What's in a Menu
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Many chefs discussed the balancing act between culinary innovation and a largely steak-and-fries audience. Muramoto may have spent months learning serious Japanese cooking before he opened his first restaurant, but he returned from Japan certain he'd never be able to sell Midwesterners on its subtle, simple cuisine (for one thing, Japanese food relies heavily on pristine sea creatures, which don't exactly swarm Lake Mendota). So he looked for what else the city lacked, and decided on small plates and a less traditional Asian approach. The good news is that most chefs find ways to stay engaged and inspired. They may sneak in a few innovations at a time and see how they fare, or wait till their next special event (say, an American Mulefoot Hog dinner, as Harvest offered) to truly unleash. Sometimes a restaurant's changing menu eases the place into a whole new business. Lombardino's slowly phased out the nods to the red-sauce Italian of the location's previous incarnations and has cultivated an entirely new clientele.
For all our city's closet conservatism, though, sometimes the guests surprise the owners. Miller was pleased to find that L'Etoile's guests were happy to try poached foie gras and anything charcuterie. Restaurant Muramoto introduced the sakizuke menu of bite-sized, three-dollar dishes uncertain if it would catch on. But the menu hit a sweet spot between invention, which pleased the cooks, and the novelty, variety and affordability that whet the public's appetite. Now the sakizuke, which allow those so inclined to enjoy bites like Kobe tartare with quail egg, are an integral part of the menu.
Most chefs end up playing a gentle push and pull between customers' conservative dining habits and the chefs' own love of both innovation and fidelity to their inspirations. Like a writer whose fans won't let her kill off a character, many restaurants offer a dish or two that have long ago bored the staff silly but still tempt customers. Once Lombardino's had tweaked a classic Puglian dish of orecchiette with rapini and sausage for its Old University Avenue neighborhood by eliminating the anchovies and indulging Wisconsinites' love of the boozy and cow-based with dashes of brandy and cream, the dish became so popular that attempts to remove it met with insurrection. The Wilson Street Grill couldn't remove a simple turkey baguette with herbed mayonnaise for many years. And though I admit to sighing a bit myself when I see flourless chocolate cake on a menu, I know it's probably not there because it sets the pastry chef's heart on fire, but because many diners will exchange their firstborn for molten chocolate.
The experience of finding a truly unexpected meal is not only far more fun, but also increasingly common in Madison. Those eye-catching dishes can be either calls to action or red flags, depending on how much you know and trust the chef. For instance, a chain restaurant's "Tuscan" pizza with feta and chicken is indeed conspicuous, but not in a good way. Whereas the first time I saw whole roasted foie gras wrapped in banana leaves on the menu at Restaurant Muramoto, I literally sat up straight. I had recently returned to Madison from seven years in New York, delighted to be back but admittedly not expecting any shocks, and finding this dish on a local menu intrigued me and challenged my assumptions. What else was Madison whipping up? Whole foie gras may not sell frequently--Muramoto estimates once every couple of weeks--but it's a signal that the restaurant is willing and able to go over the top. Such a dish doesn't connect with every guest, but its presence is a powerful statement to the ones with whom it does, signaling innovation, luxury and--fine, I'll say it--cool.
Other times a dish is worth ordering simply because the idea itself seems delightfully unhinged. Frequently these are the dishes the kitchen has made less to please the guests than to please themselves. We're meant to notice a dish like the Spam and Pineapple Salad with Quinoa and Raisins, which Kushi Bar offered this fall. It's funny, unexpected and a challenge to the guest to trust them enough to try it. And trust is no small question here. Could Muramoto have put Spam on the menu in the first restaurant he opened, even if it had been a casual place? I'd bet not. But by the third one, in a location expecting a younger, more flexible crowd and a good dose of restaurant industry people who appreciate the underlying message of such a dish, Spam serves as a shout-out. It tells you that someone is not only having fun but has the skills to win you over to almost anything, even lowly canned meat.
These innovative touches are notable and heartening, but they're also still the exceptions. From steakhouses to taverns to pasta, comfy still abounds in the Madison dining scene. This isn't necessarily a downer (hey, restaurants don't sell what people won't buy), but one does have to judge what's classic and what's stale. An item needs to fade away long enough for us to miss it. If, say, grilled chicken Caesar ever went on sabbatical, some enterprising chef might manage to make it exciting again, possibly after warming up with an easier task, like blotting out the sun. Sometimes you can define dated only because you know it when you see it. Imagine the words "raspberry vinaigrette" and you'll see what I mean.
But there is a vibrant market for menus that play shrewdly and successfully into a nostalgia for foods that may have been close to fading from cultural memory altogether. Jim Schiavo's family has owned restaurants in Madison for several generations, since the long-defunct Jimmy Schiavo's on East Washington offered champagne ham and $2.75 lobster tails. When the family opened The Continental Fitchburg last year, they decided to re-create the old-school menu of Antonio's (which itself had re-created old-school Italian in the eighties) and denote those dishes on the menu. "We weren't sure if people were going to remember or receive the Antonio's type of things very well," Schiavo says, "and come to find out it's been the thing that's been keeping us rolling over the past six months." The success of dishes like spiedini, chicken vesuvio and other "new traditional" dishes is certainly a function of a Fitchburg location replete with parents around Schiavo's own age--who are re-creating their childhood traditions with young families of their own.
These memory-laden menus evoke just as strong a response downtown. For years Lax had pondered the idea for a place that was "capturing things from my childhood that sort of kind of got swept way, and were still part of my consciousness." The Old Fashioned's mix of down home and done right is exemplified for me in their transcendent fried cheese curds with the light, shattering crust. (Panko crumbs? Something tempura-related? My queries have been met with enigmatic smiles.) That mix of simplicity and quality is rarer than it should be, but maybe the deepest emotional appeal of The Old Fashioned menu is that it excels at the food that was served at home as much as in restaurants. Faced with some good pickled herring, summer sausage and rye bread, the whole city seemed to remember a powerful yearning for the Packer games of its youth. Even I did, and I grew up watching the Browns.
Perhaps the reason the culinary profession has come to enjoy Batman-like status in the United States is that a fine meal in a restaurant simplifies so many pressing considerations--skill, time, cost, locale, family, memory, health--into one solicitous query: what do you want? We want a lot: to be cosseted without being bored, to be challenged but not unnerved, to have a simple weeknight meal and a festive celebration, to eat what our parents once ate and what they never dreamed of, to have the option of healthful fresh food while at the same time being fully prepared to eat our weight in dairy. Madison's restaurant scene can serve as a kind of collective id that went to culinary school--restaurants figure out what we have always wanted, forgot we wanted and didn't know we wanted until we saw it. But then--graciously--they allow us blissful unawareness of everything except what's on the plate.
Michelle Wildgen is a Madison-based writer and senior editor at Tin House literary magazine. Her books include the novel You're Not You, the anthology Food & Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast, and the forthcoming novel A Little Light, to be published in October.