Saturday, January 23rd, 2016

My Darling B and I went to the El Dorado Grill for dinner on Thursday night. It was restaurant week, as if we needed an excuse to go out to eat. We were looking over the menus when the waitress came over to ask if we wanted to start off with something to drink, which sounded like a great idea to me, so I ordered a martini. B told me later that when she asked, “Do you have a preference on the vodka?” I made a face like she’d just waved a dead squirrel under my nose. That must be the face I make when people ask me a question that seems to be completely disconnected from what we were just talking about, because at that moment I was thinking to myself, “Vodka? Is there vodka in a martini? I don’t think so. Why is she asking me about vodka?” It came and went, a quickly-passing senior moment, when I remembered that vodka martinis are a thing, but I still fumbled around for a bit trying to tell her that I wanted a martini made with Hendrick’s gin. Turned out that I got all the Hendrick’s gin left in the place, about two or three ounces, which they turned into an acceptable cocktail, but because it was smaller than they usually make them, they treated me to it, on the house! The best-tasting martinis are Hendrick’s martinis, but the most delightful are free martinis.

gratis | 11:26 am CST
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Saturday, January 24th, 2015

Our last stop during Madison Restaurant Week was Johnny Delmonico’s Steakhouse. This was our first visit to Johnny’s and to make it an extra-special celebration, we met good friends Becky and John there.

My appetizer was Flash-Fried Calamari tossed in sweet and spicy chili sauce and crushed peanuts. I can’t remember the last time I had calamari as delicious as that. Everybody but Johnnie was ohhhing and ahhhing over it except John, who couldn’t bring himself to eat octopus and went with the Caesar salad instead.

Becky and I had Alaskan Cod and Shrimp for our entree: wild-caught Alaskan cod and shrimp poached in a spicy tomato and saffron broth, served with grilled bread. Not bad at all, but a little soupier than I thought it would be. My Darling B ordered Certified Angus Beef Short Ribs: tender port-braised short ribs served with creamy polenta, roasted root vegetables and demi-glace. Johnnie went with the New York Strip: sliced certified angus beef New York strip served with garlic mashed potatoes, roasted asparagus and bordelaise sauce.

For dessert, I had German Chocolate Cake served with chocolate sauce and shaved coconut. It was so gobsmacking good I don’t even remember what the others had.

Johnny Delmonico’s | 11:15 am CST
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Friday, January 23rd, 2015

By now, you’ve noticed that our third meal in our whirlwind tour of Madison Restaurant Week venues has been missing from this drivel. “What the hell?” You were thinking. “Has he forgotten his duties?” It’s a natural reaction, and I have a good reason: I’m lazy. I started to write it up, but didn’t feel like finishing it. It happens to me all the time. Like right now. I started to make fun of myself for not finishing the drivel I wrote about going out to eat, but I don’t have any ideas for a way to finish the joke and I’m not sure I want to any more. Well. Anyway.

We went to Sardine on Tuesday night. Sardine is one of our favorite places to eat, and ironically so, because we so rarely go there. It’s got great food, the staff is very nice, very professional and very fast, and the bar is well-stocked with any kind of wine, booze or beer you could think of. Well, that I can think of. Maybe you can think of a lot more than I can.

My appetizer was fish soup or, as it’s known when it’s the soup du jour, “soupe de poisson.” Don’t ask me why “soup” doesn’t have a silent e and then it does. I don’t know French so I asked The Google, and I just wrote down what it told me. So. This may be the first time I’ve ever had fish soup. Every time the option of fish soup was presented to me before I thought, Fish is an odd thing to make soup out of, and I didn’t get it. But Restaurant Week is all about trying new things, so I tried it and I liked it. B’s appetizer was a goat cheese and onion tart with black olives and oven-roasted tomatoes. B loves a good tart.

My entree was a grilled Norwegian salmon because, when I see salmon on the menu, nothing else has a chance. They served it with French lentils, sautéed spinach, portobello mushrooms, tomatoes, and beurre blanc. That’s a sauce made of butter. Don’t be impressed that I knew that. I asked The Google again. B’s entree was a French casserole that foodies call Cassoulet, which seems weird to me because “casserole” is a French word. Why would the French have two words for the same thing? Turns out they don’t. “Casserole” comes from a word that means “saucepan,” so you’re eating a saucepan when you call it a casserole. B loves her saucepans, but she loves Cassoulet even more. The Cassoulet at Sardine was braised white beans, lamb, garlic sausage, duck confit and bread crumbs. She let me taste some of hers. Oh my.

For dessert, I asked for Gianduja Crunch, because the menu described it as chocolate-hazelnut ganache on a crunchy feuilletine crust, caramel sauce and hazelnut brittle tuille. I don’t know what half of that means, but I didn’t have to ask The Google about any of it because you had me at “chocolate-hazelnut ganache.” B had the Crème Renversée au Caramel. Ditto hers, except you had to get all the way to “caramel” to hook me.

Sardine | 5:48 am CST
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Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

We had dinner tonight at Quivey’s Grove, our fourth meal during Madison Restaurant Week. It’s a comfy restaurant, we’ve enjoyed the meals we’ve had there before, and the menu they published looked enticing.

For an appetizer, I asked for the roasted garlic and cauliflower soup served with parmesan cheese croutons. Very tasty. B enjoyed Wisconsin raclettes, a dish made of Roth Kase Raclette cheese, baby red potatoes, baby dill pickles and pickled onions. B loves her appetizers hot and gooey.

For the entree, I went for the lamb shank, an impressively large shank of lamb slowly braised in Wollersheim Domaine du Sac red wine until it was fall-off-the-bone tender, served with root vegetables in pan juices and a generous helping of rosemary garlic mashed potatoes. Very nicely done. B went for the Pork Trio: pork tenderloin medallions on caramelized apple with cider cream sauce, a pork shank lollipop (no, really, that’s what they said it was) glazed with honey mustard sauce on bacon and caraway kraut, and cottage pie made with braised pork cheek and mashed potatoes – sort of a tiny little shepherd’s pie served in what looked like a soup bowl.

I was especially looking forward to dessert: their published menu promised chocolate sauce cake, rich and gooey chocolate cake baked on chocolate sauce, upended in a bowl and served warm with vanilla ice cream. “Not so pretty, but just try to stop eating this!” they bragged. And that’s all they did, because chocolate sauce cake wasn’t on the menu when we got there. I had to settle for a so-so standby in vanilla flan. B’s dessert wasn’t on the published menu, either. It was some kind of whipped cream and chocolate sauce confection in a cocktail glass. Put up or shut up next time, Quivey’s.

Quivey’s Grove | 8:40 pm CST
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Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

On day two of Madison Restaurant Week, we had lunch at Roast, one of the newer pubs and restaurants along State Street, new enough that we’d never been to or even heard of this particular one before. Getting out to try new places like this is why we look forward to Restaurant Week.

Roast appears to have been carved out of the space between the shoulders of the two buildings on either side of it. It’s got the bare brick walls and iron furnishings of many other industrial-chic restaurants.

For my appetizer, I had the New Orleans-style seafood gumbo, a bowl of shrimp, oysters and crabmeat, served over rice and lightly seasoned, something of a surprise as I normally expect that almost anything called “New Orleans style” will set my mouth on fire. This was pretty tame compared to past experience. Not that that’s a bad thing.

B went with Arugula and Shaved Pear Salad for her appetizer: arugula, thinly-sliced pear sections, candied pecans, pomegranate seeds and warm crispy goat cheese, all drizzled with a champagne vinaigrette. This is so totally B’s kind of salad, and she happily scooped up every last little bit of it.

For my entree, I went for the Caribbean Marinated Pork Shoulder, a sandwich of slow roasted Caribbean pork shoulder, cherry-infused BBQ sauce, pickled red onions and just a touch of feta cheese on a baguette, served with the crispiest house-made chips I’ve ever enjoyed. It paired up nicely with a goblet of Blackout Stout from Great Lakes Brewing.

