Monday, January 16th, 2017

Sticking with our Friday the 13th tradition, we went out for dinner at a fancy restaurant. Last Friday we picked A Pig In A Fur Coat. (It’s apparently named for a dish from Kazakhstan, in case you’re wondering.) We’ve been there once before and liked it a lot. It’s got the kind of frou-frou foods that appeal to us: small plates of food so we can order a whole bunch of different things and share them. Last night we nibbled our way through a plate of olives with our cocktails, then ordered a charcuterie platter of three thinly-shaved meats, two cheeses (one hard, one soft), a dollop of foie gras, another dollop of mustard, and some jam, all with four slices of toasted baguette slices (I thought they could’ve added at least two more slices). After that, we split a raviolo, which is the singular of ravioli, which blew my mind because it never occurred to me before that there’s a singular form, but of course there is. Why just one? It was a big raviolo, about the size of a tea saucer. We sliced it in half and shared. And we finished off with a serving of duck-fat french fries, which we didn’t have enough room left in ourselves to finish eating even though they were astonishingly yummy.

pig in a fur coat | 10:23 am CDT
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Saturday, August 27th, 2016

When B asked where I wanted to go to dinner for our anniversary, I suggested Lombardino’s first thing. We hadn’t been there in months, probably in more than a year. They haven’t changed a thing, thank goodness. There are still pinups of Bridget Bardot and Gina Lollabrigida in the men’s room (B says there’s a movie poster and a potted plant in the ladies’ room; doesn’t seem fair) and they still bring you such a big pile of pasta and sauce when you order the spaghetti bolognese that you have plenty left over for lunch the next day. I wasn’t even tempted to try to finish it, not after our traditional appetizer of calamari.

The Cinemateque has reopened for the season, and they’re showcasing the work of Brian De Palma, starting with Dressed To Kill, which we went to see last night. I left the theater wondering if it was a film that used to be good but hasn’t aged well, or if it has always been a bad film. I’m leaning toward “always been bad.” Renowned film critic Roger Ebert praised Dressed to Kill for being “Hitchkockian,” but B and I described it with terms such as “cheeseball,” “unintentionally funny” and “laughably bad.” I saw Body Double when it came out in theaters and I remember just enough of it to think that maybe Brian De Palma has this one cheesy movie inside him that he keeps making over and over that brought audiences to the theater because it was chock full of sex and gore.

Even so, B wants to go see more of the De Palma movies they’re playing through the rest of the season (except Mission: Impossible, which I’m not a fan of, either; nobody makes Jim Phelps out to be the bad guy and gets away with it!). I’m willing, but only because they’re going to screen Carrie, which I’ve never seen all the way through before, and The Untouchables, which I’ve seen two or three times and I’m looking forward to seeing again. They’re also going to screen a documentary that appears to be a one-on-one interview with De Palma, and I always go for those behind-the-scenes films.

B wanted to stop at the Robin Room before the movie, where they were serving cubanos by special arrangement with a guest chef. We discovered at the last minute that they didn’t start serving until seven o’clock, the same time the movie started, so we had to fall back and regroup. We ended up at Buraka, an African restaurant on Willy Street. It used to be a place that served Jamaican food when it was called Jolly Bob’s, but it got new owners this summer and a complete makeover.

I can’t recall the dishes we ordered because they had native names; mine was something like “darowot” and B’s was maybe “tippi.” Both were spicy dishes, mine with chicken and hers with shrimp. I didn’t think they very spicy at the time so I wasn’t too worried that I might have trouble sleeping, but by the time we were headed home from the movie I was singing a different tune and even stopped at a drug store for some Pepto Bismol I could chug before bed time. I like spicy food, but most of it doesn’t like me very much.

The Pepto worked, but I woke anyway to the roar of pouring rain. It let up after a while, just before the cats went berserker crazy and started running back and forth through the house. After they got that out of their systems and I started to drift off to sleep again, I snored loudly enough to jolt myself awake not once, but several times. It was not a restful night, and was made less so because my back ached and there was a shooting pain from my right hip down the outside of my thigh. I hate getting old.

jumble | 1:44 pm CDT
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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 CDT
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Friday, December 4th, 2015

I was in charge of feeding us last night, but I had given literally zero seconds to thinking about what to make for dinner so I defaulted to stopping at Stalzy’s Deli for hot sandwiches, which has never been disappointing before and wasn’t last night. B ordered a slab of fried walleye on a hoagie bun, and I had a Ruben, and we were both so hungry that we ate every bite rather than save half for later, our usual modus operandi.

That was the second night in a row this week that we ate out. Wednesday was the first. After a long and especially busy day at work, B didn’t want to make dinner, she wanted to relax and have someone make dinner for her. I didn’t see how I would have a leg to stand on if I were to argue against her, so I didn’t. Take that back; I argued just a bit. She suggested Alchemy, but I’d been thinking about how long it had been since we visited Grandpa’s, a pizzeria on Willy Street, so I suggested that, and she went along without a moment’s regret.

The pizzeria’s in a building that used to be Grampa’s Gun Shop. It was right next door to what used to be a store that sold bibles and other Sunday-school tchotchkes. Both stores went out of business years ago; with a new coat of paint, the bible store became Jane’s Junk Shop. Gil Altschul and Marissa Johnson, the pair that have opened several crafty restaurants and bars in the area, bought the gun shop after it closed, gutted it and reopened it as a very cozy little pizzeria, naming it Grandpa’s as a nod to its previous life.

The front of the shop, where gunsmith Larry Gleasman used to sit and work on guns behind the big picture window when it was Grampa’s Gun Shop, was turned into a dining room with one long community table. We were seated there the first time we visited, but when we’ve gone back every time after, they’ve seated us in the dining room that was added to the back of the shop and faces the gardens. Paneled in dark wood with windows all around, the addition has the homey look and comfortable feel of an old-fashioned family room.

Our second visit was on a Tuesday, which they’ve declared Date Night, so we ordered the Date Night Special, which comes complete with special pizza, appetizers and a bottle of wine at a very reasonable price. Since we missed Date Night by twenty-four hours on our most recent visit, we had to pay for the bottle of wine; it was overpriced, but drinks everywhere always are so what the hell.

We built our own pizza last night, or rather B did. I suggested too many toppings and combined pepperoni with basil, a culinary no-no, if B’s reaction was anything to go by. She suggested roasted red peppers and sausage instead of pepperoni, which turned out to be a fabulously delicious pizza indeed. We gobbled up all but two slices, which I saved for lunch the next day. And we got to take home the olives we didn’t eat. So, a very nice night out indeed.

eating out | 1:22 pm CDT
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Saturday, November 14th, 2015

“I think we finally have found a new Fri 13 restaurant to replace the beloved Peppino’s,” My Darling B posted on Facebook while we were having dinner at Estrellon, Tory Miller’s new restaurant on Johnson Street in downtown Madison. I believe she may be right, although I would quibble with her use of the word “replace.” I don’t know how we’ll ever find another restaurant that will have the both the cozy feel and the terrific food that Peppino’s had, but Estrellon is the best substitute we’ve found so far.

We went there for tapas several months ago and passed the better part of an evening noshing away at a table in the bar while the waitress brought us one dish after another, and maybe a few glasses of wine to go with them. It was such wonderful food that we knew right away we would have to come back, and when Friday the Thirteenth rolled around this month, My Darling B made reservations.

The dining room is beautiful, very open and airy with high white ceilings crossed by darkly stained wooden beams. The walls are paneled with dark wood and the back of the room is open to the kitchen so you can watch Chef Tory Miller and his staff go to work (he happened to be there last night during our visit).

The staff is fantastic. Everybody’s smiling and helpful, and our waitress – she happened to be the same young lady who waited on us when we stopped in for tapas in the summer (I think she said her name was Christine; hope I got that right) – had an impressive knowledge of the foods – how they were made, what they were made with, and how to pair them with which wines.

We chose three tapas dishes to start, a dish of garlic shrimp swimming in oil, and a dish they called “estofado de vegetales” that was a stew of Italian sausage, root vegetables and chickpeas, served with a crouton topped with tomato relish. I would’ve been satisfied with the stew alone, it was so good and the portion so generous.

Our entree was called “valenciana” and was a big fry pan filled up with rabbit, shrimp, mussels, clams, chorizo, cherry tomatoes, flavored with sarvecchio cheese and served on a bed of bomba rice. I thought we’d have plenty to take home for a midnight snack, but it was so good that we gobbled up every little bit of it.

We learned on our first visit that a meal at Estrellon is not complete without the churros. They’re served with a cup of melted dark chocolate that you can dip the churros in, or spoon into your coffee; they give you more than enough for both.

Estrellon | 7:59 am CDT
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Sunday, October 25th, 2015

The view from Ishnala Supper Club's dining roomWe had dinner last night at the Ishnala Supper Club near Wisconsin Dells. It’s a bit of a drive, just under an hour, but as things turned out, our visit there was worth every minute on the road.

We learned about Ishnala from “Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club,” a documentary we watched at the film festival. If it sounds a little dry and boring, it really isn’t; it gave us the urge to visit every Wisconsin supper club in the film. We didn’t, but ever since then we have wanted to visit Ishnala, a relatively short drive from Madison.

I have to admit, I wanted to go there for the ambiance alone. The supper club is in a log-cabin themed building perched on the very edge of Mirror Lake. The bar is the most prominent room, jutting out over the lake and surrounded on three sides by picture windows that gave us an uninterrupted view of the fall foliage. The dining room is much the same: a long, open room with floor-to-ceiling picture windows on the side facing the lake. Our visit was maybe a week past the peak time for fall colors, and the evening was overcast so the colors were a bit muted, but it was still gorgeous.

I frankly didn’t expect much from the food, but was pleasantly surprised at how delicious it was. B and I each ordered a seven-ounce fillet mignon with sun-dried tomatoes in a wine reduction, one of the specials, and it was fantastic. I ate every bite and used my potato skins to sop up as much of the wine reduction as I could. The little bit of sun-dried tomato that was left over got buttered onto slices of melba toast and I shared it with My Darling B.

