Madison, Wisconsin area dining guide

When I moved to Wisconsin from New York City I knew I would miss a few things– my friends, Central Park in the fall, spending an afternoon lost in one of the many wonderful museums, and most definitely the food.  I wasn’t expecting anything even close which maybe is why I was open-minded and consequently very pleasantly surprised by what I discovered in Madison and the surrounding area.

My favorite thing to do on a Saturday morning was to hit the Madison Farmer’s Market which is one of the largest growers-only farmer’s market in the country.  It’s a fantastic market and one of the highlights is that food carts and trucks set up around the capital square where the market takes place and sell prepared food so you can munch as you shop for produce and such.  Every week I would visit the guys at Caracas Empanadas who make some of the best empanadas I’ve ever had.  It didn’t hurt that they were super friendly and always smiling even on the coldest Wisconsin market morning.

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If I felt more like sitting down in a restaurant after the market I would hit up Marigold Kitchen around the corner.  They always had tasty scramble specials with whatever was in season at the market and delicious fancy coffee like I like.  Cause I’m fancy.

While we’re at the capital square, let me take you around it:  Graze is a beautiful, modern restaurant with floor to ceiling windows (and the ceiling is VERY tall) with delicious modern, local, seasonal food.  For the best cheese curds in town and just all-around great bar food (with excellent salads, who knew a bar could have great salads!?) head down the block to the Old Fashioned.  Around the corner from there check out the massive beer list and awesome poutine at Cooper’s.  Rounding out the best of the square head over to Nostrano for some inventive seasonal food.  I ate quail there for the first time and it was a very tasty experience.

Away from the square another notable brunch place that is a little off the beaten path, though well worth the trip, is Crema Cafe on the other side of Lake Monona.  They’re always cooking up interesting seasonal specials like the cinnamon apple waffles I consumed there last fall.  So warm and cozy while it was so the opposite outside.

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Willy Street is another great food destination with lots of varied dining options.  A Pig in a Fur Coat has wonderful small plates in a cozy environment and I knew I loved the Weary Traveler when I saw that you could get bacon in your vegan chili.  Also, their bad breath burger isn’t a misnomer and is so worth it.

I was worried that there would be a lack of ethnic restaurants in Madison but there were a surprising amount of Asian establishments which made me very happy.  In particular there are a number of southeast Asian restaurants, largely Laotian, my favorite of which is Lao Laan-Xang.  I’m an especially big fan of their acorn squash curry.  Further down Willy Street is a Japanese udon and dumpling place called Umami.  I had pork buns at Momofuku Ssam Bar when I lived in New York and I think Umami’s were just as good, no fooling.

Also on Willy Street, Lazy Jane’s Cafe make some very tasty croissants and scones and is a great place just to chill out with a chai tea and some baked goods.  That’s my kind of morning.

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I’m pretty sure I ate at every Indian restaurant in greater Madison and honestly liked them all but I think Swagat on High Point Road is the tops.  Haven’t had a dosa like that since a visit to Little India in Jersey City.

Not to be forgotten is Monroe Street as it has several good restaurants, but worth mentioning is Brasserie V which has an impressive beer list and the best mussels in town.

Now I’m going to take you west and south of Madison to some of the adorable small towns tucked away in the rolling green hills:

Sjolind’s Chocolate House in Mount Horeb (a town known as the “troll capital of the world”) is my favorite bakery in the entire state of Wisconsin.  I lived in Mount Horeb and visited Sjolind’s at least twice a week.  It was my Cheers.  Their quiche, cinnamon rolls, turnovers, scones, and yes, chocolates, were such a nice treat in the midst of some very long weeks.

Down the road from Mount Horeb is a tiny town called Blue Mounds where for a brief moment in time there was a wood-fired pizzeria/bakery that was far too good to last but definitely worth mentioning.  Naked Elm made pizzas with fresh ingredients from local farms and it was fantastic.