B wanted to try the Foie Gras Burger, a grass-fed ground beef patty with slices of seared foie gras, caramelized onion jam and goat cheese on a Madison Sourdough bun. Again, this is exactly her kind of kitchen experiment. But wait! There’s more! It came with a side of duck fat fries seasoned with truffle salt. I don’t even know what truffle salt is.

For dessert, I went with Streusel Apple Pie with Salted Caramel Ice Cream. Because apple pie. B enjoyed a chunk of Chocolate Peanut Butter Cheesecake.

Roast | 8:54 pm CST
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Sunday, January 18th, 2015

Today is the first day of Madison Restaurant Week, and once again we began with lunch at Inka Heritage. It’s solidified into our traditional starting place partly because we’re sentimental, but mostly because we love the food and the service.

For an appetizer, I picked Spicy Tuna Causa: potatoes that a bohemian like me would call “mashed” but according to the menu are “whipped” – whichever, the potatoes are flavored with chilis called aji amarillo and pressed into circular cakes about the size of half-dollar coins. A dollop of spicy tuna salad is spread between the two cakes, like a sandwich cookie, and garnished with a tiny wedge of boiled egg and avocado. My Darling B just loves this stuff, but instead chose the Cilantro Soup. Just what it says on the tin, it’s a cilantro base with chicken, peas, carrots and white rice. I’m one of those people who can’t abide cilantro – it tastes like soap to me – so I didn’t try it.

My entree was Adobo Arequipeno: three tender chunks of marinated pork served with cooked Peruvian red chilis, carrots, onions, tender beans, and a cake of white rice that I broke apart right away and used to sop up all the yummy juices pooling around the pork.

Adobo Arequipeno

B’s entree was Pescado a la Chorrillana: lightly fried fish seasoned with chilis called aji panca, and served with onions, bell peppers, tomatoes and a garnish of boiled egg and olive. This also came with a cake of white rice to soak up all the yummy juices.

Pescado a la Chorrillana

Two of the desserts offered on the menu were described as being drenched in milk and cream, which is my kryptonite, so I went for the third dessert, Alfajores: two sandwich cookies with a rich caramel filling described in the menu as dulce de leche and thickly dusted with powdered sugar. Don’t inhale while you’re taking a bite. And wear a bib. Bearded men are advised to excuse themselves to the bathroom and take a good look in the mirror after.

B wanted Copa de Tres Leches Cake and Frutos del Bosque, a light cake covered with three milks and mixed with reduction of berries. Unfortunately, either our server misheard her or the kitchen got the order wrong, because B got Four Milk cake, and was too kind-hearted to say anything to the server about it. Four Milk cake turned out to be, duh, a mixture of four milks poured over a light cake – that would’ve sat inside me for maybe five minutes before I asploded. B lapped it up like a happy little kitteh. Until the people at the next table got their order of Copa de Tres Leches Cake and Frutos del Bosque, and then she became somewhat covetous and maybe even a little pouty. But she and I both left with our sufficiency surensified and looking forward to lunch tomorrow at Roast, our next stop during Restaurant Week.

Inka Heritage | 3:49 pm CST
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Sunday, July 27th, 2014

The grand finale of our tour of new restaurants during this summer’s iteration of Restaurant Week was dinner at Tempest Oyster Bar on Friday night. It was hands-down the best dinner we ate all week, and probably the most enjoyable dining experience, partly because our friends Becky and John joined us for the evening and partly because the food and the venue were just that good.

We already had a table by the time our friends came in and even had a plate of oysters Rockefeller waiting for them. None of us had eaten oysters before. I don’t know about the others, but I have a general rule that I won’t eat anything that I can’t distinguish from snot. My Darling B felt, however, that if we were going to an oyster bar, we pretty much had to eat oysters.

I told her that under no circumstances would I be slurping down a raw oyster. There might be enough alcohol in the world to get me drunk enough to do it, but I’m positive that at my age I don’t have the fortitude any more to survive being that drunk. B kept egging me on, and I kept saying no until she ran across a menu item billed as oysters Rockefeller: broiled oysters on the half shell. I could raise no objection to eating cooked boogers. She knows I’ll try anything anybody passes off as cuisine so long as it’s cooked. I’ve eaten slugs, bugs, tentacles and I can’t even remember what else, so I agreed to a plate of oysters Rockefeller.

And you know, they were not bad. I wouldn’t say I’m crazy about them, and I wouldn’t go out of my way for another serving, but as one of those things to try just to say I did it, it wasn’t bad. It reminded me of the dark-meat scallops we used to get at restaurants in Japan with the guts and all the rest of the tripe still attached, not the clean, white scallops typically served here in the States. Chewy. A little gristly. I’d describe the taste as muddy. We all tried them and I think we all had about the same opinion: they were okay, but nobody raved about them. But we ate oysters at the oyster bar. Bucket list item checked off.

Oysters Rockefeller was actually the pre-appetizers appetizer, an extra treat we ordered because it was a special night out. The appetizer from Tempest’s prix fixe menu for Restaurant Week was a choice of she-crab soup, whitefish cakes, or a Caesar salad. Becky and I had the whitefish cake. It was wonderful. Nice and flaky, just a little creamy, and just a little bit sweet. John had Caesar salad. I think B had crab soup (not sure, too lazy to go upstairs to ask her).

For the main course, Becky and My Darling B had the marlin. For the longest time I didn’t think anyone ever ate marlin. I thought people fished for marlin just so they could have a stuffed marlin on the wall to tell stories about. Reading Hemingway will do that to you. He made it sound like catching a marlin was pretty tough to do, but I suppose they don’t reel them in on a line any more. It’s a tasty fish, but much meatier than any of us expected it to be. Each bite was a solid mouthful of food that had to be chewed like steak. It was a long way off from a nice, flaky walleye fillet.

I had salmon, cooked to perfection. Salmon is so easy to get right and yet it seems that somehow almost everybody overcooks it. Not the case here. My salmon was nice and crispy outside but soft and smooth as cream inside.

John had hangar steak with fried oysters; he said the steak was good but that he liked the oysters more.

For dessert, Becky and I each ordered a slice of the richest chocolate pecan pie I’ve ever eaten – five stars! It was so very rich that Becky could get only halfway through hers. I’m not the sensitive flower that she is, though; I garbaged mine down toot sweet and rubbed my happy belly. B had the key lime pie. She loved it. John had the apple rhubarb crumble and it was delicious, too.

I think we all gave the place A-pluses with a big, happy smiley face, and I already know I want to take B back for a special treat some time.

Tempest | 6:52 am CST
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Friday, July 25th, 2014

We were pleasantly surprised by our fourth pick for Restaurant Week.  I figured Luigi’s pizzeria was pretty much exactly what it looked like: a strip mall pizza place. Happily, it’s much better than that. The walnut red pepper dip that B ordered for an appetizer was so scrummy that we ate every little bit of it, even after we ran out of garlic bread, by spreading it on our pizza crusts. I ordered pepperoni pinwheels for appetizers, which were also pretty tasty, but I was lovin’ that red pepper dip.

I had wild mushroom ravioli for the main course; delicious but, again, not as delicious as the grape and gorgonzola pizza that B had. I would never in a million years have thought of pairing grapes and gorgonzola cheese; maybe at a wine tasting, but certainly not on a pizza. My mistake.

At least I got the dessert right: the blackberry tarragon apple crisp was so good I was still craving it at bedtime. Should have ordered an emergency backup as a midnight snack.

Luigi’s | 5:58 am CST
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Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

The day was still eighty degrees and damp as a dishrag when we got home last night. I mowed the lawn anyway, something I had planned to do tonight but that was before I knew I was going to eat a dinner so spicy that I would need to walk it off or risk lying awake most of the night wondering, not for the first time, what a heart attack felt like when compared to indigestion.

