As I hit Publish, 2012 is mere hours from ending. You're all hopefully stuffing your faces with hors d'oeuvres, or Lil' Smokies, or something tasty. Take a couple minutes to read, discuss, debate what I think were my best food experiences of 2012, and let's all do this again in 2013.
The 20 Best Things (in chronological order)
- Roasted pork tenderloin, Tilia (Best Thing, January) Confidently pink-centered and surrounded with flavorful accompaniments like Brussels sprouts and bacon, this was a dish to make a fellow fall in love with a restaurant. This place is earning every accolade, which includes City Pages' Best New Restaurant.
- Tortino, Nostrano Everything you've heard about Elizabeth Dahl's hand with desserts is true. This dish was a fine composition -- bourbon gelato, moonglow pears -- and the chestnut cake at its heart was a multi-textural masterpiece and delicious as well.
- The Virgil, Famous Yeti's Of course a sandwich named after the character who leads Dante through the Inferno would be served by a restaurant that closed for much of 2012 thanks to a fire. I'm glad that the Yeti has resumed slinging pies, and this salty, oily, crusty gem is back on the menu.
- Haus beef, Dumpling Haus (Best Thing, February) Dumpling Haus puts its own name on a number of dishes on the menu, and appropriately, they're all delicious. The Haus beef might challenge the timid diner, one whose appreciation for fat stops at the steak's edge. But this is one marbled meat you've got to embrace.
- Fried smelt, North Bristol Sportsman's Club Fish french fries. That's really what we're talking about. They're crispy, they're breaded, and they're dippable. You can get fried smelt at a handful of spots around town (Sardine, Orient House, Craftsman) but the North Bristol (Gun) Club is the pater familias for smelt in Dane County.
- Duck Duck Goat pizza, Salvatore's Tomato Pies (Best Thing, April) Owner Patrick DePula warned that he might name this pizza after me, for all the raving I was doing over it this year. I don't need an eponymous pizza, but I do want to know when this limited release comes out again. Named for the dual toppings of 1) duck breast cooked in duck fat and 2) goat cheese, this pizza is an instant local classic.
- Sablefish, Brasserie V (Best Thing, May) I had this fine fish for my birthday, as part of a surprise meal at Brasserie V. Seems the best meals at Brasserie V are often surprises -- not because of any doubt of the kitchen's skill, but because we so often go there for a sandwich and a beer, and end up charmed by some main course or another. Chef Rob Grisham has a knack for subtle excellence, and the asparagus, white truffle purée, and pickled ramps that supported a crisp-skinned piece of sablefish were just the thing to enchant a quiet birthday meal.
- Buffalo chicken mac and cheese, Target Field Elliot, Chris and I did some serious eating during our baseball weekend in Minneapolis. Of the concessions we consumed during the actual game, the Food Network stand's buffalo chicken mac was perhaps the concensus favorite. All expected flavors present and accounted for, served in embarrassing excess.
- Pancakes, Al's Breakfast (Best Thing, June) Same guys, same weekend, same ample portioning. The best pancakes are cooked in enough fat to fry the edges just so, and the crew at Al's have been doing this for a while now. They've got the process down. If you don't mind being shoehorned in for your breakfast, this is a classic joint you absolutely must visit.
- Roasted duck curry, Curry in the Box If I hadn't been to L'Etoile in the same month as this trip to Fitchburg's Curry in the Box, you'd have read Best Thing at the head of this entry. Curry in the Box is a fine takeaway spot, with some weak points on the menu but generally quite reliable. This is easily the best dish I've had there.
- Chilled cucumber soup, 4 & 20 Bakery and Cafe My review of 4 & 20 was one of my favorite to research in 2012. The crew at Forequarter gets a lot of press in Madison, but as far as young restaurateurs go, Team 4 & 20 is sticking their landings. This soup is nicely layered, with cool, rich, and crunchy elements. As soon as summer rolls around, I'll be running-not-walking to 4 & 20 for another bowl.
- Roasted pheasant, L'Etoile (Best Thing, July) I was at a loss for words in describing the excellence of this dish back in August; I'm not sure I could add anything to it this time around -- except to say that the cherries here were unexpectedly precious given the way the 2012 cherry harvest turned out. Just another layer of magic.
- Veal meatballs, Forequarter Seasonal fluctuations led to a last-minute substitution with our plate of veal meatballs, and eggplant stepped into the main vegetable position. In my opinion, there couldn't have been a better vegetable for this dish. Mustardy, smoky, juicy, and excellent.
- The Banzo pita, Banzo I've had the eponymous pita at Banzo a number of times since August, but the young brick-and-mortar kitchen has this bad habit for forgetting one of the triumvirate of sauces (tahini, yogurt, hot sauce). Back when Banzo was just a cart, the pita I had on the way out of Great Taste was indeed a great taste, and not just because I needed a sop for all the alcohol. Falafel fried to a crunch, fluffy pita, and those three sauces working in harmony. All that and a couple house-made chips.
