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.

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.

The 2012 Wisconsin Film Festival - a first-timer's thoughts

This was our first year attending the Wisconsin Film Fest. I talk about it a little bit in the Madison Podcast episode that I mentioned earlier, but here are some slightly expanded thoughts on all four films my wife and I saw.
 
 
Kill List, Friday at Union South Marquee. Kind of hated it. No, really hated it. Whatever character was present in the method of storytelling was completely squandered by the absence of actual storytelling. Google it and read the spoilers; don't bother seeing it just to find out what the buzz is about.
 
Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Saturday at Orpheum. This was my best-of-fest. Sumptuous visuals of the sushi and its component ingredients, and a delicate, respectful portrayal of this dedicated old man and his sons. Surprisingly, there is a twist at the end that I should have seen coming but didn't; it is the perfect capper to a thoroughly enjoyable film. Love of sushi: certainly helpful, but not required.
 
Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, Saturday at Orpheum. The best part of a double-feature is getting prime seats for the second show. Considering the aforementioned poor video and audio quality inherent in the film itself, plus the poor acoustics (or at least the content-inappropriate acoustics) of the venue, good seats were a must. These kids nailed Raiders, got a girl to take her shirt off -- for the integrity of the gown scene in Belloq's tent, of course -- and actually set fire to a truck and one of their basements. I hope they sign off on, and participate in, a making-of documentary when their book comes out in November. I just want more of this story.
 
Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, Sunday at Bartell. Interesting premise, lots of potential for any of the following: thrilling real-life legal narrative, couldn't-script-this biography, powerful feminist argument, exposition on the value of filmmaking and oral history. Was, in fact: a frustrating bit of all of these. The title comes from a Guatemalan concept of community and shared effort; each person commits a grain of sand to the pile. This is a great philosophy for society, less so for actually making a film. The filmmaker (who, in a slightly self-aggrandizing fashion, conspicuously dropped all mention of her counterpart during the first documentary's filming after a brief bit at the beginning) should have made some cruel edits to the many emotional tales she caught on camera, and just stuck to one documentary archetype.
 
 
I really enjoyed the Union South theater, though I had no experience with the old USouth. But Bartell was nice in the old-theater mold. Orpheum was fine for Jiro, but the sound quality is undeniably poor even for a movie utilizing modern filmmaking technology, to say nothing of Betamax.

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.

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?

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.

Kyle Ate Here - The buffet style edition

So, I'm almost a month behind due to a variety of circumstances, but my brain is steeped in food and food thoughts right now so hey! It's the October Kyle Ate Here post!

October was dominated, as you might expect given the length of my San Francisco post, by travel eating. It's hard to find a theme when the first three weeks of the month were a prelude to a long weekend of splurge. So it'll be an all-in-one blogging experience for this month.

The month started with a few first visits. Knowing it might be a bit of a cluster, we nonetheless joined the massive crowd trying to redeem their Groupons at Samba before they expired. The reservation process was less than smooth, to the point that I'm almost unwilling to excuse it on the grounds of sheer craziness. But they got us a table, and the meats more or less pleased. The dry pork was a total bummer and the prime rib was okay; the chicken and linguica sausage, however, were terrific. Hard to say it'd be worth full-price.

On the other hand, Luigi's--reborn on the near-west side--will definitely see us again. Nice, comfort food-y Italian. The pizza crust was buttery and loaded with cornmeal, and the white sauced pasta was rich and soft. Green Owl, Madison's only all-vegetarian restaurant, falls somewhere in-between. The cinnamon roll was meh and the potatoes were lacking in roastiness, but the Southern-style biscuits and gravy were at least a decent meatless facsimile.

We stopped at The Cookery during our annual Door County day trip; this was a first try, and a deviation from our usual lunch at Stillwater's. A brisk crowd filled both floors of the restaurant, and the whitefish chowder, house-made ginger ale, and respectable Reuben (served on white toast?) made the chance pay off well enough.

Unbeknownst to us, we sampled Tex Tubb's Taco Palace about a month before its near-west spinoff, Cactus Ranch, closed and was folded back into the pater familias. The sweet potato fries were pretty good, actually, and the recently-expanded menu looked nice. Of course, in keeping with Tex Tubb tradition, the actual food was a bit underwhelming. Stick around to see how the menu changes post-Cactus Ranch, I guess.


The best thing I ate

Our tradition will, of course, be respected here. Even with the free-form style above, there's still the issue of handing out October's kudos. Nothing, unfortunately, lived up to San Francisco's standards, but I did have one spectacular day of eating upon returning to Madison from the Fox Valley area. Johnson Public House added a Sunday Morning Breakfast Sandwich, with ham and maple syrup (yum); lunch that day was a work affair at Señor Pepper's in Oregon (a nice, cheesy pork burrito rojo); and the day ended with Kristine at Pizza Brutta. The Best Thing, however, has to be the Bada Bing white pizza at Luigi's. Bacon, fontina, and grilled asparagus? Madison's food writers are lining up for this one.