The dinner was good, just rather spicy, but then I suppose I should have expected that at a place called The Bayou that serves Cajun cuisine. Nobody would believe it was New Orleans style if they served mildly spiced dishes. The Bayou was restaurant number two on our list of places to visit during Madison Restaurant Week. This time around we decided to visit only places we’ve never been before, except for our first stop at Inka Heritage on Sunday afternoon for lunch, which has become our customary way to kick off the week.

All the dishes that The Bayou was serving for Restaurant Week sounded delicious, so I picked my main course based entirely on the fact that it was the most fun to say out loud: shrimp jambalaya chimichanga. The other dishes had fun names, too: andouille crusted mahi mahi, and (B’s choice) lobster chipotle alfredo pasta. Fun, but not as much fun as jambalaya chimichanga.

The food was delicious, the portions were generous enough to save half for lunch, the company was effervescent and the beer was cold and relaxing, just what I needed after work on a Monday.

The Bayou | 5:46 am CST
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Friday, January 24th, 2014

I was up about half the night after I made the mistake of popping open a bottle of my most recent homebrew. The mistake was that I had just come home from Sardine, one of our favorite restaurants, where my sufficiency had already been serensified so my belly really didn’t need all that beer. On the upside, after bottle-conditioning for four weeks, this batch of California Common is the best batch of beer to come out of the new brewery setup to date, if I may say so myself. I’m well chuffed.

But back to Sardine, our next-to-last night out during Madison Restaurant Week, and one of our favorite places to visit because overall its such a wonderful experience. The food’s good, the service is good, and the location is comfortable and inviting. B ordered the cassoulet, as is her custom, because she doesn’t believe in messing with a good thing, while I enjoyed the grilled Norwegian salmon, because salmon.

Dessert was the most delightful surprise of the evening: Gianduja Crunch, a chocolate hazelnut ganache on a crunchy feuilletine crust. What that translates to in Midwestern English is, a super-rich bar of chocolate pudding served on a crust of chocolate with a dab of caramel sauce on the side, as if it wasn’t decadent enough already. My mouth did somersaults with every bite.

Sardine | 6:09 am CST
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Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

It was cold enough to freeze my beard to my face as we made our way across Campus Drive to Steenbock’s on Orchard, where we had a dinner reservation this evening, our third night out during Madison Restaurant Week. Everything that was on the menu sounded really good so it took us forever to decide what we wanted, but in the end …

B had: Fagioli for starters, rabbit pot pie for her entree, and carrot cake for dessert. The fagioli was delicious. The rabbit tasted like chicken. No, really. That would’ve been my first guess, and if you’d told me it was chicken, I would never have known. It was still really, really good, but it was uncanny how much it tasted like chicken.

I had: Roasted chicken risotto for starters, halibut for my entree, and molten chocolate cake for dessert. We both loved the risotto. The halibut was a touch overdone, but it came with a generous helping of ratatouille, so I still finished every bite.

And molten chocolate cake! Wowzers!

molten chocolate cake | 8:26 pm CST
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Finding places like Plate & Barrel, in Sun Prairie, is why we like going out for Madison Restaurant Week so much. The only trouble with finding yet another place that has good food and great service is finding the time to visit again. But I’m pretty sure we’ll go back.

Plate & Barrel serves tapas-style meals, just the kind of thing My Darling B goes for. Her plate, for instance, was a couple of lamb meatballs, stuffed piquillo peppers, and a big old mushroom cap stuffed with polenta. She liked it so much that she even nibbled on a corner of the mushroom to see if maybe this was the one that would get her to want them. I have to report with a tear in the corner of my eye that she still does not get mushrooms.

Plate and Barrel | 5:55 am CST
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Monday, January 20th, 2014

What I did with my Sunday:

Well, first I made a big, steaming pot o’ joe, same as I always do. Always. The day doesn’t start without a pot o’ joe. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that. If you have, and you’ve been wondering why your day didn’t start as early as every other day, it was because I got up late. Now you know.

Then, I ate some oatmeal and drank my coffee while I read the morning news. Took me hours. Because Sunday.

At about ten o’clock, My Darling B reminded me that we had a date for eleven o’clock at a restaurant on Park Street called Inka Heritage, our first meal to kick off Madison Restaurant Week, one of our very favoritest festivals. I may be remembering this wrong, but I think Inka was the first restaurant we visited when we started going to Restaurant Week many moons ago, and I think we’ve been starting the winter version of Restaurant Week every year by going to Inka. Even if I’m not remembering that right, I’m pretty sure this is the third time we’ve been there and I know I haven’t been disappointed by the food yet. I don’t know why we don’t go more often. Probably because it’s not in the neighborhoods we usually visit. We should get out more.

We both had the fish, by the way. Scrumptious.

Then I spent all afternoon in the basement throwing crap out, putting away the stuff I couldn’t make myself throw out, and finally knocking together a work bench where I could work on choo-choo trains. I used to make a temporary work bench by throwing a board across an open stretch of the layout, but there aren’t any open stretches any more, and I still needed a place to solder track together or whatever.

I had an old pine shelf that came out of one of our closets, and a dozen or so sawn-off ends of two-by-fours I could knock together into brackets. Took me a little longer than I thought it would to knock them together, but then it always does. Once the braces were up, all I had to do was cut the pine shelf to length and screw it down. The shelf was too long to cut it with the table saw, so I clamped it down to my Black & Decker WorkMate 200, with a board across the top to act as a guide, grabbed my circular saw and got ready to make some serious noise.

The clamp was in the way. It usually is. I don’t use the circular saw very often, so I usually make this mistake. As I was repositioning the clamp it seemed there was something about the way I’d set up the cut that wasn’t quite right, but I couldn’t quite figure out what was bothering me about it until I was just about to pull the trigger on the saw, and then I saw it: The line I’d planned to cut was laying right across the middle of my WorkMate. If I’d gone and made the cut, I would’ve sawn the WorkMate in half.

It wouldn’t have been the first time I’ve abused it that way. One end of the WorkMate’s front jaw has been shorter than the back jaw (the top opens like a vise) ever since I sawed it off the same year I got it as a Christmas present, and the tops of the jaws are pockmarked with holes where I’ve drilled through work that I was sure was too thick for the drill bit to get all the way through. I’ve known for years that I’m probably going to saw it in half eventually; it’s pretty surprising, really, that I haven’t done it already. And yet somehow I avoided doing it yesterday.

With the shelf cut to length, all that was left to do was screw it down and cover it with a whole bunch of crap. And done.

setting up shop | 7:53 am CST
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Saturday, July 27th, 2013

hot dateDinner Wednesday night at The Wise was pretty awesome, probably because I had a hot date. Also, the food was tasty. But don’t forget the hot date. Here’s a photo to remind you. Wowzers, eh?

The Wise is a very hip restaurant in the lobby of Hotel Red, which I didn’t know was a hotel even though I’ve driven past it dozens of times. It looks an awful lot like an office building. A Japanese office building, to be maddeningly precise about it. B didn’t seem to get this impression but I did. Okay, glad I got that random observation out of my head.

After we were seated, the waitress came around to welcome us and ask if we’d like to start off with any drinks. I asked for a martini. When she answered, “What kind of martini?” I wanted to go all Denis Leary in a coffee shop on her, but I didn’t. I played nice. “Gin martini,” I told her. And it was a pretty good one, too, so I’ll let them off the hook for not defaulting to gin when making a martini.

When it was time to order for the meal, I started off with a salad of field greens. That means rabbit food. Dandelions and water cress and stuff like that. You can’t call it “field greens” if the chef so much as thought about iceberg lettuce while he was preparing it. Which is not to say I don’t like field greens – I love ’em. I gobble them up like, well, a rabbit, especially when they’re drizzled with a yummy topping the way this one was. But I love making fun of them, too. If I had a restaurant and they were on the menu, I’d call them “rabbit food,” because that’s what it is and who can object to that? You want to eat healthy food? Eat like a rabbit. Honestly, it doesn’t get any more frou-frou than that.

B’s starter was gazpacho. More rabbit food. Everybody thinks gazpacho is just cold soup, but it’s not. It’s pureed veggies. A zucchini smoothie served in a soup bowl. B loves gazpacho.

