Andrew Zimmern's 90-minute wait, or Do you know who I am?

Madison played host to Travel Channel personality Andrew Zimmern and his Bizarre Foods crew for a couple days over the last week. While he was here, he recorded an episode of his podcast, Go Fork Yourself.  The comments he made about dining on the Capitol Square rubbed me in a couple ways.

Apparently, Zimmern and a small production crew arrived at The Old Fashioned on Monday night. They were greeted, he says, by a young hostess with a deer-in-the-headlights expression who told him that there would be an hour and a half wait for a table. Zimmern described his disbelief at this kind of delay, and said he confirmed a couple times that this was indeed the real wait time. Given no quarter, he and his peeps heel-turned and alighted upon Graze. There, the wait was similarly long, but his party was offered space at the bar and an assurance that they'd get seated in short order -- if possibly broken up between multiple tables.

Zimmern's complaint is two-fold, and my appreciation of his argument is similarly split.

1) When a restaurant is "red-lining," as he puts it, the youngest and least-experienced server should not be working front-of-house; the managers should take over, to handle the crowd and to take the brunt of any customer dissatisfaction rather than a poor kid. Zimmern describes seeing manager-types behind the hostess on Monday, doing the "menu shuffle" and looking like they were hovering rather than helping.

I agree with him 100% here, and I've noticed the same thing about The Old Fashioned. And Graze's offer to see what they could do while his party waited at the bar is a good move for any restaurant dealing with customers expressing a need for a quick seat.

That said...

2) "If I'm wandering around Yountville, California, and it's ten o'clock at night and it's on New Year's Eve, and I'd like to eat at The French Laundry, I pretty much can guarantee you I can get fed there." This is how Zimmern begins his tale of facing The Old Fashioned's infamous 90-minute waits. And if you haven't heard of The French Laundry, it's a three-star Michelin restaurant with a $270 prix fixe tasting menu. So, y'know, not that different from The Old Fash on two-for-one cheeseburger night.

 Disingenuous?

Disingenuous?


Zimmern points out that the beleaguered hostess had an expression that seemed to indicate she "couldn't quite place" him. His cohost, Molly Mogren, reminds everyone at one point that Zimmern had "done [The Old Fashioned] a solid" by including them in a previous episode of Bizarre World.  So in other words, he was due for a little back-scratching of his own, but that damned college student didn't recognize he was a celebrity! Quelle horreur.

Zimmern and Mogren acknowledge, at another point in the conversation, that The Old Fashioned is staffed by a lot of college students, yet the idea of a college student not being totally well-versed in the world of cable television hosts doesn't seem to cross their minds. And let's not forget, Monday is indeed The Old Fashioned's biggest promo night of the week, when their lauded cheeseburgers are buy one, get one free. It's highly unlikely anyone'd get a quick spot at the bar on Mondays, to say nothing of a table for three or four.

Maybe I was predisposed to be at odds with Zimmern over another comment in the early-going of the podcast, in which he complains that no restaurant, regardless of its artisanal intent, should put a hot dog on the menu. He doesn't "want to see that." Mogren reminds him that he liked the hot dog at Tilia, a hot (and yes, terrific) new Minneapolis restaurant. He immediately excuses that item -- a product, like he is, of the Twin Cities -- as being presented as a Chicago-style dog, not some twist or modernist take on a dog.

Ahem. Tilia's menu reads: "BLT Dog: Bacon, tomatoes, dill pickled cauliflower, mayo & mustard." So, sure. Exactly like a Chicago dog, no tweaks.

As a fan of the late Underground Kitchen's pretzel dogs, and an aspiring eater of Butcher and the Boar's footlong hot dog, I take issue with the claim that a hot dog has no place on a restaurant menu. For Zimmern, it appears that only Twin Cities restaurants get a pass. Homer apologism just kinda rubs me the wrong way.

Maybe I'm doing that with The Old Fashioned, whose M.O. for seating precludes reservations, thus bottlenecking the entire operation at their cramped entrance. But I think Zimmern's "Do you know who I am?" indignation kneecaps any legit argument he could make against The Old Fashioned's unaccommodating behavior.

Kyle Ate Here - In the pink

Enjoy yourself, the song says. An old song -- though the Guy Lombardo version was recorded when my grandparents had already been married for a couple years, so I guess old is a matter of perspective.

My grandfather, Don, passed away on June 9, and on the next day my body decided to saddle me with conjunctivitis. It wasn't a banner month, exactly. It's hard to be with family and support them physically and emotionally when you worry about having an infectious shoulder to cry on.

But summer comes all the same, and does its best to reinvigorate; there were big plans in June that helped to clear away some of the clouds. June marked something of a turning point, a new degree investment in experiencing...life, just a little more.


The first half

Burgers and Brew! The second food festival of my summer's calendar, and our first trip back since 2009. In the intervening years, organizers added an all-encompassing tent (good for both excessive rain and shine), as well as what felt like faster-moving lines. Two of my three tickets went to burgers that I'd happily pay full-sized price for: the Weary Traveler Iron Horse burger (topped with whipped blue cheese, pickles and pepperoncini), and Fresco's Bluecy in the Sky with Bacon (annoyingly named, but stuffed with blue cheese and bacon, and incredibly juicy).

Maharani and Lao Laan Xang (Atwood) both served up what would have been great plates; unfortunately, the former's chicken madras deployed some poorly prepped and cooked chicken (gristly, rubbery), and the kitchen at the latter failed to intercept a long strip of metal in my otherwise delicious chicken khua mee. And if you missed it, my review of Dickey's Barbecue Pit ran in June; it's linked over there on the right.

Wedl's bacon cheeseburger. Worth the mileage.
The second half

June ended strong; an aggressively mundane shopping trip to Johnson Creek became a handy excuse to try Wedl's Hamburger Stand in Jefferson. The burgers are thin and slicked with delicious grease; there's no "but" to this sentence. If you're in the area, go. If you're not, get there. Closer to home, Manna Cafe's hefty oatcakes impressed, but maybe not enough to make them a regular draw. Buck's Pizza on Cottage Grove begs for a little less cheese and a little more oregano, but its lo-tech oiliness pleases the lizard brain. The banh mi at Kim's Noodles could use a more charismatic bread, but the fillings are sweet, funky, terrific. Set some time aside for (sllllllooooowww) takeout, or pull up to a table.

Ample. For $16, it better be.But we're working backwards from the end of June to what was without question the highlight of the whole month: beersball. The announcement of a Target Field exclusive Surly beer variety brought together three guys with disparate baseball interests, and over a weekend in mid-June, we made some gustatory magic happen. Buffalo chicken mac and cheese and a bacon sloppy joe from the Food Network stall. An excellent (and Pat LaFrieda-stamped) burger overlooking what might have been an escort service transaction -- or possibly a gypsy speed date -- at Brit's Pub. And on Sunday, a highly idiomatic but extraordinary breakfast at James Beard Award winner Al's Breakfast in Dinkytown. The beer was tremendous, and there was even a baseball game! My grandpa would have preferred the Cubs, but I'm sure he would have loved Al's.


Proudly displayed at Al's. Don might have found this silly.The best thing I ate

Madison had a tough hill to climb considering the serious game that the Twin Cities brought in June. The bacon sloppy joe was full of caramelized, smoky bacon, but as good as that was, the buffalo chicken mac and cheese was even better. Fresco's Burgers and Brew entry was something special. But if it were to come down to, say, the four piece mix that turned me around 180 degrees on Harold's Chicken Shack, and the pancakes at Al's...well, this month, I've got to go with what old Donnie would have picked. The atmosphere is severely intimate, the seating regimen (there are only 14 stools) is sympathetically autocratic, and those pancakes have an interior so soft and so hot it's almost molten. The edges are perfectly crisped, and they're neither puny nor wastefully massive.

