Monday, January 26, 2009

Fish Fry Road Trip

The tradition of the Friday night fish fry is unique to the upper Midwest. Its roots are in the Lenten season when many Catholic churches use to host fish dinners on meatless Fridays. Some still do.

During prohibition taverns obviously declined and those that survived switched to serving food. Traditionally Friday was payday and the fried fish special became a successful lure for customers with cash in their pockets. Going out for fish on Friday soon became popular all year long, not just because it was Lent. As a matter of fact, today Lutherans are more likely to go out for fish on Friday than Catholics.

Prohibition ended but by then the nation was caught up in the Great Depression and the restaurant business languished. Thus began the tradition of the all-you-can eat, Friday night fish fry at a ridiculously low price … and inevitably a long wait at the bar where the real money was made.

Locally caught perch and walleye were originally the most likely ingredient for this weekly ritual since they were cheap and plentiful. But in the 60s their prices started to rapidly increase as their availability decreased. Restaurants began substituting cheaper ocean varieties, especially cod. Today, lake fish have returned to many menus—perch, walleye and bluegill—but imported from Canada.

There is an omnipresent debate about whether the fish should be breaded or battered. Some insist that the fish has to be pan fried, but it’s more likely to be deep fried since this is a quicker and cheaper method of preparation. Everyone has his or her opinion about who has the best fish fry in Madison. I know I have mine. But, I’ll leave those discussions for another time.

Fish Fry in Wisconsin has weathered bad times before but is clearly here to stay. Next Friday, let’s go out for fish … let’s go out of town.

Ding-A-Ling Supper Club
County Road H
(608) 879-9209
This is a classic supper club just west of Janesville long renown for its Friday fish fry. The specialty here is beer-battered cod or perch. They also have something called “plain cod”—the skin browned but not breaded. The dinner includes the anticipated pick of potatoes including homemade potato pancakes (the side of choice among southeastern Wisconsin fish fry aficionados). The Ding-A-Ling is but a little shoebox stuck out in the middle of nowhere, yet it packs them in every Friday (and they do take reservations which are highly recommended).

Glarner Stube
518 1st Street
New Glarus
(608) 527-2216
The journey down State Highway 69 to New Glarus is as charming as the Swiss-styled village itself. The Glarner Stube is small; the bar and dining room usually packed and the kitchen hustling to keep up. They don’t take reservations on the weekends. Like everything else, the fish fry is excellent—deep-fried lake perch or cod or baked cod. The proverbial cole slaw is superior … better yet, you can opt for their famous roesti—Swiss fried potatoes—for just a little extra.

Lake House Inn
1612 E. Hotel Drive
(608) 884-4544
This place can be a little hard to find … part of its appeal. A historic old resort on Lake Kegonsa, the rambling old hotel is unpretentious if not just a tad shabby. Big draws are the crackling fireplace in winter and the screened-in veranda in summer. There’s plenty of room to wait in the cavernous bar (and wait you will on Friday without a reservation). The fish fry is all you can eat and comes with a more-than-respectable cole slaw and choice of potato including the au gratins, favored by the locals.

Norm’s Hideaway Bar & Grill
N150 Danielson Road
(608) 884-4823
If you’re hankering for Up North atmosphere and lakeside dining, Norm’s isn’t so far away. Located on the shores of Lake Koshkonong the rustic restaurant is a favored destination for outside dining in summer and Friday fish fry all year long. Come Friday night, variety is the name of the game here: beer-battered cod; blue gill; smelt; fried, baked or broiled walleye; catfish with hush puppies; a half-pound of shrimp; or even Fiesta Cod, poached with roasted garlic salsa. If you’re there on Monday, be sure and try the deep-fried lobster.

Owl’s Club
5847 E. County Road N
(608) 868-3413
Despite its name, the Owl’s Club in Milton is pure Wisconsin tavern with prices to match. A small salad bar that boasts homemade potato salad and cole slaw is included with the fish fry. The choice of fish is impressive: fried perch and walleye, beer-battered cod and not-so-common-around-here catfish. Both the potato pancakes and hashbrowns with cheese make fine side dishes. A long-running, lively, local watering hole and popular venue for bands, it’s probably not the best choice if you’re looking for a quiet evening.