All that rabbit food left plenty of room for the entree: short ribs for me, pork tenderloin for B. All free-range and grass-fed. B was the tiniest bit disappointed in her tenderloin; it was just a bit too overdone and beginning to dry out. Still very enjoyable, but not as good as it could have been. The short ribs, on the other hand, were more delicious than I could have imagined. The yummy glaze made with Guinness stout was an especially nice touch. And because presentation is everything and they wanted this to be the hippest dinner we would eat all week, the entrees were served on pieces of slate about the size of record albums, instead of on plates. Slate, as in the stuff that roofing shingles and blackboards used to be made of. First time I’ve ever eaten off a slab of slate.

Dessert was a chocolate truffle tort for me. I was going to have the citris olive cake because it was billed as “our famous citris olive cake” and I would normally try whatever dish the restaurant was famous for, EXCEPT WHEN THERE’S CHOCOLATE TRUFFLE TORT ON THE MENU! NOM NOM NOM NOM! Besides, B ordered the olive cake and she let me try a bite. It was yummy.

the wise | 7:34 am CST
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Thursday, July 25th, 2013

Sardine is one of our top five favorite restaurants in Madison. It’s also the one we never go to. The last time we visited, which was also the first time we visited, was two years ago during restaurant week and we’ve been saying “We gotta go back to Sardine” ever since, but for some reason we never did and I don’t know why. It’s a lovely place. The food is delicious. I was going to say “exquisite” but I didn’t want to sound pretentious. But it is. The service is absolutely top notch. And the restaurant itself is gorgeous, all done up in old wood and shiny white tile.

Last night we were lucky enough to snag a couple of seats at a table on the patio overlooking Lake Monona. The patio is a walkway just wide enough for one row of small tables screened from the parking lot by planters hanging from the handrail. The weather was so close to perfect that it makes no sense to describe it any other way: It was sunny and warm, a few fluffy clouds hung in the sky and a very light breeze kept the bugs away, if there were any.

For starters I chose the smoked whitefish croquette, even though I had no idea what that was. Something with fish in it was my guess, and a pretty good guess it was, too. I love fish, especially when it’s as tender as this creamy little chunk of flesh was.

For the entree, I had grilled salmon served on a square of fried polenta, with some grilled fennel on the side. When I cook salmon on the Weber, I put a piece of tinfoil over the grill so the meat stays nice and juicy, but the tinfoil means I don’t get that browned cross-hatching that makes it looked like it was grilled. I don’t mind, but I guess people who go to restaurants expect that, so restaurant chefs slap it right on the grill. The good ones can get away with that, but in a lot of places I’ve been the grill was so hot that it charred the outside of the meat and dried out the inside, leaving a blackened orange-ish puck with really great cross-hatching and almost nothing in the way of taste. Lucky for me the guys in the kitchen at Sardine didn’t do that. The salmon was tender and flaky and full of flavor. I even liked the fennel, and I’m not what you’d call a huge fan of the stuff.

B enjoyed the duck confit. Really enjoyed it.

I had the blueberry crostata for dessert and it was so good that I can’t remember what B had. I’m looking right at the menu this very minute and I couldn’t tell you whether she had the profiteroles or the strawberries and shortcake.

Back to the excellent service: After I finished my main dish I sat back with wine glass in hand and gazed out across the lake. The waitress happened by right about that time, stopped when she saw I was no longer eating and asked me, “May I take that away?” instead of, “You still workin’ on that?” She got an extra five percent just for that.

Sardine Madison Restaurant Week Summer 2013 | 6:02 pm CST
Category: festivals, food & drink, Madison Restaurant Week, play, restaurants
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Monday, July 22nd, 2013

Porta Bella is one of the restaurants we’ve been saying for the past five or six years we have to visit, yet somehow we never got around to it until yesterday, the first night of Madison Magazine Restaurant Week, when we finally went. And, just like all those other restaurants, after our sufficiencies were serensified and we were waddling out the front door, we wondered why it took us so freaking long to get off our lazy asses and try out such a wonderful place.

First off, coat hangers: They had lots. Thank you Porta Bella, for all the coat hangers. This is a thing with me that I think we’ve already covered, but in case you came in late, I give bonus points to restaurants that have coat hangers because most of them don’t any more and there’s nothing I hate more than being forced to drape my coat over the back of a chair or on the seat of a stool, forcing me to sit on it. Nothing. Literally. Not even baby-eating politicians. And if you know anything about me, you know how much I hate those guys. So good on ya, Porta Bella.

Second, the water situation. Both My Darling B and I think it’s pretty darned important not to let a customer’s water glass go dry, and technically our waiter did manage to save his butt at the very last minute by swinging by our table with a pitcher to fill both our glasses, but just as technically My Darling B’s glass was, ahem, empty. It only cost you a point or two, but I feel obliged to point it out because I’ve dragged other restaurant staff over the coals for this, and I don’t play favorites.

(That’s a load of bullshit, for your information. I totally play favorites and I don’t care who knows it, especially if somebody feels like comping me a meal or two. Just saying.)

Now that that’s out of the way: I can’t remember when I’ve been to a restaurant that was quite like Porta Bella. The interior is all dark wood, the booths are upholstered with overstuffed brocade fabric and curtained with heavy velvet draperies, and you have to walk a labyrinthine path to get to any table in the dining room. It wasn’t just a dining experience, it was like playing Dungeons & Dragons for food. Italian food. Good Italian food.

We both ordered the bruschetta for starters. I have to say, I was a teensy bit disappointed. My Darling B thought it was delicious, and she’s got the refined palate of the family, so I bow to her pronouncements when it comes to tastiness, but I like bruschetta served on very crunchy bread, the way My Darling B makes it. This was on a very limp, not at all crunchy bread. When we go back, I’ll try something else for starters.

For the main dish I had the seafood tetrazini. In a word, Wow! When I first laid eyes on the browned cheese slathered over the broiled shrimp that crowned the dish I thought, Oh, man, those are going to be the chewiest, most overcooked shrimp EVAR, but I was as wrong as a big, fat wrongness can be. The shrimp, the scallops, the lobster and whatever other seafood was in there was cooked to perfection! Props to the cook.

B ordered the steak braciola. She even let me taste it. It was good, but I preferred the tetrazini.

For dessert, I gobbled up a slice of the toasted almond cake and washed it down with a cup of strong black coffee. Really, that’s the only way to eat dessert when you’re out on the town, but don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself. You might disagree with me, but I doubt it.

B had the strawberry and almond cannoli and hungrily devoured every bit of it.

There’s really no better way to start off restaurant week than discovering a new favorite place to eat. We’ll be going to back to Porta Bella soon.

Portabella | 7:15 pm CST
Category: festivals, food & drink, Madison Restaurant Week, play, restaurants
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Saturday, January 26th, 2013

This was how my Friday began:

I drove My Darling B to work yesterday because we were going to meet some friends of hers at Smoky’s Club on the west side. If I had the car and went back to pick her up after work, it would eliminate a lot of driving back and forth.

Her office is on the west side of town and, at that hour, the beltline is the quickest, easiest way to get there. On Friday morning, though, there was a dusting of new snow all across Madison and, when I came down the on-ramp and merged with traffic, I had the luck to fall in behind a county truck and, just as I pulled up behind him, he dropped his spade and wing plow to clear snow from the on-ramp and he started spreading salt. Of course.

I tried to get out from behind him but couldn’t. He slowed down quite a lot to plow and salt the road, and the oncoming traffic in the other lanes was moving too fast to safely merge with it. Also, I was having a lot of trouble seeing: The spray thrown up behind the truck mixed up with the salt he was laying down, which quickly coated the windshield of the O-Mobile in an opaque, white glaze. I tried the windshield washer but nothing squirted out. Tried it again; still nothing.