That song's chorus goes like this.

Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think
Enjoy yourself, while you're still in the pink
The years go by, as quickly as a wink
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it's later than you think

I don't think pinkeye was what the songwriter had in mind -- neither was a medium-rare burger -- but hey, it works. Enjoy yourself.

American ways


Driving along the Mississippi River today, my wife and I listened to Muddy Waters singing "I may be getting old, but I got young-fashioned ways." We drove past coal plants, record stores, lock-and-dam installations, and plenty of historical markers. We saw cell towers, hybrid-electric cars, and a small town with "No Frac Plant Near C-FC" signs in what seemed like every single yard.

America is changing.

Of course, that's completely fatuous; it's always changing. That's what makes America America. But the changes happening now -- environmental, technological, infrastructural changes with local and global impact -- are so significant and so tidal that they'll happen without our encouragement. We either let loose the mooring, or that tide leaves our collective boat swamped -- or run aground.

We'd spent the first half of the week in the Twin Cities, visiting Kristine's extended family. The dogs were boarded until Thursday morning, so we had a little slack in the line that allowed us to take a slight detour. It was a jaunt south, to tiny Stockholm, Wisconsin, that I'd wanted to make on numerous trips in the past. Today was my day, and it turned out to be a scenic route dialed in perfectly to the Independence Day holiday.

                      

Stockholm (pop. 66) is home to the appropriately-named Stockholm Pie Company; it has received no shortage of praise, even over the legendary Norske Nook. The trunk of our car was filled with Minnesota beers, and the pie stop was a no-brainer. As it happened, the entire trip took place on the Great River Road, one of the US Department of Transportation's America's Byways routes.


A few observances felt germane to the American Idea as we drove along this road that the US government thinks is scenic and important. We saw some signs in Maiden Rock (pop. 119) that read "Save our bluff!" I assumed this was just due to development and soil erosion. But later, when Fountain City (pop. 859) yards repeated the exhortation, "No Frac Plant Near C-FC," I gathered the two campaigns might be one. For the couple dozen signs we saw opposing the project, only one sign read, "Sand = Jobs."

In Alma (pop. 781), there is an old coal-burning power plant operated by the Dairyland Power Cooperative. The Alma Station plant was built in 1947, and utilizes five units of operation. The last went online in 1960. It's a massive facility, and would be an imposing sight on its own -- if it wasn't paired with the John P. Madgett Station right next door. (Indeed, they now comprise collectively-titled Alma Site.) JPM has been operational since 1979.

The coal comes from Western states, to be burned for Midwestern states' energy needs. It might be easy to see the temptation in exploiting local resources like oil sands for energy, environmental impact be damned. And it might be easy for local workers, perhaps desperate for steady employment (most towns we drove through are bleeding residents), to think that frac mining is the answer.

But one looks at the US Army Corps of Engineers' lock-and-dam setups that dot the Mississippi River (and many, many other waterways), and one is wise to remember that the federal government can do some pretty significant work when it is encouraged and allowed to do so. The interstate highway we'd left in St. Paul, Minnesota (pop. 285,068), and would return to in Onalaska (pop. 17,736), is another example. The Trempeleau National Wildlife Refuge we passed, yet another.

We can save the things that deserve saving, and we can connect the people and places that want to be connected. We can do these things by employing Americans and training them to succeed at these tasks.

As we were leaving Stockholm, miniature triple-berry pie in tow, our cell signal disappeared. An indecipherable symbol (a lonely 'o') appeared where 4G might show up otherwise; the only meaning we could discern from this strange little donut was that it meant "try again later." I hoped we were still on the right highway. (We were.)

o as in "nooooo"

Eventually, the signal returned -- slow, but at least present. When it disappeared again -- completely -- near Holmen, Wisconsin (pop. 9,005), and didn't reappear until we were at the doorstep of the outermost businesses that surround this growing town of nearly 10,000, we'd come to the conclusion that all of these issues -- energy, jobs, connection, environment -- should be addressed in harmony. Cellular networks and wind power both proliferate via towers; certainly there's a way to make that commonality work to everyone's benefit.

Our infrastructure is changing even as its bones stay the same. Cell towers line the same old interstate, but signal strength is still questionable in many areas, and short-sighted politicians still think that less access to data networks is the answer. Our representatives still allow mining companies to write broad-sweeping legislation with big payouts for narrow interests. The federal government is still maligned by many as incapable of any good deed, unless one considers big explosions and unmanned drone warfare to be good deeds.

No, the federal government is the backbone of this country. It's what we celebrate on Independence Day: the day we said we'd be our own country, thanks. "To institute a new Government," the Declaration says. And all the old stuff shouldn't be thrown out because it's old; indeed, the physical infrastructure of America is in serious need of repair and refitting. Flying cars aren't coming any time soon.

But on this Independence Day, as this county creeps closer and closer to 250 years old, it's clear where the tide is pulling us. It's not coal, oil sands, dial-up data speeds and isolation. It's common purpose, interconnectivity, and sustainability. We may be getting old, but we should embrace those young-fashioned ways.

Kyle Ate Here - Event-full

May is the first half of a two-month stretch that, in my household, tests our schedules and drops us all over the map of Wisconsin. My birthday's in May, my niece's birthday is in May, Mother's Day is in May -- heck, even one of our dogs has a May birthday.

It's not just the personal stuff that filled up this particular May. Kristine and I put some good hours into celebrating the best of good beer during Madison Craft Beer Week. The inaugural Isthmus Ala Carts festival put us in the line of fire of 20-some food carts that normally set up shop all over town; I'll post a little more about that soon. I waited in line for most of a rainy Saturday morning to get tickets to Great Taste of the Midwest with a couple friends. And a local legend shut its doors for the last time.


Goings-on

Craft Beer Week kicked off with a rare beer tapping at Alchemy; Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout, Central Waters Peruvian Morning, and Dark Horse Double Crooked Tree IPA were on offer. KBS and Peruvian Morning are thick enough to drink like a meal (and both delicious), but the barbecue pork sandwich was quite nice, too. Topped with a crisp, almost candied bacon, the sandwich had a kind of Southeast Asian-esque flavor. At Johnson Public House, the Sunday Morning Breakfast Sandwich was just the right fuel for sitting on my butt waiting to buy Great Taste tickets. (Good on JPH for opening extra-early at 5 A.M. for the line-sitters.)

2012 cranked out a pretty exemplary birthday weekend, too. A lunch trip to Stalzy's with my parents came first; stepdad's foot was in a hard boot and the staff were very accommodating to his need for an extra chair. The Corso sandwich was something to behold, with all its meaty goodness. The parsley oil is a nice touch. Kristine humored me with a magic coffee and brat from the Graze market stand, and that evening we introduced my in-laws to the Great Dane East. A fine view, and a tasty bowl of French onion soup, salty and rich. My birthday-proper was observed with Kristine at Brasserie V, where her beloved waterzooi was back on the menu as a special. My crispy sablefish was cooked expertly, and the white truffle puree, grilled asparagus, and pickled ramps gave the entire plate a sort of forest floor, musky character -- in the best way.