- Pelmeni, Oasis Cafe Bless Jenni Dye for providing the necessary push to get me over to Fitchburg (that's twice on this list) for some Russian dumplings. I'd been hearing the raves, and was among those who mourned the loss of Arbat, but Oasis Cafe's hours are just short enough to be inconvenient. But now that I know how good curry powder, sriracha, cilantro and sour cream go together with beef and potato dumplings, I'll never give them up. (And if this State Street plan works out, it'll be that much easier.)
- Bánh mì, Jordandal Cookhouse The first thing I ate for my review of Jordandal in Verona was probably the best thing I ate there. The bespoke Stalzy's hoagie roll was just the right vessel for a sandwich with rich, slippery fillings. The menu here shifts frequently, but via social media you can always ask when the bánh mì's on next.
- Chocolate cherry gâteau basque, Madison Sourdough Co. (Best Thing, October) I had it once, and then I never saw it again. Well, I saw the large version. The smaller serving is about the size of a tea saucer; the large one is the size of a dinner plate, and appreciably pricier. Who knows when cherries will rebound to the point when they can once again fill this almond flour-based delicacy? I'll be waiting.
- Pork kee mao, Weary Traveler via Isthmus Food and Wine Fest Chef Joey Dunscombe and I put on a little tasting demo at the Food and Wine Fest this fall, and the assembled crowd seemed to really dig his pork shoulder drunken noodles -- one of my favorites from the Weary. This dish turns up as a special at the Weary on rare occasions, but if we all bug Joey and his kitchen crew, maybe it'll make a return engagement.
- Walleye and eggs, Cottage Cafe (Best Thing, November) The November post was only up a few days ago, so I won't go on at length again. Just set aside a morning and get yourselves to Cottage Cafe. You won't regret it.
- Octopus, A Pig in a Fur Coat Remember when I put up the December post, and acknowledged that there were still a few days left to the month? I did my best to make those most of those few days, with my first (and long-overdue) visit to A Pig in a Fur Coat. I still don't like the name, and struggle with what to call it instead (Pig? PFC?) -- but boy was it a fine meal. I'll go into more detail momentarily, but I'll say here that you're unlikely to find a better-cooked octopus.
- Honorable mention Beef potstickers, Hinterland. Bluecy in the Sky with Bacon burger, Sardine via Burgers and Brew. The last Cheese Tasty, Nifty 50's.
The 12 Best Meals
12. The Fountain, April 18th. Great little bar, with honestly local food that's just a bit daring. Sad to see the poor relationship between Fountain owner Harold Langhammer and the former bakers of the Baker's Window.
11. DLUX, September 28th. This place got the business from Isthmus' review, but my little party left this meal quite happy. Fun cocktails, fries, and shakes worthy of attention; if the burgers are just okay, they're at least inexpensive for the Square.
10. Nostrano, January 28th. My wife and I loved our banquette seat, where we could silently judge the other dates in progress throughout the restaurant. Some of the dishes felt needlessly complicated, but the quality of preparation is as high as you'd expect, and the gnocchi were great. See also: dessert.
9. Toby's Supper Club, February 17th. Friday night madhouse. Walk in, order, and your first course is waiting for you when you're seated. Too bad the bluegill isn't served on Fridays. But really, no Toby's fish is a bad fish.
8. Al's Breakfast, June 17th. Speaking of madhouse. 14 precious seats, charmingly dictatorial line cooks who will shift diners to accommodate newcoming parties. Terrific food, staff, coffee -- just don't accidentally salt it. (CHRIS.)
7. L'Etoile, March 25th. Bone Luge! Three courses of decadence, with a shot of cream sherry on top. A ridiculous treat, and something of a Madison food writer kibbutz.
6. Salvatore's Tomato Pies, January 20th. My first visit, of many. The house-made sausage won me over; the fig and bacon pie sealed the deal. Seriously, Madison. If you aren't eating here yet, I'll be very disappointed.
5. A Pig in a Fur Coat, December 29th. Just under the wire, and gloriously so. Duck fat fries (annoyingly dosed with unadvertised truffle oil, but still perfectly cooked); a rich, out-sized egg yolk raviolo; the best pork belly I've had in Madison, served atop sweet squash purée; slightly overcooked dry-aged strip steak with perfect sweetbreads and a rich marrow bone; that octopus. The communal tables can be annoying when the people next to you leer over your shoulder, but then kind of charming when they ask for your help with the menu. Return trips are required for trout, porchetta, tripe, and desserts.
4. Brasserie V, May 20th. Even when we don't get a bar seat, Brasserie V is always a great meal. It'l be closed for a couple weeks while the expansion is finished off; my hope is that the bar vibe remains as appealing as it always has been.
3. Merchant, March 22nd. This night started as a hunt for a spot to watch the Badgers and get something to eat. Merchant was far from the first choice. By the time we were seated, though, my back was to the bar TV and I couldn't have cared less. The only meal we've had in Madison that could, in creativity, quality, and price, rival...
1. L'Etoile, July 21st. 2012 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef: Midwest. You all know what's up. My main advice, as I've said before, is to order anything shellfish, any time you're here. Chef Tory Miller straight up dominates shrimps and scallops. The quaintness of the old location is certainly missed, but for better or worse it doesn't really reflect the brash confidence of the new guard. The boss might have some brotastic tendencies, but there's no denying the skill at work at Madison's highest-profile restaurant.