It’s the kind of car where the wipers come on when you try to squirt the wiper fluid. Sweeping back and forth across the windshield, they smeared the road spray and salt all over the glass, leaving about three inches at the very bottom for me to peek through. I had to drive the rest of the beltline hunched down in my seat. My head was lower than the top of the steering wheel.

After dropping B off at work I pulled into the first gas station I could find on University Ave, a small Mobil station. There was a rack of one-gallon bottles of wiper fluid right next to the door; I grabbed a gallon on the way in, set it on the counter and dug my wallet out of my pocket. And waited. There was no one at the counter. There didn’t appear to be anyone in the service bay, either. I shuffled around a bit, making noise, but nobody came out of the bathroom or whatever hidey hole they were in. I could have shoplifted the cash register.

I was standing there about five minutes when an older guy came out of a back room behind the service bay. “Can I help you?” Yeah, that’d be nice, thanks.

Back at the car, I popped the hood and filled up the wiper fluid reservoir, started the engine and yanked on the wiper stem. The wipers swept back and forth, but nothing squirted out. I yanked again, because, you know, that fixes it, right? Only it didn’t fix it, and I didn’t have time to figure out what the problem might be. I was already late for work, so I just poured wiper fluid straight from the bottle onto the windshield, then reached inside the car and yanked the on the wiper stem. The wipers swept across the windshield, squeegeeing the wiper fluid off the glass and slopping almost all of it onto my pants. Of course.

This was how my Friday ended:

We’ve driven past Smoky’s Club I don’t know how many times, and every time we drove past, one of us said, “You know, we really have to visit there some time.”

Well, we finally stopped in at Smoky’s yesterday. They were taking part in Madison Magazine’s Restaurant Week, so for the last night we decided to finish off with a steak dinner at Smoky’s. And just to make it as much fun as possible, we met a couple that B knows from work and passed several happy hours swapping stories while we enjoyed dinner and some drinks. So, as bad as the day started, it ended about as well as it could have.

my friday | 7:56 am CST
Category: booze, commuting, daily drivel, festivals, food & drink, Madison Restaurant Week, My Darling B, O'Folks, O'Folks friends, play, restaurants, work
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Sunday, January 13th, 2013

choicesChoices, choices.

Next weekend is the start of Restaurant Week here in Madison, Wisconsin, Our Fair City. My Darling B has been pouring over menus to try to decide which ones she wants to go to, and has whittled it down to a ‘short list’ of thirty-seven dozen restaurants, more restaurants than are actually participating in Restaurant Week. There’s a quantum theory to explain how this is possible, but I never went any further than high school science, dammit, so I don’t know how she did that.

I, on the other hand, have only glanced at the available choices and have not made any list at all, because they all look good to me. My list would be their list. I want to go to all the restaurants and eat all the food.

But we have just one week and we can only go to lunch and/or dinner, so we could eat twelve meals at the most. Then we’d have to go home and cry for all the meals we couldn’t eat. It’s a bittersweet event.

choices | 9:46 pm CST
Category: food & drink, Madison Restaurant Week, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, restaurants
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Saturday, July 28th, 2012

Rain began to fall as we stepped out of the parking garage on North Webster to walk to Harvest, the last restaurant we had reservations for during Madison’s Restaurant Week. We were both so unfamiliar with the feeling of water falling out of the skies on our heads that we froze in confused indecision and began to babble our thoughts aloud to each other.

“Should we go get a brollie from the car?” My Darling B asked.

“It’s only a little rain,” I said, as if I knew what “a little rain” looked like any more, “from a passing cloud. We’ll be fine.”

It’s just a block and a half from the parking garage to Harvest. We had to wait in the rain for the light to change so we could cross through the traffic on North Webster, and we made it as far as the overhang in front of the Bartell Theater before I voiced the opinion that it wasn’t only a little rain after all and that maybe we should wait it out.

“We’ll be fine,” B said, so we started out again, sticking as close as possible to the buildings, where the rain wasn’t coming down quite so hard.

As we rounded the corner in front of the YWCA building I caught sight of the staff at Harvest frantically clearing linens and silverware off the tables on the sidewalk, and that’s about the same moment that I realized I was getting SOAKED and was walking rather briskly up the street to the door. Apparently my subconscious mind, which must have been operating on the same frequency as the staff at Harvest, had hijacked control over my body from my devil-may-care conscious mind because HEY DUMMY IT’S RAINING!

The staff at Harvest, apparently just as surprised by the rain as we were, recovered with a lot more poise and dignity than we did. The hostess pretended that we weren’t dripping all over her podium, for instance. Lots of brownie points to her.

This was our first visit to Harvest ever, even though we have been living in Madison for six years and have said to each other at least half a dozen times every one of those years that we really have to visit Harvest one of these days. With all those years of built-up anticipation I was completely prepared to be disappointed because, really, I was expecting a dining experience that would send my very soul to a happy place and make me long to go back. Well, guess what? It was all that. I’m even happier to report that My Darling B thought our visit was, overall, the most enjoyable of all the five restaurants we stopped at this week. Huzzah, Harvest! You’ve been given the high-five by a couple of bumpkins! That’ll teach you for letting just anybody in the door.

The hostess seated us at a table along the wall, offering the chair to My Darling B. She usually sits on the bench seat along the wall and I thought maybe I ought to wait until the hostess went away and let her switch, but then I thought, Hey, just what’s so great about the bench seat, anyway? And I sat down and settled in. You know what? It turns out that there are not one but two really great things about the bench seat: First of all, you’re sitting against the wall so you can watch everything that’s going on. I got to marvel at the skill of the bartender as he mixed many liquid libations, for instance, and I couldn’t help but check out the costumes all the other diners were wearing. We weren’t the only bumpkins who showed up in relaxed attire, but we were a pronounced contrast to the many diners who dressed to the nines. People watching is too much fun.

The second really great thing about sitting on the bench seat against the wall is, I wasn’t hanging out there in the aisle for the diners and all the staff to bump into. And there’s a lot of staff at Harvest. Seriously, I’ve never seen so many staff at a restaurant before. At least ten, maybe twelve people, constantly buzzing through the aisles taking orders, delivering drinks, passing dishes from the kitchen to the tables, refilling water glasses, whisking dirty dishes away. I can’t fault them for service, but it was a little distracting.

First, the drinks. B ordered what Harvest called their signature martini. It was made with vodka. Why are drinks made with vodka instead of gin called martinis? How is that any different from serving a dish you call Chicken Kiev that you make with pork cutlets instead of chicken? Okay, never mind, I shouldn’t have gone there, forget I asked. Besides, it was delicious. The waiter mixed our drinks up and gave me B’s not-martini and I drank a sip and liked it. Quite a lot. So much that I would have gladly drunk the whole thing, but that still doesn’t make it a martini, okay?

Here’s another really wonderful thing about their martini which is not really a martini: If you ask the waiter what’s in it, as My Darling B did, the waiter will ask the bartender and the bartender will come over to the table and tell you exactly what’s in it, right down to the label. That tempted us to ask, later on, what was in the sauce they served with the main dish, to see if the chef would come out to tell us, but we managed to stifle ourselves even though the temptation was nearly overwhelming.

On to the food: We both ordered the tempura chicken for starters and the slow-cooked pork shoulder for the second course. We almost always order different dishes so that we can try each other’s food, but we know what we like and, after looking over the menu last night, we knew that we didn’t want anything else. We even ordered the same wine to go with dinner, a Cotes du Rhone that had just enough zip to it to compliment the pork shoulder. Listen to me. Like I would know what kind of wine would compliment pork. You almost bought that for just a moment, didn’t you?

I wasn’t as impressed by the chicken as B was. It’s not that I didn’t like it; it was very tender and I liked the barbecue sauce they drizzled on it, but I guess I was expecting crispy tempura. This wasn’t that. It was delicious and I ate every bite, but it wasn’t what I expected, is I guess what I’m trying to say, badly. My Darling B thought it was awesome in every way and cut the chicken into tiny little pieces, the more to sop up all the sauce.

