Kyle Ate Here - 2014 at halftime

The second half of every year starts with a big summery Independence Day holiday kickoff -- Memorial Day may be the "official" start of the season, but it's always rainy that day and that's a total bummer for summer mood-setting. On top of the usual Fourth festivities this year, we had the World Cup to fill our afternoons. So in recognition of one half being in the books, I've got a few highlights of 2014 in dining so far.

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Kyle Ate Here - We are family

The end of the year is all about family -- giving gifts, traveling to visit, sending cards -- and so much so that by the time January rolls around, I'm ready for a break. Indeed, the traditional New Year's Eve celebration in my house is a night in with my wife, some takeout sushi, and beer/champagne. (I'm sure I've talked about this before.) No parties, no crowds, just us.

This year, the post-holiday shut-in phase seemed to run its course a little faster than usual. By the end of the month, we were jammed in to breweries and restaurants with friends and strangers alike, eating, drinking and celebrating. The world of food and beer is a whole different kind of family.

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Old business/new business

Here we are at the end of another year, and changes are afoot behind the scenes at Irony or Mayo. There might even be a new look to the site in 2014, but I'm still hashing that out.

Starting in January, I'll be launching that roundup of Midwestern restaurant criticism I mentioned a while back. It'll run every week as a feature I'm calling Flyover Friday. (It'll run on Fridays, oddly enough.)

Before we get there, though, I'll have some closing out to do on 2013 items, including a little Kyle Ate Here action and my 2013 in review post.

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Kyle Ate Here - Party time, excellent

It really only dawned on me a day or two ago that I turned 35 in May. I don't think it's out of a sense of avoidance, but for the last 7 years or so, I just haven't been able to feel my age. Sometimes I feel like there's more than 35 years on these tires, but more often I wonder where it all went, and why I wasn't paying better attention.
 

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Kyle Ate Here - Bars and big shoulders

You know the saying about April showers? Well, it seems Nature's on as big of a kick for reliving April in May as I am here, because it's gonna rain all week and this is my second April callback post in a row.

But this is Kyle Ate Here, so you're used to the hindsight thing, right? After a break in the pattern with January through March of 2013, it's time to discuss the fullness of April's spring bounty.

 

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Kyle Ate Here - Revelation

The end of the world didn't turn out to be the end of the world. Quetzalcoatl is still preening. The Four Horsemen are sitting in their spectral living room watching another season marathon of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. So we can all sit here and talk about the food that was, and the eating to come. At least until the 2013 solar flare melts all of our faces.

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Kyle Ate Here - The little guy

One mighty Mary

One mighty Mary

Okay, so we're in that time of year where schedules tighten up, priorities shift, and (for us, anyway) leisurely dining-out takes a back seat to travel, family feasts, and shopping for presents. As such, the November big list is shorter, and more modest. Coffeeshops, small meals, and takeout dominated the month. Appropriately, my review of Gates and Brovi was published in November; compared to its sibling restaurants (Marigold Kitchen and Sardine), G+B is a step in a smaller, less ambitious direction.

Big place, little meal

Certainly, the biggest little deal of the month was a quick lunch at The Rigby following a (nearly) front-row spot for President Barack Obama's visit to Madison on the day before the election (thanks, Jenni!). The menu is full of ultra-dorky Beatles puns, but the Sunshine Burger was juicy and topped with an egg and a sauce that called to mind egg-devilry. Quirky, but fun. (The prez was pretty entertaining, too.)

I wish I'd been to the Avenue Bar before its Food Fight days, but I have no complaints over its current operation. The Sunday baked hot ham special was thickly sliced and not lacking in white gravy. While not literally small (it was enough for three meals), it was quaintly old-school and unrefined. And an early dinner at the Forequarter bar was a nice way to spend a Saturday. The fennel purée next to the finochiona was remarkable, sweet and smooth. Plus, bar witch Hastings Cameron brought out an experimental holiday cocktail that my little group was happy to weigh in on. You may have sampled it as the Buttered Hot Potato. Woulda been a great dessert with the Sunday ham.