A final note of farewell to Nifty 50's, the Odana Road loose meat shop whose twenty-year run came to an end on Memorial Day weekend. The loose meat sandwich is a throwback kind of menu item, a niche bite that calls Iowa home. Dick and Connie Schrock decided to hang it up and enjoy their retirement; I'll miss the peanut butter shakes, cherry phosphates, and the Schrock's unique brand of customer engagement.


Just kind of, y'know

At last, I gave in and ordered the chicken and waffles from the Graze brunch menu. The waffle came out a little cool, but the steamin'-hot chicken -- with its crunchy and well-seasoned exterior -- balanced out the temperatures. It's pretty much worth its $16 price tag. An otherwise-lovely lunch with Kristine at Sushi Muramoto was marred by a bone-filled piece of black cod; the server seemed more terrified that I was going to raise hell than apologetic that such a poorly-prepped piece of fish left the kitchen. (It would have been perfect otherwise, seared skin, tender flesh and all.) My Big Texan brunch plate at Eldorado Grill was hearty and satisfying, but the star of that meal was the impressive panko-crusted banana french toast.

For the first time in nearly a decade, my wife and I visited Quivey's Grove over in the Madison/Fitchburg borderlands. The cheese curds were oblong and almost tempura-battered, with a mustard-based dipping sauce -- different, but enjoyable. With the news that Monroe's Roth Käse has had to cease use of the word "gruyere" following Swiss pressure, I felt compelled to order the Roth Käse gruyere-topped Stable's Best burger. It is billed as a Kobe beef burger (that with its own nomenclature controversy), and it was all right. But ground is no way to eat any kind of wagyu beef, to say nothing of slightly overcooked. Tread carefully.


The best thing I ate

I've developed a bit of a crush on the Great Dane's brown ale (French) onion soup lately, and it is quite good -- but probably not Best Thing-caliber. The Corso at Stalzy's was a pleasant surprise in that it was served on a roll soft enough to allow for a big bite without launching the insides outward. (And the verdant parsley oil was emphasized but not overly emphatic, as a great sandwich dressing should be.) Best Thing, though, is Brasserie V's sablefish. A little over a year ago, I had a similar meal at Brasserie V; I think it's safe to say that the kitchen there can work a mid-spring menu to excellent results. As popular as Brasserie V already is, there should be a line out the door every night. Eating there is some kind of event.

Kyle Ate Here - The bites that bite

I had surgery back in June of 2011, and it wasn't fun -- lost my senses of taste and smell for a while, lots of discomfort. But at least I could eat. In April, my dear sweet wife had to undergo some dental surgery that temporarily limited her to a soft/smooth diet. Dairy state or no, we are not meant to live on pudding and ice cream alone.

If she was writing this post, she'd have some words to share with you on how annoying it was after a week or so of not being able to eat comfortably. (She's doing fine now, by the way.) But by the end of the month, even though she was still a little limited, we were at least back to some of our usual haunts.


Nibbles

The FluffalettaI crossed paths with a couple sausages early in April; the Chicago dog at the Home Depot East hot dog cart was tightly wrapped but its ingredients were well-proportioned, while the hot link at Papa Bear's let me down for the first time. It was a little gamey, with chewy casing. The Fluffaletta at Famous Yeti's (currently closed indefinitely due to fire) featured a heap of ham and the buttery, crusty roll they'd come to be known for -- at least by me.

There were more Ground Zero maple lattes, and the occasional baked good. They're generally pretty satisfying; the pumpkin chocolate chip bread/muffin is my go-to. Kristine and I took in a double-feature at the Orpheum during the Wisconsin Film Festival, and there was a highly mediocre pulled pork sandwich whose ultimate provenance eludes me (considering the tenuous status of the whole Orpheum restaurant operation). Elsewhere on State, Ian's put out one heck of a beef taco slice; the chicken cordon bleu was a bit overcooked, but still tasty.


Chomps

A buncha food at Dickey's
What once was Victor Allen's Coffee off of East Washington near the Interstate is now Dickey's Barbecue Pit. It's Chipotle/Subway style fast-food barbecue, but I was impressed by the level of smoke on both the ribs and chopped brisket. Sauces are a letdown, but the buttered dinner rolls are heaven; I gotta get me one of Dickey's bun machines. A visit to (2012 James Beard Award semifinalistThe Old Fashioned for burger night -- and a glorious pint of Bedlam -- was both tasty and remarkably non-crowded. Even less crowded: The Fountain, which rewarded our first visit with manageable traffic, surprisingly complex beer cheese soup, and an impressive Reuben. The meat, heaped; the kraut, apple-bacony.

Pork belly mac and cheese from The Coopers Tavern seemed like a good idea for a soft meal for Kristine. The mac part was good enough, but the pork belly was overcooked and covered in a nasty gelatinous sauce. I had the slightly above average fish and chips (accompanied by an unpleasant slaw that looked like shredded dish rags). Add to that maybe the worst table in the house, strangely obsequious service, and off-tasting Monk's Cafe... It wasn't the best trip. A Friday fish fry at Wilson's Bar -- cheap, hot, salty, and serenaded with a loud and ridiculous soundtrack -- was infinitely superior.


The best thing I ate

Reuben and creole tomato soupI'd fully expected to slot Sardine into consideration, but the standouts of that evening -- other than the company -- were two pitch-perfect barrel-aged negronis. (The wilty, brown-spotted radicchio atop my seafood buckwheat crepe took it out of the running.)  No, this month's best thing basically comes down to the Duck Duck Goat pizza at Salvatore's Tomato Pies in Sun Prairie, the apple-fennel-potato hash beneath Graze's brunch kielbasa, a tender and salt-topped tomato-basil-mozzarella scone at Heritage Bakery and Cafe, and the aforementioned Fountain Reuben.

The Graze kitchen crafted a nearly perfect plate of kielbasa, hash, and eggs; the hash was just the right combination of sweet and savory. You see the picture of the Reuben. You don't need me to tell you how good it is. And the scone was a real surprise, ingredients in balance and kissed with a scattering of big grains of salt. But the Salvatore's pie topped with duck-confited-in-duck-fat, rich dollops of goat cheese and cranberries shows just how successful Pat DePula's experimentations can be. And seriously, on that perfectly chewy crust? If it comes around again, order it. Missing out would really bite.

Kyle Ate Here - Wisconsin strikes back

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.

New blooms

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.

 These fish don't run. (No legs.)

These fish don't run. (No legs.)

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.

 Oysters two ways

Oysters two ways

Deep roots

Y'know, I've got half a mind to write this section in three words: bone luge brunch. My fellow Isthmus contributor, André Darlington, put this semi-ridiculous meal together at the always-classy L'Etoile, and let me say that this is a pretty tasty obnoxious food trend.

 Shrimp and grits

Shrimp and grits

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.

 Bone marrow with caviar and greens

Bone marrow with caviar and greens

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.

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.

Reviewing The Olive Garden, or Bonfire of the Inanities

The Internet has a habit of latching on to innocent phenomena and turning them into A) punching bags, B) cautionary tales, or C) dead horses. Today's checkmark in perhaps all three boxes is the earnest review of the new Olive Garden restaurant in Grand Forks, North Dakota, by long-time Grand Forks Herald staffer Marilyn Hagerty. Her grandmotherly face is spreading like wildfire across the screens and keyboards of snarkists and the higher-minded consumers of food and food criticism. The poor dear.

