Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Sunroom (A Great Madison Salad)

It surprises me, often, how few truly great salads Madison, Wisconsin restaurants offer. Very early on, I discovered the Sunroom Cafe's Tuna Avocado Salad Plate, one of the dishes I'll miss most when I eventually move away from Madison.

As you can see, the salad comes with pita, tuna, lettuce, and tomato, cucumber, and always fresh slices of avocado.

Two things make this salad spectacular. First, the cucumber yogurt dressing, which is my favorite Madison salad dressing. I always ask for extra, as I have to exercise restraint if only using the subtle amount the restaurant serves on the side. Second, the tuna is as good as this kind of tuna gets. It is not fishy or mayonnaise heavy. It has a distinct taste that I haven't been able to replicate with store-bought tuna, even when I've tried using vinegar or lemon to cut it. I'm not sure whether the Sunroom does in fact cut the tuna with an acid or if it dishes it straight out of the can, but I plan on asking when I am finally en route out of Madison.

I've found some of the Sunroom's dishes hit or miss, although the restaurant is quite popular, and people have many different favorite Sunroom dishes. If you want a safe bet, order this salad, a special (often Mediterranean pasta dishes), and any of the baked goods, which are generally tantalizing.

Sophia's Brunch

If you ask many--if not most--people what their favorite brunch venue is in Madison, they'll say Sophia's, on E. Johnson. Despite some rigmarole a person has to endure when eating there (the restaurant is only open on Saturdays and Sundays, and some menu items such as the fresh fruit run out later in the day; cramped interior; often little seating room; sharing table space with strangers; having to wait twice in line, once to order and once to pay; having to worm through crowded tables in order to put dishes away after eating), Sophia's food is often considered the most delicious, consistent, and fresh.

I almost always order the egg and cheese croissant, the bed egg sandwich in Madison and probably the best one I've ever eaten.

I love that it comes not with potatoes (which you can also order), but fruit, which is always fresh. I love that Sophia presents not only the usual, cheap, expected honeydew and cantaloupe, but also strawberries, kiwi, blueberries, and whatever else is in season or available.

Although the specials (including omelets with ingredients such as butternut squash, caramelized onions, and asiago, as you see listed on the chalkboard menu above) often tempt me, I rarely vary from the egg and cheese. My friend Molly, however, ordered the black bean tacos, which were stellar.

I encountered one major disappointment when Molly and I ate at Sophia's this time. My New Year's resolution is to only eat humanely-procured, environmentally responsible meat (i.e., organic/grass-fed/local). So I asked the staff if the bacon is local, completely expecting a "yes." Instead, I learned that Sophia's uses factory farm bacon, a strange choice, I think, considering her clientele and its availability in Madison. I'd pay more for this, Sophia!

Sophia's makes some of the best baked goods in Madison, so if you have room left over after eating, definitely order something from the bakery case.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Madison Time Out: Skokie's Pita Inn

My friends Marjorie and Matthew recently took me to Skokie, Illinois' Pita Inn, a Mediterranean wonderland. They joked that this is the kind of place you'd never enter if you didn't know the cheap fabulousness that is held inside.

Although I do love Madison's Mediterranean Cafe, mostly for its service, Avgolemono, and its hummus (hands-down, the best in town), it does not have nearly the breadth of offerings of Pita Inn, and particularly vegetarian offerings. I don't think I'm being unfair when I say that Med Cafe's falafel is the worst in town, perhaps the worst I've ever eaten. It pains me to say that, because I love the place so much and the owner seems particularly adept at hiring really friendly employees. When I'm absent for a few weeks, I get admonished a little when I return, which always makes me feel a little special. But its falafel is dry, a surprise since it is a Mediterranean staple. Locals know to order anything but.

Matthew kept saying that he and Marjorie had to take me to Pita Inn, because I'd gush over it, and they were right. Matthew sat us ladies down while he assembled an arrangement of dipping sauces, one that has a healthy dose of fire, and I say that as one who loves a heavy hand of heat, and one that is tahini-based:

I ordered a vegetarian combo plate, which came with out-of-this-world baba ganoush; hummus (though in this case, I still slightly prefer Med Cafe's); stuffed grape leaves; a yogurt salad with cucumber and mint, a perfect summer side; and a tabouleh salad with tomato that had a just-right lemony-acidic bite.

Marjorie went for the chicken fatoush salad:

Oh wait, that's Marjorie looking beautiful as usual, not her fatoush:

And Matthew had the chicken schwarma platter.

They told me that they have eaten everything on the menu and have pared down to their favorite dishes. After that dining experience, I think I might be forever set on the vegetarian combo.