Wisconsin and Minnesota cross coffee beer swords, or Make mine a doppio

Packers versus Vikings? Badgers versus (I can barely say it) Golden Gophers? Pfft. How about Furthermore versus Surly in a badass beer-off? I happened to have both breweries' coffee beers in my refrigerator not too long ago, and thought it'd be fun to pit them against each other. Since there are two Wisconsin/Minnesota football matchups this weekend (and college hockey, too, with the Badgers faring well in both), what better time to see whose coffee beer kung fu is stronger?

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Furthermore Beer is brewed in Spring Green, Wisconsin--about 37 miles west of Madison--and it holds a place very close to my heart. Sure, a really good beer doesn't have to do a whole lot to find my soft spot, but Furthermore Oscura was one of the two beers Kristine and I chose to serve to our wedding guests.

The brewery describes Oscura as a "warm-fermented, cold-lagered cerveza oscura", which I guess is kind of like describing the color red by calling it reddish. Oscura is cold-soaked with whole coffee beans in more or less the same technique used to make cold-process iced coffee. This keeps the coffee sweet instead of bitter.

The beer criticism site Beer Advocate gives Oscura a B+, or "very good", average out of 134 reviews. A couple East Coast knobs gave it a D, which is probably screwing up the curve. As far as specs, it's a beer with relatively low bitterness and density, and a moderate ABV, so you can totally have it for breakfast.

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Where Furthermore is the home state beer with a schmoopy personal backstory, Surly is a flashy new toy that I'm developing an obsession with. After reading a handful of articles about the Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, brewery, I finally had the chance to drink some at Great Taste of the Midwest.

Surly is only distributed in Minnesota (similar to New Glarus in Wisconsin), so beers like Coffee Bender are only available to me when I know someone from Madison who's visiting the Twin Cities. Coffee Bender is brewed in the same fashion as Oscura (cold extraction), and is similar in terms of density, bitterness measurement, and alcohol by volume.

Furthermore is like the local band you love; Surly is the indie circuit smash hit. With all the press Surly gets, it's not too surprising that there are over 600 reviews for Coffee Bender on Beer Advocate; it averages an "excellent" A-, with only three D-level reviews. I point out the D's to demonstrate that these aren't really very polarizing beers. People generally like them. So how do they line up side-by-side?

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I decided to be lab-precise with this, and open the beers at the same time, making notes as they breathed and warmed. Please remember: I am not a beer professional; my analysis may be completely for shit.

:03 after open and pour. First sip. What little head was there for the Oscura was pretty much gone. The body is thinner than for the Coffee Bender. The Oscura has some malty flavor along with the dark black coffee. The Coffee Bender retained its head, and its flavor was more of an espresso than black coffee. Coffee Bender also seems hoppier from the start, brighter.

:12 after open and pour. Wife samples both; likes neither.

:14 after open and pour. The zing has dissipated in the Coffee Bender. A sweeter flavor--malt?--emerges. The Oscurs holds strong.

:21 after open and pour. The coffee aroma of the Oscura is fading. It seems to be taking on some almost estery, banana-y flavors. The Coffee Bender is still strong with the dark side, and is leaving some moderate lacing on he glass.

:27 after open and pour. Wife, bound and determined to pollute the sensory environment, pops some popcorn.

:29 after open and pour. Oscura's lager characteristics are coming through now, with a little more of that pilsenery funk. Coffee Bender is largely unchanged by this nursing process.

:35 after open and pour. At this point, the coffee flavor of Oscura is really flagging, and Coffee Bender's profile is becoming reminiscent of a Coffee Nip. Neither appear entirely well-suiting to slow sipping.

:43 after open and pour. Oscura throws one last punch, with a blast of coffeeness at the end. Coffee Bender is finally shedding its coffee prominence, leaving mostly hoppy tang.

So, the verdict? I'm in Minnesota as I finish this post, so I'll be a little political. Oscura's original season is summer (though its popularity has expanded the production into a second season), so I'm more inclined to say that if you're out on the lawn, or a party late on a summer night on someone's deck or balcony, there could be nothing better than a cold bottle or pint brimming with Oscura's refreshing strength.

But, if you're more likely to be drinking a beer at a moderate rate, and maybe in the cooler months--like right now--then the year-round sweet, heady Coffee Bender is going to satisfy.

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If you're my wife, this photo is more your speed.

I'll be political here, too, and say a cup of espresso would be just fine. You never want to start a border war with someone who sleeps right next to you.