A case can be made for the virtue of Ms. Hagerty's review, which is but one of many she has written over the years, covering local restaurants and chains, unique and pedestrian. A town of fewer than 60,000 residents isn't going to have the same kind of tidal surge of new restaurants to cover as even a small city like Madison. If her paper's readers want food coverage, they get to read about what's there. If that means The Olive Garden, then that's what they're going to get. And if they like such coverage, then who has the right to tell them their opinions are wrong? The heart wants what it wants, and sometimes it wants unlimited salad and breadsticks.

But in choosing to submit words, paragraphs, inches, to the larger entity that is food writing, Ms. Hagerty is not immune to criticism on the merits of that genre just because she's a sweet old lady. So if someone wanted to knock her review (or reviews, as this appears to be a common occurrence) for only discussing one trip to the restaurant instead of the customary three, one could rightfully do that. If someone were to point out that there are only a small handful of sentences dedicated to discussion of the actual food -- this The Eatbeat, not an interior décor column, after all -- that person would not be out of place. An unimpressed reader could even argue that the review isn't particularly well-written, but again: if it’s the style that gets eyeballs and clicks in Grand Forks, then there's little reason for rhetorical flourishes and witty wordplay. The world needs ditch-diggers, too, as the man once said.

It's a five-to-one ratio out there (in my circles, anyway), with the majority taking mildly perverse pleasure in the review's weaknesses. I think most of those titterers would probably acknowledge that it's a dark laugh they're having. As someone who has covered the arrival of a shiny-and-new chain shop in town, I can sympathize with the struggle to give such a story integrity and value. So let us all share in Olive Garden's spirit of Italian generosity, and allow for the cynics and the scolds alike.

But not the haters sending shitty emails to poor Marilyn; no hospitaliano for them.

Top Chef Texas (-ish) - Finale

So, was it just really obvious, or am I getting good at this finally? Paul was one of my guys from the get-go, and at the top of my odds from gate to gate. Congratulations Paul Qui; you're Top Chef.

It works that maybe the quietest, meekest chef to win this competition served some a final meal of fairly soft, squishy dishes. Chawanmushi, congee, and ice cream topped with foam? Sounds pretty good, but Paul's skills with textural punctuation (puffed rice, pea shoots) were what kept his courses from being mush after unrelenting mush. The congee, noted as weakest by most of the judges, had the least dimension.

I won't slight Sarah for her output in the finale. She did a pretty solid job, with a first course that deviated startlingly from her usual milieu. Squid ink and coconut are not the usual tools in German/Italian/Chicagoan/Texan Sarah Gruenberg's toolbox. She and Paul both carried themselves really admirably in the kitchen during this challenge. For being easily the most starstruck chef I can recall ("OHMIGOD ITS ________ !!"), Sarah got her shit together and ran a tight and professional ship in Vancouver.

As far as narrative, it couldn't have been written any better than to have Tyler -- he of the toothy smarm and exceptionally poor butchering skills -- not only reappear in the finale, but be blind-selected as one of the competing chefs' teammates. He didn't, at least, appear to submarine Sarah's efforts, but how much better would her team have been with the unselected Master Chef Marco Canora? Paul seemed to really thrive thanks in part to Master Chef Barbara Lynch's presence.

Final thoughts. Smarty Paul bought those prawns when he didn't need them -- and then he needed them. (What exactly happened to that crab anyway?) It would have been great to see Nyesha competing in the finale rather than assisting. I think Paul would have really been given a run for his money with her, even as well as Sarah performed. A lot of this year's challenges were pretty mediocre. I don't think Top Chef should return to the "Last Chance Kitchen" concept, if for no other reason than because it won't carry the same surprise. (And this season's surprise was blunted by, I think, chefs who were just plain worn out by the season's rigors.)

Go forth, Paul Qui -- executive chef at one of GQ's 10 Best New Restaurants of 2011, and now Top Chef -- and bask in your new fame. And dude, don't sit anywhere between Heather and Beverly during the reunion special.

Top Chef (Texas) - Keep the hot side hot

After a first round of the finals wherein the chefs were inexplicably dropped in Vancouver (y'know, where they had the Olympics once?), chefs ran biathlon (poorly) to win ingredients for a very important dish, Beverly's luck finally ran out, and Paul and Lindsay returned at the end of the episode both wearing white like indoctrinated cultists -- after all that, we started tonight's action with our three remaining chefs twiddling their thumbs while Top Chef Masters loosened the lids on their pickle jars.

This, my friends, is a snapshot of this season.

But hey, Paul made it to the final finals like we all knew he should. You could make equally valid arguments for either [Lindsay's repeated low degrees of difficulty] or [Sarah's willingness to make a shitload of fiddly pasta] being the main reason why Sarah's moving on and Lindsay's going home.

Either way, Sarah's got her work cut out for her. In a challenge where Paul has no choice but to focus, his nattering creative monkeys are likely to be silenced. No stray arugula -- as it that could possibly have sent his dish packing this week over raw kale randomly slapped on Lindsay's halibut.

And tonight's Elimination challenge: was it giving anyone else flashbacks?


So next week is the real finale, I think. I have to hand it to Sarah; she's got more culinary chutzpah than I expected out of her. She's kind of a competition chef after my own heart, trying things on a whim when she's got zero experience with 'em. But I can tell you, you run a strong chance of flaming out with that philosophy. Paul's only got the Coco Chanel rule to remember; his kung fu is strong.

Every season, one judge says that that season's finale is the best one ever, so I don't put a lot of stock in the preview snippet from Tom Colicchio. Still, I'll be sticking it out just to see if he's not putting us all on.

Top Chef Texas - Ketchup

Let's just lay it out quick and easy.

-Grayson Schmitz has the honor of issuing the single greatest verbal takedown of Tom Colicchio. "Like a meatball?", she spat -- and won a spot in my heart forever. Sorry to see her go, and even sorrier to find that she didn't look upon her Last Chance Kitchen opportunity with much anticipation.

-Chicken salad was a terrible idea.

-Chris Jones is no Richard Blais.

-Peach is without question the ingredient of this season. Tell me otherwise.

-"Bike, Borrow and Steal" was a brutal-ass Elimination Challenge.

-I didn't mind Pee Wee. At least he wasn't pitching anything, and if you're looking for something non-obvious to tie the Alamo into the action, what's better? "In honor of the Last Stand at the Alamo, create a dish that stands up on the plate"? Come on. I'll take Pee Wee.

-I don't think Grayson had any business going home at the end of "Bike, Borrow and Steal".

-Of the five chefs that competed in the mentor challenge, I didn't particularly care for three of them -- and it's not a gender bias thing. I don't think I'm alone in wishing that it had been Grayson, Nyesha, and even Heather in that round instead of dour Lindsay, unstable Sarah, and spastic Beverly. Still, the tears and nerves and hugs were genuine this week, and that's appreciated at the tail end of a somewhat dry season. Nice to see Tony Mantuano (Wisconsin native, dontcha know), even if his mentee didn't have anything to do in the challenge.

-Packaged oysters? Oh, Edward.

Dude, have you never watched this show?
-Is there any question that Paul's going to have to give this one up for anyone but him to win?

-On January 19, I at least nailed the final five. I'm willing to accept that Beverly has another gear she can shift into -- if the sound of the transmission grinding doesn't freak her out and force a fatal error.

Paul: 3 to 1
Lindsay: 5 to 1
Beverly: 9 to 1
Sarah: 15 to 1, 14 to 1 that she develops frostbite in British Columbia and has to retire.

See you in the final round!


Top Chef Texas - War is hell, evil is great

(Heads-up: I'll be discussing the results of tonight's Last Chance Kitchen at the end of this post.)

