Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Dec 19, 2010
11:52 AMSmall Dishes
The Best and Worst of 2010
It’s that time of year. Christmas not yet past and lists are springing up left and right. But it’s difficult to face the year’s end without being nostalgic—it would be hard to move forward otherwise. Here are some of my food and drinking experiences that stood out during the past twelve months.
Best New Ethnic Restaurant: Ha Long Bay. There are so many Asian restaurants now that it’s mindboggling. The problem is so many feature the same thing—a homogenized menu aimed to please everyone. Even at Ha Long Bay, there’s an element of this—the menu features Thai, Laotian and Vietnamese dishes. But it’s the later that are the reason to go if your palate needs stimulating; if you’re tired of the same old thing. Its extensive list of Vietnamese specialties are made with quality ingredients, inexpensive and served in an affable atmosphere.
Best Coffee Shop: Mermaid Café. Most coffee shops serve food as minimal as it may be, and more often than not, bakery made off premises. Not so at this quirky little eastside haunt where everything is somehow appealing, from the signature Caribbean carrot soup to the exotic French/Vietnamese-inspired bhan mi sandwich. What’s good at the Farmer’s Market often ends up on the table here. A hearty breakfast is available everyday and brunch on Sunday. By the way…they make a good cup of coffee, too.
Best New Bakery: Batch Bakehouse. The only think I don’t like about this place is that they’re closed on Monday and Tuesday. I found out the hard way when I went to pick up one of their best-in-town foccacia. (Which I now know are only available Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday—they’ve a convenient chart on their website showing what’s baked each day.) Madison is fortunate now to have several good bread makers, but there’s something about those that Batch Bakehouse turns out that I find especially appealing. And the pastries…croissants, muffins cakes…are better than you’d expect to find a commercial bakery.
Best Local Food Producer: Sassy Cow Creamery. I’m happy that this family-run, farmstead dairy near Sun Prairie has been so successful. The concept is simple: milk goes from the cow to the dairy and then to you; eliminating excessive processing, handling and transportation. Personally, I like best that none of their products are ultra-pasteurized—a pasteurization process at extremely high temperature that extends the shelf life but results in a flat tasting product. Their full-line of milk (both conventional and organic), cream and ice cream are available at many area grocers.
Best Market: Metcalfe’s. The family’s run a grocery since 1917 and that says a lot. When Sentry Hilldale metamorphosed into Metcalfe’s Market it was all for the better. No supermarket has more locally produced food and in every department—meat, dairy, produce and bakery. I like the little highway signs that even tell you where the item’s from and how many miles it traveled. Its service meat counter with its USDA Prime options and many specialty cuts can’t be beat. Quality here is often more reasonably priced.
Best Food Event: Restaurant Week. This city has a wealth of fun food and drink events like Taste of Madison, Food & Wine Show, and Great Taste of the Midwest to name but a few. My favorite by far though is Restaurant Week which happens twice a year—coming up January 23 through 28. I always anticipate the six nights when I can go to some of the best restaurants in town and enjoy a three-course meal for $25. Best of all, no standing in line, paper plates or plastic cups!
Best Recipe I Found on the Internet: Cinnamon Roasted Potatoes, November 19, The New York Times. I don’t normally care much for roasted potatoes: They’re usually … uh … boring? But these are by far the best I’ve ever had—in a class by themselves—and ridiculously easy to make.