Low-brow foodie heaven, and the best day ever

There are few things better than for-no-good-reason days off. Kristine and I are fortunate enough to have leave time to spare, and decided to take a day trip to the northern reaches of Chicagoland. A little retail therapy at IKEA and Mitsuwa seemed in order.

And on the way down, my lovely and brilliant wife asked if we needed to look for a Chick-fil-A while we were in the Chicago area. (Chick-fil-A doesn't get any closer to Wisconsin, and neither of us had ever experienced the phenomenon.) With Swedish meatballs and Japanese candy already on the menu, this was looking like a pretty solid outing.

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We hit IKEA at about 10:30, and wouldn't you know it? The restaurant is on the third floor, exactly where we started our shopping. Meatballs for me, mac and cheese for her, and I'm kind of blissing out. I don't think IKEA meatballs are a guilty pleasure, exactly, but they are definitely buffet-style junk food. Still, a great combination of sweet and savory.

A bag full of goodies later, we disembarked from the blue mothership and consulted the internet for the closest Chick-fil-A. Turns out, it's right down the road from IKEA. "I don't care if I just ate, I'm eating again," said the discerning food critic.

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The reason this location of Chick-fil-A, while appearing on the company website, didn't show up on Google Maps is that it just opened on September 15. As a result, those red-and-blue flashing lights and cops directing traffic weren't so much there for accident recovery as they were for crowd control. Yes, there were two lanes of drive-thru and both were packed. The pedestrian line poured out the door. (Shades of SONIC's debut in the Madison area.)

Nevertheless, we managed to get into the line, and in short order, two chicken sandwiches were ours. Finally, I have perspective on what Wendy's and McDonald's are taking on with their less-processed chicken breast sandwiches. These things actually tasted, looked, and felt like chicken. Good chicken, not dry, stringy chicken. I'm ready for a Wisconsin location, thank you.

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It turns out that Schaumburg has become a little slice of low-brow foodie heaven, because IKEA, Chick-fil-A, and the all-in-one Japanese market Mitsuwa are in a line, more or less--like an Orion's Belt of "I really shouldn't eat like this".

Our radar at Mitsuwa is still tuned primarily to the candy and sweets section. This used to be true because we were in over our heads with the rest of the grocery offerings (unless our Japanese friend Emily was there to guide us). It's still true now, but not because of culture shock. It's because we know we can get most of Mitsuwa's core offerings at markets in Madison. So we're magnetically drawn to the candy that we can't find anywhere but the internet.

With three packages of HI-CHEW in our pockets (actually two HI-CHEW and one Kanro), we made a quick exit from the bustling Mitsuwa. This, along with a stop at the slightly absurd but irresistible Belvidere Oasis, would have been a pretty good day. A great day, even.

But then we got back to Madison. And, after a few errands, we discovered the best part.

[EDIT: Holy crap. I was in such a hurry to finish this post before the delivery guy got here, I completely forgot about the bag of meat! For a mere $35, I made two pounds of locally-produced charcuterie my very own, thanks to the Underground Food Collective. Stay tuned for another 2-pound meat CSA offering next month. Can't tell you how jazzed I am about the nduja. Now, on to the thrilling climax!]

The skimpy, crowded bit of Sprecher Road that runs under the Interstate, that's been under construction forever and will be forever--that's a nightmare to navigate in the winter--has finally been remedied. In an email a few months ago, I told our alder (council president Lauren Cnare) that what I really wanted was a temporary blacktop lane to spread traffic out. Just a little loop off to the other side of the support columns, to give people some breathing room.

And now it's there.

LOOK, MADISON, AT WHAT I HAVE DONE FOR YOU.

I'm serious, this is the best day ever. I'm gonna go eat some more candy.

Kyle Ate Here - The even-hotter town edition

It's hard to imagine, on this 30-something degree morning in September, that not too long ago it was 90 degrees outside--and 104 in my little library. But it was indeed, and man, does that kind of swelter take the initiative out of just about everything. This is why I get fatter in the summer, defeating the usual winter bulk-up trend.

(Actually, I get fatter in the winter, too. I'm just generally getting fatter; to every food there is a season, after all.)

The twin concepts of hot spots and comfortable, lazy haunts guide this edition of Kyle Ate Here. A few new places were tried, a few scenes were made, and yes, there was sushi, too. Isn't there always?


Hot spots

As many have in these late days of summer, I visited Dumpling Haus at Hilldale for a lunch with my wife. Many dishes, I'm told, hail from Yen Ching; it's a parent kitchen for the Haus. The Haus pork can move out of its parents' house any into permanent DH residence any time; even Kristine ate the fat, and she never does that.

