Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Aug 26, 2012
11:35 AMSmall Dishes
State of Bliss
I don’t think I’m that different from a lot of other people when I find myself wishing I was somewhere else. Sometimes I yearn to be in a cosmopolitan city like London. Often I fantasize about an escape to a tropical island like Tahiti. I admit I don’t always appreciate literally what’s just outside my door. I’ve lived on the lake for 25 years, but the view that never fails to wow guests has for me become a sort of visual Muzak. Though I know I would sorely miss it if I moved. To some extent, it’s only human nature to long for greener grass. It’s true with regard to food, too.
I probably spend way too much time thinking about lobster rolls and fried oysters and other things I’m probably not going to find around here, or at least made to my expectations. I never gave all Wisconsin had to offer a second thought until I moved away. The Friday-night fish fry. The supper club. Tailgates with grilled brats. Fried cheese curds. The list is long. I even pined for heavy cream. To be sure they had whipping cream where I was, but it was ultra pasteurized, homogenized, and didn’t go glug, glug, glug when poured out of the carton.
The State’s bounty should not be ignored. Naturally, Wisconsin and cheese are synonymous since we make the most. It also leads the country in the production of cranberries, green beans and goats’ milk; we’re in the top five for carrots, cucumbers, potatoes, maple syrup, and tart cherries. But it’s just as much about the quality here.
The Badger State is the birthplace of iconic brands of beer like Pabst, Schlitz and Miller. Today, microbreweries abound and even our baseball team pays homage to beer. A small Sauk City drive-in took frozen custard on the road and became a national success story. Door County cherries, Sheboygan bratwurst and Racine kringle have all helped put us on the culinary map.
In truth, Wisconsin’s unique mix of cultures took advantage of what was at hand to create a native cuisine and lifestyle. Here in Madison and across the state, from the corner café to the northwoods supper club, one can savor the result of this evolution.
Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant. The Scandinavians had a huge influence on life in Wisconsin. Oddly, there are proportionally few Scandinavian restaurants. Al Johnson’s in Sister Bay makes up for this oversight—and it would be hard to overlook with goats grazing on its sod roof! Patrons line up every morning for hearty breakfasts that include Swedish pancakes with lingonberry jam, meatballs, and homemade Door County cherry coffeecake. Don’t be put off by the wait! Just head for the gift shop that’s as big as the dining room and like a quick trip to Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
The Old Fashioned. If they built a Wisconsin Food Hall of Fame, it would no doubt resemble this place. The long bar and illuminated beer signs set the mood, but it’s the food and drinks that are distinctive. All the prerequisite favorites, past and present, are here: Brandy old fashioneds and cherry bounce, legacy beers and mirobrews, cheese curds and Lazy Susans, bratwurst and summer sausage, big burgers and fried walleye. Ingredients from some of the state’s finest purveyors are prepared to please the most persnickety of Sconnie tastes.
Ishnala. Its name means “by itself alone.” Away from the hurly-burly of the Dells, perched above serene Mirror Lake surrounded by verdant woods, it is appropriately an oasis of tranquility. As all classic supper clubs should, Ishnala has both atmosphere and tradition. In 1953, legendary Madison restaurateurs, the Hoffman brothers, transformed what had been a summer home into what would become an outrageously popular restaurant. Over the years much has come and gone on a menu that aims to be more comfortable than cutting edge. However, still popular is the potent Chief Ishnala cocktail, made just the way the Hoffmans did almost 60 years ago.
Tornado Steakhouse. With its rustic interior and white linen draped tables, it exudes the confidence and genuineness expected of a great steakhouse. Of course the reason to come here is for the steaks, quality cuts of beef, simply yet perfectly prepared and served on a sizzling platter. Accoutrements, though, are no afterthoughts. An iced shrimp cocktail or oysters on the half shell make for an auspicious beginning. Lettuce wedge salad with French Roquefort dressing and crispy hash browns are perfect trimmings to a satisfying meal.
Wendt’s on the Lake. From the outside, this place looks like a thousand other roadside taverns. Once inside, there’s really nothing to dispel that notion, except that the house is packed—and it’s the fried lake perch that’s brought nearly everyone here. Of course, there is a Friday night fish fry only it’s available every night of the week! The lightly breaded, golden perch comes in four sizes and can always be combined with fried shrimp and prime ribs on Saturday. No doubt, as with so many successful restaurants in our state, Wendt’s secret is the Wendt family who has run the business for the past 50 years.
Karl Ratzsch’s. I doubt there’s anyone alive in Milwaukee today who can remember the city without Karl Ratzsch’s. Since 1904, it has justly been famous for its German food. For many people, German restaurants conjure up images of rosy-cheeked waitresses carrying large steins of beer and polka bands, but there’s none of that here. The décor is refined and old world and the service attentive and professional. Food includes the expected sauerbraten and wiener schnitzel, all deftly executed. But planked whitefish with mashed potatoes and roast beef on Saturday are truly exceptional. Best of all is the flawlessly roasted duck—once a mainstay on Wisconsin menus now too rarely found—served with pan gravy and red cabbage.
Wisconsin Cranberry Bread
1 cup whole milk
1 cup honey
½ cup granulated sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
2 egg yolks
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup raw cranberries, washed and halved
½ cup broken walnuts
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Butter and flour a 9- x 5- x 3-inch loaf pan.
Combine the milk, honey and sugar in a saucepan. Set over medium heat and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat, add the butter and cool until just slightly warm.
In a mixing bowl beat the egg yolks to combine. Add the cooled milk mixture and stir until mixed.
In another mixing bowl, stir together the flour, soda and salt. Gradually stir the dry ingredients into the egg-milk mixture. When just blended, fold in the cranberries and walnuts.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake in the middle of the preheated 325-degree oven for 1 hour or until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool the bread in its pan on a rack for 15 minutes. Loosen with a knife, turn out and cool completely on the rack. Wrap the bread in foil, place in a plastic bag and seal.
Store in the refrigerator overnight before thinly slicing and serving. The bread will keep up to 5 days in the refrigerator and can be frozen.
Makes 1 loaf.