This place is absolutely worth a detour on your way to Chicago, Madisonians!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Restaurant Magnus

My sister came into town last weekend, and so I wanted to take her to Restaurant Magnus, in order to try food from the menu that landed chef Nicholas Johnson a James Beard nomination for best chef Midwest.

The menu took a Scandinavian turn in 2009 and now features New Scandinavian items such as a  Caesar salad with gravlax, cubed raw tuna on Himalayan salt brick, a pickled seafood board, and fennel-dill salmon with gravlax-fingerling potato salad. Although the menu is heavily fish-based, it also offers heftier bistro fare, such as venison and a coriander duck breast with lingonberry-horseradish glaze, the dish that landed it the James Beard nomination.

Despite part-owner Chris Berge's insistence that we try the duck, most of us were wanting to eat light(er) and, I think, mistakenly passed over this dish, as well as the cubed tuna.

I should preface this post by saying that being from Miami, it is difficult often to order seafood at all in Madison, especially at Madison dining costs, which rival, if not outdo, those in metropolitan, coastal cities such as Miami that have greater access to fresher fish.

Despite this fact, my sister ordered the winning item of the night, surprisingly, oysters with a cucumber-horseradish vinaigrette.

I had recently struggled through a brick oyster at another local haunt and was hesitant to order them, but she ordered several and they were so remarkable that we ordered several more. We had a little debate over whether oysters should be sent straight "down the hatch" (her method) or whether they should rest a while in the mouth, sort-of dissolving there. These oysters were so delectably melt-in-the-mouth that I though it a shame to do the former. The vinaigrette is also a piquant complement to the oyster.

Another standout was her main course, the chilled ahi tuna with mussels, caramelized red onion, parsnip, and caper-almond butter. The phrase "caper-almond butter" doesn't adequately describe the richness and flavor of the sauce, definitely the boldest and most flavorful mussel dish I've been served in Madison. It is, however, not light. Our server warned us that dish is more mussels with tuna than the reverse, and indeed, we felt the tuna was an unnecessary and distracting addition.

It was hard for Liese and I to judge our dishes against the strength of these others. The Caesar salad was a bit disappointing. The salad required a smaller plate; it was a medium-sized salad spread across a huge tablet. And the dressing did not have the acidic bite that we expected from a Caesar. The addition of gravlax, however, was nice.

My peppercorn cod with white cocoa-cauliflower puree, spinach, and citrus-roe butter was fine, but the sauce did not stand out as did the one in the mussel dish. I also was nearing full by the time it arrived. Magnus serves a dipping sauce with its house-baked bread that contains all of the herbs and spices on the menu, as a sort of palette preparer for the meal to come (although overall, what we tasted most was dill). We could not get enough of this, and indeed, it was complex, yet light enough to be featured as a sauce on one of the fish dishes. I would have gladly eaten this with my cod.

Liese had steamed rainbow trout with scallops and calamari, cucumber, blue potato, garlic mustard and horseradish-shellfish broth, and she enjoyed it, though we still felt the mussels were a much stronger dish.

As for cocktails, if you go during the summer, the drink to order first is the Finn's #7 Cup, with Death’s Door gin, dry vermouth, Lillet, St. Germain, apple, and cucumber.

I was nervous about the apple, but the apple is served as a garnish, and our server's description of the drink as refreshing and not overly sweet was accurate. He described the cocktails so well, in fact, that we began to really trust his assessment of the menu as a whole. This suggests Magnus' servers are trained well.

My sister and Liese liked Magnus' take on the Old-Fashioned, with Jack Daniels, Southern Comfort, ginger, and ginger ale.

A critical component for me of fine dining is atmosphere, and of that, Magnus has plenty. This is another restaurant that does not have a bad seat in the house, though we loved sitting in the front room, in view of outside, without having to get eaten alive by mosquitoes. I'm most anxious to return for more oysters and to ravage the appetizer menu.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Lazy Jane's Morning

Photography by Amanda Manteufel
There are few things that I'll wake up before 7:45 a.m. for. I'm simply not an early morning person, and I'll choose sunset over sunrise most any day. But breakfast with a friend, especially when I know I won't get to see that friend for a length of time, is one thing that I make exceptions for. Recently, Amanda drove me to the airport to catch a flight to Philly, and so we breakfasted at Lazy Jane's Cafe and Bakery, a haunt so well-traveled to in Madison and such an East-side staple that it needs little advertisement.

Lazy Jane's' food is good, not great. But I appreciate a restaurant's ability do at least one thing exceptionally well, one thing that you'll consistently crave and return for, and that thing, at Lazy Jane's, is the scone.

