Friday, December 26, 2008

Soup’s On

After the holidays, I crave food not so fuzzy but it’s still winter and I want something hearty … preferably something that will perk up my jaded palate. ‘Tis the season for soup. Lots of places make a good soup of the day to be sure—both Café Soleil and Marigold Kitchen immediately come to mine—but sometime I’m not in the mood to take potluck … certainly not up for a bowl of cream of tomato. Fortunately, there are restaurants in Madison that have soup specialties of the house—so good they’re on the menu every day or at least on a regular basis. Here are my top 10, Best of Madison Soups.

Africana Restaurant: Egusi
This is about as exotic as it gets. Egusi are fat- and protein-rich seeds used to thicken soup in Africa. Africana’s recipe comes from Nigeria and is a pleasantly hot beef and tomato stock with spinach, smoked fish and all kinds of mysterious seasonings. It’s served with a choice of meat and rice or fufu (pounded yams or plantain).

Bandung: Sayur Lodeh
My vegetarian friends—especially those new to town—are always asking me where they should eat. Bandung is definitely at the top of my list. Sayur Lodeh is an improbable combination of ingredients—tempe, tofu, napa cabbage, baby corn, bamboo shoots and jalapeno—all successfully coming together in coconut milk broth. It’s so sublime that even carnivores (like me) will be contemplating seconds. Fortunately, it’s available in dinner-size portion.

Capitol Chophouse: Brown Ale Onion Soup
Nothing is more enticing than a bowl of French onion soup with its raft of melting Swiss cheese floating in a bowl of robust beef stock and aromatic onions. At the Chophouse, the marriage of brown ale with an excellent onion soup is a match made in heaven.

Eldorado Grill: KW’s Texas Chile
Not to be confused with its wimpy Midwestern cousin, this is the real deal made with chunks of beef rather than hamburger. It packs a punch, zipped up with a happy consortium of New Mexican, ancho, pasilla and Oaxacan chile peppers. Chili (the soup) actually originated more than 100 years ago in San Antonio (not Mexico) where women known as Chili Queens sold the spicy stew from carts on the street.

Lombardino’s: Ribollita (Winter menu)
Ribollita means “twice cooked” in Italian and this bean soup is a traditional Tuscan dish. When I had the pleasure of discovering this soup at Lombardino’s, it was so wonderful that I begged co-owner Marcia O’Halloran for the recipe. (Okay, I didn’t have to beg but would have gladly done so and more.) White beans are slowly cooked with smoked pork and bacon. Then chicken stock, onions, lacinato kale, Roma tomatoes, carrots, zucchini and fresh herbs go in the pot. The end result is slightly thickened bean soup with a rich smoky flavor which is served over crisp crotons and finished with a drizzle of fine olive oil.

Restaurant Magnus: Butternut Squash and Sweet Potato Soup
This soup, like its setting is sophisticated, stylish and smooth. The stick-to-your-ribs qualities of butternut squash and sweet potatoes are pure comfort food, but the addition of a fennel apple relish and pasilla pepper oil is what gives it personality. The soup is available on the restaurant’s Tapas Menu.

La Mestiza: Sopa Azteca
Tortilla soup includes just about everything I like about Mexican food. La Mestiza’s version is a rich chicken broth spiced with smoky pasilla chile and comes with all the prerequisite garnishes: crunchy tortilla strips, crumbled queso fresco, chopped avocado and cream aria. ¡Muy bueno!

The Old Fashioned: Green Bay Chili
This beloved Wisconsin specialty is actually a thick sauce made from beef and beans, distinctively spiced and served over spaghetti on a plate rather than in a bowl. You then add your choice of toppings—grated cheese, chopped onions and/or sour cream. The concept came to Green Bay from Cincinnati where chili parlors that specialize in this peculiar product proliferate. The photo is of a “Four-Way”—chili with the works—at Cincy’s Skyline Chili.

Sa-Bai Thong Thai Cuisine: Tom Ka (Gai)
I fell in love with Thai food in Los Angeles and immediately fell in love with this wonderfully complex concoction. For the first time, I could really appreciate tofu. With a base of coconut milk, Tom Ka Gai is seasoned with chili paste, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, galanga (blue ginger) and other herbs and spices. You add your choice of chicken, shrimp, squid or tofu.

Wah Kee Chinese Noodle Restaurant: Hot and Sour Tong Mein
This first time I tasted this classic Chinese potage was the first time I had a kind of soup not made by Campbell. Forget chicken soup, this is the perfect remedy to cure a cold and literally sensational. Like most of their noodle dishes, Wah Kee’s Hot and Sour Tong Mein is exemplarily.

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