The slow-cooked pork shoulder was served over a generous piece of savory corn bread. Wow. Just wow. That’s all I could think of to say about that. Actually, we couldn’t say much at all because we couldn’t stop putting every scrummy morsel into our mouths until it was all gone, so really what I was saying was more like, “Mmm! Mmmmm, mmmm mmm! Mmmmmm mmmmm mmm!” And then B would say to me, “Mmm! MMM!” And I would nod my head and answer, “Mmmm!”

We kept that up through dessert. We ordered the same main dish, but we split on the dessert. I had the chocolate cake because, duh, chocolate. No-brainer. It was served with a dab of bourbon mousse and vanilla ice creme anglaise drizzled all around. I’m not sure what ice creme anglaise is but it tasted really good. B had the berry parfait and, when she finished, said it was the best dessert she’d had all week. Another high five from the bumpkins, Harvest!

harvest | 8:22 am CST
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Thursday, July 26th, 2012

They had food at the Capitol Chophouse, too, but the martini was so goddamn great that I had to get all that gushing out of my system before I could even consider raving about the food.

They started me off with charcuterie, a sort of ploughman’s platter of meats made by the Underground Food Collective. I wish I knew more about artisanal meats so I could properly use all the hip words and phrases that this ploughman’s platter deserved, but all I know is that it tasted soooo good. One of the meats was a very spicy sausage. The other looked like it might have been blood sausage but I’m not sure about that because I’ve never knowingly eaten blood sausage before. And finally, there was also a little pile of shaved beef or maybe ham that was smoked to perfection.

I piled the little slices of meat on the pieces of crusty bread and smeared it with plenty of the deliciously spicy mustard they served with the platter. There was a piece of soggy bread right in the middle that B thinks may have been a square of pate but she wasn’t sure, so I ate it like it was bread, picking it up with my fingers and spreading mustard all over it. Nobody pointed and laughed, so maybe it was okay.

For the main course, I had the lamb. My Darling B had the strip steak. My portion was three or four slices of the tenderest lamb served with a mild sauce. B was served an entire side of beef. I had to help her eat it. She made me. She did. It was fabulous, as good as any steak I’ve ever grilled to perfection on my very own Weber over a genuine charcoal fire.

Dessert was a lemon pound cake but, really, I was still too jazzed about that strip steak to care.

chop | 5:41 am CST
Category: festivals, food & drink, Madison Restaurant Week, play
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Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

Capitol Chophouse is da bomb and I’ll tell you why: They mix the best martini I’ve ever drunk anywhere. The Chophouse was our second stop on this week’s tour of restaurants for Madison Magazine’s Restaurant Week, our semi-annual trip around some of the finer restaurants in the area or, as we like to think of it, the only time when places like the Chophouse will let bumpkins like us come sit at their tables. Although I couldn’t help noticing that there were plenty of people eating there last night who dressed in their finest cargo shorts and polo shirts, but I digress.

A helpful hint to diners everywhere: Don’t order the martini at the Chophouse when all you’ve had to eat all day is a chicken wrap for lunch and your stomach’s been growling since two o’clock, because they pour a very generous drink. Or maybe it was just our waitress who was generous: She poured my martini, then left the shaker at the table. Wow, did she get a good tip that night.

It was a perfect martini. I’ve loved that cocktail every since I learned the name. I order it just for the fun of saying it. “I’d like a perfect martini, please.” Man, does that feel good. Never mind that our waitress went and threw me off by asking what I wanted in my perfect martini. What did I want? Gin, and lots of it! “I think she means, what kind of gin, dear?” My Darling B suggested, coming to my rescue. Oh, I think I see now: Hendrickson’s, if you’ve got it. Gasoline, if you don’t. I’m a rube. I’m really not that picky, but thank you for pretending I might be.

martini | 8:38 pm CST
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Saturday, January 28th, 2012

My Darling B and I think we may have found the restaurant that will be our Friday the Thirteenth place.

The Blue Marlin is a cozy little place just off capitol square. It’s one of the buildings squeezed into a wedge of a lot, just like Peppino’s was, but where Peppino’s was on the ground floor of the three-story Jackman Building, which takes up a full third of the triangle block it sits on, The Blue Marlin appears to be tucked into the tiniest of part of a two-story brick building that used to be M.J. Hoven’s Meat Market, a butcher shop built way back in the 1890s.

It’s bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside, but not by much. There’s just about enough room to seat maybe forty or fifty people, and fifty would be crowded, I think. I counted forty-four chairs when we were there last night. I’m not one of those compulsive counters, I was just curious how they got so many people in there. By the time we left around seven o’clock the place was chock full and abuzz with conversation (a notable difference from Peppino’s, which somehow always seemed to be very hush-hush).

As tight as they were on space inside, they set aside room at the front of the restaurant for a closed-off front entrance (we used to call that a breezeway in my neck of the woods) that kept The Merry Little Breezes from blowing up my skirt every time someone walked in, not an insignificant consideration in the dead of winter around here. And there was a coat rack in the breezeway! The Blue Marlin earned two gold stars before we were even in the dining room.

The host seated us at a table for two in the front of the room. There was a small bar at the back of the room, but not for sitting at, just for serving. There was nothing else in the dining room except the tables, which were just big enough that we weren’t crowded, but small enough that we weren’t sitting so far from one another it would make it awkward for us to share our food. The room was just a little chilly when we came in, but we had early reservations and there was almost no one in there when we sat down. Almost every table was filled within the hour and, with so many people in such close quarters, it warmed up soon enough.

My Darling B ordered a lemon drop from the bar to see what the cocktails were like. After a sip or two, she pronounced it was good. This is important. On our first visit to Peppino’s she ordered a cocktail they called a Honey Bee and fell so in love with it that she ordered a cocktail before dinner every time we visited. Sadly, they stopped making Honey Bees after that first visit and she’s never found anyone anywhere who makes them like the one she had that night, or even knows what she’s asking for, sometimes, and she hasn’t even been able to duplicate it at home. But she keeps looking.

For the first course, I ordered steamed mussels. I’m pretty sure I’ve never had mussels before and wanted to try them. B says she thinks she’s made them for dinner, but I’m pretty sure I would have remembered eating something that looks as salacious as mussels look. I don’t remember tasting anything quite like mussels before, either. My palate isn’t as sensitive as B’s, but mussels don’t taste like any other kind of shellfish to me. “Well, do they taste like fish, then?” B asked. She thought the one I gave her tasted fishy. “Nope,” I told her, trying to pin down the flavor before I had to give up and say, “They taste like mussels.” Best I could do.

B ordered curried crab soup as her first course. I was too busy trying to figure out what the mussels tasted like and forgot to ask her for a spoonful. She said it was “very curry-ish” in a good way.

Her second course was the rainbow trout that tempted me until I saw the baked salmon just below it on the menu. I remembered to ask for a flake or two of hers, though, and loved how they served it with a dusting of crushed almonds that brought out the sweetness of the meat. Made me almost wish I’d ordered it instead of the salmon, but only almost.

The salmon was, in a word, so close to perfect as to make no difference. I’ve eaten a lot of salmon, some good, some bad, and some really, really bad. The worst I’ve ever eaten was at the West Side Club, where they baked it until it was a spongy puck that I sent back without apology. It ought to be a crime to do that to salmon, especially as it’s not hard to cook at all. Take it out of the oven just before it’s done and it’ll be flaky, still moist and ever so tender by the time it gets to the table and everyone sits down. All you’ve got to do is pay attention.

Well, the chef at The Blue Marlin must have a prodigious amount of attention to give to the food he’s preparing, because he did mine just right. My first bite melted in my mouth. I love it when salmon does that. It was served on a bed of couscous with mushrooms that went so well with the meat that I had a little with each forkful. On the side, they included a spoon full of cauliflower with caramelized onions. I’ve been anti-cauliflower since the first day I set eyes on them, but together with the candied onions they were so moorish I ate every last bit of them.