Two weeks ago, we had the Restaurant Wars episode that for years has been the tentpole of the Top Chef season. This week, an overt media tie-in episode with a celebrity guest judge with unknown or questionable culinary bona fides -- the kind of episode we all sort of shudder at. (Hi, Rocco's frozen dinners!)

Who'd'a thunk that Restaurant Wars would be a total calamity, and the media tie-in (with Snow White and the Huntsman star Charlize Theron) would offer, from top to bottom, some of the most charismatic, adept, and truly appetizing cookery we've seen in recent seasons?

Maybe it's that, as fellow Top Chef analyst Carol Blymire noted, the show was willing to call arancini 'arancini', but settled for calling zeppole 'Italian doughnuts'. Maybe it's the "Battle of the Sexes" theme of Restaurant Week that felt just a little too Road Rules. Or maybe it's that, as I've noted before, the editing seems to be favoring the rope-a-dope strategy of the Japanese Iron Chef in portraying judges' positions one way during the meal, and wildly different during chef criticism.

(I don't know what's worse: that Team Half-Bushel, with Lindsay's vacant front-of-house work, lengthy delays, overcooked halibut from Lindsay by way of Beverly, and Sarah's lackluster Italian doughnuts, still managed to win over Team Canteen, or that Beverly's nineteenth braised short rib was good enough to overcome her deficiencies in cooking Lindsay's fish and beat Grayson's very well-received peach and bacon salad and elegant schaum torte dessert outright.)

The boys had their problems, of course. Chris Jones took the Ghost of Eli's Caramel Apple Peanut Soup to the limit with his sloppy...well, slop of Cracker Jack ice cream, cherry, and frozen peanut butter. And actually, what was with their very trademark-centric dessert courses? (Edward's "Almond Joy" looked and sounded tasty, but the insistence on going the Todd Wilbur route cheapened their efforts.)

And in the end, even though I thought Ty-Lör's dish was appealing, it had nothing to do with the vaguely mess-hall theme of the boys' restaurant; I can accept his dismissal at the end of Restaurant Wars, even though Chris Jones' flaws spoke louder to me.

But you know what it really was that made this week's episode so much more enjoyable than last? Everything. Every single thing about this week's output bested last week's efforts. I hate to say it, but that includes Beverly's departure at the end of a very hair-splitting Judges' Table. At least now Lindsay and Sarah can get over their beef with Bev (who may not be the victim the editors make her out to be, but whose treatment by the other mean girls is nonetheless unjustified) and I won't have to see them talk down to her for using a plastic spoon to plate things.

The Quickfire was fun, with the chefs having to choose at least three ingredients from a conveyor belt of escalating quality. (The gamble: wait longer, and better stuff comes out, but you have less time to cook.) It was nice to see Eric Ripert back again. Everyone always wants to impress the Ripper (remember that nickname, Beverly; it's closer than 'rip-ERT'), and I thought for sure Sarah was trying too hard. Seemed like she was waiting for-EVER at the belt, but managed to pull off a cottage cheese sauce (hurk) for her fried soft-shell crab. Also, Chris: RUN FASTER.

(Padma told Beverly she'd have won had she plated her third ingredient, curried Rice Krispies, but gave the win on technicality to Lindsay's bouillabaisse -- galling, and understandably, but I can't help but enjoy that schadenfreude. "Since we can't give it to Beverly, um....Lindsay, I guess." I had high hopes for Grayson's fun Goldfish cracker-crusted Dover sole, but alas, Ripert dismissed its heavy citrus usage.)

Then Charlize Theron walked in, and the episode kicked into high gear. She's the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Huntsman -- the Snow White movie coming this year that actually looks good, and doesn't involve GOP presidential candidates in any way -- and the theme of the challenge was to cook for a wicked queen.

Lamb hearts. Forbidden rice. Black chicken. Fried fish skin. Even a poisoned apple. I am not kidding you, I was sure up until the point where Padma said someone would be going home that they weren't going to kick anyone off. Every single plate of food brought it. Brought. It. As dish after spectacular dish came out, wife and I were worried about Grayson; she'd chosen the black chicken despite no experience with it, and it just didn't seem like her admittedly-literal approach was going to work with a finicky new protein. It did, though she still ended up at the bottom. Her dish also looked amazing.

Chris Jones' MOTOisms finally worked in his favor. Edward's dual-sauced tuna tartare was right up my alley. I really expected Sarah to bork her lamb hearts and amarone risotto, and while she was nearly eliminated, she nailed the hearts at least. Paul's plating was risky -- his beet/bacon/pumpernickel hash (for lack of a better term) clung to the edge of a very avant garde platter -- and the handprint meant to look bloody could have been gimmicky. It wasn't, and he took home another win and two tickets to the SWatH premiere.

Charlize Theron was an adept judge and a fun presence on the show -- and yes, gorgeous -- and the regulars seemed to appreciate the greatness of the meal in its proper context. The plating and flavors were both terrific. Beverly's gone, but not; I've got no animosity toward her, but this household was really rooting for Nyesha in the Last Chance Kitchen. Beverly managed to knock her off in a challenge that was maybe just a pinch too cruel.

And so, updated odds:

Paul: 4 to 1
Lindsay: 6 to 1
Edward: 9 to 1
Sarah: 20 to 1
[Last Chance Kitchen winner]: 40 to 1
Grayson: 45 to 1
Chris J.: 75 to 1

Next week, the chefs cook head to head, Cat Cora shows up to guest-judge, Chris J. may just lose his shit, and Grayson continues to be adorably blunt.

Top Chef Texas - Hot links, weak links

Super-sized episode, super-late recap. Let's just hit the highlights.

-I like both the decision to extend a barbecue-centric episode, and to preface the Elimination with a Quickfire centered on Modernist Cuisine.

-The worst thing that could have happened to Chris Jones' culinary career was getting a job at MOTO. Take away Richard Blais' foundations in Southern cuisine, and you have Chris Jones, pulling out trick after trick to impress people, but without a real understanding of what people want to eat, not just look at.

-Chris Crary's apartment. He is so The Todd.

-Beverly's little technology meltdown during the Quickfire. Cringe.

-It's kind of ridiculous how much Sarah seems to be carrying Heather's torch. Not trusting Ed because he sold out Heather's use of his cake recipe after she was gone was just petty.

-An all-night barbecue challenge that culminates in a mid-day Texas-in-the-summer service is downright cruel. I'm shocked that Sarah was the only one to poop out. Though, I wonder if Grayson even remembers telling Tom Colicchio their food would be "like sex in the mouth". Heat delirium?

-On the other hand, not even Tom could argue with the triumvirate of Texas, Kentucky, and Kansas City -- aka Sarah, Ed, and Ty-Lör. Ty would not receive vindication after his steak debacle, however.

-Glad that Ed wasn't quite the cold-hearted complainer that the promos made him out to be after Sarah had to bail.

-I didn't care for the editing of commentary at the table and then the real thoughts at Judges' Table. A little rope-a-dopey.

-What in the world was Grayson thinking with her little frog song?

No, Grayson. Just, no.
-Paul, Lindsay, and Grayson pick up the win for their Asian barbecue. I like how barbecue translates from continent to continent, so I was happy to see them take a geographic chance.

-Chris Jones continues to be lucky that someone else screws up worse than him.

Sorry again for the lateness; I was in Minneapolis for four days, eating. I assume by now you've watched "Last Chance Kitchen", and saw Nyesha move past outgoing barbecuist Chris Crary with a strong dish made of gas station food. Love that girl.

Tonight's episode, "Restaurant Wars", has finished; I'll try to get my recap out  a little sooner.