Best Recipe I Concocted Myself. Pimento Cheese Bacon Cheeseburger. If you grew up in the South—which I did—you’ve a relationship with this seemingly innocuous spread bordering on the obscene. In the beginning, it was only put between slices of white bread, but in recent years anything goes—I’ve a recipe for pimento cheese egg rolls. So, I thought, why not as a substitute for the sliced cheese on a bacon cheese burger? The recipe’s simple: split a bun (I like to use King’s Hawaiian sandwich rolls); add a thin slice of tomato on the bottom half and top with a grilled burger (not too thick). Lay half strips of crisp bacon (like Neuske’s) on top of the burger; then a generous dollop of pimento cheese and finally three or four dill pickle chips. Fabulous! Here’s the recipe for pimento cheese:
Pimento Cheese Burger Topping:
8 ounces extra-sharp white cheddar
8 ounces extra-sharp aged yellow cheddar
1 7-ounce jar pimentos, drained and finely chopped
½ teaspoon black pepper
A dash each of Tabasco and Worcestershire
2/3 cup mayonnaise (Duke’s brand if you can find it!)
Finely grate cheeses into a large bowl. Stir in pimentos, black pepper, Tabasco and Worcestershire. Then stir in mayonnaise, mashing the mixture with a fork until it’s relatively smooth. (It should be flecked with small pieces of pimento.)
Chill, covered, at least 2 hours to allow flavors to develop. It will keep covered in the refrigerator for several days.
Best Serendipity: La Lechera Dulce de Leche. This rich caramel’s made from sweetened condensed milk—traditionally, by cooking the unopened can in a pan of boiling water for two to three hours. Easy enough, but there’s always the risk that the can will explode! In Latin America where this delicacy is insanely esteemed, more often than not it’s purchased readymade. The past decade it's become increasingly popular in this country as well. I’d noticed several imported brands at specialty food stores that sell for seven dollars and more. One day at Woodman’s in the Latino food section I spied 13.4-ounce cans of La Lechera brand dulce de leche made by Nestlé in Chile. It’s less than two bucks. Go figure.
Best Cocktail: Oriana. Never heard of it? Probably not since I made it up.
3 parts reposado tequila
1 part Cointreau
2 parts pomegranate juice
2 parts fresh orange juice
1 part fresh lime juice
Combine all the ingredients in an ice-filled cocktail shaker and shake until cold. Pour into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with an orange twist.
Best Cookbook: Eat Ate by Guy Mirabella. Guy Mirabella was raised by Italian parents in Australia. Tired of being a graphic designer he decided to open a restaurant called Shop Eat Ate Café that featured the family recipes. His coffee table book is a delicious collection of recipes, memories, gorgeous photos and artwork. The book should satisfy a lot of appetites.
Best Person to Watch on the Food Network: Ina Garten (a/k/a the Barefoot Contessa). Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know Paul Dean is more popular but she’s a
clown entertainer—not a serious cook! I have numerous aunts who sound just like her, drop tons of butter and—most importantly—know how to cook. Ina is articulate and interesting; her recipes are imaginative and can be made at home. Until she comes out with a line of cookware and her own brand of spaghetti sauce I’ll continue to watch her.
Worst Restaurant News: Closing of Café Continental. When the Schiavo family opened its new restaurant in 1998 it was with great expectations by many, including myself. Few were disappointed. It became the power lunch spot for downtown business people, a must brunch stop for weekenders and a regular rendezvous for those who called the Isthmus home. Something you could always depend on: One of the Schiavos would be there to greet you at the door—Tony, Rose Marie, Nick or Jim. I think it fair to say they changed the nature of King Street and downtown and all for the better.
Worst New Product Idea: Bakon Vodka. I knew the flavored vodka craze was bound to run amuck. When I saw cucumber, I thought, Okay, that could be nice in a bloody mary or with Pimm’s. But bacon-flavored vodka is just wrong! I love bacon, but on my plate and not in my glass.
Worst Trend: Blantantly Unhealthy Junk Food. Such as the KFC Double Down sandwich: two fried chicken filets, two strips of bacon and two melted slices of Monterey jack and pepper jack cheese--hold the bun! Or, even worse, the Luther burger: a bacon cheeseburger sandwiched between two donuts. Or worst of all, Texas State Fair came up with deep-fried butter! Granted it's called "junk food" for a reason, but nutritionand health aside, these don't even sould like they'd taste good.
of Monterey Jack and pepper jack cheese