Little place, little meal

Apropos of nothing, this is Eating in November

Apropos of nothing, this is Eating in November

There were dueling exurban meatball sandwiches, at Alberici's Delicatezza of Oregon (formerly Evansville) and Famous Yeti's of Stoughton (formerly closed due to fire). The former sandwich was well-balanced and reasonable; the latter was doused in strongly herbal marinara, and huge. Both satisfied the primal meatball urge. There were also dueling slices at two pizza joint's named Sal. The Appleton version offered complimentary garlic knots (especially delicious late at night); the Sun Prairie one put on a great private party for a lucky friend (hey, John!).

Nanobrewer One Barrel Brewing serves up food from surrounding eateries in addition to a small menu of house-brewed beers. My wife and I had chips and salsa from neighboring Tex Tubb's, while I lusted after the pizzas from Fraboni's. (The beers were great, especially the Strong Ale No. 2, a boozy Belgian dark.) And oh boy was the Hunger Danes outing to little Cottage Cafe a treat.

The best thing I ate

November was, frankly, a heads-up battle between two plates: the baked ham at Avenue Bar, and the walleye and eggs from Cottage Cafe. Avenue's ham came with all the fixins (salad, soup, bread -- the menu doesn't lie) plus a boat-load of the aforementioned gravy. The ham itself was thick and full of salty flavor, and the server was one of those pleasant, no-sass-allowed gals that you'd hope to find at a place like the Avenue Bar. Cottage Cafe is full of similar ladies and straightforward food. I was pretty well blown away by the crisp batter on the walleye, and the precisely-cooked eggs. As you might have guessed from reading the District 17 Hunger Danes entry, the walleye and eggs wins November's Best Thing; against a time-honored joint like the Avenue, that's no small feat.

Kyle Ate Here - Ancient history

You may have noticed it's now December, and the October edition of Kyle Ate Here still hasn't posted.

(At least, I kind of hope you've noticed.)

Anyway, sorry about that. In the interest of giving you updates on the most and least satisfying restaurant experiences of October - but not, say, costumed in some sort of trick vs. treat punnery - I'll simply boil it down to quick hits. A bulleted list of sorts. Rather than giving you the full rundown of the month's outings in the comments, that'll be the body of the October post - annotated with the most noteworthy factoids. You'll still get a Best Thing for October, so if you feel the need to skip ahead, it's down there.

Ground Zero- Best thing about driving through town to work: more maple lattes.

Little Caesars

New Orleans Take-Out (Fordem)- These po'boys do not travel well. Beans and rice with sausage, though? Yes.

Madison Sourdough Co.- Setting a calendar reminder for next year's cherry season. MSCo's chocolate cherry gateau basque rocked my October.

Capital Creamery

Heritage Bakery and Café

Veranda- I normally don't list reviewed restaurants in the big list, but since convention's already been shed...

Blowin' Smoke BBQ- Consistently great. Carolina ham sandwich special. Both want and do not want a Blowin' Smoke storefront.

China Wok

Great Dane (East)- Terrifyingly huge buffalo chicken sandwich.

Dumpling Haus- Such a comfortable, relaxing spot. The pork and tart cabbage noodle soup with a blast of hot sauce makes me very happy.

Dominos (Appleton, WI)

Poor track record of food photography this month. Here's a Cookery perchwich.

Poor track record of food photography this month. Here's a Cookery perchwich.

The Cookery (Fish Creek, WI)- Turning into an annual occurrence. Perch sandwich dropped quite a bit of good fish for what seemed a scary-high price tag.

Sergio's (Appleton, WI)- Salad bar and a corned beef and sauerkraut quesadilla, unironically? Yeah.

Qdoba (University)

Jamba Juice

Papa Bear's BBQ- How have I gone this long without trying the fried chicken? Half a bird for cheap.

Isthmus Food and Wine Fest- You guys missed one hell of a pork kee mao from Weary Traveler's Joey Dunscombe. I'm disqualifying it from Best Thing consideration, but damn. Also, AJ Bombers' Mad 'Sconnie burger is significantly better as a mini-burger.

Alchemy- My wife commands that I mention that the BLFT IS FINALLY BACK ON THE MENU.

Noodles

Oasis Café- No pelmeni on this visit. Wailing, gnashing of teeth, rending of garments, etc.

Takumi- I'm officially known on sight now.

The Old Fashioned- I hope more people are going here for weekday breakfast than I've seen. Tasty, cheap, and with a great old-school country soundtrack.

