Friday, July 24, 2009


Madison Magazine has a revamped website and my blog Small Dishes can now be found there - the new address is:

Monday, July 20, 2009

Food in Time

I was just watching NBC Nightly News and Brian Williams asked the question, "Where were you when Apollo 11 landed on the moon?" I do remember, and of course, it involves food. I was just finishing up dinner with friends in a Greek restaurant in London. They had hooked up a black and white TV in the dining room and everyone was intently watching, especially the owner. This was a neighborhood place we habited frequently. When the landing craft touched down on the surface of the moon a big cheer went up and shortly thereafter the owner brought everyone ice cream adorned with little paper American flags, and as always, mint-flavored Turkish Delight. The owner refused to let us pay for dinner! The moon walk that came later I didn't see live because of the time difference. But I remember the headlines of the London papers the next day, "One Small Step ..." Anytime the subject of the moon landing comes up or I see Turkish Delight, I always think about this restaurant and that evening.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Bite of History

Not many restaurants function successfully as culinary museums, serving historically accurate menus and recipes. As much as we tend to romanticize the past, today I would find much of what people once ate bland and boring. But, as we all know, food is only part of the experience of dining out. There is that indefinable element called ambiance that some restaurants seem to inexplicably have while others don’t. It never hurts if a place has a past, legends and lore, whether fact or fiction. An eatery with a history also speaks to the quality of their food—you can only get by for so long with smoke and mirrors.

I hear frequently that people are staying closer to home because of the economy. Whether this is true or not, I think we tend to overlook what is our own backyard, dismiss it as commonplace. So I’ve picked a handful of destinations that will not only feed you well, but also have a tale to tell.


Stout’s Island Lodge. In1903, lumber baron Frank D. Stout built a family summer home on his private island in Red Cedar Lake. The rustic lodge and cabins were constructed from local logs. Unfortunately, the log bark became invested with bugs. This necessitated the rebuilding of the structures using cedar logs from Idaho in 1915. Over the years, new outbuilding were added, and on the mainland, the Big Farm and Tagalong Golf Course—modeled after Scotland’s famous St. Andrews. Today the intimate resort houses guests in two lodges and several cabins. The dining room with its view of the lake features a seasonal menu built around local specialties, using local ingredients. The dining room is open to the public for lunch and dinner but reservations are required.


Fox and Hounds. As a kid, I remember thumbing through the pages of Holiday, the then prestigious travel magazine whose recommendations were coveted. The restaurant in Wisconsin to always make their list was the Fox and Hounds. It began as a one-room cabin in 1845. It was restored by Ray Wolf 90 years later to use as his headquarters for the many fox hunts he orchestrated. After a bar was installed on the lower level, he decided to open it up to the public as a restaurant in 1934. Rooms were added and it became an ever more popular dining spot, culminating with Life magazine designating it as one of America’s 40 Best Roadside Inns. In 1963, Roy died and shortly thereafter the restaurant was purchased by Karl Ratzsch’s, Milwaukee’s renowned German restaurant. Today, the Fox and Hounds is owned by Thomas Masters, his brother, Will Masters, and Jim Constantineau whose relationship with the property began when they first worked there 30 years ago, parking patron’s cars. The menu is what you would expect of this Wisconsin dowager. Little seems to change here, least of all its refined, clubby atmosphere.


The American Club. In 1918, Walter J. Kohler erected a large Tudor-style dormitory to house immigrant workers who came to work at the Kohler Company. Son of an immigrant himself, he hoped that by naming it The American Club, combined with an emphasis on high standards and patriotism, it would inspire the new arrivals to love their new country. Almost seventy years later, renovated, restored and expanded, the landmark became arguably the state’s premier resort, including a spa and two championship golf courses. Legend has it that the American Club is haunted. Some claim to have seen the ghost of a woman in room 209, site of a suicide many years ago. Others have watched the ghost of a man exiting room 315, once the scene of a murder. The complex features several dining rooms and cafes, the most acclaimed being the formal Immigrant Restaurant and Winery.

Lake Delton

Ishnala. Originally a rustic summer home perched high above Mirror Lake, following World War II Madison’s Hoffman Brothers (Hoffman House) purchased the property and shaped it into a supper club. It’s always been strictly a rite of summer since it has no heating system. Its quirky décor of log walls, stuffed animal heads and fake teepees and totems contribute to its dated charm. Its name in Ho Chung translates to “by itself alone” but it’s always crowded during the season, especially on weekends, and they don’t take reservations for parties of less than eight. Trust me, the scenery and a tall drink from the Tiki Bar will soothe the wait.