Kyle Ate Here - The 2011 in review edition

Here we are, at the end of this year-long experiment in journaling -- something I've never been good at doing, and didn't always attend to properly throughout 2011. But I've filled two notebooks with this year's dining notes, and a little retrospection is only fair.

And there is, of course, the matter of December. It was a pretty slow month, what with Christmas shopping and travel and what-have-you. So many other gifts and bounty, I'm sure December won't mind if it gets a little short shrift.

December dining

 The defining social movement  of 2011, I'm sure.

The defining social movement

of 2011, I'm sure.

Even a mild winter gets me all cozy for the coffee shop experience: leisurely mugs and pressed sandwiches. Redamté on State and Firefly in Oregon did a fine job of scratching that itch. (Though, I found it odd that Firefly doesn't offer hot breakfast options, only house-made baked goods. The lemon cream scone wasn't Lazy Jane's-caliber, but satisfied nonetheless.) And Barriques' BLT wrap is just so perfect. Papa Bear's BBQ amazed once again with a luscious BBQ pork po'boy, topped with crisp cabbage and spicy ranch. On the flip side, Brickhouse BBQ was a major letdown from our last trip; a meal full of off flavors and poor finish made me glad we used a gift certificate and didn't pay full price. Odd flavors also marred what would have otherwise been a nice sandwich at Carmella's, a very popular bistro in Appleton; my shaved prime rib panini was pleasant but for a burnt-tasting fried caper and fennel aioli.

Even for a slightly abbreviated month of dining out, exemplary dishes shone forth. A late-month trip to Tipsy Cow saw my beloved PBR tacos return to form. I finally visited Ian's Pizza on State in its remodeled...state, and a sausage alfredo slice left nothing to be desired. That Papa Bear's po'boy would have won any other month, but the best present I unwrapped outside of Christmas morning was the double-smoked brisket sandwich at Stalzy's Deli. Gloriously smoky, perfectly cooked, just fatty enough -- everything you want from a piece of smoked meat.

It's 2012, and 2011's check has come

So, kids, what have we learned? I can tell you what learned through these posts.

-I learned that Papa Bear's BBQ is more than just quick-n-easy barbecue; it has to be considered as one of the best 'cue joints in Madison.

-I learned that throughout all the protest crowds, all the social media chatter, and even a closure and re-opening, Tipsy Cow still hasn't figured out how to either offer anything more than the minimum level of service, or even build a basic website. (But feel free to peruse the defunct King and Mane branch of the Lombardino's site.)

-I learned that Madison's Bakery Row (Willy/Atwood area) has probably reached saturation. RIP Bea's Bonnet, but glad to see you're still buzzing at Victory.

-I learned that shelling out for food at Michael's or Java Cat (gelato excluded, as I still haven't tried it) is almost never worth the cost.

-I learned that getting to the Library Mall lunch cart corridor -- even if you have to drive there -- is absolutely worth it.

-I learned just how wonderful San Francisco is for a guy who loves to eat, and only scratched the surface.

-I learned that I still have a lot to experience in the world of Madison restaurants -- and 2012 is going to be a great year to discover more.

The best things

January - Chicken francaise, jacs Dining and Taphouse

February - PBR-battered tilapia tacos, King and Mane

March - Brussels sprouts with lemon, Merchant

April - Montrachet goat cheese tart, Brasserie V

May - Roast beef sandwich, Johnson Public House

June - Bananas flambé chocolate, DB Infusion Chocolates

July - Drunken shrimp with XO and ale butter sauce, L'Etoile

August - Krupuk udang (shrimp chips), Bandung

September - Blueberry pie, Graze

October - The Bada Bing pizza, Luigi's

November  - The G breakfast sandwich, Gotham New York Bagels

December - Double-smoked brisket sandwich, Stalzy's Deli

Whaddaya say: wanna do this again in four weeks?

Top Chef Texas - Kindly Tom, Bigfoot, and other legendary creatures

Much like Jesus and his role in Tim Tebow's success, I feel like karma's got bigger shrimp to devein than delivering some humility upon Heather for her shitty treatment of Beverly.

But boy, that did feel good, seeing Heather brought low for stringy, greasy mystery meat and not doing the smart thing that Beverly did.

I know I put Heather at 5-1 odds to win last week, and I wasn't fading you all. I think she could have won the whole thing, but her flaws (giant ego, constant desire to get over on a perceived opponent) were definitely going to get her in trouble. This first episode set in Austin wasn't nearly as boring (not Ty-Lör) as I thought it'd be after all.

Beverly could do it.
The Elimination Challenge was finale-grade serious: cook a dish inspired by the person who inspired you to cook. The reason this kind of challenge is normally saved for the finale was elucidated by Tom Colicchio at Judges' Table; no one here wants to send a chef home for a dish with this much heart at its core. It was a thoughtful and kind moment from Tom, a week after he was as incisively critical as I've ever seen him.

Of course, he did mention to Heather that if she'd really wanted to tenderize the ribeye for her beef stroganoff, she could have used a pressure cooker like Beverly did. And the Last Chance Kitchen segment broke with the template and showed a montage of all of Heather's worst bullying moments. It was kind of awesome.


(As soon as Heather lost, my first comment to my wife was that I couldn't wait to see Nyesha crush her like an empty can of soda.)

The Quickfire Challenge was a bit of a throwaway; Twitter users who had no idea who was at the kitchen end of the conversation were tasked with offering suggestions for what ingredients to use, how to cook them, and what twist to throw in. One takeaway from the Quickfire: had any of you non-chef readers heard of hon shimeji mushrooms before this season of Top Chef? They've appeared in at least four dishes so far.

(Okay, Sarah's burrata-stuffed squash blossom was pretty appealing, and Paul's assemblage of blackberries, bacon, clams, and chorizo was at the very least striking and avant garde; he ended up with his second QF win of the season.)

Where the Quickfire was doomed to produce some Frankensteinian creations of minimal culinary worth, the Elimination was all soul--and not just because guest judge Patti LaBelle said so. Paul's adobo quail and Ty-Lör's duck fat-fried chicken tender a la Japanese nanny were both good enough to be in the top three, but fell just short. That's how good the top half of the competition was this week.

Edward's poor childhood resulted in a meatless bibimbap that you just hoped would be appreciated by the judges (it was); Beverly pressure-cooked beef short ribs (her second pressure-cooking of the evening) and turned them into a classy interpretation of classic mom food. But it was Sarah, who seemed to be on an emotional mission from the opening bell, who made pork sausage-stuffed cabbage not only tasty, but good enough to stand out visually opposite the bright colors and flavors of Paul's dish during service.

Grayson's giant and nasty steak didn't do right by Wisconsin, and Chris Crary's spoogy filet of salmon was almost bad enough to be worse than Heather's mess (that Patti called "Bigfoot" for its unidentifiability). I'm thinking it's a blip for Chris, but Grayson's been on the bottom two weeks in a row; that's not a good streak. Lindsay, meanwhile, toils in obscurity, which could be just the trick to last into the final five or six this season.

And in the secret fight club basement, looking cute and cooking smart, is Nyesha, whose work was never so bad on its own to merit dismissal. I've got a feeling about that girl.

Next week, Grayson finds out how meats really get grilled (at The Salt Lick, which I'm frankly proud to say I recognized by its pit alone), Sarah needs oxygen, and Heather's still gone! So it can't be that bad of an episode.

