On a per-capita basis, Madison, Wis. (population 236,900), just might be the Midwest’s most dynamic food city.
The riches are in every direction, and cover every genre, switching seamlessly from, say, the action-packed Dane County Farmers Market on the city's beautiful Capitol Square (pictured, above), to the sublime signature product at Michael’s Frozen Custard, to the high-wire locavorism of recent James Beard award winning chef Tory Miller at the landmark L’Etoile.
It had been a few years since I’d been to Madison, and a lot has happened in the interim. Here are a few highlights of my recent 24-hour eat-a-thon.
Two newcomers made highly favorable impressions. I was warned by a Madison food savant that I needed to arrive at Forequarter (pictured, above) as soon as the doors opened at 5 p.m., or risk being shut out of the first seating. He was right. I was the first customer at 5:02, and by 5:20, every seat (granted, we’re talking roughly 35 here) was taken. The storefront setup is basically a long bar and a tightly packed row of tables; picture the Wisconsin lake cabin of a small group of Brooklyn hipsters — ironic taxidermy, anyone? — and you’ll get an idea of the pleasant surroundings.
Not that it matters, because the focus is on the plate. The kitchen is run by a group that bills itself as the Underground Food Collective, and their work is fascinating. On the one hand, they live and breathe pork — their activities range from carefully crafted charcuterie to hog-butchering courses — but they’ve also got a healthy obsession with vegetables.
Which means that it’s possible to revel in an extraordinary pork rillette — a layer of pearly fat protecting an almost creamy potted meat, spread over toasted slices of multigrain bread, with a swipe of pungent, grainy mustard — or a lovingly made and expertly grilled sausage.
But then the kitchen turns around and offers a revelatory approach to, say, cauliflower (pictured, above), exploiting its textural qualities: One version gently fried it to nudge the florets into releasing some of their stubborn chewiness, and another sliced it thin and then pickled it, each energetically crunchy bite exuding a teasing vinegar. The bar happily maintains a number of healthy mixology fetishes, and the service staff has an infectious sense of fun. I hated to give up my seat, but there were people waiting.
Besides, I was just getting started. So I zipped about 10 blocks over to another Madison newbie and hot spot, A Pig in a Fur Coat. Yes, that’s the name, derived from a riff on a Kazakhstani dish (it’s a long story), but a brainstorm-ey moniker should not get in the way of an otherwise marvelous experience.
One of the (rephrase: perhaps one of the only) benefits of dining alone is that it’s far easier to slip into a crowded restaurant, particularly a former pizzeria barely large enough to contain a pair of long communal tables and a half-dozen closely-crammed two- and four-tops. The utterly charming hostess took pity on my rain-soaked single self and guided me to the last open (and highly coveted) seat in the house.
Jackpot. Fortunately, I didn’t have to play the game where I wasn’t pretending to eavesdrop on the conversations of the out-on-a-date couples surrounding me, because chef Daniel Bonnano’s cooking held my rapt attention. Bonanno, who trained at the Cordon Bleu School in Mendota Heights and cut his teeth at Chicago’s Spiaggia, is clearly a chef to watch.
The Mediterranean-inspired (and locally sourced; this is Madison) food surrounding me was certainly making me hungry. When the woman to my left started digging into an enormous, mahogany-glazed turkey leg — roasted in the kitchen’s wood-burning oven — I nearly reached over for a bite. Ditto the paper cone filled with golden, duck fat-fried fries that she was sharing with her husband.
But just then my first course arrived: Cool, silvery house-brined sardines, served on crisp crostini, a toss of oranges and thinly sliced fennel acting as a palate-cleansing counterpoint. Lovely, and that was chased by a shimmering slab of pork belly, dressed in the Thanksgiving flavors of pumpkin, sweet potato and maple. The evening's crowning achievement was a ravioli filled with the runny yoke of a duck egg, topped with a crisp, paper-thin strip of pancetta and bathed in brown butter. Two tastes into it and I knew that I’d found a new contender for my ongoing Last Meal contest.