The Del-Bar. It’s hard to believe that this place was once a humble log cabin, a little roadhouse halfway between Wisconsin Dells and Baraboo, whose claim to fame was fried steaks. With no restaurant experience and little money, Jimmy and Alice Wimmer bought the place in 1943. The Del-Bar was remodeled and enlarged several times, gradually replacing its rustic look with architect James Dresser’s Frank-Lloyd-Wright-inspired prairie style. However, the original dining room—now called the Garden Room—is still there. The Wimmer family continues to run the iconic supper club today. If you simply want a martini and steak, properly prepared, the Del-Bar seldom disappoints.


Smoky’s Club. It seems steakhouses have once again become trendy, but there’s nothing retro here about the big slabs of meat served un-sauced and sizzling. The biggest change at the restaurant in over 50 years was the recent cigarette ban, taking the smoke out of Smoky’s Club. Leonard “Smoky” Schmock and his wife Janet started the place in 1953. Year by year, as the steakhouse prospered, more and more memorabilia was hung from the walls and ceiling, everything from stuffed muskies and bears to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. There’s story that goes with each piece of accumulated stuff—just ask. Don’t ask for crème brûlée for dessert, but instead, one of their specialty ice cream drinks like a grasshopper or brandy Alexander.

Manitowish Waters

Little Bohemia Lodge. Like many flatlanders, some of the country’s most notorious gangsters—Al Capone, Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger—would head to the North Woods each summer. The Bohemia Lodge became instantly famous in 1931 after the F.B.I. botched a raid there while trying to apprehend John Dillinger and his gang, all of whom escaped. The owner left the bullet holes in the windows and walls so that the people who then flocked there wouldn’t be disappointed. Later, after becoming a popular supper club, Clark Gable and other celebrities often would water and dine here. The recent release of the movie Public Enemy has put the lodge back in the crosshairs since it was the location for several scenes. Next month, the owners will start Dillinger tours of the property. However, since the 1920s most have come for the hearty food, breakfast, lunch or dinner. Now you can sit in the same chair where Johnny Depp recently sat, trying to choose between Eggs Dillinger, Sweet Lady in Red Salad or Baby Face Steak Sandwich.


Karl Ratzch’s. Most of Milwaukee’s signature German heritage has slipped away. Not so at Karl Ratzch’s, sought out for its old-word cooking since it opened as Hermann’s Café back in 1904. Today, it indubitably is one of the country’s best German restaurants. As you might expect, the setting is all dark wood paneling and hewn beams, tall ceramic steins and starched white linen. The menu bulges with hefty classics like sauerbraten and wiener schnitzel and a roast duck as good as you will find anywhere in the state. The service bespeaks another era and is no small part of the dining experience here. It’s hard to imagine a Milwaukee with Karl Ratzch’s.

Watt’s Tea Room. Growing-up, I remember going with my mother to the tea room at Block’s Department Store, on shopping trips to Indianapolis. I looked forward to the Choo Choo Special (one of the few times I would order off the children’s menu). I don’t remember what it was but it was served in a ceramic locomotive. (They also put little paper umbrellas in the pink lemonade.) Watt’s is one of the few tea rooms to survive, most done in by the demise of department stores and fascination with fastfood. Located on the second floor of George Watt & Son, a family-run business for 139 years and one the country’s leading retail purveyors of china, the tea room is an ever popular ladies-lunch spot. The olive-nut sandwiches on freshly baked bread and sunshine cake are local legends. Little changes here, least of all the decorum or recipes.


Heaven City. The stately mansion on the shores of the Fox River has a sordid past. Once a bordello, stories of gangsters and ghosts abound. It’s not uncommon for guests to say they heard voices, laughter and footsteps with no one in sight … or saw knobs turn and doors open by themselves. It’s a fun and funky place and very romantic as well. For many years, the restaurant has enjoyed a reputation as one of the area’s finest. The menu is eclectic and a combination of American and Continental favorites, prepared with quality ingredients. For a real taste of nostalgia, enjoy one of their special dishes on Thursday prepared and flambéed tableside.