Dairy Queen

Popeye's

Thai Noodles- What a bizarre interior. Like eating in a real estate office. Business was good, though.

Buffalo Wild Wings

Crema Café

Bradbury's - Got a totally meatless crepe (delicata squash, blue cheese, runny egg) and didn't regret it for a second.

Osteria Papavero- Still wishing I hadn't had to send back that steak.

Hawk's Bar and Grill- Hey, Hawk's running for City Council! I'd vote for him if I lived in District 15.

Topper's

The best thing I ate

I really liked the Hot Ham Carolina sandwich from Blowin' Smoke, but it wasn't actually that hot -- in neither degrees nor scovilles. If the promised walnuts in my squash crepe from Bradbury's had delivered a little better, we'd probably be talking about it now. But because of the Arthurian quest it triggered, I hereby name the chocolate cherry gateau basque from Madison Sourdough as October's Best Thing. Having had it on the 4th, I was pulling a Jack from LOST for pretty much the rest of the month, trying to rediscover this magical moment in time. This somewhat obscure pastry is made with almond flour, and the cherry version is filled with, well, cherries. Just tart enough, chocolatey but still fragrant with almond, this was a bakery treat that pulled a fine disappearing trick -- DAMN IT.

Kyle Ate Here - It was still September

The kids are back in school now, settled, but in September they were still chafing under the yoke of a new academic year. All the sugary sodas and Totino's Pizza Rolls have been replaced by...well, let's not pursue this one any further. Suffice it to say, whether you're a kid or not, or have one or not, September always brings youth to mind.

So maybe it's no surprise that I found myself eating like a high schooler again in September, with too many tacos and subs and DQ frozen treats to justify. But as all wild youths must, I matured as the month went on, spending less time at the doughnut shop and eating mini Blizzards instead of large ones. (Actually haven't eaten a large Blizzard in probably 15 years; I'm never going back to that old-school.) All that said, I'm watching Ghostbusters as I write this, and still quoting as many lines as I did in 1995. Some things never change.

The Freshman 15

Stress-eating is never a great choice, but there are worse ways to sweat the unknown in life than with Culver's and Capital Creamery. (When you order your salted caramel shake at the latter -- and you will -- be sure to speak loudly. The nice ladies don't always hear the right flavor.) Back in my younger days, I'd take up residence at the local Mister Donut; today, Madison has seen the return of its descendent, Dunkin Donuts. I tried an old fashioned, and it was not good. Leave it in the realm of nostalgia.

NoodlesQdoba -- this is food you generally don't have to think about. What I can tell you is that in the eight years or so since my last Qdoba burrito, the quality has improved to the point where at least I don't feel like the place might fail an inspection. (It's still not particularly good, but the nachos are an evil sort of comfort food.)

Senioritis

Cafes! Bake shops! Food carts! All signs of a crude palate sophisticatin'. Quick runs to Fitchburg and the south side of Madison hit on a couple lunch joints. Nettie's Cafe is a safe entry point, with good sourdough and friendly service. Rolling Pin Bake Shop's muffuletta was, no joke, nearly two inches thick with meat, cheese, and olive relish. The lemon bar was oddly salty, much less pleasing. And the food cart-turned-restaurant Banzo keeps on making some of the best falafel in town, even if they just can't seem to get all three sauces onto my order when I order all three. (And when are they going to finish work on their dine-in space?)

Bonfyre pleased the in-laws, though the mountainous children's portion of rotisserie chicken goes beyond "generous" to "actually too much for a child." (My lamb burger was well-topped, but a little mushy.) The tonkatsu at Umami made a good friend (and mommy-to-be, yay!) with Japanese ancestry quite happy, and the hiyayakko (chilled tofu) appetizer made everyone at the table happy. And somewhere between sorority sister and Sex and the City, the Food Fight group has opened the swanky burger/milkshake/cocktail spot DLUX and begun marketing it to women as the place to be the night of, or the morning after. I'm in none of those groups or parties, but I found the burgers to be good but a little under-seasoned, the fancied-up fries both tasty and reasonably priced, and the milkshakes slim but flavorful. (Toasted marshmallow, topped with actual toasted marshmallows!)

The best thing I ate

This Reuben, amazingly, didn't win.

