Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Apr 24, 2010
12:50 PMSmall Dishes
When we dine out it’s all about the entrée. Translated from French, “entrée” means “entry” and that’s why we go to restaurants that specialize in steak, seafood, burgers, and pizza. But even Eric Cartman knows that a real meal is nothing without fine side dishes. For too long, sides we’re relocated to a choice of potato, soup or salad (the soup du jour offering the only hope of not being totally predictable). The mark of a successful side dish is that it not only enhances the main course but would be satisfying all by itself. Here are my awards for best dishes in a supporting role.
French Fries: Coopers Tavern. They make them like they do in Belgium—name aside, French Fry Capital of the Word. Potatoes are hand cut, twice fried and served with malt vinegar aioli that puts ketchup to shame.
Hash Browns: Tornado Steakhouse. Every steakhouse in Wisconsin has hash browns, but it’s ever increasingly difficult to find the real thing. At tornado, the crispy pancake of shredded potatoes is brown on the outside with the texture of a baked potato on the inside and just right.
Mashed Potatoes: Glarner Stube. Worth the drive to New Glarus alone, these are the most sinfully rich, soul satisfying spuds around. (I can guess what’s in them but I had rather not know.)
Twice-Baked Potatoes: Fields at the Wilderness. In the 1950s this novelty was intrinsic to many celebratory meals. At this much loved Wisconsin Dells supper club everything is larger than life including the Premier Potato stuffed with jalapeño, onion, bacon and cheese.
Potato Chips: Harmony Bar. There are scores of varieties and flavors at the grocery store, but none can rival those homemade, warm and ethereally crisp. At the Harmony they come with blue cheese dip to boot.
Onion Rings: The Old Fashioned. Technically these aren’t rings at all but rather onion strings. Lightly buttermilk-battered, crispy and crunchy, they humiliate those big clunker donut-like things—the kind where the onion sucks out on the first bite.
Cole Slaw and Potato Salad: The Haze. These are standard sides at all BBQ joint. Too often, they’re boring afterthoughts and taste like they came from the supermarket. Not so at The Haze where both the cole slaw and potato salad are homemade and shine with personality.
Lobster Mac ‘n’ Cheese: Capitol Chophouse. This combination takes comfort food out of the nursery and downtown. It just might be the best duo since chocolate and peanut butter.
Insalata Lombardino: Lombardino’s. Quite frankly, I don’t care if I ever see another Caesar salad again and field greens with balsamic vinaigrette have become as common as iceberg lettuce. Appropriately bearing the house name, this simple salad of mixed greens comes with fennel seed vinaigrette that I never tire of.
Collard Greens: Doug’s Soul Food Café. I love collard greens, and though no one makes them as good as I do, they always have some redeeming value. Doug claims his food is “not mom’s but close.” His collard greens are way better than my mom made.
Sautéed Green Beans: Sala Thai. There’s nothing tired and limp bout this Thai rendition of an American staple. Forget the mushroom soup, green beans cooked in olive oil with onion, garlic and tomatoes are much more appealing if not downright titillating.
Asparagus Frites: Bluphies. It’s hard not to like anything fried, especially asparagus served with a honey-mustard dipping sauce.
Frijoles Borrachos: La Mestiza. Frijoles come with most everything at Mexican restaurants, but these—the name means “drunken beans”—are slowly simmered with pork in beer and flavored with a mysterious herb, epazote.
Naan: Maharani. When I was a kid the bread faithfully brought to the table was a basket of so-called hard rolls, incongruously soft and squishy. Today, it’s more likely French bread of one sort or another. Indian restaurants almost always make a vast assortment of breads. One of them is naan, a flatbread baked in a traditional clay oven. Beside plain it comes flavored with garlic, ginger and cheese; stuffed with potatoes, meat or an exotic mix of coconut, nuts, raisins and spices (Kabuli naan).
Cauliflower Gratin: Sardine. If a restaurant proposes a vegetable other than the potato, inevitably it’s green beans. I suspect many who order them wish they could have had the potato. Cauliflower rarely appears on menus, but Sardine’s version baked with aged cheese makes me wonder why not.
Imagination: Harvest. Many upscale restaurants have forsaken à la carte sides for plated courses with a vegetable garnish. Harvest, whose menu changes frequently, always has an intriguing list of side choices. For example, those currently featured are mushroom farrotto, spinach with crispy garbanzos, Anson Mills Spin Rosso della Valsugana polenta and seasonal mushrooms.
2 cups dried pinto beans
4 cups water
1 12-ounce can beer
1 clove garlic, minced
½ onion, finely chopped
3 sprigs epazote* (optional)
1 tablespoon pure ground guajillo chile powder*
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 cup finely chopped fatty pork scraps or bacon
15-ounce can of tomatoes, chopped
1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
Sort the beans to remove any stones or grit. Rinse the beans in a colander and place in a large pan with the water and beer. Add the garlic, onion, epazote (if using), chile powder, cumin, pork or bacon, tomatoes, and salt.
Boil the beans for an hour and then reduce to a simmer and cook over very low heat until soft (12 hours in crock pot or other slow cooker works best). Keep the level of the broth a good inch or so above the beans, and add more water as needed. Serve with broth in a bowl as a side dish.
Makes about 6 cups.
*You can find these at a Latino market.