Restaurant Muramoto was bustling for a Friday night dinner stop, full of twentysomethings; I rejoiced at the reappearance of the gunsmoke roll. We also joined the crowd of people using their about-to-expire Groupon at Cilantro. A bit dry and characterless, this was not as enjoyable. Nice chips and salsa, though. Brunch at Sardine and a late Friday night at Graze added to our hipness quotient for the month. My Limburger and salami sandwich at Baumgartner's stand at Great Taste of the Midwest, less so--but the massive crowd spoke to a different kind of cool.


Lower degrees of difficulty

Ain't nothin' scene about Carnival's, but damned if it doesn't make me happy every time I go there. The mushroom and swiss burger is a thing o' beauty. The most disaffected server ever dampened an otherwise-celebratory stop at Alchemy; seriously, I think she might have been an actual zombie.

The bloody Mary at Weary Traveler was spicy-hot, but the brunch crowd was small and chill for our group. The bacon proved to be a tripping point, but the staff rallied and made right--plus, it was real good. A plate of fried calamari at Hawk's was nothing fancy, but appropriate for its time and place. (If Appleton's Cena, which I also visited in August, was in Madison, it would be Hawk's. This is fine.)


The best thing I ate

This is really challenging. The deep-fried bacon on a stick at Great Taste (via The Smokin' Cantina) was glorious, and that Haus pork was luxe and wonderful. But neither--made of pig parts as they are--can compete with memory and nostalgia. And here, Bandung steps in and takes the prize. We'd gone eight-some years in Madison before trying this Indonesian spot, and since my dad was born in Indonesia, this delay itself is kind of a crime. But their starter menu includes hot, crispy-fried krupuk udang--shrimp chips--and these take me way back, to my dad at the stove. I lost my dad in 1996, but this reintroduction to shrimp chips brought back the best of warm memories.

Kyle Ate Here - The second anniversary edition

Two years ago, July turned into perhaps the most important month of my year. My birthday's in May, and October holds a lot of value for Kristine and I (her birthday, and our dating anniversary). But July 18th, 2009, was the day July trumped them all. We married after 11 years of dating, and suddenly July was anchored in our own little firmament as a Big Deal.

This July's dining calendar was dominated in one respect by Jimmy's American Tavern, my most recent review for Isthmus--it's linked in the sidebar to the right. But while some new experiences in Madison and beyond certainly made July noteworthy, there was one dining experience that quite simply destroys the curve.


L'Etoile

Five years ago, there's no way I'd have guessed that Kristine and I would be one of the couples who returns to L'Etoile for an anniversary dinner each year. But after last year's amazing experience at the end of 25 North Pinckney, we couldn't resist. Four courses later, we're hooked for sure.

An amuse bouche of slightly deconstructed gazpacho was playful and vibrant--it's always nice to start a meal with a laugh. Salade Lyonnaise for her (the smoked mushrooms a pleasant surprise), beef carpaccio with pea vine and equally outspoken pickled mushrooms for me. The midcourse was an easy choice for Kristine; a delicious reprise of her favorite dish from our honeymoon, tempura-battered squash blossoms. I loved the drunken Gulf shrimp in a Tyranena Three Beaches Blonde Ale and XO butter sauce; the hunk of soft pretzel was an absurdly glorious addition.

The fruits of the seas/oceans/lakes were the order of the day on this particular menu. Corvina done in a Mediterranean style and a bucatini di mare both sounded tremendous, but Kristine chose the rockfish with two treatments of cauliflower (truffled purée and caramelized); it was lovely, atop garlic-braised collards. I continued my roughly Asian through-line with a Chinese takeout-style feast: rare seared duck breast, radish pods, broccoli, snow peas, sweet onion fried rice topped with a hen egg, braised bok choy, and a tart cherry sweet-and-sour sauce. It was unparalleled in the world of Column A/Column B Chinese food, and yet entirely reminiscent. Every bite was another little celebration of Chef Miller's imagination.

Three courses of professionally unimpeachable wine pairings were the icing on the cake, and the desserts, coffee, and complimentary petit fours wound the meal down in all the right ways. Whenever we think of this meal, we wonder if it would cheapen the anniversary experience to find other reasons to treat ourselves. We're beginning to think it'd be a shame not to.


The rest of July

Barbecue at Papa Bear's on Independence Day (glad to discover they were open on maybe the perfect holiday for BBQ), and first visits to Bea's Bonnet (holy sandwich cookie!), Harold's Chicken Shack (an over-cooked letdown), Restaurant El Pastor (acceptable), Habanero's (will likely replace 60-80% of my Chipotle trips), and China Inn (forgettable but for the fried sweet biscuits) made for a very educational July. The pulled pork at Brickhouse was an imposing mountain of meat; it generated three meals. The Old Fashioned has a couple new burgers since our last visit; the spicy burger is indeed hot, and any burger from the Old Fashioned kitchen will satisfy, ultimately.