Polonez Restaurant
4016 S. Packard Avenue
St. Francis
(414) 482-0080
Going to a Polish restaurant for fish fry may seem odd to some, but get over it. Polish American décor and menu specialties with unpronounceable names aside, their Friday night fish fry is All-Wisconsin, offering either deep-fried lake perch or cod or baked cod. All come with cole slaw and a choice of potato—fried, tots, mashed or potato pancakes—wafer thin and absolutely worth the trip alone. It’s not all you can eat but if you’re still hungry order a couple more of those fantastic potato pancakes available à la carte.

Quindt's Town Lounge
441 South Boulevard
(608) 356-6950
Owners Mick and Virginia Quindt work hard to assure all their guests leave satisfied. Perhaps that’s why the Friday night fish fry on average attracts 500 or more diners each week? Tables can be hard to come by but well worth the wait. It’s not that they offer anything out of the ordinary, just that it’s ordinarily well done—deep-fried, beer-battered cod, either two or three pieces. It comes with the expected choice of potatoes but consider forgoing the cole slaw en lieu of the signature house salad with wasabi dressing for only a buck more.

800 Wisconsin Dells Parkway
Lake Delton
(866) 888-1861
This is probably cheating, but I’m going to add it to my list any way. Originally the Del-Bar got its name because it was located between the Dells and Baraboo. You won’t find a fish fry special, but the pan-fried walleye is very special—as good as you’ll ever get anywhere (likewise, the spinach salad with bacon dressing and hashbrowns). The restaurant began in the 1930s as a humble roadside bar. In 1943 it was purchased by Jim and Alice Wimmer and evolved and matured into a restaurant that is all about the good life in Wisconsin. The Wimmer family continues to run the Del-Bar today and it’s a welcomed oasis among the tawdry desert so much of Wisconsin Dells has come to be.

On 2 2 for 22 at Cafe Soleil

Starting February 10, Cafe Soleil at L'Etoile will feature themed, homestyle dinners the second Tuesday of each month for $22. To reserve seats, call 251-0500. Tables are available between 6 -7 pm. Seating is limited. Local beers and wines by the glass will be available.

February 10 - BBQ Pork Night:
Willow Creek Farm Pork served with Hook’s Cheddar Mac & Cheese, Coleslaw, and Sweet Cornbread. Ruth Lefeber’s Blueberry Cobbler with Vanilla Ice Cream

March 10 - St. Paddy’s Day Classics:
Fountain Prairie Farm Corned Beef with Cabbage and Boiled Potatoes. Chocolate Spice Cake with Guinness Ice Cream

April 7 - Southern Fried Chicken:
Jordandal Farm Fried Chicken with Mashed Potatoes & Gravy, Coleslaw and Jalapeño Cheddar Biscuits. Pecan Pie à la mode

May 12th Rustic Italian:
Fresh-made Pasta with Chef Tory’s Sunday Gravy, Caesar Salad and Garlic Bread. Tiramisu

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Fromagination Celebrates February with Wisconsin Fondue Events

If you're looking for a new lunch spot or dinner destination, consider sharing warm fondue with new and old friends at a unique communal farmhouse table inside Fromagination, Wisconsin's premier artisan cheese shop on the Capitol Square in downtown Madison.

During the month of February, Fromagination will serve a fondue lunch every Wednesday, with seating times at 11 a.m., 12:15 p.m. and 1:15 p.m. Space is limited, so advance reservations are encouraged. Price is $15 per person. The meal features Wisconsin Roth Käse cheese fondue, French baguettes, Nueskes summer sausage and cornichons. Fondue will be shared at the communal table in earthenware pots over small burners.

Fromagination is also hosting two special fondue dinners with Wisconsin cheesemakers. On Feb. 13, Mike and Carol Gingrich, makers of the award-winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve, and Wisconsin cheesemaker Felix Thalhammer of Capri Cheese will join diners for a traditional fondue dinner. Another dinner will take place Feb. 27. Price is $35 per person and each event begins at 6:30 p.m. Reservations are required.

In addition, if you would rather host a fondue party at home, Fromagination is renting and retailing fondue pots this winter and will supply you with everything you need, including the shop's signature fondue mix, cornichons, meats and a French baguette.