Tim treated us to his company on this trip and reported that the New York strip steak he ordered was every bit as wonderful as our fillets. We were there a little more than two hours, lingering afterwards over a slice of chocolate gateau and coffee before hitting the road back to Madison.

Our First Dinner at Ishnala | 9:36 am CDT
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Saturday, April 25th, 2015

A coworker and I stopped at a Perkins restaurant for lunch on a recent business trip. After we finished our entrees, the waitress took our plates away and asked us if we had saved any room for dessert. I wasn’t interested, but my coworker asked about the cookies he’d seen in the display case on the way in.

“We have a special on those,” the waitress told us. “If you buy three, you get three.”

We looked blankly at each other for a couple seconds, both thinking the same thing: What’s so special about that? If you pay for three, you ought to get three.

Then the nickel dropped. What she meant was that if he bought three, she would give him three more. It was a two-for-one deal.

pay for three | 8:10 am CDT
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Sunday, April 12th, 2015

B & O at the Greenbush BarB & I had enough time on Friday night between the last two movies to check out the Greenbush Bar, a place we’ve been meaning to visit for years that is so hugely popular, we had to wait twenty minutes for a table. No worries; I grabbed a beer from the bar and we cozied up in a couple of chairs by the door while we waited.

Greenbush Bar is on the 900 block of Regent Street in the basement of the Italian Workmen’s Club and, in a lot of ways, it’s just what you would expect a basement bar to look like. The ceiling is low, the walls are panelled in pine, and the ceiling is painted black so that the colored Christmas lights that are strung everywhere stand out all that much better.

The bar is a long, gentle curve of wood along the right wall as you walk in; when we got there, all the seats were taken but it was not yet three deep, the way it would be by the time we left. The rest of the room is low two-person pine tables, pushed together here and there where larger parties have been seated. Pizza seems to be their signature menu item; every other table had one on a wire stand that diners eagerly tore pieces from.

B and I weren’t looking for a pizza; B tried the special instead, which I forget right now. I had spaghetti and meatballs; the spaghetti was not bad, the sauce was good and the meatballs were very good.

We lingered for as long as it took us to finish our beers without gulping them down; there was quite a crowd waiting along the walls by the time we were finished.

Greenbush Bar | 7:46 am CDT
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Sunday, January 25th, 2015

Omigod. I am so full. Still. We went to Stalzy’s Deli for dinner last night and they served us so much food and we ate all of it. WHAT WERE WE THINKING?

We didn’t eat ALL the head cheese. That was the only exception I can remember. In the spirit of the event we tried the head cheese, and agreed that it was good, but we also agreed that a little head cheese goes a long way and also that head cheese is a food that is probably in need of a robust rebranding effort. “Cheesehead” sounds whimsically funny, but somehow “head cheese” sounds … not right.

The rest of the appetizers were eagerly gobbled up by everyone at our table. Smoked deli meats, pickled cukes and Brussels sprouts, breads sliced & stuffed – it all got snatched up as the plate was passed hand to hand.

We ate all the cabbage rolls. Because they were sooo delicious.

I don’t think we ate all the spaetzel, but I’m going to stand fast on the claim that they gave us way more spaetzel than any six people could eat no matter how much beer was liberally poured to help wash it down.

I didn’t mention the beer? The good folks at Karben4 Brewing aided and abetted the crew at Stalzy’s to pair one of their fine brews with each course of the meal: A seasonal beer with the appetizer, a red ale with the first course, a black IPA with the next and a firkin of specially-crafted, barrel-aged IPA with the final course.

I was feeling full by the time I finished the spaetzel but couldn’t say no to the schnitzel, because Stalzy’s schnitzel is about as good as schnitzel gets. I really shouldn’t have eaten all of it, but I did. And hated myself for it. And loved every bite.

The final course was a cherry-stuffed pirogi drizzled with cream. I tried to eat it all. I really did. I just couldn’t. I could barely lift my fork by then.

I will eat nothing but leafy greens from now on.

fat fat fat | 8:50 am CDT
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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 CDT
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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 CDT
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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 CDT
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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 CDT
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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 CDT
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Saturday, November 15th, 2014

Note to self: Merchant does not open at nine o’clock Saturday morning for brunch, as I thought because that’s what they advertised on their web site. We found a somewhat cryptic explanation for this on their front door where, etched in the glass under the Saturday hours, it says they open for brunch at nine on “farmer’s market Saturdays.” We had to guess that they were talking about when the farmer’s market is on the square because, as it just so happened, one of the reasons we went downtown this morning was to visit the farmer’s market at the Monona Terrace, where they meet during the fall months. In the winter, the market shifts to the senior center down the street from the Overture Center. There’s a farmer’s market every Saturday year-round. So Merchant shoulda been open. So there.

But they weren’t, and we had our hearts set on brunch and besides, we were hungry. My Darling B suggested we could visit either Marigold Kitchen or Graze; I plumped for Graze because I love their bloody Marys (do you drop the y and add ies for more than one bloody Mary? There’s a Will Safire column out there somewhere that covers this, but I’m not going to stop right now to look) and off we went.

Except that Graze didn’t open until nine-thirty. Figures.

Options: Wait outside Graze’s front door until they opened. Pros: Tasty bloody Mary; delicious food; one of our favorite places to eat. Cons: Waiting sucks. And there was the weather to consider. Specifically, it was twenty-five degrees outside and we’re both great big wimps. We bugged out in the direction of The Old Fashioned. Sorry, Tory. Maybe another time.

As we crossed East Washington Avenue, we passed a woman who was perhaps in her 80s and dressed rather flamboyantly in a lime-green dress, red jacket and a wide-brimmed red hat. When she was just two or three steps away from us she shouted at the tops of her lungs, “I’M RED HAT MAMA!” My Darling B, to her credit, didn’t react at all, just kept on walking. Turned out that Red Hat Mama wasn’t shouting at us; it was just something she shouted at irregular intervals. She shouted the same thing again when she was about twenty feet past us, and kept on shouting as she walked down the street.

The Old Fashioned was virtually empty when we got there. If you’ve ever been to The Old Fashioned, you know that this is very weird because the place is usually packed to the rafters. The Old Fashioned is everybody’s favorite place to eat and drink on capital square. The host seated us at a table in the front by the window and there were just two other people seated there, but that didn’t last long. In the hour that we were there, the place went from nearly deserted to standing room only.

Apparently there was a Badger game later today, which I cleverly deduced from all the people dressed in red and wearing Bucky Badger hats. I’m pretty sharp that way. It’s also my guess that it must be something of a tradition to eat brunch at The Old Fashioned before the game, because groups of five to ten people dressed in red were walking in the front door more or less continuously the whole time we were there.

The bloodies at The Old Fashioned were quite different from the bloodies we’ve had just about anywhere else. They weren’t as boozy, for one thing. Our favorite bloodies are the ones they make at Stalzy’s Deli. They’re very tasty, but they give me just enough of a buzz that sometimes I wonder how much vodka they dump in those things. The Old Fashioned makes a nicely spicy bloody topped with a pickled egg, a skewer of cheese curds and a dill spear. There’s also a thick slab of beef jerky jammed down one side of the glass that’s maybe a little more than casual drinkers like us can handle. Not saying it was bad, just that maybe it’s enough to say we saved the jerky for our doggie bags with the rest of the leftovers. Maybe I’ll get around to gnawing on it later tonight for a bedtime snack.

It’s worth noting that our meals were eye-poppingly huge. Seriously, our eyes popped out of our heads and wagged back and forth on stalks. Everybody was pointing at us, but we couldn’t help ourselves. I generally think of brunch as a light meal. I ordered ham & eggs. The ham slice was three-quarters of an inch thick and about six inches across. Who eats that much meat at a single sitting? I ate about a third of it; I’ll be eating another third tomorrow for lunch and the final third on Monday for lunch. B ordered chicken fried steak; she took home enough to feed Coxey’s army, too.

The walk back to the car was long enough that our lips were numb and we opted to skip the farmer’s market this weekend and just pick up what we needed at the grocer’s. Told you we were wimps.

adventures in brunch | 3:38 pm CDT
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Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Mickey's Tavern, Madison WIWe had dinner at Mickey’s Tavern on Willy Street because it’s guy night and I didn’t know what to make. Weirdly, now I do. Now, I would like to make a big pot of chili, but at five-thirty as I was driving along Willy Street and getting closer to the grocery store every minute, I didn’t have the foggiest idea what I wanted to make.

Luckily, there was Mickey’s, and they have the most delicious BLT, and they have eggplant sammies, and they have this thing called sexy fries, which is a big plate of thinly-sliced, deep-fried potato liberally sprinkled with grated parmesan cheese and red pepper and I can’t stop eating it no matter how much they pile on my plate, even though I feel as if I’m going to pop like a big white zit. And they have Lake Louie Warped Speed on tap. Holy crap, I love that beer.

We sat on the patio because this will probably be the last Thursday this year that it will be warm enough outside for us to sit on Mickey’s patio and eat dinner, and even today it was maybe just a few degrees over the line on the cool side for us to do that, but we did it anyway because, as I said, probably last time. I hope I’m wrong about that.

crisp | 8:14 pm CDT
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Friday, September 26th, 2014

We thought we were making pretty good time to the airport, but it turned out we weren’t: We arrived shortly after 4:30 am and got through security by 4:45 am – not enough time, unfortunately, before the announced 5:00 am boarding time for us to kick off our annual vacation to the farthest reaches of the known world (aka the Continental United States) in our most traditional manner, breakfast sammies chased by a couple of bloody Marys at the Great Dane brewpub.

And even if we’d had enough time, the Great Dane was experiencing a few technical glitches that would have prevented them from obliging us. They were serving complimentary coffee only because the people at the cafe across the hall let them borrow a couple big insulated pump-carafes, or whatever they’re really called. We grabbed two cups to go and tried to sip them as we hurried to the other end of the terminal, but that didn’t work out too well, and to avoid having to fly all the way to Portland soaked in coffee we’d managed to splash all over ourselves, we nonchalantly dropped our cups in the garbage and speed-walked through the airport.