Venturing out of state for the first time in a long while, Kristine and I visited friends and took in a couple meals in the Windy City. Sunday brunch at Kitsch'n was crowded (though not as much as previous visits to Toast were); the bloody Mary was far blander than a chipotle bloody Mary has any right to be, and my chicken and waffles (appropriate for a diner on Roscoe) were okay, but that's about it. Dinner at the recently-reviewed Owen & Engine (three stars from the Tribune's Phil Vettel) was much more successful. Reminiscent of the charms of Underground Kitchen, O&E's British-tinged pub fare was dark and hearty, the ginger beered house Pimm's Cup bright and enlivening. There was a funeral home next door with a truly gorgeous front door; I wanted to open a lounge in there just to sop off Owen & Engine's happy excesses.


The best thing I ate

This is a little unfair. Pitting China Inn's sweet fried biscuits--simple, but the Platonic ideal of fairgrounds-style fried bread, served at 10 for $4--against anything from one of the country's 50 best restaurants would be a challenge to even the judges at Westminster. And what of the No. 6 lazy Susan at The Old Fashioned? Braunschweiger, pickles, two Widmer's cheese spreads, smoked trout, creamed herring, and sausage? Ye gods, yes. Even the sausages from Brickhouse hold some electors in their sway. The compromise inherent in marriage tells me that I should choose L'Etoile's zucchini blossoms; Kristine loved them, and truthfully so did I. But dangit, I'm still my own man! I choose beer and pretzels! The drunken shrimp were rich, hot and even though there were no heads to suck, they were still a little naughty. Sopping one's plate with a piece of bread feels more than a little gauche at such a fine restaurant, but damned if I didn't do it anyway.

Kyle Ate Here - The hot town edition

I'm holed up in my basement, taking cover from a blanket of oppressive mid-July heat, and after many delays, I can finally bring you the June edition of Kyle Ate Here. It's not that I was really that busy; we were just kind of in the midst of a major Star Trek Netflix marathon, and the laptop was conscripted into full-time streaming duty.

But we're doin' it Blu-Ray style now, and the fact is: June had some mighty fine eating. The first day of summer comes in the middle of June, so if you'll forgive the somewhat thin conceit, I've divided up June's dining experiences along similar lines.


The Cold

As has been the tradition for three of this year's six months, I began June at Underground Kitchen--this time with Paula Forbes of Eater. She's a former Madisonian, and we chit-chatted about the changes to the town over a great charcuterie spread, as well as a terrific smoked whitefish salad. We dined al fresco, and though the wind tried to blow our menus away, we enjoyed it all with gusto.

Sushi was on order throughout much of June, with a stop at Sushi Muramoto for lunch with Kristine, and two takeout orders from Takumi. Muramoto's summer cocktails are tremendous, and I officially cannot get enough of the salmon skin roll. I couldn't help notice the very testosterone-heavy composition of the takeout crowd at Takumi--of which I was but a fraction.


The Hot

I had a decent slice of Ian's steak fries pizza at the relaunch of Walkerville (a hot summery night, indeed), and a massive bowl of phở for lunch at Saigon Noodle--our first trip there. (The cold spring roll and iced Vietnamese coffee were equally delicious, but belong in the previous section.) Breakfast sandwiches at Johnson Public House convinced me that this place is for real; their sriracha mayo is little miracle--why doesn't every sandwich have this on it?

After undergoing surgery to repair a deviated septum, it took a few days to get my sense of taste back. A Maharani feast with visiting friends was just the ticket. A week later, I was able to appreciate more subtle flavors at Bonfyre; the unsubtle service was the subject of a previous post. On the 24th, Kristine and I took my cousin out for a dinner at Underground Kitchen as a good-luck gesture for his post-graduation job hunt. We shared the wonderful pretzel dogs, and I enjoyed a plate of sauteed greens with bacon and a duck egg; it was a delight for all. Six days later, the building that houses Underground was effectively gutted in a massive fire. It is unclear whether or not the building--and thus the space that Underground worked so hard to create--can be salvaged.


The best thing I ate

It's tough to transition from such a down note, but as Underground persists, so too will this post. I'm tempted to choose the Otto sandwich from Fraboni's Deli; as it came via the food cart at UW Hospital after my follow-up appointment, it was celebratory as well as delicious. And that Vietnamese coffee at Saigon was equal measures amazing and energizing--holy caffeine! But this month's best thing is, in fact, dessert. The bananas flambé chocolate from DB Infusion Chocolates is a perfect simulation of bananas Foster, encased in deeply satisfying milk chocolate. I recommend getting one before the entire city melts this coming week.