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Below is a picture of the Al Ringling Theatre in Baraboo, a town that is well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in the area.  There’s a circus museum there and also a great kitchen store that I literally spent hours in one day.

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New Glarus has some great beer but it’s also worth venturing a little further down the road to miniscule Monticello where you will find the Dining Room at 209 Main, a restaurant that would have a month-long waiting list were it not in a small-town in the middle of a rural area.  A very pleasant surprise.

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Bob’s Bitchin’ BBQ in Dodgeville has some truly amazing barbecue and is run by one of the nicest, hardest-working guys I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.

South of Dodgeville in Mineral Point there is a delightful little Japanese restaurant called Kusaka.  I’ve never been to Japan but my understanding is that Kusaka’s food is the equivalent of Japanese comfort food: rice, noodles, curry, homemade gyoza, and an awesome seafood pancake with fish flakes that wave as if they were alive when the dish is brought out (don’t be frightened; they are delicious and definitely not alive.)

My very last meal in Madison was breakfast at 4 & 20 Bakery on the way to the airport.  The biscuits and gravy were epic and you really can’t go wrong with any of their baked goods, savory or sweet.  And they make some very pretty (and tasty) coffees.

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Recounting all of this wonderful food makes me want to plan a trip back!  I’ll have to see what I can do…

northern michigan adventures, culinary and otherwise

I have had the good fortune to travel not once, but twice, to northern Michigan over the past month.  The first time I went I took an ancient ferry across Lake Michigan from Manitowoc, Wisconsin to Ludington, Michigan.  It took four hours.  The above picture is what it looks like when you are on that ferry in the middle of the lake and can’t see the shore on either side.  It’s a big lake.

My first trip to northern Michigan was for a family vacation in Charlevoix, which I had never been to previously.  Growing up we had visited Traverse City quite a bit and I remember a separate trip to Manistee and a few wintertime jaunts to Crystal Mountain and Garland for skiing but there was quite a lot of territory up yonder that I had heard wonderful things about but hadn’t yet explored for myself.

Of course there were many beautiful sights with Lake Michigan and nature and all but this being a food blog and my chief interest being in food you better believe I wanted to spend a good chunk of the vacation exploring that side of things.  So that’s just what I did.

Having lived in both metro Detroit and Brooklyn I’ve learned to love Polish food something fierce (not that it was a difficult feat by any means) so when I spied a restaurant called Polish Kitchen in Harbor Springs I instructed my dining companions that we needed to sup there as soon as possible.  None of us were disappointed.  I got dill pickle soup, pierogi, and latkes (because you can never have enough potato in your diet) and all were wonderful.  It reminded me of meals enjoyed at Polish Village in Hamtramck minus the low ceilings and two-man polka band.

It’s a good thing there was a fair amount of walking and biking that took place on my vacation because apart from the splendid Polish food I also had a first-rate homemade bagel with lox at L’Chayim Delicatessen in tiny Frankfort (they also have a location in even tinier Beaulah).  I almost felt like I was back at Russ and Daughters in NY except I didn’t have to take a number and wait a half hour for a sandwich.  (Mind you those sandwiches are worth waiting for.)

A day was spent wine-tasting on the Mission Peninsula just north of Traverse City.  My companions and I tasted wine at no less than five places which is relatively easy since the peninsula is quite small and the wineries are all close together.  We visited, in order: 2 Lads (beautiful modern building and lovely views), Chateau Chantal (always a classic– I bought half a case of wine here that I have been rationing out since I returned), Peninsula Cellars (their tasting room is in an old one-room schoolhouse which gave it a cool vibe, also loved their staff who we played movie trivia games with while sampling their wines), Black Star Farms (beautiful property and loved the giant round bar which meant you didn’t have to elbow your way up for a taste), and finally Bowers Harbor (lovely outdoor seating and intimate tasting area).  In addition to the wineries we also stopped at Jolly Pumpkin so that my brother could sample a few of their beers.  If we had planned it right we would have stayed on the premises to dine at Mission Table which is said to have outstanding food.  Next time.

