Saturday, September 1st, 2012

image of One Barrel BrewingFriday night after work: We’re at the far end of the bar, enjoying a frosty cold one at One Barrel Brewing Company.

“Wait, you’re at the end of the bar? Then who’s taking the photo?”

I’ve got a new camera. It’s got legs and even makes me coffee in the morning.

Okay, I’m taking the photo. I got up to use the men’s room and snapped this shot as I was headed back to sit with My Darling B, who’s sitting under the Chinese bicycle. Someday I’m going to find out why there’s a Chinese bicycle hanging from the wall.

image of One Barrel BrewingThis is how I knew I was going to like One Barrel the first time I visited: Any tavern owner that will hang a jackalope on the wall is worth his weight in beer. The fact that the owner serves beer he brewed his own self on the premises is just gravy.

Oddly, we didn’t drink any of his beer last night. B’s current favorite is a spicy beer called Cocoa Mole, made at the New Belgium Brewery, if memory serves. I went with an ESB from local brewer Page Buchanan at the House of Brews, just dark enough to be interesting, but not a heavy beer. And we were happy with that.

After our beers, I said the word “ramen” out loud, which cast its magical spell over My Darling B so that, just minutes later, we found ourselves seated at the bar at Umami, the only place they could find two stools for us to wolf down two big bowls of our favorite food.

There was a plan to go out and listen to some music after that, but with our bellies full of beer and ramen, we made a slight change to our plans and opted for a nap instead. Seemed like the best thing to do.

image of bottles behind the bar at Umami

decompression | 7:31 am CST
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Thursday, May 10th, 2012

I used to work on cap square so I must have walked I don’t know how many times past Natt Spil and wondered what was in there. It looked like maybe it was a restaurant, or it could have been a bar, but then again for all I could tell from the minimal signage and ornamentation out front it could have been a stationery store, or the headquarters of a ninja clan.

It took an embarrassingly long time for us to finally get around to visiting, but My Darling B and I finally stopped by last night, when Natt Spil took part in Madison Craft Beer Week, hosting a tap takeover of New Belgium brews. We wanted to take advantage of the free shuttle bus that Hop Head Beer Tours was running between downtown taverns and the bars on the east end of town, so we planned to hit the town right after work, and that plan called for a place that would not only be taking part in Craft Beer Week, but which served food as well. And so, Natt Spil.

We liked the place the moment we walked in the door. Except for the sandblasted brick wall that is apparently required by Dane county ordinance to be in every restaurant in Madison, there is wood just about everywhere: On the floor, on the walls, on the ceiling. The booths are darkly stained panels, while the tables glow in what appear to be their natural colors, glazed over with plenty of urethane sealant. And across the ceiling, Asian mandalas filled the panels above the paper lanterns.

The table we chose at the front of the shop still had its rough, undressed edges, as did many of the seat backs in the booths along the wall. We didn’t get it by accident. A couple of young ladies were finishing off their drinks and offered it to us as we looked around the room, wondering where we would be able to shoehorn ourselves into the crowd. That was nice.

There appeared to be just one guy waiting on tables, and even though he was running his legs off, he was friendly and always smiling. He was also wearing a pair of shorts that were at least six inches too big in the waist for him. Every time he came back to the bar to pick up an order, he had to hook a thumb into the waist band and drag them back up to somewhere in the vicinity of his butt. As soon as he grabbed whatever drinks or food was waiting for him, they’d fall right back down to his knees again. Somehow, he never fell flat on his face after getting his legs tangled up in them.

To quiet our growling tummies, we ordered copiously from a menu of what we thought was going to be snacks. My Darling B asked for a bowl of Duck Duck Soup, which turned out to be a very generously-laden bowl of what looked like ramen noodles topped with slices of duck meat, swimming in broth so yummy that B did her best to scoop up every last drop of it.

I ordered dim sum: spring rolls, dumplings, shrimp cakes and a salad of picked vegetables. The spring rolls were HUGE and could have been a meal in themselves. The dumplings were stuffed with shrimp, sausage and water chestnuts and drizzled with a very morish sauce that we rubbed the dumplings in to get every bit of it down our necks. The shrimp cakes were stuffed with shrimp – what’s not to like about that? And about the pickled salad I can say that even the most dedicated cook can mistake a big chunk of ginger for a potato. “I’ve never had pickled potato before!” B proclaimed, popping it into her mouth with glee. Five seconds of chewing later, her face was red and her eyes were brimming with tears. Beware.

Even though it appears to be an enormously popular place, we can’t wait to go back.

Natt Spil | 9:53 pm CST
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Monday, February 13th, 2012

It was a dark and stormy night, filled with snow and sleet driven by a lashing wind. Why would any sane person want to spend any amount of time walking the streets of Madison tonight?

Well, because there was all-you-can-eat sushi at Restaurant Muramoto tonight.

We thought about going to Restaurant Muramoto tomorrow night, in celebration of Valentine’s Day, but getting a reservation turned out to be a problem and, besides, they didn’t have all-you-can-eat sushi tomorrow. So we celebrated Valentine’s Day one day early. We’re pretty flexible that way.

What we aren’t, though, is all-you-can-eat people. We tried our darndest and, if I may say so, acquitted ourselves well, but we didn’t even come close to making them regret the folly of their ways. We ordered three rolls (eight pieces each) and twelve pieces of nigiri, with a pile of asian slaw on the side. We were both pretty hungry, and it was scrumptiously good food but, at the very end, neither one of us could manage to work up the gumption to tuck into that last piece of sushi.

I think the rolls were better than the nigiri, which is little rice cakes topped by slices of fish. I loved the salmon nigiri, and the albacore was very tasty, but everything else was too subtle for my tongue to pick up much taste.

