Kyle Ate Here - Down, and out

January was a banner month, a bumper crop of dining experiences to write about. In February, things cooled off -- culinarily, at least. Our absurdly mild winter continued last month (he writes while wearing shorts on St. Patrick's Day weekend), and that probably led to spending more time at home. The spring cleaning bug bit.

So down as written in the title of this post can stand for the quantity of meals out. Down also refers to some less than exemplary experiences out there; there were some dropped balls in February, and surprising ones. (By contrast, the dishes sampled during my review of Crema Cafe were terrific, as the food so often is in that spot.) And the "out"? What's that all about? For that, you'll have to stay tuned to the Isthmus Dining magazine that comes out later this spring. I'll have a story there that I had a lot of fun writing.


Fail

In a short month (and with fewer restaurant trips than days, at that), the stumbles stand out. Takumi -- once again packed to the, ahem, gills -- had a rare screw-up; the role of Kristine's beloved spicy tuna roll was played by an unrequested California roll instead. The gyoza were something of a letdown as well, lacking the usual punchy flavor and crispy sear.

The house-made sausage and goat cheese pie at Salvatore's wasn't quite up to its initial performance; the crust was doughier, and the sausage seemed wanting for a little Maillard. But a step down from a great pizza is still a pretty solid pizza effort. Nothing could have been more disappointing than Inka Heritage. We returned after some time away, with a friend whose only previous visit had been negative. This did not persuade her otherwise, and certainly hurt my estimation of the restaurant.

Entering an empty -- and I mean empty -- restaurant and still having to wait for service is one thing. The apparent removal of the addictively delicious fried corn amuse bouche from the menu would be reason enough to drop a star from your Yelp review. But our service remained slow, almost vacant, throughout the meal. One dish was completely wrong, and another (mine, the mar pacifico) featured overcooked and really dirty prawns--you know what I mean. The aji de gallina was superb, but one out of three is really only acceptable in baseball.


Win

A rare (for us) whole-pizza takeout order from Ian's Pizza on Frances started February off on a cartoonishly huge foot. But the half mac and cheese, half Italian sausage and penne pie hit the spot. A couple wonderful trips to Papa Bear's BBQ can be generally accepted as mandatory at this point. And Tipsy Cow's revision of the PBR fish taco has finally come very nearly up to the standard set by King & Mane. (And the service has been shored up, at last!)

The end of the month was where the action was at. These successes, coincidentally, owe their finding to my good friend Alex of Mighty Distractible; one was enjoyed with her, and the other was enjoyed at her full-throated recommendation. I'm going to skip right ahead to the next section, because that's just how good they were.


The best thing I ate

Two dishes, alike in dignity, vie for February's Best Thing recognition. They are, simply, the Haus Beef from Dumpling Haus and the smoked pork tenderloin sandwich from Stalzy's Deli. During my trip to Dumpling Haus, Alex and I sampled the seafood shaomai (a daily special, pretty good), the shrimp dumplings (yes), the tart cabbage and pork noodle soup (really, yes), and the remarkable Haus Beef. Tiger-striped with melt-in-your-mouth layers of fat, this meat was cooked in truly amazing fashion, an almost-rare texture with gorgeous color and seasoning. A luxurious portion for only nine dollars.

The smoked pork sandwich at Stalzy's was ordered at Alex's suggestion, but there's little persuading that needs to be done there. Kristine got the double-smoked brisket sandwich (mentioned in this section back in December), and I went pork as I so often do. It's actually a variant on their Rachel sandwich, topped with coleslaw, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing. It was juicy, it was tender, it was subtly smoky. When Stalzy's gets the smoker firing, they're batting 1.000. (That's good.)

But I've got to give this month's kudos to the Haus Beef. Beef just doesn't do what it does in that dish without a lot of love, and I was most definitely feeling it.


Post-script.

If you hadn't heard me talk about it, or seen the links on Facebook or Twitter, or aren't a regular reader of Isthmus, a story I wrote with Laurie Stark of Your Ill-Fitting Overcoat was featured as the cover story of last week's print edition. My part of the piece is about Shopbop, the online fashion retailer that started as a little denim shop in Madison. Obviously, the subject matter is a departure for me; I hope you'll give it a look. (It's linked way up at the top of the page.) I'm happy with how both halves turned out.