This Reuben, amazingly, didn't win.

Funny thing: when you eat a bunch of junk for half the month, it's hard to find something exceptional to talk about. Surprisingly (or not, if you read A Hamburger Today), the Colby Jack Pub Burger from Culver's was a pretty exceptional offering from the Land of Butter Burgers. Unlike AHT, however, I would have preferred a stronger hit of A1. Two specials from Stalzy's -- a smoked pork loin breakfast sandwich and the double-smoked brisket Reuben -- were salty, rich, and huge; these are all, obviously, good things at a deli, and demonstrative of just how great Stalzy's has become.

But because of the value, and the portion, and the general unexpectedness of the quality, the blue cheese and bacon fries at DLUX take this month's top honors. A lot of websites, food- and dating-centric, claim that messy foods aren't good choices for nightclubby, potentially romantic nights out. I say there's a way to eat amply-topped french fries somewhat neatly, but with the occasional Finger Lick of Alluringness. These fries -- $5 for a shareable portion -- make the grade.

Kyle Ate Here - All tastes, Great and small

If August is typically the "dog days of summer" period, maybe it's best to think of the month like an actual dog. In this case, most of August was comfortable -- certainly, less godawfully hot than July. But for about seven of those days, which were spent at or above 90 degrees, August was really awful.

Comparing this to, say, our pug, the distinction becomes obvious. That little guy is wonderful most of the time, but when he's a jerk, he's a real jerk. Like our Monty and his general charm, August's eats were pretty solid. These dog days went really south on one occasion, but most meals were distinctly pleasant.

(My Isthmus review of Double S BBQ in Cambridge, Wisconsin, was based on meals that happened in August. The link is over there in the upper right-hand corner.)

Low 90's, humid

I'm going to get this one out of the way, right away. You may have noticed an unremarked-upon trip to Red Lobster in July's big list. We had gift certificates to use, and that trip didn't exhaust them. So in August, we hit Longhorn Steakhouse -- another in the Darden family of restaurants. From the salted hockey puck that surely was substituted for my actual order a la Folger's Crystals, to the bizarrely smirking, quiet-talking server, to the stale and unpleasant complimentary (perhaps its better to say free) honey wheat bread (whither the cheddar biscuits or unlimited breadsticks of your other properties, Darden?)...well, I think that actually about sums it up.

Compared to that comically bad experience (did I mention the guy seated behind me repeatedly farting?), the doughy clump of thick noodles in my pad kee mao from Ha Long Bay was a trifle of inconvenient stickiness. The worst thing about a dinner at Graze early in the month was the sticky weather outdoors; the dining room was packed. (Two still-clamped mussels were the only other blot.) And where were the cornflakes on my Sushi Muramoto side salad?? Like a humid but sunny summer day, I guess even the kinda-bad is only a matter of perspective. Could be raining.

Mid-70's, light wind

And oh, the glory of summer is indeed glorious. The Saturday that annually witnesses the Great Taste of the Midwest beer festival was about as perfect as anyone could ask for from an August afternoon. Deep-fried bacon on a stick from Smokin' Cantina satisfied yet again, and crunchy falafel with the works from Banzo took the drunken edge off at the end of the day (even if the owner sassily told me my folded chair looked like a yoga bag).

Other meals better than their averages or my expectations included: enchiladas campeche at Laredo's East, with tender seafood and ample portions; a long-awaited return to form at Takumi (hot gyoza, warm shrimp tempura roll, and cool, silky salmon and cucumber roll); and whoa, a genuinely fresh-flavored and delicious BBQ chicken and corn salad at Noodles of all places.

Standard fries, exceptional burger.

Standard fries, exceptional burger.

The best thing I ate

Umami's expanded mantou bun offerings -- in August's meal, the Korean beef -- make a strong case for consideration. So too does the Mexican street corn pizza from Salvatore's. I'd add a little more spicy kick, but the fresh corn and crispy Underground nduja made for a superlative pie. And while I'd almost go back-to-back posts in lauding Oasis Cafe's pelmeni, I'm going to give this award to the double cheeseburger at Oregon's Capital Creamery. Using A Hamburger Today's burger style guide, I don't think there's a better fast-food-style burger to be had in the area. Hot, lightly seasoned patties with fresh veggies and oozing cheese... (Also, the salted caramel shake. Get one.) A drive-through burger that supports a local underdog? Ain't nothing wrong with that.

