers Reserve Bourbon Barrel Scotch Ale
I guess things are ready when they're ready, but it's still weird to me that this dark, rich, boozy creature would be unleashed in July. When I wrote it up for the Isthmus Drinks magazine, I worried that it wouldn't last until colder weather. But when I shopped for a beer trade with out-of-town friends, there was still one four-pack left -- maybe the last in Madison. This should be a fall release in anticipation of Central Waters' bourbon barrel stouts; I hope CW times things a little differently in 2014.
2. Black Husky Sproose Juice
This was another mention in that Drinks article, and Black Husky's star in Madison has only brightened since then. Balanced, drinkable, and just a little novel thanks to spruce tips. Thankfully, Black Husky knows how well-received this beer has been, so I envision a steady level of production and Madison distribution going forward.
1. New Glarus Wild Sour Ale
Wine Enthusiast published its Top 25 Beers of 2013 list [PDF] in November, and New Glarus Brewing's Wild Sour Ale was at the very top. I could have told you that much, what with the small stash my wife and I have squirreled away in our basement. This is a complex beer that will only get more interesting over time. If it never appears again (and that'd be a real tragedy), we're all incredibly lucky to have seen it for a couple months over the summer.
Worth noting: I'm going to be opening the first of our two bottles of New Glarus Very Sour Blackberry tonight, and I could very well see that one bumping one of these beers off the list. EDIT: Okay, yeah, it's good. Really good. I'm going to leave Wild Sour at the top here, but Very Sour Blackberry, as a semi-retail release, will be slotted in as a tie.
Top 3 Out of Town Meals
3. Wild Tomato, Fish Creek (October 19)
Kristine and I have been to Wild Tomato before, and it's gone from being a diamond in the rough to a known commodity for quality pizza. The special that day was a pie with pumpkin sausage, squash, leeks, pears, onion jam, kale, spinach cream sauce and candied ginger chèvre. Best of all, proceeds went to Habitat for Humanity. I can't say I was aware of the beer list before our 2013 fall trip to Door County, though. O'So Brett Dank and Green Flash's Green Bullet? Sign me up!
2. Butcher and the Boar, Minneapolis (June 29)
Okay, so a bunch of beers and a hot dog -- even a massive, elaborately topped hot dog -- isn't the most proper of meals, exactly. But it's a testament to the quality of those beers, that hot dog, and the scene in Butcher and the Boar's outdoor beer garden that it's number two for the year. The beersball crew has already started plotting our next trip, and Kristine still hasn't experienced the phenomenon that is a footlong boutique hot dog. Suffice it to say, I'll be back in 2014.
1. Denver Biscuit Co., Denver (October 13)
Come to think of it, a syrup-soaked biscuit turned into French toast sausage and egg sandwich alongside a milk stout-infused Bloody Mary isn't much different. But oh, what a sandwich and bloody. Denver turned out to be Biscuit Central, and the Denver Biscuit Co. topped the heap.
Worth noting: A limburgery birthday bar lunch at Baumgartner's in Monroe; hot dogs at Hot Doug's in Chicago; a nostalgic pizza dinner at Frank's Pizza Palace in Appleton; the last day of business at Capital Creamery in Oregon.
Top 3 Madison Meals
3. Christmas Day at Forequarter
Thanks to a shitty set of circumstances at work, I had to cut short our usual holiday trip to see our families. The up-side to this annoyance is that we were home in time to hit Forequarter for its second annual Christmas Day Chinese dinner. The crowd was lively but we were able to get a seat at the bar within 15-20 minutes. We had soft pork noodles in a pool of salty, rich broth (that both Kristine and I sipped by the spoonful after the noodles were gone); duck buns with daikon radish; sweet, luxurious dry shredded veal out-luxed by roasted eggplant; and salted fluke fried rice that was a little soft, but studded with chunks of amazingly savory fish. Even with no dessert course, this meal was one to remember -- and hopefully, one to repeat whenever the Christmas circumstances allow.
2. L'Etoile, July 27
You don't need me to A) tell you how great L'Etoile is, or B) tell you again how great L'Etoile was on July 27th in particular. If you want to read about it, though, go ahead. I'll wait.
