Revolutions can start in a lot of different places. At the same time famed chef Alice Waters began to sniff around California’s local larder, Odessa Piper of Madison, Wis., headed into ripe Midwestern pastures, building a network of regional farmers and suppliers that helped launch the locavore movement. The result was immediately evident. Helping fuel a farmers market that still rings Madison’s Capitol building and ranks as one of the country’s largest, Piper left a blooming legacy.
The market wasn’t her only success. Piper also established L’Etoile in 1976 as one of the country’s great early farm-to-table restaurants. That it carries on today, even without her, proves that she wasn’t acting alone. Madison, a university town populated by global food-smart students and scholars, was ready to do some serious eating.
It has been eating well ever since, as one of the Midwest’s most adventurous culinary cities.
Madison is worth visiting for more than just food. It stretches between two lakes and makes for a fun weekend. Downtown’s anchoring State Street, running from the Capitol Square to the campus, is lined with art museums, coffee shops, bookstores and galleries. At dusk, people collect on the Memorial Union terrace, where bands play to the setting sun, brats get grilled and people paddle on Lake Mendota in rentable canoes and kayaks, past splashing swimmers.
A lot of the crowd is building up an appetite for dinner, and the best place for a taste of Madison’s most ambitious dining is Forequarter. Run by the Underground Food Collective, and headed by four-time James Beard nominee Jonny Hunter, the restaurant is zealous about local foraging and sourcing. That makes dinner, in the low-key dining room, a very model of purist locavore cooking (forequartermadison.com; 1-608-609-4717).
Start with the charcuterie plate and forget those luncheon meat platters that too many kitchens try to pass off now as serious carnivorous dining. The Forequarter plate is butchered at the Food Collective’s own Underground Butcher. A recent platter included Tuscan and Calabrian salamis, sobrassada, Prussian ham and coppa. Then dive into the veg-friendly menu, which changes daily, depending on what just sprouted. A shaved parsnip salad may come brightened by pink peppercorn vinaigrette and studded with cerignola olives; a plate of rainbow carrots may play off daikon tzatziki and hazelnut dukkah. Pan-seared lake trout might pair with roasted sweet potato and ginger broth. Hold out for dessert if it’s some version of the carrot layer cake ribboned with orange marmalade and pistachio.
If that feels too Noma-esque, book a table at Sardine. Sitting on Lake Monona, the airy converted warehouse of a dining room, fronted by a snaking bar, is one of Madison’s most handsome, and the menu follows glossy suit. Co-owner and chefs John Gadau and Phillip Hurley, Chicago transplants, know how to plate contemporary comfort food that skips a lot of borders, from French to Mediterranean. Their standout signature dishes range from a warm duck confit and frisee salad, roused by green beans, bacon lardon and a poached egg, to pan-roasted skate wing dressed with caper-almond brown butter. The kitchen’s namesake sardine burger — grass-fed angus beef dressed with a fig and caramelized onion jam — is a wonder itself (sardinemadison.com; 1-608-441-1600).
For straight-up comfort food, the pair’s homier Gates and Brovi serves a perfect chicken piccata (gatesandbrovi.com; 1-608-819-8988). For pure tradition, though, Tornado, just off the Capitol Square, is everything a classic steakhouse should be (tornadosteakhouse.com; 1-608-256-3570). The beamed dining room looks like Paul Bunyan’s North Woods cabin and the tenderloin comes with buttery hash-brown potatoes, fresh-baked breadsticks and a crisp iceberg lettuce wedge doused in French blue cheese dressing.
Just across the square, L’Etoile, now headed by James Beard winner Tory Miller, sits next to its more casual sister kitchen Graze (letoile-restaurant.com, 1-608-251-0500; grazemadison.com; 1-608-251-2700). The most unexpected restaurant in Miller’s portfolio is his Spanish-themed Estrellon, where the tortilla espanola is worthy of any Latin mama and the paella Valenciana comes served in the traditional black pan and crowned with rich dabs of aioli (estrellonrestaurant.com; 1-608-251-2111).
Among Madison’s crowded run of other global restaurants is Italian restaurant Lombardino’s, its dining room packed with a winking collection of “La Dolce Vita” kitsch. The kitchen does right by a pan-Italian menu, from seasonal bruschettas to knockout pastas (lombardinos.com; 1-608-238-1922). The kitchen’s pizzas are fine, as well, but for a bona fide, beautifully blistered, straight-from-Naples version pulled out of a wood-fired brick oven, head to Pizza Brutta, on restaurant-jammed Monroe Street (pizzabrutta.com; 1-608-257-2120).
In a city dense with Asian students, there is an odd dearth of decent Asian restaurants. The exception is a growing constellation of Japanese eateries. Best among them is Muramoto at Hilldale mall, where the standard-issue sushi is augmented by a fantastic Asian slaw, calamari paired with ponzu mayonnaise, and a miso-marinated black cod (hilldale.muramoto.biz; 1-608-441-1090). The other strong option is Red, where the seasonal maki sometimes goes too baroque (consider the red paradise roll, a mélange of spicy salmon, asparagus, arugula, seared tuna, pineapple avocado salsa, fried garlic and pea shoots that reads more like a casserole than maki) but where the sushi itself is always first-rate (red-madison.com; 1-608-294-1234).
For a return to regional flavors, Quivey’s Grove, on the far west edge of Madison, is one of the town’s best surprises (quiveysgrove.com; 1-608-273-4900). Its Stone House dining room, in a 19th-century farmhouse, features a menu rooted in largely Scandinavian and German culinary traditions, making for big meaty plates that get cooked with finesse. The Friday fish fry is an ode to a Midwestern classic. So are the fresh-baked pastries.
But for the best sweet stop in town, head back to Monroe Street, where Bloom Bake Shop features cupcakes, biscuits, doughnuts and cinnamon rolls (bloombakeshop.com; 1-608-509-7669). The antidote to the oversized cupcakes churned out by the chains, Bloom’s delicate cupcakes are made with locally sourced ingredients, so a lemon and blueberry version comes baked with real fruit, folded in like a smoothie, and topped by the lightest lemon buttercream. It makes for a bright last taste of Madison.
Food and travel journalist Raphael Kadushin regularly writes for Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler and other publications.