Let the menu be the menu

I've made a couple visits to Bonfyre American Grille since my review was printed in January of last year. It continues to be a reliable, generally enjoyable spot in an area of town with few other options.

That's why it has been really disappointing to see Bonfyre taking steps to be even less risky than it already was(n't).

One of the first signs of this was the sea change in the dessert menu, which went from fun, appropriately priced and portioned fare, to plain, unoriginal, and even cheaper shooter-sized trifles. All the character was sapped from that page of the menu in the interest of making sure every single menu item could be ordered simply and without surprise by every single patron.

I met my wife for lunch at Bonfyre yesterday, and experienced a powerful mutation of the usual doting, semi-pressing service that has marked most other stops there. This fellow, who has served us before, explained in detail every single dish--whether we inquired about it or not. When we ordered, he reiterated the manner in which the dishes were served, and asked if those characteristics would be acceptable to us.

This nervous energy isn't going to serve Bonfyre very well if it keeps up too much longer. (At the very least, it's going to hurt that guy's tips; lunch probably ran a good three to five minutes longer solely on account of his over-attention to explication.) The menu is big, it's diverse, and it's pretty clearly written. When the staff lingers over mundane details like this, it's going to feel to more and more diners like they doth reassure too much.

I still like Bonfyre; my food was good yesterday, as it has been every single time I've visited. But if the staff doesn't let the menu do the job it's supposed to do, the customer base is going to recoil a bit--and with good reason. If you were meant to explain every single part of a dish, why give me a menu at all?

Kyle Ate Here - The old edition

So yeah, I turned another year older in May. I also did a boatload of work around the house--sanding and refinishing the deck rails, building a pergola, yard work, garage work--so the opportunities for going out to eat were diminished by both time, and a propensity to be sweaty and gross and not fit for public consuming.

I did manage a couple fine meals on the town, however, as well as two days in a row of pizza. (This is unprecedented.) And so, in honor of turning 33 years old, here are the top three and bottom three dining experiences of May.


The bottom three

I start with the disappointments because things always get better. And actually, the disappointments in May were rather trivial; no meal was a total letdown, and the missteps themselves were kind of minor. For example, Stalzy's Deli opened in May, in the former Africana space on Atwood Avenue--and to some acclaim. Their soft-open won praise, and I'll affirm the deliciousness of their corned beef Reuben. But the portions are a pinch uneven, and the $2.50 I paid for a whisker of mediocre potato salad needs to be remedied.

This post is probably the last time you'll see me write about Michael's Frozen Custard in a Kyle Ate Here setting; their food is fine, but they are criminally overpriced. I think I've finally learned my lesson, despite preaching it to others in the past: cherry floats and K9 custard only from here on out. There's a lesson coming on related to Madison Sourdough, too. I've had a number of bummer sandwiches here; their coffee, breads and bakery are terrific, but "fool me thrice" is kicking in.


The top three

As I said, the pros outweighed the cons in May, but three meals do indeed stand out. The first was in early May, in the throes of the complete overhaul of Williamson Street. Kristine and I finally made our way into a parking spot at Umami Ramen and Dumpling Bar for her first visit. We ate at the bar, tucked in the corner sipping on our drinks and sharing an order of pork buns. My miso ramen was terrific, and Kristine's tonkatsu ramen was as good for her as it was for me back in March. We bumped into friends on the way out, and exited to a gorgeous spring day.

The other two medal candidates occurred on my birthday weekend. I have made a promise to myself to never work on my birthday if I can help it, and the new Johnson Public House aided and abetted in my playing hooky. It was another beautiful day, only hotter, and the iced coffee was smooth and delicious. (The only complaint was a bit of iciness in the Sassy Cow ice cream in the generally lovely affogato.) The next day saw a trip to Underground Kitchen, which knocked not only my socks off, but off of my mom and stepdad. Goat seems to be a point of particular inspiration this season; in addition to some salami on the meat board, the cavatelli was perfectly soft and creamy.


The best thing I ate

Close friends may be wondering why I haven't mentioned the au revoir party for the extraordinary PBR-battered tilapia taco at King and Mane (now The Tipsy Cow); well, those close friends will probably also know why that meal had a specific black spot on it--I will say no more here. And an honorable mention goes to the fine purveyors of the bratly arts at Alt-Bratfest, turning a rainy day into a shining example of the intersection of food and politics. But the win, even over the goat cavatelli, goes to the pressed roast beef sandwich at Johnson Public House. Topped with caramelized onions and sriracha mayo, it is the perfect interpretation of a roast beef panino. I generally fly down Johnson Street without stopping, but I'm sure it won't be 34 before I stop by again.