Red Circle Inn. It can claim bragging rights as the state’s oldest restaurant. In 1847, Francis Schraudenbach, a Bavarian immigrant, established it as a stage coach inn along the plank road that connected Milwaukee and Watertown. Originally named the Nashotah Inn, with its many fine fireplaces, its reputation grew as a snug and cozy stopover. In 1889, the place took on new life, purchased by the dapper Fred Pabst, owner of Milwaukee’s Pabst Brewing Company. He changed the name to the Red Circle Inn, a reference to an important part of the Pabst logo. In 1917 the inn was destroyed by fire but rebuilt in 1921. The inn passed from Pabst to the Pulaski family and then to Aad Groenevelt, founder of Provimi veal. For the past 16 years Norm and Martha Eckstaedt have owned and managed the Red Circle Inn. The menu reminds me of the finer, big city restaurants my father would take me to in the 60s: escargots, onion soup au gratin, beef Wellington, roast duckling Montmorency, veal scaloppini … as well as the usual choice of steaks and chops but served with béarnaise or au poivre sauce.

Washington Island

The Washington Hotel. Over 100 years ago Captain Ben Johnson built the hotel to accommodate other ship captains who plied the Great Lakes. The rambling wood structure was restored in 2003, and beside the much praised dining room, is home to a culinary school and bakery. The operation is committed to sustainable agriculture and serving the best seasonal, locally grown food. The hotel fathered Death Door Sprits, vodka and gin made from wheat grown on Washington Island—named for the infamous strait of water separating the island from Door County peninsula. For a taste right here in Madison, visit the Washington Hotel Coffee Room, which features baked goods flown in from the hotel daily.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Real Deal is Almost Here

Twice a year, Madison Magazine hosts Restaurant Week, a chance to go to some of the city’s best restaurants and sample some of their best food ... Five days, three set three-course menus for $25. Many also offer special wine pairings at discounted prices. If you’ve ever been, you’ve probably already made your reservations. If you haven’t, don’t be disappointed--it won't be back until January--call today! Many of the participating restaurants are fully booked by the time Restaurant Week begins, July 26. Most restaurants post their menus on their websites.

Restaurant Week, July 26 – 31, Restaurants:

Blue Marlin
Blue Spoon Café
Bluphies Restaurant and Vodkatorium
Borcach Irish Pub
Café Continental
Capitol Chophouse
Captain Bill’s
The Continental Fitchburg
The Dardanelles Restaurant
Dayton Street Grille
Eldorado Grill
Flemings Prime Steakhouse
Frida Mexican Grill
Inka Heritage
Johnny Delmonico’s
Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse
La Brioche True Foods
Le Chardonnay
Liliana’s Restaurant
Mariner’s Inn
Ocean Grill
Osteria Papavero
Quivey’s Grove
Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse
Samba Brazilian Grill
Zander’s Capitol Grill

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Burger Bliss

The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board has a great new website, Cheese & Burger Society, with 30 recipes for Wisconsin-themed cheeseburgers. You can also become a fan on Facebook.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Rib Bit

I wish I could say I’ve eaten and cooked ribs for as long as I can remember but it wouldn’t be true. I did grow up with hickory pit barbecue but for the most part it was pork, mutton or ocaissionally beef sandwiches. Barbecued pork ribs, though universally popular now, seem to have evolved west of the Mississippi rather than in the South.

My first encounter with this American culinary icon was in someone’s backyard. It was more bones than meat (and meat that was dry and stringy at best), drowned in ketchupy sauce and charred black over charcoal. I’m afraid I wasn’t anxious to try them again for sometime. The occasion would be at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous in Memphis. Their baby back ribs were grilled over charcoal but perfectly cooked and seasoned with a dry rub rather than sauced. I progressed to spareribs, slowly smoked, sampling them at legendary BBQ havens like Arthur Bryant’s and Gate’s in Kansas City and Sonny Bryan’s in Dallas.

As with most things I develop a taste for, I decided that I can make it myself. After much bone sucking, some research and a hell of a lot of experimentation, I’ve come up with what are for me the perfect spareribs—until I come up with something better.