Kyle Ate Here - The thankful (no, really) edition

There's no way to be any kind of food writer and not have a healthy sense of thankfulness for the bounty so many of us have at our disposal. It's more than just all the restaurants we have to choose from in Madison and beyond; it's the ability that we the fortunate have to experience them.

So while I ramble on about all the things I ate, and while you all read about it and consider where you might go out to eat next, let's all make sure we remember the people who aren't sure when they might eat next, to say nothing of where. Fortune, family, and friends are truly gifts to be appreciated.


Family

Here, we discuss restaurants visited during November's travels to visit with family outside of Madison. We hit the Twin Cities mid-month, and though we didn't spend a lot of time in town, we did stop at Salut Bar Americain in St. Paul for a mid-shopping lunch. The restaurant has a goofy faux-French theme that is charming in spots, and overdone in others. The Leetle Beeg Mac was a spot-on mockup, though. In White Bear Township, Majestic Pizza is a fine little local pizzeria, with some really tasty pepperoni.

For Thanksgiving, Appleton provided more than the usual family cooking. Kristine and I drove to Darboy for some hearty diner breakfast at Mohnen's: nice corned beef hash with poached eggs, and terrific pancakes like always. Serious Burger, which I expected to be a Five Guys knock-off, was instead an exemplary burger joint with great local sourcing. And I've been to Pullmans many times before, but I've never had a meal there that's been as terrific as the New York strip I had there in November; it was perfect.


Friends

I'm thankful, too, for the friends I've made in Madison since moving here (and especially via the protests). We didn't dine with many of them in November, but they're there nonetheless. Kristine and I, meanwhile, peeked our heads into the AJ Bombers experience, and found the burgers fine and the buffalo chicken egg rolls guiltily yummy. (I did, anyway.) Surge Cafe made a fine "Zeus' Fuel" sandwich, loaded with feta--if that's your thing. The Peking duck roll at Red Sushi is worth a shot, and 4B Cafe in Oregon (beset by poor business) served up an equally worthy Reuben.

Familiar operations impressed in November. Porktropolis (which I found uneven back in January) served up a great sandwich of two briskets, and an impressive aronia berry BBQ sauce. Gotham Bagels' Spanish Harlem is as good a sandwich as it ever was. The bar at Sardine has always been a fun place for a light meal; the sopressata sandwich and bistro hot dog (both on the bar menu) wowed us.


The best thing I ate

The Thanksgiving weekend in Appleton actually provided some of the best consecutive days of restaurant dining in recent memory; that steak was remarkable. It was a perfect medium, with a great crust, and trimmed just right. The leftovers made for a fine plate of steak and eggs the next morning. But since I live in Madison, I'll choose a Madison dish. Contenders include the buffalo chicken egg rolls from AJB, and if I'd ordered the Sardine bistro dog (rather than stealing bites from Kristine), it might have won. But my Best Thing this month was the G on an everything I had at Gotham just before Thanksgiving. Full of melty cheddar, hot capicolla, and a crisp-edged egg, it was the best G I've had in a while.

I'll be back to this column in the not-too-distant future for the December edition--which I promise won't be as late. Until then, sincere thanks to all of you for reading.

Top Chef Texas - Don't hate the player...

Heather has heard that you might have opinions of
your own; she's got a better, more rustic idea.
Remember how Heather was kind of butthole last week? Yeah. Good times.

This week was Heather's ego going critical mass. And I'm frankly kind of pissed, because this episode should have hit my sweet spot. A Quickfire featuring food/booze pairings (tequila, specifically), and an Elimination of game meat cookery? Sign me up.

But noooo, instead I've got to witness Heather bossing Beverly around -- because you know they just happened to get paired up for the Elimination Challenge. And of course this was a double elimination episode, and one where there was no real sure-thing team and all of our favorites were paired with someone who could bring them down.

It was a good episode for one fella, though: the umlauted one, Ty-Lör. His confidence with tequila (he's been to Jalisco!) resulted in a Thai-style clam dish with Don Julio 1942 that took home the $5,000 Quickfire win. Beverly's cold-smoked oysters outdid Heather's popcorn shrimp, as they should. Grayson stepped up with her Wisconsin roots, repping beer instead of tequila; her sesame-crusted cod still sounded decent.

The Elimination pairings were announced as essentially random (the person next to you is your partner), and each team had to prepare a game meat for a renowned chef at guest judge Tim Love's restaurant. Our chefs would be the judges, though. They were tasked with selecting the bottom three teams to face elimination, with both members of the losing team leaving.

By the time we got to that selection process, we'd seen a number of chefs comment on Heather's shitty 'tude, and the camera lingered for a not-brief moment on Edward as Heather railed on Beverly to make sure the dish didn't end up "too Asian". I feel like that's a dangerous direction to go, tiptoeing around accusing Heather of even a little bit of racism. But clearly she's getting on everyone's nerves, and I could see it going in any number of directions.

We also saw Chris Jones come up with another ridiculous MOTO-style concept before the recipe's finalized -- this one some sort of sweet potato chain that I still don't entirely understand -- that ended up failing miserably and tanking the elk dish he and Grayson put together. He's on thin ice in this competition.

But worst is Dakota, who fussed over her venison rack and ended up putting Nyesha's butt on the line for a seriously underdone chop. They were almost spared by Heather's bizarre ego meltdown at Judges' Table, wherein she brought up last week's challenge and her opinion of Beverly's shrimp processing skills, overall work ethic, and sense of self-esteem. It was skin-crawlingly awful, and I don't see how Heather's behavior could possibly be explained away by Bravo editing.

If it wasn't for the nearly-raw venison, Dakota and Nyesha could have won this week's challenge, I'm sure of it. Instead, because this was ultimately a game challenge, they're the odd team out this week. Of course, there's always that Last Chance Kitchen...

With ten chefs remaining in the active competition, and one more in the basement Top Chef fight club, I'm still going with Paul as my overall favorite. Chris Crary is coming on, and Ty-Lör (who took the Elimination win with Edward for their quail with pickled cherries and eggplant) seems to have his confidence back. Sarah is faltering, and Chris Jones has no consistency.

So here they are: my first odds picks for the winner of Top Chef 9.

Paul (4-1)
Heather (5-1)
Edward (8-1)
Lindsay (15-1)
Ty-Lör (17-1)
Chris C. (19-1)
Grayson (20-1)
[Last Chance Kitchen winner] (30-1)
Sarah (35-1)
Beverly (50-1)
Chris J. (60-1)

Next week, the show heads to Austin. Patti LaBelle does some singing, and Emeril's back. Let's see if the lack of sizzle in the preview means that it's a boring episode. I'm betting yes.

Top Chef Texas - Burned at the [insert pun on steak]

God is watching: how many of you heard Chris Crary talk about how other chefs don't use roux for their mother sauces because they're too old-school -- and didn't roll your eyes? I better not see any hands, because that dude is a self-aggrandizing nut.

And then the judges come around at the end of the "riff on a mother sauce" Quickfire Challenge, and two chefs reply to the creepy-looking guest judge that they didn't use a roux for their sauce, and how in the name of god is it possible that Chris was right?

There were a couple "...holy cow" moments in this most recent Top Chef, in which the chefs had to first draw knives in the mother sauce challenge, and then group up to serve a boatload of steaks to a bunch of Texans at the Cattle Baron's Ball. No pressure there.

One such moment would be how much of a jerk Heather appears to be in the broadcast edit. She's busting Beverly down at pretty much every opportunity. She and Lindsay are turning into the villains of this season in a hurry; Lindsay sold Ty-Lör (cooking injured) down the river by blasting the steaks he'd par-grilled far too early, and she skated while he got put up for elimination at Judges' Table.