With high hopes, we boarded our plane. Frontier Airlines promised us when we bought our tickets – promised us! that there would be free drinks on the plane, but if we’d read the small print we would have learned that they ended their free drinks policy the week before we started our trip. Bummer, again.

Grabbed a banana and some OJ while waiting at Denver International Airport. Just wasn’t the same. Heavy sigh.

The only available seats on the flight from Denver to Portland were singles, but the nice lady at the boarding gate changed seats around so we could sit together, so there’s one other good thing that happened to us in an airport today. Still no free drinks on the plane, though. Gripe, gripe, gripe.

As the plane was getting ready to depart Denver, we overheard a couple of the flight attendants saying that a fire at a Chicago air traffic control building had forced airports all across the Midwest to shut down. Suddenly the no-drinks policy didn’t seem like such a big deal. We got out of Dodge just in the nick of time!

The taxi ride from the Portland airport to the B&B was pretty dull. Not that that’s a bad thing. It’s just that we’re used to a much more, shall we say, thrilling experience. Other cabbies seem to have trouble dividing their attention between driving and talking, for instance, and end up wandering from lane to lane, or narrowly missing a collision. Cabbies in Portland, by contrast, are deliberate, careful and not very chatty at all. Thanks, Portland cabbies!

The driver who picked us up at the airport had some kind of Slavic accent and at first didn’t seem to understand our directions, but when we offered to repeat them he waved us off, saying, “Okay, okay, okay!” Swell, I thought. Here we go on a scenic tour of the city, and fired up Google maps on my smart phone to see where he was taking us so I’d be able to call for help. Damned if he didn’t drive a beeline across town straight to the street our B&B was on. Okay! Okay! Okay!

While we were in Portland, we stayed at a B&B that was different from all the other B&B’s we’ve ever stayed at in that it hadn’t been all dolled up; it was just a great big house with lots of rooms upstairs. No themes, no showcases or shelves heaped with nick-knacks, just a big house with clean rooms at a decent price. I would recommend it if I didn’t think people would be disappointed that there wasn’t at least a collection of old tintype toys in the parlor.

After dropping our bags off at the B&B, we found the bus stop and rode into town, our destination being the Deschutes brewpub in the Pearl District of downtown Portland. We were starving for some grub and, well, it just so happened that they also brewed beer there, so we figured we’d try some of their beer too. If we had to. But when we got there, we found it wouldn’t be open for almost twenty minutes, so with time to kill we doubled back one block to Powell’s Bookstore.

All we were going to do was take a quick look around to see if it was as fabulous as we thought it would be, and OH. MY. GOD. It was more fabulous! I wandered further and further away from the lobby, getting flashbacks to the days and weeks we used to spend wandering the aisles of The Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver. When I realized how far away I’d gone, I doubled back to find My Darling B, but she had apparently wandered away, too, so I walked up to one of the many desks where the staff sat waiting to help people like me and asked, “If I were a used hardcover copy of The Caine Mutiny, where would I be?” The young lady behind the counter punched the name into her computer and asked, “Is that the one by Herman … Wouwulk?” (She couldn’t figure out how to pronounce “Wouk.”) (To tell the truth, I’ve never been able to, either.) Long story short, I walked out with a copy of The Caine Mutiny that very night, and not just any copy but a hardcover of the first printing with the original dust jacket, wrapped in cellophane. Squeee! That was literally THE book I most wanted to find at Powell’s.

B&O at Deschutes Brewery Portland ORWhen I finally caught up with B again we both really badly needed something to eat and drink, and it was past time for Deschutes to open, so out the door we went. The brewpub was just a block from Powell’s, so we didn’t have to walk far to satisfy any of our cravings. Before we even glanced at the menus, we ordered tasters from the tap list, a pretty slick move on our part, I gotta say. They served a half-dozen on a time, served on a wooden paddle with numbers seared into the little cutouts that held the glasses, each number matching a number on the drinks list so you could tell what you were sampling. This is why drinking beer is so much fun.

The food, it has to be said, was delicious, too, or maybe it was just that we were so hungry and the beer was making us happily relaxed. No. It was good food. It was bar food, sure, but good bar food. B had an elk burger, because what else are you going to have when there’s elk burger on the menu, and I had the special, something marinated pork something, and ate every bit of it. Gad, that was good.

We took a stroll around the neighborhood after lunch, partly to get the lay of the land and partly to walk off the food and beer. Or maybe it was the other way around. Whatever. We ended up walking along one of the main thoroughfares in this part of town, West Burnside Street, and I figured out (by Googling “portland sign”) that the big “Portland Oregon” sign we saw on the way into town was on top of a building next to the Burnside bridge, so we kept on going.

Well. The stretch of Burnside leading up to the bridge is in quite a colorful part of town, let me tell you. Leaving out the dozens of people laying on the sidewalk, almost all of whom want to know how much money you’ve got in your pockets (is it just me, or is that creepy as hell?), there are a number of establishments offering to satisfy your desire to stare openmouthed at women who have the skill set to work in a place called “Pussycats Live Nude Review.” And standing just outside these places are men talking about the show. Not barkers trying to talk you into going inside, just guys – they were all guys – talking about the show in no uncertain terms. We hurried past.

A little further up, closer to the bridge and on the north side of the street, is the entrance to Chinatown, flanked by stone dragons guarding either side of a tori gate that has seen better times. Lots more people were camping out on the pavement in front of the boarded-up shop fronts. We got the feeling that Portland’s Chinatown has seen better times.

B&O at the white stag sign Portland ORTo go the final hundred yards up the ramp to the bridge we had to step over a dozen or two more campers before we were finally, finally far enough up the road to snap a couple selfies with the sign in the background.

Just to fill space here, I’ll tell you that the sign has only recently been changed (in 2010, according to Wikipedia) to read “Portland Oregon,” and that it seems to be known most widely as the White Stag sign, after the sportsware maker that used to occupy the building under the sign. Not that we knew that when we took the photo. We just wanted something to remember Portland by, and the sign looked too cool as we rode the taxi into town.

It was getting on in the afternoon by this time and we needed a pick-me-up. B did a little Googling – we love our smartypants phones – and discovered there was a cafe run by Stumptown Coffee Roasters not far from the bridge. All she had to say was that it was one of the places in Portland that we had to check off our list and I was in it!

Our route to Stumptown took us past a Voodoo Doughnut shop. This was also one of those places that visitors to Portland feel they absolutely must check off their list. We saw more tourists with pink Voodoo Doughnut boxes than we saw homeless people; that’s a lot! But we were still full from Deschutes, and I didn’t feel like standing in a line for doughnuts, even if they were infused with more testosterone than a teenaged boy. Honestly, a hot espresso sounded much more enticing right then.

Stumptown didn’t disappoint. I’m no espresso connoisseur, but I liked what they were serving. B was happy with the chai latte, too, although they didn’t do much with the foam art at this particular place, I have to say. I don’t know from beans, but I know they’re supposed to draw a leaf or something on top.

Our pick-me-up gave us the steam to get back to Powell’s, this time for an extended visit. We both wandered the stacks until about five o’clock, picking out a few choice books for souvenirs. B bought a cookbook so big, there are killer asteroids that can only dream of having the mass of this book so they can smash planets to rubble. I found a set of Time-Life books about the moon landings that were almost as big and heavy. Powell’s shipped them all back home for about twenty-two cents. I don’t know how they do that, but wow.

We wanted to stop for a beer before we went back to the B&B and the guy behind the cash register at Powell’s recommended Bailey’s Taproom, which looked pretty cool but was jammed full of people when we got there. Right across the street, though, we found several tables open at Tugboat Brewing Co., a microbrew serving some yummy brown ales and stouts. The place doesn’t get a lot of love on Yelp but we thought it was just the place to rest our weary bones for a half-hour or so after walking all over downtown Portland.

We at dinner on the back porch of Caro Amico, a little neighborhood restaurant not far from the B&B. Cozy place, good food, and they’ll let you take the rest of the wine home if you don’t finish the bottle. A+++ would definitely slurp up a bowl of spaghetti there again.

pacnw day 1 | 9:36 pm CDT
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Monday, September 1st, 2014

I have literally lost two inches off my waist between this morning and last night, when I stuffed myself with a meal of bibimbap and spring rolls at the weekend soft opening of Tory Miller’s new restaurant, Sujeo. I shouldn’t have eaten so much; I should have eaten half and taken the other half home for lunch the next day, or a late-night snack, but it was so tasty that I didn’t want to stop.

It was the spicy pork bibimbap. It’s spicy, but not too; a nice mix of meat and veggies and a generous portion, but not outrageously so. Comes with a fried egg on top. Almost as good as the bibimbap My Darling B makes (her secret, I believe, may be the spicy sauce, but I have no knowledge of how she makes it so there’s no way on earth or in heaven that I can divulge any of that, don’t even think you can).

As a lead-in to the bibimbap, I had a spring roll. Delicious! Nice and leafy with a tender chunk of shrimp tucked away inside. Came with a peanut sauce that I eagerly scooped up and slathered on with my chopsticks. And Sujeo is the one place in town where I’ve had a spring roll that wasn’t overstuffed with way too much cilantro. Thank goodness.

Sujeo | 12:43 pm CDT
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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 CDT
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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 CDT
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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 CDT
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Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

“I want pizza,” My Darling B said to me when we ran into each other in the hall yesterday.  I didn’t have any on me at the time, so she had to wait until I took her to Roman Candle after work, where we ordered a large pie with four kinds of meat, including some of the tastiest pepperoni ever.

And now we have leftover pizza for lunch. What’s better than that, I ask you?

what’s better? | 6:07 am CDT
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Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

I only had ten beers, honest! And I feel just fine!

We stopped by Harmony Bar after work for a free beer tasting they were hosting as part of craft beer week. I tried six or eight beers (it may have been as many as ten, but I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging) – just tried them, mind you, no more than a sip or two, because I wanted to taste (and smell) each of them, but I’m not an idiot.