Kyle Ate Here - Star's turn

The blanket of night over Madison, from the La Fete ferris wheel

The blanket of night over Madison, from the La Fete ferris wheel


This post might sound a little familiar if you were here this time last year; July means my wedding anniversary, and that in turn means our annual indulgence at L'Etoile. With a year's passing came a boost to the already-high profile of Madison's most famed restaurant. Chef Tory Miller took top honors as the James Beard Foundation named him the Midwest region's Best Chef, 11 years after his predecessor and L'Etoile's founder, Odessa Piper, won the same award.

So yes, a dining roundup that attempts to balance a meal worthy of a Beard Award with much more modest and approachable fare is perhaps doomed to imbalance. That said, a couple folks in the Tory Miller restaurant lineage have opened a modest and approachable little cafe called 4 & 20 Bakery and Cafe, and my review published in July. 4 & 20 excluded, the rest of the month's highlights follow.

Earthly pleasure

A hearty "welcome back" goes out to the Underground Food Collective team, who opened their new restaurant in mid-June. Forequarter isn't exactly Underground Kitchen (nor is it meant to be), but there are familiar notes. Shareable plates abound, along with sensible and well-crafted cocktails. Spicy corn coblettes and veal meatballs were among the favorites, but the humble ripped bread stole all its scenes as far as I'm concerned. Warm, oily, and fragrant with fennel, the bread paired exquisitely with both warm ricotta and potted pork shoulder. Plaka Taverna impressed with simple but sturdy breakfast plates (I'll take the Plaka platter, but the Rock the Casbah's spiced chicken certainly satisfies). A #13 at Gino's Deli -- capicola, salami, provolone -- was a fine sandwich but the jocular staff was even more enjoyable. My long-delayed first trip to New Orleans Take-Out revealed that I've only myself to blame for not trying the red beans and rice with smoked sausage sooner; it is filling, inexpensive, and delicious.

L'Etoile

Pork belly, watermelon kimchee, fried peanuts. Chèvre gnudi, prosciutto, Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Roasted pheasant, Italian sausage, polenta, black cherry-fennel relish. Blackberry crème brûlée with raspberry chocolate mini scone. I'm not gonna lie to you, Marge, I was beyond sated after this meal. But how do you say no to just a little more, when one more wine pairing is only four bucks more?

The pork belly was perfectly crispy, and with the bite of frisee, the watermelon "kimchee" was just funky enough to bring to mind the real cabbagey deal. The gnudi (the name means "nude" and refers to ravioli filling with only a thin skin of flour) were creamy and soft, soaking up the accompanying lemon-caper brown butter. And I don't even know how to reduce the pan roasted pheasant dish to a bon mot; suffice it to say, the slices of tender pheasant facilitated piling a little bit of each flavor of the dish onto every bite -- sweet, salty, tart, rich.

Oh, and a SarVecchio cracker canapé with blue cheese and a blob of jam. And the amuse of cold melon soup with crispy prosciutto. And then Kristine's selections... I'll leave it at this: as I'm writing this post, she just re-read the menu and realized her squash blossoms come from Creekside Farms, cultivator of her favorite succulent arrangements. It's kind of a perfect confluence, and part of a meal that truly earns its place at the top of our annual to-do list.

The best thing I ate

There's good stuff, even really good stuff -- Capital Creamery's salted caramel shake, NOTO's smoked sausage -- and then there's great stuff. For July, I'm talking about a couple of game birds. L'Etoile's roasted pheasant, and the roasted duck curry at Fitchburg's Curry in the Box. I've been happy with Curry in the Box's offerings in the past, but this bowl really impressed. The skin was crispy, the meat tender, and the sauce nutty and vibrant. A bargain at $11, the dish provided two meals worth of deliciousness.

But just like last year, there's just no way I can put the best dish from a meal at L'Etoile anywhere but in first place. Alongside the juicy pheasant, the smoky grilled radicchio and caramelized chunks of sausage stood in perfect contrast to the sweetness of cherry-fennel relish and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. All laying atop grains of creamy polenta as innumerable as the stars in the sky, this was the greatest dish of a stellar meal.