1. Los Agaves, taco truck in Fort Atkinson, March 23
A big dumb road trip to a Lowe's I thought was significantly closer to Madison -- totally my fault -- resulted in the dumbest luck ever: the revelation that is the Los Agaves taco truck, parked on a wide stone bridge in Fort Atkinson. I urged my editor at Isthmus to check it out, and she wrote up an accounting of the small town, south central Wisconsin road food scene. This spot is definitely worth a detour if you're heading to either Milwaukee or Chicago.
Worth noting: a spring brunch at Graze; a late meal at the Sardine bar with good friends; another Forequarter trip, for Montreal-style pastrami and a carbonated beer negroni.
Top 3 Dishes
3. Lomo saltado al pisco, Surco
I reviewed Surco's new brick-and-mortar restaurant for Isthmus, and the experience was remarkable for two reasons in particular: the prices (not in a good way) and the beef (in a very good way). Lomo saltado is a Peruvian favorite, and the beef in Surco's version is jaw-droppingly tender. I would not be shocked if it was cooked sous vide and browned quickly on the grill, except I wouldn't expect that level of fussiness in the Surco kitchen. Literally the most tender beef I've eaten that wasn't still a steak.
2. Burrata, Salvatore's Tomato Pies
2013 was a great year for Salvatore's, with a second chef coming in to broaden the menu and a second, Madison-proper location hopefully in the works. One of the dishes that distinguished Sal's this year was the burrata -- a fresh pulled mozzarella-and-cream cheese, almost like a soup dumping made out of rich, snowy-white cheese. Sal's is a slightly firmer version, without a pool of cream spreading out of the sliced outer skin, but that's no complaint. With a drizzle of olive oil and a rotating cast of accompaniments (heirloom tomatoes, cloves of roasted garlic, crusty bread), this unicorn of a dish is worth hunting.
1. Brisket, Underground Butcher
My work commute occasionally takes me down Willy Street -- sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, sometimes both. One of my new favorite traditions in Madison is the Wednesday brisket special at Underground Butcher on Willy. There are few folks in town who I feel a real meat kinship with, but Underground co-founder Jonny Hunter is one of those brothers. The East Texas roots at the core of the Underground Food Collective are on full, fatty, smoke-ringed display with this excellent brisket, available on Wendesdays only, by the pound, from 3pm until it's gone. I'll race you for it.
Worth noting: the bluegill pimento BLT at Gates and Brovi; AJ Bombers' sriracha burger patty; the Farmers Market breakfast bun at Umami Buns; the breakfast sandwich #2 with ramps at 4 & 20 Bakery and Cafe; Blowin' Smoke's Thursday rib dinner special; goat cheese fried curds at Tipsy Cow; Famous Yeti's Yeti Spaghetti stuffed pizza; the eponymous pelmeni at Paul's Pel'meni.
Top 3 Gateau Basques at Madison Sourdough Co.
3. Saffron custard
2. Cherry custard
Worth noting: I didn't see the chocolate cherry version come around in 2013; I hope this changes in 2014. EDIT: Wife informs me I'm wrong, and that we did indeed have chocolate cherry in 2013. That bumps saffron custard out for third place, and also illustrates how poor my note-taking was this year. To a more aware, present-in-the-moment 2014!
Let's clear one thing up first: I'm not a hoarder. I don't collect things indiscriminately, or to the detriment of my household's cleanliness or safety. But there's no way around it. I am a collector, and when I find something that triggers the collecting gene, things snowball quickly.
It started with comic books, as young boys' dreams of ownership and wealth often do. It was the summer of 1992, and I was in the general store of a campground -- I don't remember which one, but it might have been Hartman Creek -- and was drawn in, almost supernaturally, to the cover art of Batman: Shadow of the Bat #3. I was 14, and it was a done deal. Not only was the art really cool, but I was picking up a story midway through. I had to go backwards to get the rest of the story -- why was Nightwing crawling through the bowels of Arkham Asylum to rescue Batman? And who's Nightwing, anyway? -- and there was no way I wasn't going to stick with the story to its conclusion.
This was my origin story as a collector of things.
I bought issue 4 when it came out, and it took me a little while, but eventually I acquired issues 1 and 2 as well. Once I could drive, I was making myself a regular at comic book shops like the now-defunct Collector's Exchange, and later Powerhouse Comics on College Avenue (both in Appleton). I can still remember, somewhere deep in my brain where conscious meets subconscious, the smell of Collector's Exchange, and the sound of the creaky floorboards as comic shoppers shuffled around the back-issues, circumambulating those white cardboard boxes like an alternate-universe Kaaba.
