In the last six months or so, I've had a lot of good things to say about food outside of our fair state. San Francisco, Minneapolis, even a meal here and there in Appleton. When I've compared the best of those voyages (Mission Chinese, Tilia, Incanto) to similar meals in Madison, the road team has generally come out ahead.
March was Wisconsin's month to shine. Unseasonably lovely weather brought out some of spring's bounty a little early, and maybe it made every bite taste a little sweeter. March in the Badger State straight up brought it, from lion to lamb.
The youngsters generally came through. 4 & 20 Bakery and Cafe (a riff on the nursery rhyme, not doobage) appears to be a near east side version of Crema Cafe, -- sandwiches with fresh ingredients, and flavorful baked goods. The brownies there are just how I like 'em, chocolatey and happily settled between fudge and cake. On the west side, Cupcakes A-Go-Go demonstrates an ability to mix up frosting styles; if you don't want ultra-rich buttercream, the just-boozy-enough White Russian cupcake is topped with airy whipped cream.
After a couple years of near misses and pining, we finally made it to the charmingly Republican and old-school North Bristol Sportsman's Club (certainly not a new establishment) for one of their limited engagement smelt fries. Slightly salty, crispy little fishies, in a respectable heap next to fried chicken, cheesy potatoes, cole slaw, potato pancakes, and tartar sauce. Add old fashioned, and repeat -- because oh yes, this is all-you-can-eat. For $13. Smelt are on the menu at the recently-renamed Craftsman Table and Tap, too; I didn't order them, but it's unlikely they could best the NBSC. Their eponymous burger (well, it was called the Craft burger when I had it, but I assume it too has been renamed) was nicely cooked and juicy, but a bit bland. The high-quality cheese curds are worth ordering.
The raw oyster was fresh and light, but personally, I loved the delicately fried oyster. It evoked po'boy in bite-size form. The kitchen at L'Etoile/Graze can really knock out a perfectly cooked shrimp, and those grits were creamy and amazing.
But the marrow was the loudest note struck, and rightly so. The paddlefish caviar broke up the fatty richness with little bursts of salt, and the whole plate was perfectly balanced, marrow and greens and bagel chips. The shot of cream sherry down the bone at the end was tasty, but served mostly as a color-coordinated but silly bow on top of the whole package. Sardine continues to be my favorite restaurant-bar to hang out at; the unpublicized bar menu should be every Madisonian's pocket ace for a light meal with drinks. I have fallen totally in love with the creamy, sweet, slightly caramelized goodness that is the maple latte at Ground Zero. But let us now talk about Merchant, the kitchen that sealed this month in Madison's favor.
The best thing I ate
We arrived at Merchant almost by accident; if Ale Asylum had TVs, we'd have been watching the Badgers lose in the NCAA tournament there. (Ironically, the one thing I liked the least about Merchant during our last visit became the main reason we landed there.) Now, Merchant has been dealing with some multiple-personality disorder lately, with a handful of different menus for different times and a shifting overall menu philosophy. With the addition to reports of negligent service, I was unsure of Merchant's likelihood to succeed.
But we sat down, and our server was chipper, and the menu looked good all over, and then those Brussels sprouts hit the table, and we were off and running. (They're still as good as they were last March, perfectly charred and zingy with lemon.) I ordered the flank steak special; it came out cooler than I'd expected it to be, but it was served over a baked-then-pan fried smashed potato that damn near sizzled -- problem solved. (Meat and potatoes, who knew?) Kristine had the rainbow trout, and I'm telling you: that was one amazing piece of fish. A flaky, light fillet of trout with buttery, crispy skin symphonized with roasted cauliflower and sauteed pears. And the maple brioche bread pudding with dried fruit? Yes!
This meal matched our visit to Tilia in every way (except maybe sitting at the bar in Tilia's warmth and warming atmosphere ) -- price, quality, portion, service. I'd pick the trout as the single Best Thing if I had to, but it's my blog and I don't want to. It was a superb meal, singing out "Wisconsin" with every bite.