Dessert sounded promising, but I needed a dining intermission. Or at least a walk. So I headed to Capitol Square, the city’s geographic and spiritual heart, and made a few strolls around the spotlight-bathed State Capitol, hoping for a seat to open up at Nostrano.
Is there such a thing as Wisconsin Nice? If there isn’t, the woman at the front door must have Minnesota roots, because she couldn’t have been more welcoming and accommodating, leading me to what I correctly assumed was a highly sought-after berth at the bar. In a case of extremely poor timing on my part, the Italian restaurant, owned by chefs and spouses Tim and Elizabeth Dahl, opened just after my last visit to Madison, nearly two years ago, and during the intervening months the buzz has been promising.
My stalled appetite was refusing to order even one of Tim’s savory dishes — and believe me, the grilled octopus over plus-size white beans that the woman to my right was sighing over was totally calling my name — but it was revived after one look at Elizabeth’s dessert menu. “The chestnut waffle is amazing,” said the bartender, another card-carrying member of the restaurant’s Jovial Club. “But the tortino is my favorite.”
Sold. What arrived was a warm, barely sweet buckwheat cake, fortified by blueberries and dressed with an unearthly scoop of pistachio gelato; in short, a magical blend of ingenuity and technical prowess. My only regret? Not ordering the bourbon-sour cherry Old Fashioned that I watched the bartender mix for the man seated to my left. Chalk it up to another downside to dining solo, the acute shortage of designated drivers.
The following morning, newly hungry, I took a sun-soaked stool at the counter at Madison Sourdough and tucked into one of baker Andrew Hutchinson’ textbook croissants — so flaky and golden on the outside, so tender and pull-apart on the inside. It had been filled with thin slices of house-smoked ham and a mellow aioli, and it could not have been more satisfying, with a slightly decadent edge that a person could easily learn to live with. There was a stack of newspapers nearby, but my eyes were glued to the wall of beautiful breads (pictured, above), which serve as the foundation for much of what comes out of the kitchen of this popular bakery/cafe.
After grabbing a spiraled morning bun — again, so tender, and twinkling with just the right eye-opening amount of sugar — I dashed over to another Madison newcomer, 4 & 20 Bakery & Cafe. It took a while to find it — turns out it’s located behind the sub sandwich shop that I kept driving past — but once inside I was not disappointed, particularly by the deft hand that owners Mandy Puntney and Evan Dannells take to biscuit-making, smothering them in pork sausage gravy or using them as building blocks for well-stuffed breakfast sandwiches (pictured, above).
Having filled my coat pocket with several of the bakery’s swoon-worthy takes on the Oreo, I ran across town to make a free recital at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed First Unitarian Society, a Friday noon tradition and a marvelous way to fully experience the landmark building’s gifts, particularly those of the acoustic variety. But post-concert, my mind was occupied with a burning question: Where to have lunch?
Although, really, who was I kidding, as the outcome was a foregone conclusion: Marigold Kitchen. I can’t imagine visiting Madison and not checking in on this loud, generally swamped counter-service spot (chefs/owners John Gadau and Phillip Hurley also operate the nearby Sardine, a justifiably popular dinner-only bistro, and just opened Gates & Brovi, a neighborhood burgers-and-beer joint a few miles outside downtown).
I’ve always thought of the Marigold as a kind of modern-day diner, one where the breakfast-and-lunch cooking deliciously improves upon all-American norms. Besides, the crowd is a colorful mix of politicos, business folks and tourists, and the prices rarely venture north of $10.
My instincts didn’t fail me. Lunch (pictured, above) turned out to be a carefree toss of garden-fresh argula and feathery frisee dotted with pulls of roast chicken, olive oil-kissed toasted bread and warm roasted cherry tomatoes. Thanks, Marigold-ers.