Pictured here is the cherry, though I always struggle with the decision between the cherry and the lemon cream. Both are glazed in sugar and heavy with ingredients no one could call light. The fruit is always tart and fresh. What is nice is that if you just want to pick up scones from Lazy Jane's, you can walk into the restaurant (there's generally a line from the front door to the register), pick up a foam glove expressly there for this purpose, and signal to the counter staff that you'd like bakery to go.

I am also a sucker for cream cheese used well in breakfast food, and the cafe's SCC delivers a simple, yet well-balanced plate of eggs, scallions, and cream cheese.

Lazy Jane's potatoes are not my favorite; I usually leave them behind. There are thickly-cut and fairly greasy. The toast is fine; it's hard to go bad with Rye, and the cafe provides various jams, jellies, and butter to adorn the toast.

After I saw Amanda's BLT, I felt a little jealous, though . . .

Many in Madison love Lazy Jane's kitschy, homey decor and establishment in a two-story house, with many odd objects scattered around. It is kid and family-friendly, and children have not only books and toys available to them, but space to sprawl in the upstairs room.

What I enjoy about the decor is that it is like looking into a person's home; you learn a little bit about that person and what (objects) she or he finds significant. I like how most people I eat with at Lazy Jane's have a preference for which room or nook they like to eat in.

Some downsides to Lazy Jane's: the chefs call out loudly when your food is ready, and you pick it up in the window pictured in the first picture above. When you sit upstairs, it is hard to hear your name being called (I've begun in recent years to rely on the pseudonym Angelica, which, due to its four syllables, makes hearing it much easier). Sometimes, the jarring repetition of people's names adds to an unpleasant cacophony in the restaurant (and when people don't come down to retrieve their food, the chef yells louder and louder until you almost want to take someone's else's food to make it stop). The wait is often also a minus, so if you need to be somewhere in a hurry, Lazy Jane's is not your pitstop.

It is a perfect choice, however, when you have a lazy day ahead of you and want to stay on the East side. My friend David recently bought a house, and in his search, he said that it was important that the neighborhood he lived in have a neighborhood bar, by which he meant the street life and community that would foster such as enterprise. I feel similarly about restaurants; each neighborhood should have a walkable brunch joint, and Lazy Jane's fits the bill. This winter, on the one snow day I've ever had the luxury of experiencing in Madison, a few friends and I spontaneously brunched at Lazy Jane's (I took the opportunity to wear my snowboarding overalls, the adult version of the onesie, and something every adult should own), and it was a beautiful afternoon of conversation, coffee, and food. It was a special gathering of people whom I don't often get to brunch with and on a day when I'd ordinarily be working.

On this morning that I brunched with Amanda, I reveled in the early morning conversation that only two close girlfriends can share. We traded thoughts on books, and her description of Cormac McCarthy's The Road prompted me to buy it in the airport and devour it in one sitting, as I generally do with my cherry scone.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Madison Time Out: Philadelphia's Bibou

Photography by Cydney Alexis

One of my favorite things about traveling to Philadelphia to visit my friend David is that he generally plans the whole weekend in advance, which not only reflects research and planning but is really quite touching. He sends me a proposed itinerary a couple of weeks before with suggestions for where we'll eat, drink, and listen to music. This time, I let him fully run the show, and I'm most grateful for his having introduced me to Philadelphia's restaurant Bibou.

If you are ever in Philadelphia, it is worth planning your trip around this restaurant that is up for the James Beard Best New Restaurant award and that is run by French-born and trained Pierre Calmels (also a James Beard semi-finalist for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic) and his wife, Charlotte.

Bibou is utterly charming, from its modest size to its simple decor to the way that Charlotte Calmels' graceful and elegant presence in the front of the house makes you feel that you are invited into something special. Chef Calmels also takes the time to greet all tables during their meal--we used our time  to ask him about his preparation of a show-stopping bone marrow dish we ate as a middle course.

Part of what makes Philly dining different than Madison and many cities is the BYOB culture that has been imposed due to the difficulty of procuring a liquor license. This enabled us (by which I mean David and Matt) to bring four bottles of quite wonderful reds (without a corking fee) and really experience traditional French cuisine the way it was intended.

Bibou purposefully keeps its menu intimate, like the restaurant. For the first course, I was torn between the fish bisque and escargots. We were nervous that the escargots prep would be traditional and, hence, signify butter more than anything else (not a bad thing, but we all saw this as a chance to step out of our usual culinary zone), but Matt took the dive and ended up with what was my favorite first course.

The escargot are cooked with mushrooms and tarragon and, hence, still retain a slightly meaty flavor from the former and a lightness from the latter that I've never associated with escargot. The bisque was not my favorite until the addition of the provided cream, which added a tang to the bisque that complemented the fish well.