In-store events at Fromagination during February include:

Feb. 7: Meet Cheesemaker Bruce Workman, Edelweiss Creamery. This is your chance to meet the only Big Wheel Swiss cheesemaker in North America! Workman is a certified Master Cheesemaker in seven varieties of cheese, and is renowned for creating Old World Emmentaler in 180-pound wheels. Time: 11 am. – 2 p.m. No charge.

Feb. 13: Meet Cheesemaker Mike Gingrich, Uplands Cheese. Mike and Carol Gingrich of Uplands Cheese will sample their Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a farmstead cheese crafted in the style and tradition of mountain cheeses in the alpine regions of France. Swiss Cellars, an important and distributor of quality Swiss wines, beer and eaux-de-vie in North America will also be on hand. Time: 3 – 6 p.m. No charge.

Feb 14: Meet Cheesemaker Brenda Jensen, Hidden Springs Creamery. Jensen crafts award-winning fresh and cave-aged sheep's milk cheeses, and, in a special treat for Fromagination shoppers, will offer chocolate-dipped flavored sheep's milk truffles. Time: 11 am. – 2 p.m. No charge.

Feb. 21: Roth Käse USA Fondue Mix. One of Wisconsin's premier cheesemakers, Roth Käse has won more than 100 awards since its start in 1991. Sample this company's signature fondue mix. Time: 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. No charge.

Fromagination is located at 12 S. Carroll Street on the Capitol Square in downtown Madison. Winter shop hours are Monday thru Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information on classes, events, catering opportunities and gift ideas for artisan cheeses and perfect companions, visit or call 608-255-2430.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Absolut Madison?

Last year Absolut vodka came out with a Limited Edition called Absolut New Orleans. Only 35,000 cases of the mango and black pepper flavored vodka was made and 100% of the sales was donate to charities associated with Katrina relief. Absolut New Orleans was a big hit, especially with me—I still have a couple of bottles squirreled away that I’m saving for a hurricane. I concocted my own cocktail with the edition of X-Rated Fusion and Cointreau and it was on the drink menu at the Capitol Chophouse for several months.

This summer, Absolut came out with its second Limited Edition vodka honoring a city: Absolut Los Angeles. Flavored with acai, acerola cherry, pomegranate and blueberry inspired by L.A.'s healthy lifestyles and fitness culture. A portion of the sales were donated to Green Way LA.

Now, Absolut is asking you to nominate the next city to be honored with it’s only Limited Edition Vodka … not only the city but what it should taste like it. I’m thinking, Absolut Madison! Very fruity, a few nuts, a hint of tofu and definitely served over ice? This is the beginning of my campaign to them to pick Madison. Please go and vote for Madison and its flavor HERE.

Also, become of member of the group Absolut Madison! on Facebook.

Until they introduce Absolut Madison! … here is something to drink while we wait.

Absolut Madison Cosmo

3 parts Absolut Citron
1 part cranberry juice cocktail
1 part pure cranberry juice (unsweetened)
1 part Cointreau
Fresh lime juice to taste

Shake over ice and pour in a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

It’s Carnival Time!

The coming of carnival each year is a time I anticipate more than Christmas. Perhaps because it happens right after the holidays, in the dead of winter when there isn’t a whole lot else going on.
For some carnival is synonymous with Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday and refers to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. This year, Mardi Gras falls on February 24. The date can occur on any Tuesday between February 3 and March 9 and is always 47 days preceding Easter. So, like Easter the date changes from year to year.

Carnival comes from the Latin carnivale and loosely translated means farewell to flesh. It is the season of merriment preceding its single-day culmination, Mardi Gras. In New Orleans, Carnival begins every year on January 6, the Twelfth Night or Feast of the Epiphany and ends at midnight on Fat Tuesday.

Dozens of carnival clubs in New Orleans celebrate the season by hosting numerous balls, social events and parades. These carnival clubs called krewes are chartered as nonprofit entities and financed by dues and fund-raising projects throughout the year. They take their name from the Mystick Krewe of Comus, New Orleans’ first carnival club established in 1857. Madison has its very own krewe, the Krewe of Madison.

The food most associated with the carnival season is the king cake. In France the king cake or gâteau de roi was a rich brioche or puff pastry served on the eve of Twelfth Night. Baked inside was a bean or coin to represent the Christ child. Whoever got the bean was crowned king with a paper crown.