But it was at Powerhouse where I really sunk into my next collecting fetish: Magic: The Gathering.
It was around the release of the Ice Age expansion set, summer of 1995, that I really got into it. You can talk about comic books with your friends, but Magic added a social component to my collecting habit. I had friends who collected and played as well, and many a weekend night was spent over Jolt and pizza, shuffling, tapping, showing off and comparing notes. I'd even gone in on an order of a couple boxes of booster packs with friends, which we tore into like it was Christmas. Mirage and Visions expansions, I think, and maybe some more Ice Age. Another deep sensory memory there, the smell of the cards and the crinkle of the foil wrappers. I had a pretty large (I thought, anyway) collection, with about eight or so functioning decks, and was a regular shopper of the singles binder at Powerhouse before I had to kick the habit.
(I had mostly stopped buying cards within a few years, but it was the accelerating accumulation of Pokemon cards -- I never played, I just got hooked on collecting, like the completist I can be -- that caused me to reconsider how I was spending my money. Years later, I ended up selling everything for, of course, way less than I paid for it. Sold a lot of my comics, too, but I do still have one box in my basement.)
It was around this time that I was getting way into The X-Files, too, and when the DVD market turned to releasing full seasons at a time -- turn of the millennium -- I plunked down way too much cold hard cash on Mulder and Scully. I mean, Fox was asking $150 suggested retail price for those things, man. Fortunately, the internet was great back then for really cutting prices on electronics and video media, so I never paid full price. I made my own spreadsheet of X-Files episode details, like a proto-wiki in the style of Wizard, the comic book magazine: origins, deaths, major mythology moments. I might still have it on a disc somewhere, but it was pretty magnificent. Also totally unnecessary, now.
In adulthood, I convinced myself that it was time to start dialing back on this nonsense. Trading and collectible card games were done, comic books were done -- I barely even let myself go into comic shops for fear of a relapse. Wikipedia became my methadone, as I'd deep-dive into story arc summaries if, say, Captain America got killed or Spider-man gave up the suit or whatever and the mainstream media started talking about it.
Of course, now I'm a beer collector. I can't help it; it's an actual drug. But here I am, still chasing variants and limited releases like they had a gatefold cover or holofoil on them or something. (Note to self: see if there are any beers with holofoil labels.) Whatever pro-nerd shifts have occurred in the public's consciousness, beer collecting is still more of a thing grown-ups are allowed to do with minimal judging.
I bring all of this up now, on Christmas Eve, because it's happening again. I'm suffering a recurrence of the expression of my collector gene, thanks to a four-year old and his Beyblade collection.
The kiddo of one of my good friends (a fellow beer hoarder) has gotten into this Japanese cartoon/toy conflation -- as most are these days -- and at a recent Thanksgiving gathering, all the grownups were conscripted to take part in his Beyblade battles. He whooped up on almost all of us, since he used his best one for himself. Almost all of us, I say, because for some reason, I owned this little man on his own turf that day. And that was terrible for me, because of course the gene kicked in.
More than one adult at that party decided that now was the time to start researching, buying, and kibbutzing on Beyblades. I'm relieved to tell you that there's someone in my circle of friends who goes even more bonkers than I do, but I can just about guarantee that none of my friends spend more mental energy on learning about the parts, pieces, strategies, and relative rarity of Beyblades than I do.
I'm not proud, necessarily, it's just the truth. I've got a separate Amazon shopping list just for Beyblade crap. It was all I could do to not put these things on a Christmas list, and the primary reason was that I didn't want anyone to know which ones I thought would do well in battle. You can shake your head at me, I'm already doing it.
We'll see how long my addiction/fascination with Beyblades lasts. I'm not into the cartoon, and doubt I will be, so there's that. But for those of you who have kids of any age, whose desire for a certain toy, hobby, or gift borders on obsession, let it happen. Revel in the joy. Remember that it could be nigh involuntary. Like me, your kid could just have the gene.
Here we are at the end of another year, and changes are afoot behind the scenes at Irony or Mayo. There might even be a new look to the site in 2014, but I'm still hashing that out.
Starting in January, I'll be launching that roundup of Midwestern restaurant criticism I mentioned a while back. It'll run every week as a feature I'm calling Flyover Friday. (It'll run on Fridays, oddly enough.)