Not only did we discover new beers, one of the people in the crowd showed us a nifty Android app, Untappd, we can use to keep track of the beers we taste, make notes about what they taste like, where we found them, who we were with (it’s not an app if it’s not somehow social). So we passed a happy two hours sampling beer, playing with our smart phones and eating pizza. Not bad for a Tuesday night.

tasters | 8:31 pm CDT
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Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

It’s Madison Craft Beer Week!

wide-eyed

We stopped at Next Door Brewing after work to get something to eat and OH MY GOODNESS I’VE NEVER SEEN IT SO BUSY! The place was wall-to-wall beer-drinking and conversating customers! We had to wait at the bar for a table, but only for fifteen minutes or so and, as always, the food was worth the wait. And the beer.

surfacing

Craft Beer Week | 8:08 am CDT
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Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

When I was a boy, our family used to pile into the car about once a month and make the two-hour drive from our home in central Wisconsin to visit my father’s parents in Door County where, mere minutes after we got out of the car and were welcomed at the door, my grandmother would begin to stuff us with food. And that woman could set out an impressive spread: baked hams, roasted chickens, mashed potatoes, corn and beans, dinner rolls and kolaches, and I don’t know what all else. She was an old-school housewife of Bohemian extraction who could pile on the hospitality like nobody’s business. If we arrived early in the afternoon she often had a lunch waiting for us, too, and at the end of the day as we packed up to go, she piled leftovers on a plate for us to take home. I didn’t think I would ever be fed like that again.

Until last night. We ate so much food last night that I’m pretty sure I won’t have to eat again until July.

Stalzy’s Deli, one of our very favorite places to eat, as well as one of the best places in town to stock up on lunch meat, bread and beer, set out a couple tables for dinner with food so delicious and plentiful in its variety that I couldn’t stop eating, even though my stomach threatened me with retribution of biblical proportions. “Just one more bite,” I kept assuring it.

We showed up to the party shortly after six to find they’d rearranged the tables. There was one long table in the front of the dining area and another in front of the beer coolers; we sat at the end of the table in the front and were immediately served a couple glasses of freshly-brewed beer from Next Door Brewing. The beer from Next Door is always fresh because brew master Keith Symonds is always brewing up a new batch of it in the neck-high stainless steel kettles that crowd one corner of his brew pub. From there, it goes straight to the cooler and gets drunk almost right away by the thirsty customers who throng the bar nightly. Keith was at the dinner to serve brews they’d chosen to go with each course. These beer-pairing dinners have become a thing around here, and I hope they continue to be a thing for many years to come.

The first round of beer was Wilbur, a cream ale made with rolled oats to give it a smooth, sweet flavor to go with the plate of pickled veggies they brought to our table: mushrooms and Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, onions and what looked like scapes. I tried a little of everything, and more than a few of the mushrooms because, you know, mushrooms. Well, maybe you don’t. My Darling B, a dedicated foodie, won’t have anything to do with mushrooms. She’s gamely tried a few but they don’t taste like anything to her, she says, so she won’t touch them. Or Brussels sprouts, but I understand that has more to do with a bad childhood experience. I’m not a fan of Brussels sprouts either but I enjoyed some last night, maybe the only time I’ve eaten Brussels sprouts that didn’t taste like rubber bands.

The veggies were just a small part of the “welcome course,” the rest of which included a plate of Russian rye bread and a bowl of duck liver mousse to spread on the rye, so rich that I probably shouldn’t have eaten more than a spoonful of it, but by the time I realized that it was way too late. Oops. There was also German flammekuche, a sort of bialy with carmelized onions in the center; and Latvian piragi, little buns stuffed with BACON! And what’s a welcome course without a plate of assorted Wisconsin cheeses: yummy fonegreek gouda, MonteAmore, muenster and a bowl of garlic cream cheese. B loved the cream cheese as much as I loved the duck mousse.

For the second course they brought out plates piled high with spaetzel and mushrooms in montchevre goat cheese, German-style green beans (BACON!) and boiled, sliced Yukon gold potatoes, which they paired with a foamy glass of Munchkin Rye. By the time I finished my moderate helping of spaetzel I was already feeling I might be in trouble by the end of the night because the third course was Ente gekocht in fett (which is German for “duck cooked in fat.” Those Germans don’t get too frou-frou with the names of their dishes, I guess) and smoked Labelle duck breast, served on a bed of braised red cabbage. There was no way I was missing any of that. The smoked duck breast, cut into thick slices, was almost sweet and yummily smoky. And they served the duck in duck fat as a whole leg of dark meat so tender that it fell off the bone at the slightest touch. I should have maybe nibbled just a bit of each to get the gist, but as soon as I got a taste I ate every damn bite, groaning with pleasure as I did. To go with the duck, Keith poured glasses of Sevex Ale, still my favorite Next Door brew.

Finally, each table got a Black Forest torte, four layers of chocolate cake with a deep, dark chocolate layer on the outside, whipped cream and cherries in between layers and plenty more on top and around the base. Wow. I mean, WOW! As if that wasn’t special enough, Judy, the maestro who thought up this delicious treat, told us she made it with cherries from the tree in her yard. It was fantastic, and it was the only thing I absolutely could not finish because by that time I was full to bursting. If I’d dared to eat it all, I feel confident in saying I would have literally busted a gut. My stomach still feels a little sore this morning just thinking about it.

What a night. We’re so looking forward to Stalzy’s next dinner, although we might have to go a little easy on the portions next time to make sure we can enjoy them all and still be able to get to the car without waddling.

hospitality | 10:33 am CDT
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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 CDT
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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 CDT
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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 CDT
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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 CDT
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Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

Yay. The cat has finally curled up in my lap. Can’t do a thing while he’s turning in circles, looking for the right place to settle down. Can’t type a word, can’t sip my coffee, can’t even set down my coffee cup within easy reach because he would just keep sticking his snotty nose in it. I have to just sit here, waiting until he stops. So who’s the mammal in charge here?

image of B hugging Sean

Sean is home for Christmas. Touched down at Dane County Airport shortly after eight, where we scooped him up and motored into town to have dinner at Next Door Brewing. He pronounced himself very pleased with the taco plate. I had the Atwood Burger, delicious as always, and B loved her salmon sandwich. And of course there was beer. Can’t go to Next Door without partaking of a refreshing libation. B was especially satisfied with the Festivusale, but just a little saddened that the staff apparently forgot to provide her with the grievance form that was supposed to come with each glass. She was looking forward to hanging her grievance on the Festivus Pole.

Aargh! | 8:19 am CDT
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Saturday, December 14th, 2013

Tornado Room, Madison WIFor our last Friday the 13th dinner of the year we decided to dine at the Tornado Room on Main Street in downtown Madison. This was our first time at the Tornado despite having heard nothing but good things about it and telling each other for the past six years that we would have to eat there sometime soon. Don’t know why. Wasn’t trying to avoid the place. Just kept slipping our minds. But we had to come up with a legendary restaurant to eat at this Friday and for some reason the Tornado popped to the top of our list, so I committed by making reservations Thursday afternoon.

And a good thing I did, too, because the place was booked solid. I’ve heard that it was a hugely popular place to eat, and it was Friday besides so there were probably a ton of people there for fish fry, which tempted even me. You can’t tell me you’ve got pan-fried perch on special and expect me not to show at least a little interest, but I went there for steak & potatoes, and steak & potatoes is what I had for dinner. After I gobbled up some of the warm, fresh bread off the bread plate, scarfed down three jumbo shrimp from the shrimp cocktail I shared with My Darling B, and finished off a bowl of French onion soup. Good thing I decided against the 14-ounce cut of sirloin and went with the 8-ounce cut instead. I did a respectable job of eating a bit more than half of it and all of the potato. Poor B was nearly full even before she took her first bite. Doggie bags all around.

tornado room | 8:25 am CDT
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Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

All night Wednesday and into Thursday morning it rained two kinds of rain: normal rain and acorn rain. We were parked at a campsite under an oak tree, y’see, and it was autumn, so every time the wind came up even just a little bit, the roof of the camper was pelted by a hail of acorns. It was like trying to sleep inside a snare drum. And yet, we still managed to sleep somehow.

After checking out of the campground, we went back to Ashland to look for a place to get some breakfast. There’s a kind of trendy coffee shop in Ashland called Mix Sweet Shop. We knew it was trendy but we like trendy so we went there anyway, ordered some sticky sweet morning rolls and a couple big mugs of coffee. After filling our bellies and warming up on java, we both decided we’d have to give it rave reviews, just like all the other Yelpers, but at the same time we felt a little underdressed in our rumbled sweatshirts and blue jeans, like maybe we should have been wearing yoga pants or spandex running gear.

We had to spend one more night in the wild, and B wanted to make s’mores over a camp fire, so we stopped at a local co-op before leaving town to pick up picnic food, marshmallows and graham crackers. B was – how shall I say this without getting pelted by rotten cabbages? – a happy camper.

Then we went in search of more vineyards. And we found, oh, a few: Dana Campbell, Grizzly Peak, Thistlecroft, and Bella Fortuna – but they were all closed, apparently because it was too early in the morning or too late in the season. But when we pulled up in front of Weisinger vineyards they were just opening the doors to their tasting room, so we hung around there for a while, sampling their wine and buying a few bottles of the ones we liked best. Bonus points to Weisinger: They ship wine, and they don’t care where you bought it, so we dredged all the bottles out of the bilge of our camper and brought them inside, where they packed everything up, took down our address and promised us we’d get our wine delivered to our door. And we did, all in good shape, a little more than a week after.

Mount Shasta Brewing Weed CA

After that we hit the road and drove for a while, crossing over the border into California as far as the town of Weed before we stopped at the Mount Shasta Brewing Company to stretch our legs and maybe quaff a beer or two. Because it’s in the town of Weed, Mount Shasta has adopted the motto, “Try legal Weed,” which apparently attracted the attention of the feds and almost got them shut down until the story made national news and popular opinion swung in favor of the brewer. Now they put it on all their souvenir t-shirts and hats.

