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.


Jason said...

I received a packages of 6 different salts. Yes they are many pretty colors but they all taste the same to me. said...

Did you hook up the filter to the pipe that comes from Dicks Toliet or from the outside one?

Anonymous said...

The intoxicating spice blends and recipes explore the cooking of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia and titillate both imagination and palette.

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