The restaurant is just off Capitol Square, a neighborhood that boasts a remarkable critical mass of dining establishments. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate so many of them: Soothing, seasonally focused Harvest and its rambunctious sibling The Old Fashioned; the Tornado Room, the epitome of an old-school steakhouse; the modern sensibilities of Shinji Muramoto’s 43 North and the pristine sushi and clever Asian fusion cooking at his Restaurant Muramoto; and the funky eclecticism of Natt Spil.
But I have to admit that I am forever circling back to L’Etoile. The 36-year-old restaurant has recently undergone a remarkable transformation. In 2010, the restaurant moved from its longtime second-story home to an airy new street-level setting a block away (pictured, above). Owners (and siblings) Tory Miller and Traci Miller took the opportunity to re-invent the business they bought from founder Odessa Piper in 2005, reserving half of the space for L’Etoile’s formal dinner-only dining room, and using the other half to create Graze, a crowd-pleasing (in a good way) bar/restaurant serving lunch, dinner, brunch and a counter-service weekday breakfast.
The setup is strictly walk-in, and the menu embraces the L’Etoile locally sourced ethos, but in a much more approachable and affordable way: smoked paprika-topped deviled eggs, a tangy array of pickled vegetables, a sandwich of panko-breaded fried perch, an exceptional Rueben, well-dressed burgers and my idea of a perfect lunch (OK, a second lunch, but who’s counting?), a steaming bowl (pictured above) of slurp-worthy noodles, fatty pork belly, long strips of nori, crunchy radishes and a runny poached egg, a steal at $10. The refreshing, copper-tined pale ale from southwestern Wisconsin’s Potosi Brewing Co. didn’t hurt. No wonder the place was packed.
The square, by the way, has never looked better, thanks to a lengthy restoration of the Capitol itself (one that Minnesota could look to as an example for its endangered Cass Gilbert masterpiece) and a sensitive remake of the Capitol’s grounds and surrounding streetscape.
A handful of food and drink purveyors are also contributing to Capitol Square’s renaissance. Square Wine Co. focuses on small-scale producers and turns its skinny, loft-like space into Madison’s most jovial drinking destination on Friday evenings, when the staff starts pulling corks and pouring tastings of a half-dozen or so varietals, based on a theme (“California favorites,” for example) for $15.
The square’s chicest storefront belongs to Candinas Chocolatier. The supremely minimalist surroundings — seriously, it took a few moments for me to realize that I was standing inside a retail shop, that’s how stark it is — turn out to be a potent backdrop (pictured, above) for a limited selection of exquisitely crafted chocolate truffles. Owner/chocolatier Markus Candinas — with a name like that, could the man have gone into any other business? — produces them in his factory in nearby Verona, Wis. I bought a delicious-sounding selection as a gift, but the box didn’t even make it to the Minnesota border. Yeah, they were that good.
No visit to the capital of America’s Dairyland would be complete without a visit to a cheese shop, right? Naturally, the square has that covered, and how. As a showcase for Wisconsin-made cheeses (pictured, above), Fromagination has no peer, but the carefully curated shop is also stocked with American and European selections (love the cheesemonger-selected tastings, paired with wines and Wisconsin craft beers) and a discerning selection of gourmet groceries. The kitchen turns out all manner of picnic items (there’s even a picnic blanket rental service), including a wide range of meticulously constructed sandwiches. Truly, a gem, and a well-perfumed one at that.
Even the Wisconsin Historical Museum gets into the act. Well, its gift shop, anyway. I wasn’t tempted by the selection of hilarious foam cheeseheads, but I did walk away with a few amusing t-shirts, mugs and magnets, printed, retro-style, with slogans like “Friday Night Fish Fry in Wisconsin,” “No thanks, I’m having butter” (pictured, above) and "Real Wisconsin Cheese Curds."
Next time? I’m definitely staying longer.