Madison and the Overture Center: A blog duel

A couple weeks ago, Wyndham Manning and I got into a lengthy discussion in the least appropriate space short of adjacent stalls--Twitter. 140 characters at a time, in blasts that rarely maintained chronological order when viewed from above, we debated the merits of Madison's Overture Center for the Arts, and whether Madison was a city that could support such a large arts venue.

This conversation was spurred on by comments from newly-elected old mayor Paul Soglin. His outlook on Overture is grim, and his plans apparently so distasteful to the Common Council that he has little hope of salvaging the current operational model in any form.

"The best I can do is put the community in a position that when this plan fails we might be able to right the ship," he says. "I do not know if we can. It may be too late by then."

"I am deeply concerned about it," he continues. "A majority of the council will not support the path I recommend, so the best I can do is just wait for this to crash and burn. It is going to be pretty horrible."

I'm not a fan of this outlook; it sounds petty. Images of scuttling ships, arson for the insurance money, and cutting off one's nose to spite one's face all came rushing into my mind upon reading it.

So there are two questions. Can Madison support an arts venue with so many stages and seats and such a large infrastructure? And secondly, should it ever have been built in the first place?

One of Wyndham's postions throughout our dialogue was that the 1,000-seat Capitol Theater, formerly the Oscar J. Meyer Theater, was "enough." All the big shows that have come through Overture--Broadway shows, major recording artists, other stage performers--could just as well have been carried off in the Capitol. The Overture renovation wasn't needed.

I took a semi-random sampling of the venues coming up on the tour for Wicked, a production that recently ran in Overture's 2,200-seat main hall. The Creighton Orpheum Theater in Omaha, Nebraska (population: 409k) seats 2,600. The Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver, British Columbia (population: 578k) seats 2,900. The Peoria (Illinois, population 115k) Civic Center seats a massive 12,000 for stage events.

The Wharton Center in East Lansing staged a production of The Lion King in which the 2300-seat capacity was barely enough, according to management. I don't think a thousand-seat venue is going to be able to draw the kind of production Overture Hall can attract.

And according to Rob Chappell from Overture (in a press release dated 5/24/11), those big shows are drawing a lot of bodies to the venue.

Sales, attendance and fundraising results for the 2010/11 season at Overture Center for the Arts exceeded expectations and bode well for the future, Overture officials announced today.

The total number of Broadway subscriptions -- ticket packages that included Wicked, Young Frankenstein, Legally Blonde and Les Miserables -- came in at more than 5,300 -- more than double the total for 2009/10. And total Broadway attendance exceeded 87% of capacity.

While Chappell acknowledges that these shows don't generate a lot of retained revenue--much, I imagine, like convenience stores don't make money on fuel sales--they do generate visibility and consumer loyalty.

In his email to Wyndham and I, Rob addresses one of Wyndham's other complaints: that Overture is a black hole of sorts, drawing attention away from the small venues and local artists that are either bleeding overhead or leaving town completely. "[W]e booked about 100 touring artist performances altogether and local artists put on about 150 here in our building," Chappell says.

Overture Center has a lot of seats and stages, yes. Could it have been developed just as well with one fewer? Maybe. But it's there now, and doing a controlled burn on the investment--like Soglin seems to be resigned to doing--isn't going to fill the seats at Bartell, or Broom Street, or the Project Lodge. It's a matter of efficient utilization; smaller cities than Madison have supported similar venues without letting things "crash and burn".

My example of choice is Appleton, Wisconsin. Appleton's population is just over 78,000. The Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, with two stages totaling 2,500 seats (2,100 alone in the Thrivent Financial Hall), still manages to put on the same Broadway shows as Overture.

Using the metropolitan area populations for Appleton and Madison (source: Wikipedia), there are 144 available citizens per seat at the Performing Arts Center. For Overture Center's 3,701 total seats (according to its online seating chart site), there are 151 citizens per seat. The PAC generated its first annual gain in 2010, after opening in 2002. The Overture Center opened in 2004, and its financial state is the subject of this entire conversation.

Poorly managed? Sure. Inefficiently utilized? At times, probably. I'm not an expert on the performing arts, so much of my position is speculative. But if, in eight years, little Appleton can generate an annual performing arts gain from a strikingly similar profile of shows and events, then I think Madison's Overture Center can do the same, even considering the hit the arts have to endure in a down economy.

I say "can", because it cannot--it will not--if the leader of Madison's city government would rather let the entire operation fail than engage someone else's baby (philanthropist Jerome Frautschi got the ball rolling during Sue Baumann's administration, and it was built during Dave Cieslewicz's) and make it work. While it is perhaps not currently supporting Overture, I firmly believe that Madison can.