It didn’t take me long to figure out I much preferred barbecued—slow smoking over a hardwood fire—as opposed to grilled—quickly broiled over high heat—ribs. Unfortunately, I’ve never had the space or resources to build a genuine pit in my backyard. Fortunately, about the same time I became a serious fan of Q, the home smoker came along. I’ve owned three to date and all have been the bullet-shaped type with a charcoal fire source and water pan. Chucks of water-soaked hardwood are place directly on the fire to produce smoke. The food placed on racks in the upper portion of the smoker cooks at a temperature range of 200-250 degrees. Today, you can buy several different types of smokers that range in price from about $100 to $3,500. Locally, The Bruce Company, Menards and Home Depot all sell smokers. An accessory I would consider is rib racks which allow you to maximize space in the smoker. Smokers come with basic instructions but I wouldn’t rely too much on the recipes included. A good reference book is Paul Kirk’s Championship Barbecue which will tell you everything you need to know about smoking or grilling just about anything, plus hundreds of interesting recipes and tips. But, I’ll be honest. It takes a lot of trial and error to get it right.

You can use any hardwood for smoking; hickory and mesquite are the most readily available. Many professional barbecue chefs swear by oak because of its exceptionally slow burn. Fruitwoods like apple and cherry are also popular but don’t impart fruit flavor to the barbecue.

All ribs are not created equal. Spareribs come from the belly of the pig, and are usually between 11 and 13 inches long. St. Louis-style spareribs are trimmed and have the brisket bone removed, forming a nice rectangular shape. Kansas City-style ribs are trimmed even further, down to a square. Baby back ribs come from the loin and are leaner and meatier than spareribs. “Country-style ribs” are not ribs at all but a blade cut from the end of the loin, a sort of fatty pork chop.

Both spareribs and baby back ribs have their attributes but I gravitate toward the later. Like most red meat prior to smoking, ribs benefit from a rub. This blend of spices, sugar and salt is actually sprinkled over the surface of the meat but not rubbed in per se. After shaking off the excess the rib racks are sealed in 2-gallon plastic bags and refrigerated overnight. This actually functions as a kind of cure, similar to the original process for making ham. I personally think a rub works much better on ribs than a marinade.

The ribs should be cooked over smoke at 225 degrees for about 4 hours—smoking too long will result in an unpleasant tasting, creosote layer on the meat. Then each rack should be wrapped and sealed first in plastic wrap and then in heavy duty foil. The wrapped racks are returned to the smoker—200 degrees is ideal—for another 2 hours. No the plastic wrap won’t melt! When you serve the ribs, the meat will be fall-off-the-bone tender.

I like my ribs dry with sauce served on the side. If you prefer them wet, they’ll be much more successful if you sauce them at the end. After 4 hours of smoke, wrap and return the racks to the smoker for 1 more hour. Remove the foil and plastic wrap, cut the racks in half and brush the surface of the meat with barbecue sauce. Glaze the half racks over a hot charcoal fire, turning frequently and brushing with sauce, for 10 minutes or so.

If you want to cut corners, my advice is go out for ribs instead. Here are my Best of Madison places to enjoy barbecued ribs.

Eldorado Grill. The restaurant added barbecue to the menu a while back and the dry-rubbed and smoked baby back ribs are exemplary, served with their homemade molasses-based sauce.

Smoky Jon’s #1 BBQ. This is the closest Madison has to a genuine BBQ joint and lays claim to Wisconsin’s largest wood-burning rotisserie pit. For more than 27 years Smoky Jon has piled up awards for his ribs, seasonings and sauce, earning him the title as “Madison's All-Time BBQ King.”

Fat Jack’s Barbecue. Madison’s longest running venue for smoky meat treats, they feature both tender spareribs and baby back ribs served with their own unique spicy sauce. All-you-can-eat sparerib special on Wednesday night.

Papa Bear’s Barbecue. St. Louis style ribs and rib tips along with traditional sides to carry-out.

Famous Dave’s BBQ. It’s a chain to be sure and (one that began in Minneapolis no less) but consistently earns praise and awards for its hickory-smoked spareribs that are finished with their Rich & Sassy® BBQ sauce over an open flame.

Arthur Bryant’s Rib Rub
1 cup salt
2/3 cup paprika
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground mustard
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
¾ teaspoon ground celery seed
2 teaspoons onion powder
2 teaspoons garlic powder

Mix all the ingredients. Generously sprinkle both sides of the ribs with the rub and massage it in. Let ribs sit at least 12 hours, refrigerated, before cooking. This recipe flavors 12 slabs of ribs.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Rest of the Story