In addition to Jolly Pumpkin we also visited Short’s Brewing Company in Bellaire for dinner another night.  Not only was the beer outstanding, the food was very good too.  I had a bowl of carrot ginger soup and split pizza with my mom.  Well worth the drive to Bellaire from nearby resort towns.

My second trip to the area was just last weekend for the wedding of my oldest friend.  (Is that the way to phrase that?  It makes it sound like she’s 102 but really we’re the same age and have been friends since we were three and used to carpool to Miss Janie’s pre-school together.  Those were the days.)  For this trip I opted to go the northern route and drove from Wisconsin through the upper peninsula of Michigan.  Hadn’t passed over the Mackinac Bridge in about ten years.  It looks the same of course, and still makes me nervous to drive in the center lane which is all grates open to the lake below.  No thanks, I’ll stick to the outer paved lane with the trucks and old folks.

Upon arriving in my destination of Petoskey I grabbed lunch at American Spoon Cafe which I had somehow missed on my first visit to the area.  The atmosphere is cozy and classic at the same time and the food was awesome.  I had butternut squash soup (if you haven’t noticed, I’m really into squash soup) and a root vegetable salad.

I had a little time to kill before the rehearsal dinner so I popped into local natural foods grocery store Grain Train because I heard a rumor they sold Light of Day Organics tea in bulk and that rumor was true.  A lovely gentlemen working in the bulk section helped me bag up three different kinds of their tea and I was on my way.  Light of Day has a farm in the Traverse City area that I plan to visit when next I’m in the area because they are starting to turn me into a tea snob and I would love to see their operation up close.  I used to be fine with regular old bagged tea from wherever and now it’s just not tasting as good to me… Funny how that works.

I also managed to sneak in a quick trip to Suzie’s Pies in Harbor Springs (which is located at the other end of the strip mall from Polish Kitchen though had not realized that when I was there a month earlier) to purchase a “Harvest” pie with apples, pears, and cranberries.  Suzie herself helped me and she could not be sweeter and the pie was awesome.  I also sampled a piece of her Canadian Butter Tart which was equally as delicious.

The rest of the weekend was lovely and filled with various wedding activities.

I put my hair in a fingerwave for the occasion.

The bride was beautiful.

And the drive home was gorgeous.

Pure Michigan.  Can’t wait to go back!

travels

I apologize for my infrequent posts over the past few weeks!  I have been traveling a bit for work including a week to NYC and a day trip to San Francisco (not recommended if you live in the eastern half of the US as I do…) so that has taken away from my baking/cooking time, but not from my eating time.  Here I share with you the best of what I ate on my travels.

New York

A scoop of Taro and a scoop of Black Sesame ice cream at Chinatown Ice Cream Factory.  I can’t believe I used to live within walking distance of that place and somehow didn’t put on 50 pounds.  The Black Sesame is the best.  Look for me to attempt to recreate it with my ice cream maker one of these days…

Fancy Italian coffee at Eataly.  The market at this place is out of site.

The whole gluten-free-for-Lent thing was not the most fun to keep up with while in New York but fortunately I discovered macaroons are made with almond flour and proceeded to eat like twenty of them.  From Macaron Cafe which is both delicious and conveniently close to my company’s NYC office.  Score!

Korean food in Koreatown.  Bibimbap, seafood pancake, and the “free” pickled stuff that comes before the meal were all amazing and are a much missed ethnic food that is nonexistent in my current neck of the woods.

Flourless chocolate cookie from Dominique Ansel in Soho which is both a beautiful space and a tasty bakery.  Sometimes you get one and not the other, but rarely both.  What a treat.  This cookie was thoroughly enjoyed on a bench in the sun with a good friend.  What more do you want out of life?

Not pictured but worth mentioning: Peruvian chicken and Salchipapas at Pio Pio.  Salchipapas are basically French fries with chopped up hot dogs in it.  If I would have known about this dish as an eight-year-old  it would have been my favorite thing to eat, but even as an adult it’s pretty stinking good.