Before we get there, though, I'll have some closing out to do on 2013 items, including a little Kyle Ate Here action and my 2013 in review post.
In the meantime, you may have seen my recent posts for both Isthmus and Eater National. If you didn't, then A) my self-promotion is flagging, and B) please give 'em a look.
You'll also be able to see some of my 2013-in-review remarks on Eater National as part of the Year in Eater series -- which has featured such food writing luminaries as Kat Kinsman, Andrew Zimmern, Ryan Sutton and Regina Schrambling -- that the site will be running through the end of the year. And of course there are always new reviews coming up at Isthmus; my last review for 2013 is for Taqueria El Jalapeño.
As always, thanks for reading! Let's wrap this year up in style.
Today marked the final outdoor edition of the Dane County Farmers' Market on the Square, and it reminds me that the standard vegetable CSA season -- my first as a subscriber -- ended a few weeks ago. It's the kind of thing my wife and I had always wanted to do, but had never gotten our shit together enough to actually make happen.
This year, we went to the Fair Share CSA Coalition open house at the Monona Terrace with our friend Alex, and came to the conclusion that with her son and our various health insurance provider reimbursements, we could pull off a pretty inexpensive three-household split. We signed up for full shares of vegetables, eggs (Christensen Farm) and fruit (Vermont Valley).
It's an excuse, but this summer just felt a little off. Both Kristine and I agreed that it seemed like we never really got into a good groove, and as a result, we definitely didn't put our CSA goodies to their fullest use. Sometimes it was a result of the three-way division leaving each household with a decent but sort of awkward amount of certain veggies. Other times, I will cop to chickening out, not feeling confident about how to handle some items. (I'm no cook, despite my intense relationship with food.)
One thing we'll definitely do again in 2014: the egg share. These were delicious, fun eggs, with rich, golden yolks and multicolored shells. (Green! Blue!) None of these babies went to waste. And those cute shells are going to go toward enriching the soil of our own vegetable garden later this weekend. This is the feel-good, taste-good CSA proposition at its most well-defined.
I've got no complaints about how Christensen Farm handled the veggie portion of its CSA. At the open house, farm representatives promised bounty, and they delivered. (It was, of course, a much better growing season than the hot-and-dry bummer that was summer 2012.) Greens, tomatoes, lots of radishes, potatoes, asparagus, peppers, plus the occasional fruits: currants, plums, apples, pears, raspberries, strawberries, melons. Christensen turned out the agricultural goods.
The fruit CSA -- now there's an interesting beast. Vermont Valley definitely provided a pleasant enough variety, including peaches, cherries, and citrus (in the coming weeks) in addition to more apples, pears, and various stonefruit. But this is a national fruit CSA distribution system, to which Vermont Valley belongs. The farming community being supported is usually hundred of miles away; I'm just not totally convinced this is a net gain over the traditional distribution system for fruit. (It's also not cheap!)
One thing we noticed this year: we went to the farmers' market significantly less than last year. Sure, this could be another manifestation of the same "it was a weird summer" excuse, but I think we were penned into the house on Saturday mornings by the knowledge that we had a crisper drawer full of Tuesday's veggies that still needed to be used. Whatever the reason, this is not how we like our summers to go. The farmers' market is as much a social gathering as it is a grocery run, and we felt like we missed out on a lot of warm welcomes and conversations.
Whether we choose to renew the three-way split next year, strike out on our own, or skip everything but the eggs and devote more capital to our market runs, it's been a pleasure helping out a couple local farms. The CSA share-sharing has also ensured a lot of face time with one good friend at least, and there's nothing wrong with that. Agriculture supports community as much as the other way 'round.
I don't spend a lot of time on Facebook, primarily because Facebook is bound and determined to make the user experience truly awful. But there I was, checking in as I occasionally do, just a few minutes before 10pm last Monday, and I see this post from Forequarter via head bar dude Hastings Cameron:
Dave's doing 10-12-15-20-23 Van Winkle bourbon flights after 10pm tonight. Old Fashioneds with the 12. That is all.
Consider the following. 1) My exposure to neat booze is low, but if there's one that I've got any experience with at all, it's bourbon. (Hi, Ben!) 2) My Tuesday work shift starts at noon. 3) When am I going to have access to that many Pappy vintages? 4) My wife offered her blessing as well as taxi services.