From there we went a bit further on to the Dunsmuir Brewing Works to get a bite to eat and another lovingly-crafted microbrew. We would never have found this place without GPS; it’s all but hidden in a small storefront building that looked like maybe it was once a gas station and still kinda looks a lot like it’s shut up and abandoned. Good thing we made the effort to find it, though. Their ploughman’s platter filled me up in the best way: salmon that was smoked in-house, sausage, shrimp, peppers, two kinds of cheese and a hot demibagette with butter. B had an elk burger, perfectly grilled medium rare. And, of course, beer.

It was getting late by the time we hit the road again, so we drove up to Lake Shasta to look for a camp site. We wanted a camp fire that night but the first place we stopped was way back in the woods & had no fire rings. The next place, Antlers RV Park, was in Shasta-Trinity National Park – still closed by the feds, remember? BUT it appeared to be open. We checked one more place that wasn’t as nice, then went back to Antlers after stopping at a gas station to fill up the tank and grab a bundle of firewood. It was open! There were four or five other campers there, and they said that before the rangers left, they could stay as long as they wanted. So we slipped thirty dollars under the door, picked out a nice camp site not too far from the bathroom (it pays to plan ahead) and built a roaring fire that burned long after the sun set. We had one bottle of wine set aside in the camper that we popped open and shared as dusk deepened into night and all the stars came out. Turn out that toasted marshmallows are delicious with Sangiovese.

California Day 7 | 8:13 pm CDT
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Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Woke up this morning, rubbed the sleepers from my eyes, tumbled out of the van and went staggering up the road to the office-slash-general store to get a cup of coffee.

Halfway back to our camp site I slowed to a stop as I caught sight of B standing just outside the van, binoculars in hand, getting quickly back into the van and closing the door behind her.

Turning to see what she might possibly be looking at that would make her seek the safety of the car, I noticed an elk standing among the trees. Then I noticed a couple more elk just beyond the edge of the treeline. And then, finally, I noticed there was a whole freaking herd of elk slowly making its way through the field just beyond the edge of the RV park. Okay, so I missed them at first. I bet you’re not exactly Old Eagle Eye before you’ve had your coffee, either.

We found out later that they come though almost every day. And they’re used to having lots of people around. They weren’t in the least spooked by us, and a few of them came startlingly close as they made their way through an open field to the trees on the other side.

elks

Elk, by the way, are huge. You don’t realize just how big they are until one of them is close enough to spit in your eye. Or stomp you like the bug you are.

After the excitement was over and we had all our crap packed up, we hit the road to look for some breakfast. On the way, we stopped at the entrance to Redwood National Park to take a few selfies with the notices that the park was closed due to the federal government shutdown. I was on vacation, so why did I care? Oh, I am so glad you asked. Because: Of all the places in California I’ve wanted all my life to visit, Redwood National Park was in the top five. This was my third visit to California, but only the first time I was close enough to the park to stop by. And what happens? The doot-brains in Washington get into a pissing contest and shut down everything, even the parks. When the feds shut down a park, they don’t just tell the guys in the Smokey hats to take the week off. No. They make the rangers set up sawbucks to block the entrances, then stand outside them and turn away visitors. No trees for you! Natural beauty is off limits this week! Thanks, federal government, for availing yourself of yet another opportunity to reinforce my opinion that you’re a sack of bastards.

You know what? We camped in one of your goddamn campgrounds anyway. Up yours!

government shutdown

Actually, I’m getting ahead of myself. We stopped at Antlers the last night we camped in California and found three or four other campers at the site who said all the forest rangers packed up and left when the feds shut everything down. Before they left, though, they told the campers that what they didn’t see, didn’t happen. The bathrooms were open and the lights were on, so we slipped thirty bucks under the door of the office and stayed for the night. The photo I took of My Darling B expressing her outrage at The Man for shutting everything down was too good not to share it with you at this point in the story, though. Now, back to Wednesday.

We had breakfast at the Palm Cafe and Hotel in Orick, and it was amazing! Their hospitality was top-rate from the moment we walked in the door. The host greeted us right away and showed us to a table by the window in the morning sunshine where he poured us a couple mugs of hot coffee and made sure they never got cold the whole time we were there. B zeroed in on the biscuits & gravy, her very favorite thing to order any time it appears on the menu, and she was very happy with the freshly-made biscuits and generous portion of gravy she got. I had a stack of the fluffiest pancakes I’ve ever been privileged to stuff myself silly with. We were both well and truly serensified by the time we climbed back into the van to hit the road.

Welcome to OregonFrom Orick we went straight north, or as straight as the twisting road would let us, planning to make as few stops as possible until we got to Crescent City to fuel. We made a hard right turn onto State Highway 199 out of Crescent City and crossed into Oregon shortly afterwards, making a big loop just over the border through the town of Grants Pass before heading south again.

Grants Pass, by the by, is probably not a place that you’ve ever heard of but was made famous, or maybe infamous, by the initiation of Tony Roberts into a club known as Mountain Man Anonymous in 1993. To become a member of the club, Tony let one of the club members try to shoot a one-gallon fuel can off his head with an arrow. The arrow went a little south of the mark. “Surgeons removed the arrow from Anthony Roberts’ head by drilling a larger hole around the tip at the skull’s back and pulling the arrow through,” the AP story explained, which has to be the single most ewww-inducing sentence ever printed in an Associated Press news item. I used to carry it around in my wallet for years so I could read it to people just to watch them squirm.

We did not plan to go to Grants Pass just so I could be in the place where this happened; it was just a lucky accident.

We made one stop at Medford to visit the Apocalypse Brewery, but they weren’t open, darn it, and didn’t open until four o’clock, too late for us to hang around and still make it to the show in Ashland we were headed for, so I can’t say anything about their beer, too bad. If you go looking for it, it’s really hard to find because it’s at the back end of a business park in what looks like a U-Store-It unit. Don’t give up until you check behind the fast-food store.

Caldera Brewery Ashland OROnward to Ashland where, after driving all freaking day, we stopped for a much-deserved beer and some food at Caldera Brewing, a brewpub in a cavernous metal barn where hundreds if not thousands of beer bottles are lined up on shelves up the wall. I spent way too much time searching them to see if I could find two that were alike, then gave up after the food arrived.

Before heading into town to see the show, we checked in at Glenyan campground, an old KOA that still has the easily recognizable teepee-shaped front office. I still feel a happy little twinge of nostalgia whenever I see one of those. My family used to stop at KOAs whenever we went on our annual winter camping trip to the warmer climes of the southern states. A lot of the campsites at Glenyan were occupied by big RV trailers, most of them with pop-outs and most of them more or less permanently affixed to the property, making the tightly-packed grounds seem even cozier, but we were there just to stay the night. All we wanted, really, was a place to park and go to sleep. They let us use the rec room to charge our phones and tablets even though everything else was shut down or turned off, so bonus points, Glenyan, and thanks!

The show we were going to see in town was Cymbaline, just one of the many shows being staged at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. We picked Cymbaline because we hadn’t seen it before and because it was presented on their Elizabethan stage, an open-air theater encircled by the audience seats, sort of like the old Globe Theatre in London. Figured that would be a more authentic Shakespearian experience, somehow.

There was a stage just outside the theater where a local and apparently well-loved band was performing a few of their own numbers just prior to the start of Cymbaline, so we hung around outside the doors to see what they were like. I’m not sure how to describe their music without resorting to clichés like “drug-induced” and “hippy-dippy weirdo with a side order of dissonance.” I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I can’t say it bothered me, either. Mostly, I was just bored with it. Not so the gathered crowd; they lapped it up and cheered for more, which made me feel as though I was somehow missing something. I kept listening for it, whatever it was, but I never got it.

Because the theater was open to the weather, naturally it rained on us. Quite a lot. We had seats right up front by the stage, which would have been the greatest if they hadn’t been out in the middle of the open roof. “I’m sure it’s going to stop any minute now,” B kept saying to me, as we were slowly being soaked through to our bones, and once or twice it did seem to be letting up just a bit, but then it would start coming down again, and of course it seemed like it was coming down a little bit harder, but that was probably only because we were already wet, chattering and miserable.

We eventually found an usher and begged him to change our seats for a couple in the shelter of the balcony, which would’ve been great if we weren’t already sodden as disrags, but since we were, we slowly froze all the way through to our cores as the first two acts played out. At intermission, we ducked out to the car, cranked up the heater as high as it would go and headed back to camp where we huddled together in a tightly-knotted ball under the quilts. I didn’t start to feel warm again until just before daybreak.

California Day 6 | 8:06 pm CDT
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Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

Humboldt Redwoods State Park CA

Tuesday morning we managed to pack up all the camp stuff and take a shower without the benefit of coffee. One of the challenges of camping is testing yourself to the extreme and finding out what you didn’t know you could do, like getting out of bed without an alarm clock, communicating a coherent thought before coffee, or taking a shower outdoors.

Okay, the showers weren’t technically outdoors. There was a bathroom outbuilding, the kind that’s pretty standard at just about any state park: unpainted cinder block construction with no windows, unless you count the screened-over vents between the tops of the walls and the edge of the roof as windows.

This is going to sound really weird, but actually I enjoy a hot shower a lot more when I’m standing on a cold slab of concrete in a shower stall made of cinder blocks. I don’t especially like the part before, when I have to very carefully hang everything up so it won’t get wet or dirty; or the part after, when I have to step gingerly through cold puddles of water as I’m trying, and failing, to dry myself off. Why is it you can’t get yourself completely dry when it’s cold outside, anyway? I wish I’d paid more attention in physics class. Whatever. That part in the middle, when I’m standing in a spray of scalding hot water while I’m surrounded by cold and more cold, is just golden. I don’t want to do it often, but when I get to do it, it’s bliss.

After the chores were done and all our gear was packed up in the van, we hit the road in search of coffee. We combined the high-tech and old school methods: I used my Mark One eyeballs to scan the roadside for any sign of a coffee shop or diner while My Darling B searched teh interwebs on her tablet. After driving a few miles up the road, success! We pulled in at a campground at Westport, because every private campground’s going to have a coffee maker in the office, right? And as a matter of fact, they did. The nice woman at the desk gave us two piping-hot coffees in tiny little cups but didn’t have any lids for them. It turns out that you can’t drink coffee in your car if the cups don’t have lids. You think you can hold the cup steady, but you can’t. Physics again. Science is such a bitch.