In New Orleans, king cake is a round or oval coffee cake and almost always comes from a bakery or grocery. It is gaudily decorated with lots of green, purple and gold sugar to represent a jeweled crown. Recently, the filled king cake—cream cheese being the filling of choice—has become favored. Whatever the variety, all contain a small, plastic baby hidden inside. The person who finds the baby has the dubious distinction of buying the next king cake … and in Louisiana during carnival, life is an endless parade of king cakes.

You can actually buy a king cake in Madison at Scott’s Pastry Shoppe in Middleton or Bab’s French Quarter Café (though you do need to order it in advance). You can also have one shipped by overnight air from numerous bakeries in New Orleans (Manny Randazzo’s and Gambino’s are popular with locals). The idea of making your own king cake in New Orleans would be akin to making your own bread in Paris. However, here is a recipe. You can find the prerequisite purple, green and gold—the official colors of Mardi Gras—sugar crystals at Vanilla Bean (6805 Odana Road).

There is always a lot of eating and drinking—especially drinking—going on in New Orleans but even more so during carnival. Beside the many balls and parities, parades are an important part of the celebration. Two local snacks inevitably show up along the parade route: Popeye Fried Chicken and Frito Pie—a bag of corn chips split open and filled with chili and topped with cheese.

If none of this puts you in the carnival mood, perhaps the following will. Laissez le bon temps rouler!


Pat O’Brien’s bar in the French Quarter invented the Hurricane in the 1940s, naming it after its glass that’s shaped like a hurricane lamp. Supposedly, a local distributor forced the bar to buy cases of rum before they would sell them other liquor that they actually wanted. Pat O’Brien concocted the now famous drink which he actually gave away to sailors and soldiers who frequented the bar during World War II.

2 ounces light rum
2 ounces dark rum
3 ounces frozen Hawaiian Punch® concentrate (defrosted but not reconstituted)
1 ounce fresh orange juice
½ ounce fresh lime juice

Orange slice and cherry

Shake all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and strain into a hurricane glass. Garnish with a cherry and an orange slice.

Make 1 drink.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Best of Madison Best of 2008

Here is what I think were some of the successes—and a few failures—on the food front during the past year. No doubt the economy will have a major impact upon what we do and don’t eat in 2009. But truth be told, restaurants come and go and tastes change regardless. I read that the sales of the likes of Spam and boxed macaroni and cheese are booming—also alcoholic beverages. I won’t predict how this will all work out but I am confident people will still want to dine out, splurge now and then and have a good time.

Best New Restaurant: Samba Brazilian Grill. Whatever you think about the food, the concept is big and bold. It began with the salvation of a historic downtown building, once home to the Madison Women’s Club. The renovation and restoration resulted in a stunning space for two dining venues, the Cabana Room downstairs and the Grill upstairs. The food is fittingly dramatic with a Latin disposition.

Best Restaurant Makeover: The Continental. The physical transformation from a onetime suburban French restaurant gone Spanish with very tired décor came first. The end result mimicked the popular downtown Café Continental. But it wasn’t until this past year when Jim Schiavo exclusively took over running The Continental that it developed its own personality. It is a much welcomed addition to the growing Fitchburg neighborhood.

Best New Place for Foodies: Fromagination. At first, another place to buy cheese in Wisconsin seemed like overkill. But Fromagination doesn’t cater to out-of-town visitors looking for a souvenir to take back home. It’s a destination for fans of artisan fromage, even attracting the attention of the food writers at the New York Times. If you don’t like the smelly stuff, there are enough other interesting comestibles in the shop to tempt even a tepid gourmet.

Best Improved with Age: Capitol Chophouse. For the most part I’ve always avoided dining in hotels. It became a sort of dining purgatory I suffered when I once traveled too frequently because of my job. Hotel food and ambiance always seemed as transient and anonymous as my fellow diners. The Capitol Chophouse at the Hilton has steadily carved out a niche for itself and become a comfortable and popular destination for locals. In no small part I credit this achievement to its friendly and competent staff and solid cooking which only seems to get better.
Best New Food: Açai. More is better seems to be the mantra of our culture. Recently antioxidants became “in”, hence the new found popularity of pomegranates. Açai
berries come from a type of palm that grows in the Amazon and have almost twice the antioxidant power of pomegranates. A horde of açai-based beverages were already on the market when Oprah proclaimed the fruit a weight loss miracle (a claim not supported by personal experience). Needless to say, açai is suddenly appearing in anything and everything. Health benefits aside, I like its taste, often described as a combination of chocolate and raspberry or blueberry. This is great new food just waiting to be taken advantage of.