You can guess the rest. I put on some pants and we hit the road.
Very respectable pours -- between 1 and 2 oz each -- of the 10-year, 12-year, 15-year, 20-year, and 23-year Van Winkles were lined up in short order. Comparison pours of a Weller and a Four Roses turned the real estate in front of me into a kind of cordial glass statuary garden; by the end of my tour of duty, Hastings had hit me with three other small tastes of another Four Roses and a couple Elijah Craigs. It's a good thing I didn't show up in my pajama pants, because I would have looked like a hobo someone slipped a fiddy to.
Hastings made it pretty clear that his respect for the Pappy brand didn't necessarily extend to fanboydom. And I'll admit that the two pours of Four Roses -- one that I didn't get the details on, and the 125th Anniversary -- were among my favorites of the night. The very woody Elijah Craig 21-year, which was presented by Hastings as oak run amok, tasted like a log cabin, and I'm not talking the syrup. Definitely not my bag.
But I was there for the Van Winkle, and I tried to sample as thoughtfully as my tongue could manage. The 10 was definitely hot, and as far as sipping bourbons go, I wouldn't pick it. It'd make a fine top-shelf cocktail though. The nose on the 12 was getting more caramelly, and it was noticeably smoother. That old fashioned would have been great.
When I got to the 15, though, there was a distinct shift in the aroma and flavor. Caramel gave way to more toffee-ish richness, and that meant a sweeter sip, too. If I was going to order a Pappy, neat, it'd be this year. Dave said this was the staff consensus, too. The 20 had a great nose, like toffee and rum. The sweetness of the 15 was there, too, but it was overly hot, which stunted the finish.
And then there was nothing left to try but the old man. The 23. This is apparently a $200+ bottle, retail, with 2oz pours going for up to $75 in major markets. (There's enough of a hunt for Pappy that Eater has a Pappy Locator; the Forequarter entry erroneously makes me part of Team Forequarter, though I guess that's not far from the truth. The Locator also reveals how dirt-cheap Forequarter's Pappy flight is. It was $30 when I had it, on the day they literally opened the cases, and it's only marked up to $35 now.)
I'm probably neither deserving nor equipped to properly taste this bourbon. And when I say that the first distinct flavor I picked up was brine, like an ocean breeze, the true bourbon people will probably vomit with rage. (I mean, what is this, a Laphroaig?) But there you go. It was a composed pour, a little woody, a little hot, a little sweet. Very well-balanced, but yeah, briny.
I was told that this vintage was the last one produced at the old Stitzel-Weller facility (before Buffalo Trace took over production), so there's bound to be some unique terroir in that bottle. For me, it's just too much, like most foie gras preparations. Too far from my tastes to be more than a novelty pour -- as if I'm going to be all blasé in front of a lineup of Pappy bottles, "oh, no, I don't care for the 23, personally." You know what I mean, though. It's the kind of thing I'd throw pants on and bolt out of the house to drink, but not a pour I'd sidle up to casually. It's an event.
The Food Fight restaurant group has made a minor fortune tweaking the American diner concept and seeding the Madison metro area with the results. From Monty's Blue Plate Diner to the weirdness that is Bluephie's, the group's menu portfolio is sprawling, geographically nonspecific, and approachable from (too?) many angles.
When DLUX opened last year, it felt like a slightly different direction: slicked up rather than folksified. Glammy and a little boozy. Food Fight managing partner Caitlyn Suemnicht designed DLUX, and her latest creation, Bassett Street Brunch Club, continues in that evolution while managing to swing back around to diner fare. It's a minor stumper, but I think it ends up working.
On Halloween, Bassett Street Brunch Club opened, officially exorcising the ghost that had been the defunct Casa Bianca space for, I swear, longer than it had been the funct Casa Bianca space. The ground floor of the new and fairly slick looking Hampton Inn and Suites (I mean, this isn't Beverly Hills or anything) is a good spot for the Brunch Club; both hotel and campus traffic feed into the area.
Like I said, this menu is big. Nothing's too complex, but in trying to do a classed-up broad diner menu, BSBC is actually taking a large bite it's going to have to chew. Doughnuts, fried chicken, hashes, eggs, a Reuben, pot pie, a banh mi (misspelled, of course), ravioli, tostada, a mezze platter, Indian roti served a la breakfast burrito -- that's a lot of plates to keep spinning.