Taste and memory

Another Memorial Day weekend has come and gone, with the usual summery temperatures and unpredictable precipitation. This year the political climate added a new dimension to the change in seasons, and what used to be an assumed visit or two to Bratfest turned into choosing between any of three protest events in Madison.

I was out of town on Saturday, so Wurst Times and The People's Bratfest were out. But I'd staked myself to attending Alt-Bratfest during my totally-unexpected radio appearance, and even though the weather conspired against an outdoor festival, Kristine and I made the trip.

It was completely and wholly worth it. For $15, we shared two ample brats (Underground Kitchen and Merchant, though others were available) and a brat-seasoned pulled pork sandwich (Alchemy). A few cups of flavored tea, and we were won over. (My hope is that Joey Dunscombe and his fellow organizers stick with this one for next year; the one-and-done tease that was the Pork-Off was hard enough to get over.) It wasn't a strident protest, but in the midst of its success we were reminded of why we were there, and what we opposed in the giant effort across town at Willow Island.

In keeping with the fundamental purpose of the holiday, we stopped at Madison's Memorial Mile and made a donation. The Mile is an extremely effective installation designed to deliver the full impact of the losses we have sustained in our continued involvement in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm proud of Madison for displaying it, and for respecting it.

On Monday, we invited a dear friend who had to endure a beer-less cookout to our comfy patio for some brats and burgers. It was the best possible way to embrace the weather, and our modest level of prosperity, and the time we've been given to appreciate the good that we have in this country in spite of--and occasionally, because of--the bad.

As we gear up for recall elections and a long hot summer, the holiday weekend we just finished was the perfect prologue to kick off a reinvigoration of the palate, the mind, and the heart.

Kyle Ate Here - The...wait, it's what month already?...edition

Don't ask me what happened in April (or why it's almost double-digits May for this post). It took me half the month to reconstruct my dining journal from memory, receipts, and online banking records. Something clicked off in my brain this month, and I just couldn't maintain any sort of attention span. (You may make your 4/20 joke here, if you'd like.)

My usual plan of attack is to find something to split the month into two general categories. While "What I remembered" and "What I had to look up" might work, it'd be an unnecessary and unintended slight on some of the places I needed assistance to remember. Instead, there's a more unfortunate division to April, one that does intend a certain critique.


What went wrong

The breakfast sandwich at Heritage. Fresh, hot, but unwieldy and not exactly harmonious.Okay, "wrong" might still be too strong a chiding. Nothing got sent back, no sternly worded letters to the owner. But April saw many more disappointments than the usual month of Madison dining. Maharani's chilli chicken, a new dish for me, just didn't have what I want from Indian food (and I know, it's a bit of an oddball). Roman Candle's eponymous pie had a woody, stemmy banana pepper on almost every slice. While my first whitefish salad sandwich of the year at Gotham was amazing, the second was loaded with unnecessary (erroneously applied?) mayo. And I'm sorry, but is there a more overpriced--or slower--"fast" food experience in Madison than Michael's Frozen Custard?

The biggest slip-up of the month wasn't actually on my plate, but on the plates of friends around me. All of us were trying 43 North for the first time, and for brunch. The original chef has decamped for Chicago, and the former chef at Restaurant Magnus has taken his place. A great line of succession, but two plates of cold, nearly congealing bacon and a Cobb salad of far too many greens left members of our party wanting more. Others were much happier, but it was a surprisingly uneven experience.


What went right

A sumptuous feast of snacks at Graze--curds, truffle popcorn, charcuterie--kicked off the month, and that stuff was almost all good. (The cocktails, less so; let's say that Graze is falling far behind in a crowded field.) My two stops, the first two ever, at Atlantis Taverna were both great, even though the first was at the tail end of a wicked cold. And the eastsiders among you will want to hit up the morning bun at the new Heritage Bakery and Cafe, 'nuff said.

I lost my hubcap-sized pancake virginity at Cottage Cafe in April; loved it. And yes, there were PBR tacos at King and Mane. They're even starting to catch on--when a bunch of people in red show up, there will be PBR tacos for all. A trio of meals at Brasserie V over the course of the month were the dictionary definition of "what went right." Great beer, great staff, amazingly pink burgers and packed sandwiches.


The best thing I ate

Closing the previous section with Brasserie V is no accident. I loved my V Burger, the sweet and sour ramps alongside the seared black cod were terrific--but the Montrachet goat cheese tart with olives, roasted tomatoes, and greens was mind-bogglingly good. Creamy, smooth, rich but tart at the same time, and all framed by the lightest, butteriest crust you'll ever find. The morning bun from Heritage is really great, and my crispy pork belly with "Elvis" bread (peanuts and banana) and poached eggs at 43 North was something new and kind of amazing.

But that goat cheese tart was symphonic, something to remember.