Each of my courses was paired with a red wine. They paired the salmon with a malbec from Argentina that was so smooth and smoky it broke my heart, because I have the feeling I’m never going to find it at any liquor store anywhere in town no matter how long I look or who I ask.

Our waiter, not incidentally, earned two more gold stars for The Blue Marlin. No, wait, not two – four. He didn’t snatch our plates away before we were done with them. That actually happened to me earlier this week. He asked if we were “still enjoying our dinners” instead of “still workin’ on that?” Maybe it seems as if we’re a little too fixated on that, but being asked whether or not you’re enjoying your meal, instead of implying that you’re slaving over it, really does make a huge difference. I do enough work at the office. I don’t want to go out to a nice restaurant with My Darling B and have to work there, too.

He earned a third gold star when he asked if we’d like any coffee with our dessert. I had a chocolate brownie. My Darling B had key lime pie. And then he let us linger over our dessert and coffee for as long as we wanted.

It’s a very special place, The Blue Marlin. Even if it doesn’t become our Friday the Thirteenth place, we know we’ll go back.

blue | 2:07 pm CST
Category: festivals, food & drink, Madison Restaurant Week, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, restaurants | Tags: , ,
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Thursday, January 26th, 2012

How could I have lived so long without knowing what good sake tasked like? For years, every glass of sake I’d brought to my lips smelled like turpentine and tasted worse. I really, really didn’t like sake until I was stationed in Japan for four years and was lucky enough to meet people who not only knew where to buy the best sake, they were very generous about sharing it. When I came back to the States it was with a heavy heart, thinking I would never drink good sake again. But now I’ve visited two restaurants where they serve sake that’s not only not turpentine, it’s good enough to remind me of nights at the karaoke bar, making my Japanese friends wish they hadn’t given me the microphone.

Thursday after work we headed into town to dine at Restaurant Muramoto, our third stop on the lineup we had planned for Madison Magazine’s restaurant week. My Darling B and I love Japanese food and have been to several sushi bars (Takara, Red) and fusion restaurants (Haze) downtown, but for some reason we hadn’t stopped by Restaurant Muramoto before this. Our visit was long overdue.

They earned a gold star as soon as I walked in the front door just for the coat rack. Restaurants that don’t have coat racks really aren’t restaurants at all. No matter how good the food is, if you have to sit on your coat while you eat, you might as well be on a plastic twirly seat at McDonald’s. I’m not even kidding much. I’ve been to so many restaurants that take pains to make sure the food is presented just so, in a dining room where somebody’s long coat is dragging off the back of practically every chair. So thank you, Restaurant Muramoto, for realizing that the good people of Wisconsin don’t want to have to divide their attention between eating your scrumptious food and worrying about who’s walking on their good winter coats.

My Darling B ordered a saketini before dinner and I was going to order a short bottle of sake but couldn’t decide which one to go for. Luckily for me, our very helpful waitress pointed out that they offered a flight of three different sakes. The first was called kira honjozo from Fukushima. The waitress said it would be the driest of the three but it was also the smoothest and, to my palate, the very best. Really good sake slides across your tongue like smoke. Weirdly, I’ve never smoked, but that’s the only way I can describe it. The second was called taiku and seemed to taste a little spicy. The third, an unfiltered sake, was milky white and a little sweet. I sipped and savored them all through dinner.

For the first course, we both ordered king crab spring rolls. It came with a lemon basil bearnaise sauce, like mayonnaise only a trillion times better. The spring rolls aren’t one of their usual menu items so it was a really special treat, and a very generous one, too. I expected a tiny little appetizer, but each of us got two full-size spring rolls and, though we resolved to eat only one and save the other for later, they were so scrummy we ended up wolfing both of them down. With lots of bernaise. And soy sauce. I loves me some soy sauce.

For the second course, we both ordered the roll combo. B ordered first so I looked like the copycat, but really I was thinking of the roll combo all day, so it was my idea. I’m taking credit for that no matter what. I liked the vegetable tempura rolls the best. I’d vote the kampyo rolls second, but B would’ve chosen the cucumber rolls for second and the kampyo for third place. I liked the cucumber rolls just fine but thought the kampyo went with wasabi better.

We split on the dessert. B ordered apple empanadas with cinnamon toast and ice cream, drizzled in caramel. How did I pass that up? I still don’t know. The soba crepe sounded better somehow. I should’ve gone for the hat trick and ordered what she was having on all three courses, though. Those little toasty things were delish. The soba crepe was delish, too, but I found out too late I wasn’t in the mood for a tart dessert. Oh, well.

That wasn’t enough of a hiccup to spoil a wonderful night out. Restaurant Muramoto scored another gold star when the waitress brought the coffee to our table in individual coffee presses, and B was tickled with delight when the waitress offered to clear our plates by asking “Shall I take that, or are you still enjoying the last few bites?” instead of making us feel like factory laborers with the usual, “Are ya still workin’ on that?” She let us linger over our coffee a good long while before we headed for the door, wishing there was a karaoke bar in town that served hot sake.

Bonus video: Best karaoke scene in a movie ever: The Deer Hunter

sake | 10:34 pm CST
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Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

What I know about Cajun food is that it’s spicy and it should look like the chef burned it. True or not, I don’t know, but in my experience that’s what often passes for Cajun food.

What I liked about Liliana’s, our second place to visit during Madison Magazine’s Restaurant Week (Winter Edition) was that they didn’t overdo the Cajun thing. In fact, the meal I had, which they called “French Quarter,” wasn’t spicy at all, unless you count the biscuits, and I think you’d have to if you popped one in your mouth by mistake. I split mine in half and slathered each half with lots of butter, so they didn’t scorch my tongue the way I imagine they might have. They were the spiciest things I ate, though.

For starters, I got a duck confit salad. I’m going to come clean and admit that I thought confit referred to the apples and onions that came with the greens, but I was probably thinking of a compote. If Wikipedia is to be believed, and I’m pretty gullible so it’s the first thing I look at when I google words I don’t know, like “confit,” a confit is a way of preserving meat, so in this case it’s all about the duck. My salad came with two slices of duck on top of a bushel of greens that camouflaged a heap of caramelized apples and onions surrounded by big, lumpy chunks of Gorgonzola cheese. I urged My Darling B to eat as much of the Gorgonzola as she wanted. I love Gorgonzola but I can tolerate only so much, even when I’m dosed to the eyeballs with a handful of milk pills. B loves Gorgonzola, too, so she took full advantage of my offer.

My main course was boeuf bourguignon, which is French for “beef in wine sauce so rich you’ll be up all night farting your brains out.” Big chunks of deliciously stewed beef (is it sacrilegious to suggest that boeuf bourguignon is “stewed?”) were generously ladled over half a hogie bun that swam in a dish with onions, mushrooms and chunks of celery. I thought at first that I would have to take half of it home, but it turned out to be so moorish that I snapped up every morsel and sopped up the sauce with a chunk of corn bread. *bliss!*

Dessert was beignets. I may be mistaken, but I think it’s pronounced “boinks.” Don’t quote me. It’s a deep-fried, doughy bun dusted with powdered sugar. Can’t mess that up.

Each course was served with a short pour of wine: the first, with a dry white wine, the second with a red wine that was a blend of pinotage and syrah, and the third with a sweet white, this time sparkling. A very nice touch.

My Darling B ordered the Bayou meal, because she just had to try deep-fried alligator, the first course. She expected it to be like pork, but after a few bites she thought it was more like a mild seafood. I thought it tasted a little like crab. It came with a helping of collard greens braised in bacon, because everything’s better with bacon, even – can you believe it? – collard greens. Really.