There's a certain amount of food writer bait here, and I won't lie, the hook in my cheek from both the fried chicken and doughnut starter and the housemade sausage banh mi barely hurt at all. I'd have gone with a different style of doughnut; the hard, cruller-density cake doughnut didn't serve to contrast enough with the white meat chicken chunks, well-seasoned as the breading was. (White meat is a choice BSBC is going to have to tread carefully with, as it's way too easy to turn into jerky.) There was about an inch of extraneous too-doughy bun on both ends of the banh mi, but the ginger-scallion sausage and cucumbers were nice.
I see Bassett Street Brunch Club serving as the flipside of the DLUX coin; the latter is nightclub-all-day, the former is mid-morning-all-day. There's also a pretty strong similarity between BSBC and the successful (and packed) Hell's Kitchen in Minneapolis: big, slightly fusiony menu, highly curated vibe, plus the Kitchen's preference for bedecking its servers in pajamas all day. Add to that the amount of hater pushback against Hell's Kitchen -- very "thank you for bringing something new to the scene, now get out of here because you're too successful and commercial," as my boy Elliot put it -- that sounds awfully familiar to the hate on Food Fight from some quarters in Madison.
Nobody's perfect, and it takes all kinds. Madison's got room for a millennial lounging spot with an aggressively nostalgic 80's soundtrack. If Bassett Street Brunch Club works -- and I think it can -- what's the problem if Food Fight's cutting the paychecks?
Like a ghostly voice on the wind, Kyle Ate Here returns to haunt your late October. Here are the clattering marrow bones and scraps of delicious flesh from my June, July, and August dining notes.
- RIP, Carnival's on Park. Will miss your s'mores sundae and very friendly staff.
- Welcome back, Taqueria Guadalajara . Looking better than ever.
- Blowin' Smoke seals the deal with excellent ribs, plus a great tongue-in-cheek "Ribblet" McRib riff. Left me hanging on a Friday when I wanted burnt ends, though.
- Beset by a sudden fried chicken craving. Turns out that Hy-Vee's version is about as good as its reputation. KFC's new boneless stuff, though? Just kinda scary, especially the dark meat.
- Took old friends to Merchant for lunch; happily, their dishes were more successful than ours. No excuse for serving a broken aioli.
- Honestly don't know what's up with Capital Creamery . What was billed as a seasonal closure (though it was never clear what season that was, exactly) is looking more and more like full closure. Still attempting to contact proprietors for details. That bacon double cheeseburger deserves a resurrection.
- Goat cheese curds at The Tipsy Cow ? Speaking of deserving a wider audience. Jeez oh man are they great.
- Though my order's been goofed up each time I've gone, it's still so great to see Paul's Pel'meni (or Gorham Dumplings or whatever we're to call it) kickin' it old-school near State Street. And the guys doing the cooking are super-chatty. (Maybe that's the cause for the minor goofs.)
- Another hit from the Sardine bar menu: the costly but packed-with-goodies pan bagnat sandwich.
- Wish I'd been there to compare pre- and post-Food Fight, but the Avenue Bar's Friday fish was definitely a letdown from the hype. Overdone fish, spazzy service, mediocre cocktails.
- Novanta , on the other hand, slipped up on our order (forgetting the prosciutto? how could you?), but remedied it with a warm apology and comped a round a drinks. The kitchen was young, then; I trust things have settled into a groove by now.
- Sun Prairie's Day One Pizza : must've gotten a huge initial investment, because that space is sprawling. Pizza's decent competition for Salvatore's , but the winner is still Sal. Great cheese bread at Day One, though.
- Knock-out portions of bluegill at Dexter's Pub as expected, and Gates & Brovi in a surprise -- not because G&B isn't fun, but because it was part of a wholly unlikely pimento cheese bluegill BLT, and yet nothing was overshadowed.
Breakfast on our last day in Denver was at the Denver Biscuit Company. The biscuits there are huge -- "occasion biscuits," my friend Lauren calls them -- and they're delicious. The Bloody Mary comes with a shot of Left Hand Nitro Milk Stout in the cocktail, not alongside it. Our party was made up of four beer geeks and a master cicerone. And right next door was one of Colorado's now-legal marijuana dispensaries.
Denver during the Great American Beer Festival, ladies and gentlemen. This is how it do.