Best Food Hype: Designer Salt. First it came two ways, plain or iodized. Then along comes kosher salt which was better to cook with and sea salt which was better for you. Now there is salt in various granulations and states of refinement, in every color and hue, and from points of origin with unpronounceable names. But $9.50 for a quarter cup of Peruvian pink salt? I’ll pass.

Best New Ideas That Went Belly Up. MOCO Market. Sucre and Willy Street Coop II (at Metropolitan Place). They all seemed like good ideas at the time but for whatever reason were not meant to be.

Best Trend: Themed Dinners. I don’t know who started these but there are several restaurants that regularly do them well. Lombardino’s, Harvest, Le Chardonnay and Sardine all produce fixed-price menus (often with wine options) that focus on a particular specialty or seasonal ingredient. Inevitably a good value, these special dinners are always an opportunity to enjoy some inspired cooking. Most restaurant post information about these events on their websites.

Best Not Kept Secret: Mickey’s Tavern. Anyone with any experience dining out knows that a sign posturing “Good Food” is usually a bad omen. Mickey’s has just such a sign. This scruffy sauce parlor has been around forever with a reputation for just about everything but good food. That is, until Jane Capito (Wild Iris, Lazy Jane’s) came on the scene. As promised the food is not only good but comes with a complimentary side of creativity à la mode. The Mickey Burger, World’s Greatest Sandwich, Sexy Fries and nightly specials are as engaging and eccentric as the place itself.

Best Surprise. Dayton Street Grille. There have been several restaurants in this same space at The Concourse Hotel, all in-house operations that never clicked with the outside public. History can be a curse in the restaurant business but Chef Charles Lazzareschi seemingly is the exorcist this dining room needed. Quite honestly, I wasn’t aware that anything had even changed at The Concourse until I judged the finals of the Dueling Chef Competition at the Madison Food and Wine Show last October. I was blown away by the culinary skill of Chef Lazzareschi who went on to win the contest and has brought a lot of positive attention to Dayton Street Grille.

Best Deal: Indian Lunch Buffet. I’ve previously expressed my opinion about buffets but where else could you get so much food with so much flavor for under ten bucks and no mashed potatoes or congealed salads in sight?

Best New Local Product: Potter’s Crackers. Nancy and Peter Potter, mother and son, combined their experience of running a bakery and a degree in food science to produce an all-organic snack that tastes terrific. Their various flavored crackers are available in specialty food stores and many restaurants around town (a complete list is on their website).

Best Cocktail: Vesper Martini. In case you’re not a James Bond fan, the libation originated in the 1953 novel Casino Royale and immediately became a hit. After the release of the Casino Royale movie in 2006, the drink is enjoying a comeback. Agent 007 says he named the cocktail after Vesper (his romantic interest), because once he tasted it, it was all he wanted to drink. The recipe: “Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?"

Best Cookbook: The Spice Merchant’s Daughter … Recipes and Simple Spice Blends for the American Kitchen, by Christina Arokiasamy (Clarkson N Potter). Cookbook collectors (and I’m one) fall in many categories. Most evolve from an interest in how-to books to concentrate on a particular genre. (I buy anything and everything that has to do with New Orleans.) However, something different is always a find. This is small book with a big bang. The intoxicating spice blends and recipes explore the cooking of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia and titillate both imagination and palette.

Best Gone and Forgotten: Trans Fat. As municipalities and states scurried to enact its ban, for all practical purposes trans fat has largely disappeared due to its own deservedly bad rap sheet. Once prevalent in everything from fried foods to baked goods and even peanut butter, all were quickly reformulated and now tout “No Trans Fat” on their labels.

Worst Hangover: Whole Foods’ Hole. The ambitious plan for a much expanded Whole Foods market behind Hilldale has been put on hold. Unfortunately, this decision came after construction had already begun and left us with a scarred landscape to look at for who knows how long.

Best New Years’ Resolution: Don’t Buy Bottled Water! At least in throwaway bottles. It’s expensive in many ways and just dumb. Admittedly, I’m a rehabbed Evian junkie but got a water filter and getting along just fine.