We had quite a few miles to put behind us that morning, so we pulled to the side of the road, guzzled a couple mouthfuls of coffee, dumped the rest and went on.

Chandelier Tree Leggett CAOur first planned stop of the day was the world-famous drive-through tree park, although, as we found out later, there isn’t one world-famous drive-through tree park; there are about a gojillion world-famous drive-through tree parks. The particular one we picked out of the guide books was the Chandelier Tree near Leggett. And I didn’t drive through it, because it didn’t look like the van would fit. I got the front end in before I chickened out. If it had been my car, though, I wouldn’t have hesitated to put a few memorial dings in it. After snapping the obligatory vacation photos of the tree, we visited the gift shop to buy a souvenir post card.

Our high-priority destination that day, the one we got out of bed for, was The Avenue of the Giants, a road that runs parallel to State Highway 101 but up the opposite side of the Eel River. It’s twisty and narrow and you really can’t go any faster than about thirty miles per, which is great if you’re a tourist but not so great if you’re driving a dump truck and you’re trying to get to the construction site up the road through all the tourist traffic. These were big dump trucks pulling a dump-truck trailer, and the drivers had no qualms at all about tailgating. Ordinarily, I would have gone all passive-aggressive and slowed down to twenty-five or twenty, but because I was on a stress-free vacation and it was a sightseeing day, I pulled over to the shoulder every chance I got to stop to gawk at the big trees, take snapshots and, not incidentally, let the dump trucks pass.

We passed several hours winding our way up The Avenue of the Giants until, about halfway up the road, we finally came to the Avenue Cafe in Miranda, where we could sit down for the first meal we’d eaten since the plate of macho nachos we gobbled down at Silver’s in Ft Bragg the day before. The gal who took our order at the register warned us that it was lunch hour for the local high school and the place was going to be chock-full of teenagers in about fifteen minutes. She wasn’t kidding. They started to line up at the front door right after we sat down at our table by the window, and they were there until just before we left. Nice kids, though. It’s not like they were any trouble. There were just a whole lot of them in a tiny little restaurant. And a pretty great place to eat, by the way. I had the Philly cheese steak sandwich and can recommend it. Ate the whole thing, even though it was big enough to feed two people. B had jalapeño poppers, her very favorite appetizer, and a gigantic calzone that she couldn’t finish. Wimp.

Back on the Avenue of the Giants, we eventually got to the place all the dump trucks were headed to, a stretch of road that was all dug up. We had to double back and find a bridge to cross over the river, which happened to be at Meyer Flat, which happened to be the location of the River Bend Winery, which happened to be a winery B wanted to visit. We spent close to an hour there; the owner was pouring the samples and he liked talking about his wines.

A little further up the Avenue of the Giants we pulled off to check out the visitor center because they had one of those cross-sections of a redwood log with labels pointing out rings that corresponded to the beginning of the industrial age, the signing of the declaration of independence, Columbus’s discovery of America, and so on. Speaking of which, why is Columbus still the discoverer of America? I thought it had been proven six ways from Sunday that at least three other famous explorers discovered America before he did. I think it’s about time to re-label the redwood rings, don’t you think?

Founder's Grove, Avenue Of The Giants, California

Just up the road from the visitor’s center, we pulled off at Founder’s Grove to hike the loop trail and gawp at some big, big BIG trees. One of the biggest was nicknamed “the Dyerville Giant” because it was between 360 and 370 feet tall when it was still standing. Unfortunately, it’s not standing any more. It got knocked over by another falling redwood in a storm, and when they both hit the ground there were people in San Francisco who stopped what they were doing and said, “What the hell was that?” I took quite a few photos of it from various angles, up close, farther away, panoramic, but none of them captured the sheer size of this monster. Unless you’re standing right next to it, feeling like a bug, it’s size doesn’t register. The best I could manage was a photo of My Darling B looking like a pixie at the foot of the giant.

On to Fortuna, the home of Eel River Brewery, America’s first organic brewery but, even more important, home to some of the most delicious beers we sampled on this trip. We got a flight of a dozen beers, a sample of all the beers they brewed. Yum. And the pub itself was a lot of fun, too, and clearly very popular. Every table had a big basket of salted-in-the-shell peanuts. You were meant to shuck them and throw the shells on the floor, as everybody else was doing. If you tried to pile them neatly on the table, the waitress would just sweep them off with the back of her hand when she brought you your beers, or stopped by to ask if you needed anything. We passed a leisurely hour or so there before we moved on to Trinidad.

We were hoping to stay overnight at an RV park called Sounds of the Sea. When we got there, the lady who came out to check us in looked around and asked, “Where’s your unit?”

“Oh, we just have the camper van,” I told her, waving in the general direction of our conveyance.

She gave it the hairy eyeball. “We only have spots for RVs,” she informed me in a tone that suggested I was not of the body.

“Well,” I offered, “all we need is a place to park it for the night. We don’t even need hookups.”

She looked at me like I was talking crazy talk.

“Or if that’s too much trouble,” I went on, “I can just look for another place.” I thanked her for her time and excused myself.

As I was climbing into the driver’s seat B asked me what was going on. “They don’t take our kind here,” I told her, starting the engine.

“Our kind?”

“Hobos who camp in vans.”

Driving just a little further on, we came to Elk Country Lodge. Three guesses why they call it that. Hint: There was a real live elk in the driveway when we drove in. Just standing there, looking majestic, surrounded by tourists standing just outside their cars taking pictures. Signs in the office warned us that elk often wandered through the campground, and that we should give them plenty of room because they are wild animals. Some people need to be told that. Actually, some people need more exposure to wild animals and, if it results in a little natural selection, so much the better.

Elk Country RV Resort turned out to be a great place to stop for the night because we had the campground almost to ourselves. Not that we wanted to stay up all night blaring music on the radio and dancing on the roof of the van or anything like that; just that we liked the peace and quiet. As the evening closed in, we popped open a bottle of vino we bought during our drive up the Anderson Valley, and sat in our camp chairs snacking on the noshies that were still left from our visit to the farmer’s market. When it was finally too dark and a little too cold to sit outside, we retired to the laundry where we surfed the internet while washing underwear. It doesn’t take much to please us.

California Day 5 | 8:03 pm CDT
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Monday, September 30th, 2013

We woke up Monday morning with a deep, gnawing craving for coffee and no way to make it, something the guys who converted our van into a camper overlooked. A Mister Coffee in place of the sink in the back would be a huge improvement, I would think. Meant to leave them a note about that but I’m pretty sure I forgot.

After packing up, we left Hendy Wood Campground to search for a coffee shop or a diner open for breakfast but couldn’t find one within a stone’s throw of the campground, so eventually we settled for the boiled coffee they served at a roadside general store in Navarro, good enough to hold us over until we stopped for breakfast.

Navarro River Redwoods State ParkWe were traveling the road to the coast up the Navarro River valley. The road was narrow and winding, and redwoods grow thick and tall on both sides. This is the Navarro River Redwoods State Park, probably the longest, thinnest state park we’ve ever visited. On the map, it’s a long, green strip just a little wider than the road. It might have extended to either side of the road only as far as we could see, but while we were driving through it, it seemed as though we were deep in a primeval forest. Well, one that had an asphalt road laid through it, but still. We pulled off to the side of the road several times to crane our necks upward and gape in slack-jawed wonder at how tall the trees were. We found out later that these were just the babies; the really big ones were up the road further.

We stopped for breakfast at the Little River Inn, a hotel and restaurant on the coast just south of Mendocino that the friendly lady at the Lone Oak winery recommended to us, one of the better tips we got on this trip. It’s a beautiful place and obviously very popular; there were a lot of people in the dining room for breakfast who drove there just for breakfast. The main dining room’s got big picture windows looking back into the forest, and the small dining room that we sat in had a view of the coastline. Most of the rooms are strung out along a long porch that overlooks the coast, too. It’d be a beautiful place to stay the night.

After breakfast, we drove on just a couple miles to Mendocino, a hippy-dippy crafty town where we wandered from shop to shop for about an hour. The touristy part of town is just a few blocks facing the coastline and all the shops are crafty. It’s like being in a Ben Franklin’s that’s as big as three or four city blocks.

Point Cabrillo LighthouseA little further up the road I pulled off to see the Cabrillo Lighthouse on a whim. I had never heard of it before; we were on our way to Fort Bragg to see Glass Beach; but lighthouses always look so romantic and lonely and historic that I couldn’t just drive past the road sign pointing the way without thinking to myself that I would always wonder why hadn’t stopped, so off we went.

I had the impression in my mind that it would be right off the highway, because we were within eyeshot of the coast; I could see waves and water from the road, and the sign didn’t say it was miles away, which it turned out it was. We went humming along a twisting backroad for so long that I started to feel that maybe someone had played a joke on us with that road sign, until we came to the parking lot where we had to leave the van and take a mile-long hike through tick-infested grassland to get down to the rocky point where the lighthouse stood. Really, there were signs everywhere warning us to stay on the path or be ravaged by ticks. I couldn’t stop myself from glancing left and right off the path, my eyes searching the more prominent grassy patches for exsanguinated corpses.

The lighthouse is a museum now but, sadly, you can’t go up the stairs to the light and stand by the rail to get a view of the coast. You can get dangerously close to the rocky cliff’s edge to take a selfie while the breakers undermine the ground beneath your feet, though. After reviewing the exhibits explaining the history of the lighthouse and the people who tended it, we opted to return to the parking lot up the road that we could have driven down to get to the point but somehow overlooked. Not that we regretted it. It was a beautiful day and we poked our heads into an outbuilding stuffed full of aquariums filled with starfish, snails and crabs, and I toured the house where the lightkeeper lived with his family.