We didn't partake of the marijuana, but biscuits and a hell of a lot of beer filled the weekend in ways we could only have hoped for going into the trip. The flight into Denver was uneventful and right on schedule, so we had time to unload our luggage at our friends' apartment before heading out for the first of three sessions at GABF.
Yes, three sessions is a little luxurious, but my boy Kevin in particular -- having gone to two sessions last year -- really wanted to take a good whack at this thing, and I'm easily convinced when it comes to beer tastings. My final tally of tasted beers came in at a cool 150 over those three days, which doesn't average out to much more than what I was able to do at the Great Taste of the Midwest -- but the ability to sample beers that don't bottle or will never distribute even close to Wisconsin was totally worth the effort.
As much worth the effort was the dent we put in this marvelous proliferation of the biscuit arts in Denver. Rise and Shine Biscuit Kitchen and Cafe produces a fine biscuit for sandwiching, as well as some GABF-special beer biscuits. I had a great hefeweizen biscuit that really highlighted the sweetness of the beer. Sassafras American Eatery serves biscuits that are sheet pan-style, cut into squares; they're buttery and delicious, but do their best work conveying Sassafras' excellent house jams to one's face. And the aforementioned Denver Biscuit Company -- oh man. "Biscuit French toast sausage sandwich" could be the whisperings of a succubus.
There were other fine eats to be had that didn't come on or in or were comprised entirely of biscuit. A plate of crisply fried chicken wings at Row Fourteen; pizzas with impertinent names like Natalie Porkman at Lucky Pie (plus an unlikely meeting with a fellow Madisonian); international comfort-ish foods -- think bastilla, pork buns, and devils on horseback -- at the swanky Linger; massive Park Burger burgers. We ate well, my friends.
But who's kidding whom, the beer was the intended star of this show. My hopes going into GABF were twofold: hit the unavailable-in-Wisconsin all-stars, and stumble onto the unknown unknowns that are doing great work off my radar. In both aims, I call the event an unqualified success.
Much time was spent cycling through the lines at California heavy-hitters Russian River, The Lost Abbey, Almanac, and The Bruery. Almanac brought some serious sours (thoughtfully, as it turns out), and the Farmer's Reserve No. 3 delivered a payload of fresh strawberry flavor. Bruery's Chocolate Rain was a timed tap, and kind of bizarre -- an ultra-sweet 18% ABV vanilla bean and cocoa nib variant of Black Tuesday -- but absolutely worth the wait. I even got a hit of Sam Adams Utopias 2011, which is as much a cordial as anything found in the spirits section.
Actually, there wasn't much of a wait. Unlike some of the white whale lines at GTMW (Dark Lord, for example), the GABF lines seemed to move pretty quickly. Except, of course, for the jerks who'd get to the front, stand there with their pour and chat, then quick down it for a second pour of something else. This behavior cannot stand, and it's nonexistent at GTMW. (Midwestern manners count for something.)
Of the surprise finds, three come to mind as exceptional. Dad and Dudes Breweria (Aurora, CO), The Funky Buddha Brewery (Oakland Park, FL), and McCoy's Public House (Kansas City, MO). Dad and Dudes -- great name, right? -- poured standouts like a tart Prickly in Pink, a watermelon basil wheat that stands toe-to-toe with 21st Amendment's Hell or High Watermelon, and a fine rum barrel stout called Rum, Forrest! Rum!
The Funky Buddha's line was long, due in no small part to the Maple Bacon Coffee Porter that was filling the air around this booth with the smells of breakfast. Indeed, it was quite good; the bacon was the weakest flavor, but the whole package was remarkably true to type. It also tainted my glass for two or three pours afterward. Better to go with the Last Snow, a porter with coconut, coffee, and white chocolate that is significantly better and less saccharine than it sounds. But you'd be smartest to cut immediately to the Passionfruit Berliner Weisse. Tart, sweet, amazing, this was the first beer gone from the Funky Buddha lineup.
McCoy's turned out to be the most buzz-proof of the bunch, because there was no line. None. I walked up, ordered a Ginger Shandy, and was hooked. Walked right back up and ordered the Gose. Salty, like Schell's recent Goosetown release wasn't, this beer is apparently the brewer's first shot at the style. Nailed it in one. The sour brown Duchess of Westport stuck the landing, too.