The rolls were wonderful, especially the Tokyo Picnic and the Rainbow rolls. I wish I could remember what was in them; I’ll take notes next time. I’ll be burping for a month, so “next time” won’t be until late March at the earliest.

sushi | 9:07 pm CST
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Thursday, January 26th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sake | 10:34 pm CST
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Saturday, June 18th, 2011

Umami, the one and only place in this town to eat a delicious bowl of ramen, finally opened the patio they’ve been working on out front of their shop. My Darling B caught the news of this announcement somewhere and we made a date to meet after work yesterday. I hoofed the eight or ten blocks from the office building where I work, she drove over from the west side of town and we met at almost the same time, about five minutes before the doors opened.

The place seems to be doing fairly well; there was a line forming when I walked up and, by the time they opened the door, there were maybe a dozen people waiting to get in. By the time we finished dinner all of the tables on the patio were filled and I think most of the tables inside were, too. The place doesn’t seem to have been hit too hard by the construction along Willy Street, but then the profit margin for restaurants is so narrow that I still worry. It’s a great little restaurant and I do love the ramen they serve. I hope they can hang on through the rest of the summer.

B and I both had the miso ramen and finished every drop. The broth was especially good, with a rich, almost buttery flavor, very smooth. We ordered a garlic bomb and spicy bomb to go with the ramen, which they serve as a side order so you can stir in a little or a lot. And the dumplings were half-price, so we indulged ourselves with a plate. I ended up so full of rameny goodness that I caught myself nodding off while we were watching The Colbert Report later at home, and ended up going to bed early. Miso ramen makes me drowsy.

full | 7:59 am CST
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Sunday, April 10th, 2011

My Darling B spent just about all day in her garden yesterday, happily digging up a four-by-eight plot of ground, then inching her way along on all fours poking holes in the dirt and burying seeds for lettuce and peas and I don’t know what else. When she finally came indoors late in the afternoon to take a shower she was all smiles. Well, mostly smiles. Also aches and pains, but happy ones.

Although we should probably cut back on expenses like eating out every week, we celebrated this first glorious day of summer (or spring, or sprumming, whatever) with a trip into town to eat dinner at Umami, the new noodle shop on Willy Street that reminds us so much of our favorite noodle house in Misawa, Japan, the Familiar Roll Noodle House. The pan-fried dumplings are spot-on, and the ramen is so close as to make no difference. B read somewhere that the noodles come from R&P Pasta, a shop just a few blocks away on Wilson Street. They used to serve the best bowl of spaghetti in town until they closed the dining room, a sad day we are still in mourning over.

The last time we went to Umami I wrote a fond reminiscence of our days slurping up ramen in Japan and thanking the good people at Umami for taking me back to those days. Shortly after, someone from Umami shot a text message to me on my cell phone thanking me for the writeup and inviting me to ask for Mike or Randy the next time we dropped in, so last night as we were being shown to our table I dropped those names, asking if there was any chance I could talk to one of them. “I’m Mike,” he said, so I introduced myself and thanked him once again for such an enjoyable dining experience. After saying thanks he had to run off to seat others waiting for tables, but when he had a bit more time he came back to thank me for writing such a nice review in my blog. If he’d had more time I would have liked to ask him more about the restaurant, but there was a line of people out the door and he had to tend to them, so we cut it short at exchanging thank-yous.

We ordered almost exactly the same dishes we ordered last time: B had been daydreaming about the miso ramen all afternoon, the whole reason we ended up going to Umami in the first place. I ordered the pork ramen, still scrumptious, but I was eyeing B’s miso ramen with a jealous eye all through the meal. We couldn’t visit without ordering a big plate of dumplings, and ate every one of them – no leftovers last night! Just to shake things up, though, we added a plate of pickled veggies: beet, beans, carrots, cukes and mangoes, to add an extra touch of Japanese-ness to the meal.

Once again, we waddled home happily stuffed with good food. If ever we have to cut back on meals eaten out, I don’t know how we’re going to choose which places we go, but Umami will remain high on the list for quite a while.

Umami | 10:53 am CST
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Friday, March 18th, 2011

It’s not like Madison needs another restaurant, but we’re pretty happy that Umami opened on Willy Street anyway. We stopped there for dinner after work today and each slurped up a bowl of ramen the likes of which we’ve not enjoyed since we left Japan almost six years ago.

We’ve tried ramen at a few places since we returned to the States but until now we haven’t had any that comes even close to the real thing served hot from a tiny little shop in a Japanese village. The best we ever ate was the kind they served on a cold, snowy day, but really the very best was served right in our own little town of Misawa at a place the gaijin from the air base called Cheese Roll Noodle, because that’s what was etched in the big picture window in the front of the shop. Almost. In point of fact it read “Cheese Rool Noodle.” I still have a photo of that somewhere. [here it is!] I don’t know the Japanese name except in English: Family Familiar Noodle House.

At Umami we each ordered a different bowl: My Darling B tried the miso ramen and I had a bowl of pork ramen. I was very encouraged when the waiter brought it to our table in bowls big enough for us to bathe in, and it just kept getting better from there. Mine had an appropriately fatty slab of pork floating off to one side, a few slices of bamboo and seaweed clustered against the other side, and half an egg floating smack-dab in the middle. B’s was similarly adorned but with tofu instead of pork. The noodles were not quite right – delicious, but not the same kind of noodle served in Japan. But the broth was an orgasm of flavors, if that’s not getting too personal about how wonderful it tasted. I slurped up every bit of it, picking up the bowl and tipping it back in the manner considered proper in all the finer ramen shops.

So a great big thank-you to Umami for taking me back to my Misawa days, when a bowl of ramen was one of the best kinds of dinner you could buy while you were in town. Ita dake masu!

Oishii desu! | 9:17 pm CST
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