The day’s biggest letdown was Glass Beach, really the only tourist destination we had planned to make on this leg of the trip. It’s advertised as a magical place where glass from thousands of broken bottles has washed up on the shore, then were pounded into multicolored pebbles by the waves. In all the tourist books, it’s described as one of the must-see places along the northern California coast, but either we couldn’t find it in spite of detailed signage and well-worn pathways, or years and years of visits by sticky-fingered tourists have resulted in the disappearance of all the glass. We looked up and down the beach for any sign of glass, but could find only sand, rock and kelp. No joy.

Glass Beach, Ft Bragg CA

Our visit to Ft Bragg started with a dump truck driver who didn’t know how to drive through a roundabout and nearly ran us over. Welcome!

Further down the main drag of Ft Bragg we stopped at the much-anticipated tasting room of North Coast Brewing, which is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Make a note. The gift shop at the brewery was open, though, and the nice lady there tipped us off to a restaurant in the harbor where their beer was served, so we went there for beer and a menu item called “macho nachos,” a plate of nachos so big it takes a busload of macho men to eat it. Or two hungry middle-aged travellers. We demolished that thing.

Just a little further up the road, we stopped at the Pacific Star Winery, perched on the cliffs over the ocean where breakers that appeared to be about a hundred feet tall crashed ever so picturesquely against the rocks. The gal pouring samples of wine said they had a big storm the day before that churned the sea up a bit. Before that, it had been flat as milk on a plate.

Stayed overnight at MacKerricher State Park, where we could hear the surf crashing all night long, and I do mean crashing; it sounded like a continual train wreck out there, and it seemed to get louder as the night went on. After hiking all day in the fresh air through tick-infested meadows and along the glass beach that wasn’t there, we were tired enough that it didn’t matter, and slept just fine.

Pacific Coast

California Day Four | 6:30 am CDT
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Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

image of MHTG brew schoolOn Wednesday nights, the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild usually meets at the Wil-Mar Community Center to, y’know, learn more about beer. Last night, though, they met on the premises of Madison’s newest brew pub, Next Door Brewing Co, to learn about their beer. Next Door is so new that all of their beer was still fermenting, but Keith Symonds, Next Door’s brewmaster, was happy to talk about the beer he’s making as the MHTG members crowd into his kitchen to listen.

Brew School – Next Door Brewing | 5:53 am CDT
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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 CDT
Category: festivals, food & drink, Madison Restaurant Week, play, restaurants
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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 CDT
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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 CDT
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Friday, July 12th, 2013

We just had to eat dinner at Grampa’s Pizzeria last night because it’s on Willy Street and it’s new and we’ve been chomping at the bit to see what it looks like inside and we love pizza and we were out shopping for furniture and we hate shopping and it was guy night and I didn’t have the slightest idea what to make for dinner so pizza.

Grampa’s pizza is da bomb, especially when paired with a glass of Argentinian merlot. There, that’s out of the way.

Grampa’s Pizzeria used to be Grampa’s Gun Shop. I’m not sure but I think Grampa used to live in the back and work in the small shop in the front of the building where he had a work bench set up in front of a picture window so you could see what he was working on. In all the years walking by that place, I never once spotted Grampa at work. The bench was usually strewn with tools and usually a light was on over the bench, but that was the only sign I saw that Grampa was at work in there.

When Grampa retired the place was almost immediately sold, the picture window was papered over and hints began to appear in the news that it would be turned into a restaurant. I have to admit I had my doubts. The place looked tiny. What kind of a restaurant could they possibly put in there? But we heard that Gil Altschul, the new owner, was the kitchen manager at Mickey’s Tavern, one of our favorite Willy Street hangouts, and after we heard it would be a pizza place I made sure I strolled past it every couple of days during my lunch hour to see when it would be opening so we could be one of the first customers to try it out.

The place is a lot bigger inside than I thought it was. They gutted the whole thing and the rebuild looks great. The place in the front where Grampa’s work bench used to be is a party room now; we ate dinner there last night at a communal table that appeared to be made out of six-by-six hardwood lumber salvaged from, I don’t know, a barn? A Great Lakes schooner? It was pretty substantial and pretty old, whatever it was. There’s an old-timey tin ceiling and some pretty art on the walls, and the big picture window lets in lots of light. It’s a very friendly space.

The service was great and the staff gets big bonus points for never letting our water glasses go dry. It’s a small thing but we’ve learned that there really is no better way to gauge the level of attention the staff gives you.

We ordered a pork confit for starters and that bottle of merlot I was talking about earlier. They let you cork the bottle and take it home, so we splurged and just bought the whole thing. The confit was about a dozen chunks of artisanal pork in a tiny cast-iron frying pan served with mustard and peppers, and would have been a good, light meal in itself if we both hadn’t brought big appetites. Watch out for those peppers. They seem mild at first but they sneak up on you and take you by the throat if you’re not careful.

And back to the pizza. After a bit of haggling we chose the peperone and it was awesome because it wasn’t buried in cheese, the crust was thin and crispy and the ingredients were delicious. I don’t think I’ve ever seen olives so green or tasted sauce so tomatoey, if that’s a word. Autocorrect says it isn’t, but to hell with that.

If I were forced to complain about just one thing, and unfortunately for me I rarely have to be forced to complain even a little bit, I’d have to say that the piped-in music was too loud. It was delightful, it complimented the place very nicely, but background music should never be so loud that it forces me to repeat myself while carrying on a conversation with my date. We who are trying to woo women do not appreciate that.

But that’s a nitpick. The experience of dining at Grampa’s left us both so supremely satisfied that we couldn’t stop telling one another how satisfied we were. Mazel tov, Grampa’s! Well done.

grampa’s | 6:48 pm CDT
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Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

Well, I did not do hardly anything I planned to do today, except go out to breakfast with My Darling B, and drink beer. So the day’s not a total loss.

We went to Eldorado Grill for breakfast, first time we’ve ever been. It’s one of those places we’ve driven past almost every day for the past five years and said, “We’ve really got to stop there one of these days.” So this morning we were trying to decide whether to try some place new or revisit a trusty old favorite, and while B was looking at restaurants on Willy Street, she recalled that Eldorado was at the top of our short list of the very next place we were going to visit. Okay, no it wasn’t, but only because we don’t actually have a list. We’re not nearly that organized. But if somehow we were, Eldorado would’ve been at the top of our list.

After close examination of the menu, I chose what I like to think of as a good old American breakfast: two eggs over easy, pan-fried potatoes, bacon, and buttered toast. It’s hard to screw that up, but it’s easy to do an excellent job of preparing that, which, I’m very satisfied to say, they did. I happily devoured the whole thing.

B saw something on the menu with biscuits & gravy and ordered it because biscuits & gravy is like an irresistible impulse with her, so they pretty much had her at hello. Then they brought the dish to the table and she nearly fainted. The biscuits turned out to be the size of hubcaps and there was enough gravy to lubricate every colon in Texas. Try as she might, B could not put so much as a dent in her breakfast, and she tried. She tried very hard.

The beer-drinking wasn’t part of a party or a festival, I just like drinking beer and, as it happens, we had some in the fridge. So I drank it.

Eldorado | 6:29 pm CDT
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Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

She’s been waiting 14 weeks for this glass of beer.

img of My Darling B with a glass of 1515 from Central Waters BrewingWe went to the Central Waters anniversary party 14 weeks ago and the one beer that My Darling B dearly wanted to try was an Imperial Stout they put up in bourbon barrels specially for this very anniversary. They named this special beer “Fifteen.” See if you can guess why.

As soon as a line started to form for the tapping, she got in it, but while she was waiting they ran out. She’s been searching for it ever since then, with no luck at all, until tonight when the good brewers at Central Waters brought a keg of Fifteen to our favorite restaurant, Alchemy, for Madison Craft Beer Week.

I work just a few blocks away, so I was tasked with getting there as soon as I could after work to make sure I would be there when they tapped the keg. I snagged our usual table and, when the waitress came around, warned her that my wife would run over me with the car if I didn’t have a glass of Fifteen waiting on the table for her when she arrived.

A cheer went up from the crowd at the bar when the bartender announced, “Let the beer flow!” And about three minutes later the waitress delivered a goblet of Fifteen to our table so it was waiting when My Darling B walked through the door two minutes after that. I’d give her props for becoming my biggest hero if only she’d signed her name so I could read it.

This was a beer worth waiting months for. I like beer quite a lot, but bourbon-barrel-aged beers are really My Darling B’s thing. She loves them, but most of the ones I’ve tried are too boozy for me. Fifteen was not like that at all. It was silky smooth, rich and creamy, so easy to drink. Probably a little too easy; I’m sure we could each have put away enough of the stuff to make us unfit for work the next day. Thank goodness they served it in eight-ounce goblets and set the price just high enough to make us think twice about ordering too many.

Fifteen | 12:09 am CDT
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Saturday, May 4th, 2013

Oh my, I have sooo many carbs to burn off after last night’s fish fry. We joined the kickoff of Madison Craft Beer Week by meeting a couple of friends at Quivey’s Grove to swap stories over a Friday night fish fry and a couple glasses of Common Thread Biere de Garde, which is French for “beer that is good.”

My belly was stuffed full after gobbling up all that fried fish, which I didn’t mind until I climbed into bed to go night-night and felt as if I was lying on a bowling ball, not very comfortable at all. I had to squirm around for a while until I found an angle where the bowling ball wouldn’t keep me awake.

I felt just guilty enough about overindulging that I got up early to take a little spin around town on my bike. I may have gone far enough to burn off the pie. Did I mention the pie? No? There was pie.

burning carbs | 7:10 am CDT
Category: beer, festivals, food & drink, Madison Craft Beer Week, O'Folks, O'Folks friends, play, restaurants
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Sunday, April 14th, 2013

Between movies, we had time enough to drive up to Brasserie V to check out some of the imported beers and fill up on some delicious pub food!
photobomb!

Photobomb! | 11:22 am CDT
Category: beer, festivals, food & drink, play, restaurants, Wisc Film Fest
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Monday, April 1st, 2013

I don’t know if it was the lamb tartar or the rabbit sausage, but something I ate last night gave me the stinkiest farts EVAR!