Other highlight beers:
- Avery Lilikoi Kepolo (passionfruit wit): non-bottled taproom beer. Went back probably 3 times.
- coffee beers: Drake's Black Robusto Porter, Mother's Winter Grind Coffee Stout, Palmetto Espresso Porter, Smog City Groundwork Coffee Porter.
- Renegade Wheat Wine, with cascara (coffee cherry flesh). Spicy, totally unique.
- Anderson Valley Gatlin Damnosus: sour bourbon-barrel barleywine. How does that make any sense, and why is it as good as it is?
- AC Golden Peche (wild sour with peaches): Like the Almanac dude said in that Serious Eats article I linked above, this one's legit. Many many props to Miller-Coors for promoting so much experimentation in the brands it has both incubated and acquired.
If I can make it back for future GABFs, I absolutely will. Crooked Stave's What the Funk party seemed like it'd be a worthwhile ticket, too. (Tried the Stave's Musty Cedar Box sour visiting the taproom at The Source, and oh man, was that one great.) Whether three sessions is necessary, I dunno. Two, definitely. Okay, maybe three. And a biscuit.
I've been fortunate to have a lot of real estate to yammer on about beer lately; the new Isthmus Drinks supplement included my story on finding local beers that take away the sting of missing out on white whales, I covered the Angelic Brewing reunion party during Madison Craft Beer Week and what turned out to be the penultimate homebrewer gathering at Cambridge's CamRock Café and Sport, and I've recently reviewed Ale Asylum, Blair Street Brew and BBQ, and One Barrel, Karben4, and House of Brews. Oh, and beer paddles! Somehow, though, I failed to post my collected thoughts on the beers I tasted at Great Taste of the Midwest back in August. (If you follow me on Untappd, you at least saw my ratings of those beers.)
It might seem like getting back to a burning question no one's been asking, but I'm also gearing up for my first trip to Colorado for the Great American Beer Festival this week, so you'll have to excuse me if I just gotta talk about beer a bit more. First, a brief GTMW recap.
A raspberry/strawberry blended sour from DESTIHL was maybe the sourest beer I've ever tasted -- no, it was. Was the sourest. Perennial out of St. Louis poured a fine barrel-aged tart cherry oud bruin. Leinenkugel's Tenth and Blake team put together a straight-up sour apricot in addition to the Berliner weisse + fruit juice bubbles combo from last year. This statement is becoming almost as common as the mindset it warns against, but people gotta stop sleeping/hating on Leinie when it comes to both experimental and production craft beer.
Along that line of Leinie defense, see also: La Mumba, a rum barrel-aged Big Eddy Wee Heavy variant, casked. This one's dialed to 11 on almost all gauges (body, sweetness, booziness), and is exactly what beer festivals are best for. And as good as it was, it might have been bested in presentation by Schlafly's super creamy-smooth bourbon-barrel aged barleywine/pale ale blend, served out of a Ghostbusters proton pack-style portable tap. Yes, off of a dude's back.
Team Surly killed it as they always do, and I don't care if you say I'm in the bag for 'em. Misanthrope, a white wine barrel-aged saison, had a great balance of funk and oak. The SYX variant, aged in the same type of barrels, was even better. Schadenfreude (an oak-aged dark lager) and the Three Floyds co-op IPA called Urine Trouble were both solid efforts, four stars, would drink again.
You'll notice that all of these breweries are Midwestern (duh, I know, it's Great Taste of the Midwest). The work that lays ahead of me this week in Denver will be a whole new thang. I'll have access to beers from California and the Pacific Northwest, the Rockies, the South, and the Mid-Atlantic -- many completely without distribution in Wisconsin. I'll probably stop at some of the locals' booths to literally or figuratively say hi, but at this fest, it's the coasties I'm looking to meet.
The app for GABF is, I have to admit, a lot nicer to play with than the GTMW app. I get that GABF's got more capital to throw at an app developer, but at my fingertips, there's just no contest. So it'll be much easier to set up a wishlist on my phone, though I'm sure it'll be just as easy to get sidetracked, too. My Colorado friends put just the right amount of peer pressure on me (read: very little) to get me to assent to attending three separate sessions at GABF. And my wife's patience with and graciousness toward my beergeekery has been saintly. I'm a lucky guy.
If y'all have any recommendations for beers or breweries to look for at GABF, please sound off in the comments below. And if you're going to be there, too, holler!