So I'm kind of rooting for Beverly now, what with the potential shitty treatment by the producers pre-shooting, and the crap she's getting from Heather for not going fast enough on 400 whole shrimp. (Those shrimp, by the way, were praised by the judges.) The fact that Heather ended up getting the win -- and a new car -- over Nyesha and Chris Jones by using Edward's cake recipe again only makes her superior attitude more galling.

(That peach cake with mascarpone and pecan streusel did look mighty tasty.)

The other "holy cow" moment was how brutal Tom Colicchio was with the chefs at the bottom during his final commentary. Whitney's gratin was sloppy and not up to Top Chef standards;  Edward's asparagus salad was too simple and boring, and Ty-Lör got dinged for Lindsay's steak mistreatment. But Tom wasn't in a charitable mood.

"We chose sixteen chefs, and quite frankly I'm starting to think maybe I chose the wrong chefs. Usually it's really difficult to send someone home, but tonight, you really made it easy."

And with that, Whitney is sent out in the most gutting, blunt elimination I think I've seen in all of my seasons of Top Chef watching. Which makes her win in the Last Chance Kitchen all the more surprising. You did watch that, right? I really hope someone sticks around long enough down there to at least generate some momentum that justifies their eventual inclusion in the finale.

Tonight, more Heather-on-Beverly bullying, Heather-on-Grayson bitchiness, and a double elimination. Can Heather go home twice?

Top Chef Texas - Too rich for my blood


Here's the problem: this was a pretty cruddy episode. Added to that is the fact that I've been pretty busy this last week, and you've got a late recap for events that I can barely force myself to remember. How awful were those "dinner party" scenes? How much did you empathize with Tom Colicchio? And how nasty does a cheese-stuffed salmon fillet sound? Come on, Chuy!

I don't watch the Real Housewives shows, not even ironically. They're horrendous, made worse knowing that even when the cameras and production trappings and sweeps schedules are stripped away, these people are probably still not very good people. Certainly not a crowd I'd willingly lower myself into. So this episode, with its vapid caricatures of Texas power couples, just made my brain shut down a little.

The juxtaposition of an Elimination round that catered (literally) to the Texas upper class with a Quickfire that had the chefs cooking with the meager fare and hardware of a survival pack could have been handled with some winking social commentary. Could have. It wasn't. Instead, we got the ewwws and yukks and "boy I ain't never seen this" of a Saltine/tuna/sardine sandwich standing in a pool of french onion soup with Vienna sausage chunks--like a stack of boxes you want to stay dry in a flooded basement. Congratulations (or something), Lindsay.

John Besh as a guest judge is okay, I guess. He strikes me as a slightly more down-to-earth, though no less toothy version of Bobby Flay: a golem of a chef, brought to shambling life solely for food television's sake.

The Chrisses got off really lucky this week. Chris Jones proved that not just any chef can throw MOTO technique and aesthetic out there and succeed; his "cigars" proved that really no one should ever make anything described as a cigar on Top Chef. (...Howie.) Meanwhile, Horny Chris Crary, when not cooing over the handsome John Besh, served up a ridiculous melange of various sweet things around a sweaty-looking cupcake. 

My boy Paul Qui took home the win for fried Brussels sprouts with prosciutto; it's his second time at the top. Dakota served, with zero confidence, a tasty-looking and crowd-pleasing banana bread pudding; her dessert chops will either typecast her with the other chefs (her fear), or keep her around longer into the competition.

Look for Ty-Lör (RULER OF OMICRON PERSEI 8!) to either shape up or ship out; he's been scraping the bottom since the start of the real competition. The two Chrisses won't be far behind. Or ahead. And...if you've been keeping up with "Last Chance Kitchen", you know that big Keith finally ran out of steam and lost the secret chef's coat to newly-dismissed Chuy.

So, yeah. That was the rich folks episode. Coming up tonight, more blood, more big Texan meat, and from the looks of it, more beating up on Beverly. Stay tuned!

Top Chef Texas - The delicious sound of chili being poured from a height

What did we learn in the pre-Thanksgiving episode of Top Chef? Well, we learned that Mary Sue Milliken would make a great recurring guest judge. We learned that Susan Feniger likes acid--probably not a surprise. We learned that Beverly is a total nut.

I'll tell you what I wanted to learn, but never did: whose breast milk is in the Top Chef House's fridge?? Seriously: did anyone else catch that, off-camera, when all the chefs were running in to start cooking their pots of chili? "Nobody touch my breast milk!"

Hey, maybe breast milk is the best relief for the burning heat of chili peppers (the star ingredient of this week's Quickfire). Maybe someone is lactating--my bets for most hormonal are Chris Crary, who appears to have a boner for anything that walks by; Beverly, who probably would cry if someone spilled her breast milk; or Richie (see previous).

Richie made an inoffensive Quickfire dish of scallops, and an apparently-delish cornbread side for the Elimination challenge, and then made a fine looking Frito-breaded pork dish for the "second chance to save your season" portion of the Elimination round--and still got sent packing. He wept. A lot. Into the bosom of his MOTO buddy Chris. It was a little awkward, especially with Richie's shuffling, looks-like-he's-got-to-poop gait.

This week's Quickfire was fun: prepare a dish highlighting one chili pepper, choosing from the selection in the kitchen. From anaheim to ghost, they covered a wide range of Scoville ratings. In addition, the hotter the pepper, the higher the cash reward for the winner. A nice concept, and the gamble paid off for one of my horses (Paul Qui of Austin, who was the only chef to use the ghost chili).

The Elimination challenge had the chefs teaming up in threes to cook a pot of chili for the Tejas Rodeo. This was hard for us Sconnies to watch, particularly my wife; we're Midwesterners, and not only do we like beans in our chili, but noodles as well. Elbow macaroni. If you're my wife, you like them as an independent bottom layer under the chili, a la Cincinnati style. In Texas, we'd be run out of town on a rail for that.

(That the White Team of Ty-Lör, Lindsay, and Grayson made a three-bean chili and managed to survive the rodeo, is a mystery to me.)

Blue Team (Heather, Paul, and Edward) made a winning pot of chili in my estimation--the pickled peaches sounded great and it was disappointing that Tom's Tom-ness in the kitchen took Heather off her game. But Green Team (Chuy, Sarah-who-is-from-Texas-by-the-way, and Chris aka The Todd) took the collective win.

It was another week with no individual winner; this--combined with the relative cruelty of making the losing team cannibalize their leftovers to salvage their competitive lives that the judges themselves acknowledged--makes this very loss-heavy season a bit hard to manage. The "Last Chance Kitchen" is maybe the counterbalance to all the dismissal-happiness, but it still represents another kick to the teeth of a chef who's been eliminated at least once already.

And speaking of "elimination", who loves to hear chili being poured from one vessel into another one a foot below it? Anyone? Yum!

Next week, Dallas. No, really, it looks like they're visiting the TV show Dallas. Timely!

EDIT: From an anonymous commenter (so take it for what it's worth) at The AV Club's recap of this episode:
I spoke to Beverly's sister, who happens to run the San Diego Asian Film Foundation. She says that Beverly had a new baby, still in the breast-feeding phase, when she got the call from Top Chef to get on a plane within 24 hours. Apparently this batch of chefs weren't allowed to contact their families during the filming, so she was an emotional wreck.
If that's the case, the Top Chef producers should be a little ashamed for leaving so much crying and breakdown in the final edits. It's cheap and exploitative.