I’ve never had anything tartar before, so if I had to guess, I’d say it was that. The rabbit sausage was so rich, though, that I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the culprit instead. But they were both so good that I would have to admit it was worth an attack of stinky farts. Still trying to work out if it was worth the sleeplessness brought on by the rumbly tummy that came with the farts.

The tartar and the rabbit were part of a prix fixe Easter dinner produced by our friendly neighborhood REAP Food Group and hosted by Merchant, a Mad Town establishment that specializes in craft cocktails and artisanal foods. We like to stop in there every so often for a cocktail before or after a show, and we’re members of REAP, so we sorta had to go to this event. Also, I couldn’t say no to dining on rabbit for Easter. I’m a little disappointed I didn’t get to bite the ears off, though.

They brought out the cutest little cheese-covered popover for the appetizer and it was so good I just couldn’t stop myself from gobbling it up, even though one of the owners of Merchant came out with a microphone just then to tell us about the dinner and REAP Food Group and all sorts of good things. The popover came with a complimentary glass of cava that was delish, too.

My first course was a salad with croutons that tasted like bacon and a fried egg on the side. Wow, that was good. I’ve never been so eager to eat a plate of rabbit food in my life.

My second course was the lamb tartar served with a thick chunk of foccacia. I would never have ordered lamb tartar on my own; that’s why I go to fancy dinners like these. They put something like raw meat in front of me at one of these things and I think, Well, gotta try new things! And I loved it.

The rabbit sausage was the third course, and came with rabbit confit ravioli. I’ve had rabbit before, but it was baked like a game hen. First time I’ve had one converted into sausage and pasta. Very rich, but very tasty.

Here comes Peter Cottontail | 5:46 am CDT
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Sunday, March 31st, 2013

One of Madison’s own breweries, Ale Asylum, recently moved from its original location on Kinsman Blvd down the street and around the corner to a bigger, purpose-built brewing house that even The Google doesn’t know about yet* on Pankratz St, and until yesterday we were possibly the last people in town who hadn’t been there for a visit, so after our weekly Saturday morning ritual of drinking coffee in our jammies all morning, we showered and dressed and jumped into the O-Mobile to head over there for a bite of lunch.

Compared to their previous location, the new brewery is HUGE with lots more bells and whistles. The original brewery was shoehorned into one unit in a strip mall, but the Pankratz St location is so big that they appear to have plenty of room to add more equipment as their operation grows.

Not only is their brewery bigger, so is their brewpub. Thank goodness they had the resources to expand that along with the rest of their operation. And the food is still just as good as the beer. I tried their black bean burger and washed it down with a goblet of their house ale. My Darling B ordered a couple of fish tacos, which went so well with her glass of heffeweizen that she ordered a growler to take home for later.

After lunch, we went from Ale Asylum’s new location to their old home where a new microbrewery, Karben 4, has taken over the premises and even some of the equipment. The bartender poured tasters of their black IPA and Irish Red Ale as we talked about their beer before I finally settled on a glass of SamuRyePA. My Darling B didn’t have to dither too much about what she wanted: all she had to do was read that Night Call was a smoked porter and she knew she wanted a glass. We passed a happy hour sipping our suds before we headed back to Our Humble O’Bode.

*Okay, it turns out The Google does know after all. The brewery doesn’t show up on the satellite view when I searched the address, but when I zoomed in real close, Bingo!

an afternoon with beer | 3:28 pm CDT
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Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

If I remember rightly, and I’m not saying I do, I think The Fountain used to be a seafood place in a previous life. I’m not sure because I’ve been away from downtown Madison for quite a while now. While I worked on cap square I took a walk down State Street about once a week and knew just about every restaurant, shop and tavern, but it’s been a long time since then and a lot of things have changed. Somebody with a big red crane tore down about half of the 100 Block, for instance. That’s a change that would scramble anybody’s memory.

The Fountain seemed familiar, though. I have a dim memory of eating a sit-down dinner or two in the room where we saw the big band. It’s not a big room. It’s certainly not a room I’d expect to be able to squeeze into if there was a full-sized big band already present, although I’d have to qualify that by saying I’ve been in the presence of a real live big band just once in my whole life. I’m entirely willing to admit that I think they’re big mostly because they got ‘big’ in the name.

The room that they call the upstairs bar has three or four booths against one wall, room for maybe a dozen tables in the middle of the floor, and they’ve managed to park some really teeny two-person tables against the wall between the windows or, in our case, up against one window, a fact I mention only because the windows aren’t insulated, giving me a terrible case of goosebumps the night we were there. Yes, thank you, I’ll have some cheese with my whine.

The band was scheduled to start playing at five, but five came and went and there were still guys lugging big, black instrument cases through the door. They didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry, either. Five clearly meant five-ish.

We passed the time with a couple of beers and, for appetizers, we ordered onion straws. Why do we do this? We know from experience that we shouldn’t. Our bodies aren’t young enough to eat that much deed-fried snack food, but we order it anyway because wow that’s good snack food, especially with dipping sauce. And when you wash it down with beer – *bliss!* Paid for it later, though.

(If you’re really hungry, I recommend the reuben sandwich. I have never before seen corned beef slices so thick on a reuben anywhere. I ate just half of it and was well and truly serensified, even unto the next day.)

The band started playing around five-thirty and just BLEW MY SOCKS OFF! Literally. And then I couldn’t find them, not even wadded up in the toes of my shoes. That shouldn’t even be physically possible, but when a half-dozen saxophones backed up by a half-dozen trombones and an indeterminate number (couldn’t indulge my urge to count; a pillar was in my way) of trumpets start channeling the spirit of Count Basie, socks are gonna fly. I couldn’t find them anywhere. I had to go home sockless.

The first set lasted about an hour and comprised four or five toe-tapping numbers, then the band took a break to grab some beers and reload. “Do you want to stay for the second half?” My Darling B asked. “Hell, yes!” I answered without having to think about it. So we did. When they came back and started playing the second set, they blew my shoes off. Found those under a nearby table, though, so I didn’t have to walk barefoot through the snow to get home.

The Fountain Big Band meets on the last Sunday of every month at The Fountain, 122 State Street. I know that’s where we’ll be four weeks from now.

The Fountain | 6:15 am CDT
Category: booze, daily drivel, entertainment, food & drink, music, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, restaurants
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Sunday, March 24th, 2013

We got all kindsa kulcha today.

About a month ago, My Darling B asked me if I wanted to go to the opera. It’s not something she asks me very often – like, never – so I said yes. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. She caught me unprepared.

But that turned out to be a good thing. The show she got tickets for was The Real Divas of Dane County, a reality show/opera mash-up. I’m only passingly familiar with the “Real Housewives” television show, and the only opera I know is what I heard watching Bugs Bunny, but I think they did a fair job.

We got there way too early, though. The last time we went into town for a show at the Overture Center there were huge crowds milling around in the lobby for three different shows and we had one hell of a time grabbing our tickets from the will-call window in time to get to our show. We didn’t want to cut it as fine this time so we left an hour before show time, only to get there and find no other shows going on and virtually nobody in the lobby. After picking up our tickets, we had forty minutes to kill before the show.

So we headed up State Street to see if we could find an open bar where we could sit and sip a cocktail before the show, and it turned out we could: The Fountain had plenty of empty bar stools and a bartender who was more than willing to mix a couple drinks for us. He had an interesting way of mixing a martini: After he chilled the glass with ice water, he poured just a bit of vermouth into the glass, swirled it around enough to coat the insides, dumped the excess down the drain, then filled it up with gin. My dad would’ve loved that, both for the theater of it and the resulting delicious martini.

When we told him we were in town to see a show, he let us know that there would be a big band playing in the upstairs bar later and invited us to stop by if we were staying in town. We hadn’t planned on it, but figured what the hell, we can do things spontaneously once in a while, and came back.

Good thing we did, because The Fountain Big Band is fantastic! If I counted right, there were five sax players, five trombone players, three trumpet players, a piano player, a drummer, a guitar player and a bass player, all jammed into a back corner of a very intimate venue. They all seemed to be professional musicians or professors of music from all over the state, and a few from out of state. They get together at the Fountain on the last Sunday of each month and, without any kind of rehearsal, belt out some of the foot-tappingest big-band music I’ve heard. We enjoyed it so much that we stayed for both the first and last set. And to think we wouldn’t have even heard of it if we hadn’t been too early for the opera.

kulcha | 9:56 pm CDT
Category: booze, entertainment, food & drink, music, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, restaurants, show | Tags: ,
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Thursday, March 21st, 2013

“Home?” I asked My Darling B before I put the car in drive to pull away from the curb in front of the office last night.

“No. Alchemy. We’re eating out tonight,” she answered, naming our favorite after-work restaurant.

It was that kind of a day for her, too, then.

alchemy | 5:00 am CDT
Category: daily drivel, food & drink, My Darling B, O'Folks, office work, restaurants, work | Tags:
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Friday, March 15th, 2013

It’s our custom every year to retire to a booth at The Roman Candle pizza parlor and choose the films that we want to see at the annual Wisconsin Film Festival. In years past, the festival’s schedule has been published a week before tickets went on sale but this year, along with all the other changes to the festival that I don’t like, the schedule was published on Thursday and tickets were set to go on sale the following Saturday, giving us less than 48 hours to make our selections. Just in case anybody from the WFF is reading this: That’s really bogus, guys.

We took our usual booth, ordered a 14-inch Supreme and a couple beers, and set to work. A little more than an hour later, we had our first choices.

There were surprisingly few movies that reached out and grabbed me, but then I feel I didn’t have enough time to think about my choices. B, on the other hand, came up with a long list of movies she wanted to see. Reconciling our two lists was a quick and relatively painless process.

Somehow, B ate all but one slice of her half of the pizza and regretted it almost right away. “Ate. Too. Much. Pizza,” she moaned over and over, wondering how she was going to get through the night. I stopped a slice and a half short of finishing my half and somehow escaped the indigestion that plagued her until I ate the rest for lunch the next day, when I was stricken with the Oh My God Trots almost immediately. TMI? Sorry about that.

choices | 7:06 pm CDT
Category: beer, entertainment, festivals, food & drink, movies, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, restaurants, Wisc Film Fest | Tags:
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