B’s main course was Jambalaya of shrimp with andouille sausage on a heap of rice with lots of spicy tomato sauce. I hate to say this, but B’s cooked jambalaya and she’s made better, mostly because she has mastered the art of cooking shrimp as perfectly as can be done. The woman has trouble making an omelet even after twenty years of trying, but give her a pound of shrimp and she can whip up a dinner that will make you feel as though you’re falling in love. She shared some of the jambalaya with me, spooning out a little rice, a piece of sausage and a shrimp on a plate for me to taste, and I went straight for the shrimp, because I loves me some shrimp, but as soon as I bit into it I thought, Okay, not too bad, but chef could’ve taken that off the heat a minute sooner and it would’ve been perfect. Don’t get me wrong, I still liked it. It wasn’t overdone, which is so easy to do with shrimp. Most places serve shrimp so overcooked you might as well take them home and give them to the dog as chew toys. These were not that kind of overcooked. They were delicious. But they weren’t perfect, and when you’re serving great, big, fat, rolly-polly shrimp in a spicy tomato sauce with deliciously spicy sausage, they really ought to be perfect. Still, thumbs up.

For dessert, B had cherries Jubilee, which were advertised as “flambeed to order in our dining room.” B was really hoping that meant they were going to set it aflame right before her eyes, but no joy. Didn’t stop her from lapping up every little tiny bit of it.

cajun | 10:19 pm CST
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Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

My Darling B and I went to lunch at Inka Heritage to kick off Madison’s Restaurant Week (winter edition). I have no idea if they’re serving authentic Peruvian cuisine, never having been to Peru myself, but I can tell you that the food I ate there tasted really, really good.

I started off with an appetizer they call causitas dos sabores. I did not attempt to pronounce that. I ordered by pointing, as I do in all restaurants where they insist on listing foods on the menu in a foreign language. I have nothing against foreign languages, and I love exotic foods, but I won’t open myself to ridicule or insult a country’s gastronomic heritage by pretending I can order in the native language, so I pointed at the appetizer of mashed potatoes pressed into little cakes and served with a tablespoon of chicken salad dabbed on top.

For the main course, I tried escabeche costeno, a lightly-fried fish fillet served in a mild pepper sauce with slivers of onion and a cake of white rice on the side. What I loved most about this dish is that it wasn’t more than I could eat in a sitting. Big thanks to Inka Heritage for not trying to make me waddle back to my car. I also loved that they didn’t overpower the whitefish with the pepper sauce. In fact, as far as the food was concerned they did everything just right: The fish wasn’t overcooked, the rice wasn’t a sticky mess, and they served dessert with a cup of chocolaty-dark coffee.

Dessert, by the way, was a slice of cheesecake, a cup of rice pudding and a caramel cookie dusted with powdered sugar. The cheesecake was wonderful, but then I’m pretty sure I would love just about any cheesecake they put in front of me. I’m very indiscriminate when it comes to cheesecake. I haven’t eaten one that I didn’t like. I don’t usually like rice pudding, but I liked this one. And the cookie, wow. I loved that little cookie. I could have eaten way too many of those.

My Darling B started off with costa, sierra y selva for an appetizer, which appeared to be a small potato drizzled in cream sauce and diced whitefish swimming in a tangy marinade, served on a scallop shell, a nice touch. For her main dish, she chose the tacu tacu mar y tierra, mostly because she loved saying “tacu tacu,” which turned out to be a very subtly-flavored bean cake, too subtle for my palate. The tacu tacu came with a very modest portion of chicken and fish.

Inka Heritage appeared to be a very popular place; it was almost empty when we got there, but filled up within a half-hour and remained busy right up until we left. The staff were friendly and our service was good. My only complaint was, there were no towels in the men’s room so I had to wave my hands dry. If you ask me, keeping the bathrooms in clean, working order is as important as busing tables. Everybody’s going to visit the bathroom at least once while they’re there, right? B didn’t appreciate having to hold on to her handbag for lack of hooks, either, but those hiccups wouldn’t keep us from going back.

tacu | 4:53 pm CST
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Friday, January 28th, 2011

On our second night out for Madison’s Restaurant Week we went to Lombardino’s, an Italian restaurant on the west side of town that everyone has been telling me is one of the best dining experiences in Madison, and they were right. As soon as we walked in the door and I saw coat hooks everywhere I thought, I am really going to like this place.

It’s the little things that count. You can hire the best chef in town, but if your wait staff sucks sewer water and your bathrooms are ice cold and smell like a ripe dumpster on a hot day in August, who’ll want to eat at your place? Well, one of those very important little things, at least to me, is just this: Coat hooks. When did it become acceptable to skimp on coat hooks? Especially here in Wisconsin, where presumably every customer who comes tromping in during the winter is going to be wearing a long, heavy coat. If I have to hang my winter coat off the back of my chair, so the tail drags on the ground where everyone can step on it, right away I’m not happy with the place. And where am I supposed to put my gloves and hat? On the table where they’ll inevitably sop up the spilled ice water? I’m just not having a good experience when it begins like that, so thank you, Lombardino’s, for the coat hooks. And not just a few token hooks near the door. They had hooks and trees everywhere. I was so happy about that I was grinning like an idiot.

And it just got better and better after that. The wait staff was excellent, really first-rate. Our waitress was friendly without being smarmy, attentive without wearing out her welcome. When a water glass was half-empty, it got filled, and when one of us pushed an empty dish to the side, it disappeared. We were happy to tip these guys heavily.

Usually when we go out, we order different meals so we can try each other’s food, but tonight we both wanted exactly the same thing. Well, except for the drinks. B started off with a cocktail of bubbly wine mixed with peach juice, while I enjoyed a pint of Ballistic, a seasonal IPA from Ale Asylum. We both ordered the Tuscan white bean soup for starters. It seemed to be more of a stew to me (B called it “hearty”) but I like stew quite a lot and it was yummy. We both cleaned our plates.

For the main course, we both ordered the spaghetti. The waitress brought us each a haystack of spaghetti, dripping in meat sauce. We tried as hard as we could, but after munching away at it for the better part of a half-hour neither one of us appeared to have made much of a dent. Wanting to avoid the sleepless night that would follow if I ate too much, I asked the waitress to box up my remainder, and so did B.

Which left us room for dessert. B asked for tiramisu and I went for the flour-free chocolate cake. I had no clue what a flour-free chocolate cake was. I mean to say, if you leave out the flour, what do you have left? The answer is: Pudding. It’s a little glob of highly-concentrated chocolate pudding, served in one of those teensy cups you get when you order espresso, with a big dollop of whipped cream on the top and a slice of biscotti on the side. I scooped off the whipped cream and dug in. Oh. Yum.

Just one more thing: Don’t go to Lombardino’s without taking time out for a trip to the men’s room, and here I’m obviously talking to just the guys. Ladies, you’re not missing anything, but guys, if you don’t make a trip to the head you’re missing some awesome classic cheesecake. I think they’ve got a photo of every Italian movie starlet in there: Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Brigit Bardot, you name it, they’re all there, and every one of them posing in her underwear. I had no idea movie starlets were so scandalous back then! Okay, I did.

Time for Din-Din! | 9:36 pm CST
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Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

After thinking it over for a couple years, My Darling B & I finally indulged ourselves and signed up to join in on Restaurant Week, the annual festival of stuffing yourself silly with good food at great restaurants in Mad Town. It started on Monday but our pocketbook couldn’t stand the strain of eating out every night of the week, so we selected two nights, Wednesday and Friday, and by “we” I mean that B made all the plans, recommended the best eats and phoned the restaurants to make the reservations, because I wouldn’t recognize a good-looking entree if it slapped me in the face with a freshly-caught trout. Drop a cooked trout on my table, though, and I’ll let you know whether or not I’ll be back for more.

Tonight we dined at Sardine, a restaurant on the lake shore in the Machinery Row building that we’ve been meaning to try for at least the past four years, or ever since it opened. After supping on the pan-in roasted chicken breast in bacon lardon and mushroom ragout, I’m willing to give it five stars because it was just that good. B was just as delighted with the cassoulet she ordered, and we both finished off with the lemon meringue tart, which was very tart. I have to say the wait staff was spot-on with very nearly everything. If only she’d offered us coffee with dessert, we would’ve given her flawless marks.

Nom Nom Nom | 7:35 pm CST
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