San Francisco

I was literally in San Francisco for all of 13 hours and about 7 of them were spent working but I was happy to have been able to meet up with an old friend for dinner in the Mission.  Unfortunately I neglected to photograph any of our food but I can guarantee you it was all delicious.  We ate at Lolo which is a Mexican/Turkish fusion tapas place.  My favorites were the fried Brussels sprouts, asparagus with Turkish cheese, and the carnitas tacos with blue corn tortillas.

We tried to get ice cream (my favorite food ever) at Humphry Slocombe but unfortunately they were already closed by the time we hoofed it over there.  Next time.  Their Blue Bottle Vietnamese Coffee and Peanut Butter Curry flavors sound awesome.

I have done a bit of baking and a little ice-cream-making this weekend so will be back in the swing of things later this week!  Check back in later.

if you ever find yourself in Lansing, MI…

When I was home over the holidays I ate at some fantastic new (or at least new to me) dining establishments in Lansing, Michigan and feel compelled to mention them here.  Should you ever find yourself in that vicinity, do yourself a favor and check them out.

My first night home my brother took our family out to Fork in the Road where they are all about locally-sourced food and feature daily specials based on what’s in season and readily available.  I had their “Ballin’ Ass Tacos” which lived up to their name and finished the meal with Buttermilk Brown Sugar gelato.  Unfortunately we were all so hungry I totally forgot to take photos before we dug in.  I can assure you it was as pretty as it was tasty.

The next morning my bro and a few friends and I got breakfast at Golden Harvest in the Old Town section of Lansing.  I was forewarned before we went that there would be a cold wait outdoors (the restaurant is tiny with perpetually full seating for about 25), that the music would be loud once we got inside, that the punk/goth staff was prone to cursing at patrons, but that the food was exceptional.  All were true.

I had the “Yard Sale” French Toast special which featured pumpkin pecan, vanilla custard, and berry French Toast:

Ah-mazing.

My bro had some sort of chorizo breakfast burrito dish:

I don’t remember what his friend had but it also looked delicious:

If you can handle a loud soundtrack that goes from Salt N’ Pepa to the White Stripes to Johnny Cash to David Bowie and are not distracted by busy decor or offended by body piercings and multiple tattoos on the waitstaff then this is definitely a place worth checking out.  The food did not disappoint.

After stuffing ourselves there we popped over to the Soup Spoon Cafe for a Michigan-brewed craft beer.  Their food menu also looked wonderful but we were way too stuffed to eat a bite.  Next time I’m home I am definitely going back for food though because the soup list alone looked incredible and I know that they also are into locally-sourced food which is great in my book.  I’m so proud of my little section of the mitten state!

the rest of what i ate last week

Dim sum from Ping’s Seafood:

Bubble tea from Teariffic:

Other things I ate but neglected to photograph:

Bibimbap, scallion seafood pancake, and bbq pork at Kangsuh Restaurant.

Kosher pickle, matzoh ball soup, and potato latke at Ben’s Delicatessen.

Half a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of creamy parsnip soup at The Green Table in Chelsea Market.  While in the market I saw a judge from Iron Chef.  I was super excited and remembered what it’s like to pass a celebrity in daily life which is not uncommon in NYC.  When I saw an actor at a sample sale twenty minutes later I wasn’t even fazed.

There was so much more I wanted to consume while back in New York but just didn’t have the time or space in my stomach for it.  Next time!

This weekend I am hosting a little Christmas party so will be preparing some serious drinks and appetizers for the occasion.  Will share those recipes with you next week, so please check back for that.

 

what i’ve been eating this week

Cappuccino from Ninth Street Espresso:

The best cookies in the whole world from Levain Bakery:

City Bakery hot chocolate with their most excellent homemade marshmallows:

Shake Shack burger:

Off to grab dim sum in my old neighborhood now.  Exciting!