As a middle course, we went with a bone marrow stuffing (marrow cooked with seasonal mushrooms and butter) that was out of this world and a foie gras that reminded me how so often it is the complexity of texture, even more than flavor, that makes a dish. The foie gras was served with a special bread and braised peaches, and, eaten together, the effect was remarkable. This foie was the most tender I've experienced it, and when it hit the tongue, it popped gently like roe. The flavors of this dish unfolded slowly, leaving the strongest suggestion of foie at the very end.

I made a mistake with my entree and did not order the halibut with cherry tomato and blood orange emulsion, a strange choice for me, since I usually order by my favorite ingredients (tomatoes and fruity fish sauces, in this case). Instead, I ordered a hangar steak with some of the most well-cut and cooked asparagus I've eaten--they left a hint of bitterness and crunch that worked well against the beef's tenderness.

David and Matt loved the pigs' feet cooked over lentils, and Kandace loved her sea bass with sage emulsion.

I had told my dining companions that the one French dessert I truly cannot resist is chocolate mousse, and so I easily caved in to dessert after our cheese course and ordered the mousse that was coincidentally on the menu. It was divine, a little more firm and dark than many mousses, a departure I enjoyed.

What made this night truly special were my dining companions, three close friends, food-lovers, and great conversationalists. We all reveled in the dinner knowing that we were there to savor each dish and moment of the meal. It is always a blessing to eat in that company (even though poor Kandace was still keeping kosher for Passover and had to pass over some of the best parts of the meal).

One gets the sense at Bibou, though, that we experienced a dinner just as the Calmels intended it: close, studied, and enjoyed.

And, as you'll see if you look at Bibou's seasonal menu (though the pigs' feet and boeuf tend to be staples, as Charlotte informed us), the prices are reasonable for food this remarkable.

Stay tuned for Madison Time Out, part two. The nature of Bibou demanded a post of its own.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Sardine: It's the Little Things.

Photography by Amanda Manteufel

I'll try a grading system for now, though like all grading systems, this one might get tedious and need revision.

Grade: A

Food: B+
Food Aesthetics: A-
Service: A+
Atmosphere: A+
I chose to highlight Sardine in this, my inaugural food blog post, because of its attention to the little things. It is also the site of the best all-around brunch in Madison, hands-down, especially because of its moderate price (Sardine also offers very affordable options for children).

Sardine is located in a historic brick building on the shores of Lake Monona. Only a lucky few can sit lakeside, but ironically, in Madison, any lakeside seating is notable, despite our isthmus’ placement between two lakes.

Vaulted ceilings and the contrast between rich, dark wood and tiled floors give the interior a classic, yet urban, feeling. Sardine satisfies one of my particular obsessions, which is that there should not be a bad seat in the house. The back room is designed in such a way that even if your back is to the room, there is some object of visual interest or reflection (panes of glass or mirrors) in front of you.

I almost always order the same thing at Sardine: an omelet that cherry-picks ingredients from the menu’s three omelets (and the more seasoned servers are non-plussed by this request): one with roasted cherry tomatoes, gruyere, and scallions. For me, tomatoes are a must in most omelets, since their acidity and moisture work well with the dense texture, as well as with cheese and egg. Sardine serves omelets with a spring salad and frites. 

Sardine’s food is often hit or miss (I find brunch the most consistent), but when their food is on, it is on, and usually because of a clever twist. Although the salad is simple, the chefs add a touch of salt that gives it the perfect bite and balance. The frites are a perfect fatty complement to the dish. (One weak point about this dish is that the fries are often cold—I assume they sit while the omelet is being prepared.)

Similarly, one of the components that makes Sardine’s bloody mary the best in town is the chopped radish and celery salt-encrusted glass rim. 

Another personal requirement for an A+ brunch is fresh-squeezed juice, another rarity in this city. Below, you see that Sardine not only offers the requisite orange, but grapefruit.

As for my companion brunchers, Paul was very pleased with his dish, smoked salmon with cucumbers, radishes, hard-boiled egg, arugula, capers and sweet mustard on toasted sourdough.

Troy was a little less satisfied with his grilled hamburger with arugula, tomatoes, St. Andre triple cream, and aioli. The main complaints are with the dry hamburger and bread that overwhelms the sandwich—a lighter bread could serve the hamburger well.

Amanda loved her Arugula, brie cheese, crimini mushroom, and scallion omelet, which is not a surprise--Sardine does omelets exceptionally well.

On this day, our conversation centered—due to the large interest in this subject on the part of our male brunchers—around the topic of haunted places in Madison. For that reason, we are on the lookout for a haunted brunch in or near Madison. If you know of one, drop us a line!