Listen. This post is like a month overdue, but I gotta tell you: January feels less like a month ago, and more like a year ago. For some reason, my notes read like ancient history. It's a bit of a challenge to come up with a theme for meals and visits that lie under this fog.
What I think works best is taking a look at all the most ambitious restaurants I visited in January. Between Madison and a trip to the Twin Cities, I was fortunate to enjoy some high-test product served by buzzy kitchens.
Early January saw Kristine and I travel to the Minneapolis area for a wedding in her extended family. As to her immediate family, the word is out; I'm now charged with making dining recommendations pretty much any time we're with them. That's fine, but I seem to hit a Parasole restaurant during every trip to the Twin Cities. (Parasole's got a dubious relationship with its staff.) This time, it was Good Earth in Roseville. It felt like a former Perkins, and the bison burger (farmed in Wisconsin!) was equally sloppy. Fairly tasty, though, and the service was nice.
Once the festivities were over, though, we set out on our own. Saturday night, after checking in to the Graves 601 in downtown Minneapolis, we drove south to visit Tilia, home of James Beard Best Chef Midwest semifinalist Steven Brown. It was as amazing an experience as you'd hope a restaurant of that profile would provide.
We sat at the bar and enjoyed potted duck rillettes, a juicy pork tenderloin with rioutously flavorful brussels sprouts, and beef cheeks as good as at Mission Chinese atop chestnut polenta. The desserts -- a butterscotch pot de crème and a pear tart with goat milk panna cotta -- were rich, sweet, and stellar. Brunch the next morning at Hell's Kitchen was pretty great too (Surly on tap, lemon ricotta hotcakes, ham and pear crisp sandwich), but we were still in a daze from that packed and bustling dining room in Linden Hills.
Lest you think I'm tooting the horn of foreign glory, we've got plenty of James Beard short-listers here in Madison. Brunch at Tory Miller's Graze (2011 Best Chef Midwest finalist) with good friends and their adorable kiddo was polished and enjoyable; the loaded breakfast sandwich (like the ham and pear at Hell's Kitchen) managed to not be amply but not overly cheesy. And this year, Beard is giving an award for outstanding bar program; The Old Fashioned has made the inaugural shortlist. We stopped there on the day the Recall Walker petitions were delivered. New Glarus Belgian Red was on special, and my Wisconsin Burger was packed with flavor and cheese -- and sharp onions, whew. (I also had my first Barrie burger at AJ Bombers, which was not in fact the best peanut butter-topped burger I've had, but was served on the absolute perfect potato roll.)
Three restaurants of European descent made impressions in January. Two trips to Brasserie V closed out the month: one for lunch (croque monsieur sil vous plaits) and one for an ad hoc sliders-n-Piraat party. Both as pleasant as always. A lot of the same Piraat drinkers were also present at Salvatore's Tomato Pies in Sun Prairie. A large party gave the young kitchen a stress test, and it did quite well. The sausage pie with goat cheese is a thing of beauty, and the crust there might be the area's best outside of Ian's.
Near the end of the month, I took my wife out for a lovely date that also served as pay-out for her beating me in the last NCAA basketball pool. We went to Nostrano -- a first trip delayed too long. The atmosphere is right up our alley (hers in particular), and we were in that night's target demographic (lots of couples, ordering charcuterie boards). I ordered rabbit two ways; the confit was flavorful, the gnocchi pillowy, and the boudin blanc falling-apart moist. And we couldn't have been happier with the tortino, a chestnut cake with bourbon gelato and moonglow pears (our favorite kind!); it was a dessert that showed the pastry chops on which Elizabeth Dahl's reputation in Chicago was built. But we couldn't help but compare Nostrano to Tilia. Nostrano was very pleasant, and exceptional at points -- but Tilia was a meal-of-the-year kind of experience, and Nostrano was almost twice as expensive.
The best thing I ate
The restaurants of January were too good to cut down to just one thing. Let's make it a meal -- a big one. For starters, the Bloody Mary at Graze. Holy man. Spice, enough horseradish to make your grandpa's eyes water, and a cheese curd. Like I said, holy man. Next, the house-made sausage and goat cheese pie at Salvatore's. If you haven't trekked out to Sun Prairie for these mostly-regular-pizzas-but-not-quite, you're missing something pretty special. Pat's got something going on in his ovens. And lastly: Tilia's roasted pork tenderloin. I mean, you're looking at the picture. Look at the pink, juicy interior. The char on the sprouts. This entire meal was a joy. If you can get there, get there.