Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Not Your Usual College Town Cuisine

I've figured out a routine that works quite well when I'm on quickie business trips to less than top-tier destinations - as in my visit to Madison, Wisconsin this week!

*Book a room in a centrally located hotel.

*Check out the alternative weekly paper a few days before arriving - search for the best restaurants, coffee houses, wine stores, galleries and museums (if they don't have such a paper, reconsider the trip).

*Jot the top contenders in your little black moleskine book, google map them in relation to your hotel and be totally psyched to discover most are within walking distance.

*Arrive as early as possible on the day before the work begins.

*Buy the latest issue of the city's monthly magazine on your way out of the airport (if they don't have such a magazine, lower your expectations but remain cautiously optimistic).

*Review the information you've gathered and look for arrows pointing in the same direction. As in: the "chef of the year" on the cover of Madison Magazine was recently given an award by the James Beard Foundation and highlighted by the New York Times Magazine as Madison's "must visit restaurant." Hmm...where to have dinner?

*Give the impression that you're a reviewer from out-of-town without actually saying so. While ordering an espresso macchiato after lunch at the cafe connected to what Gourmet Magazine rates as being one of the best "farm-to-table" restaurants in the country, I casually mentioned that I was doing a taste test of espresso around town. Soon enough, the barista (a cute college kid) came over to regale me with stories of how they use fresh roasted fair trade beans and local milk from grass-fed cows, and how I can try the same coffee with milk from a different dairy farm a few doors up the street. Oh, and a delicious drink with foam art in the shape of an apple, stem and leaf!

*Enter stores with a clear mission, as in: "I've read about your artisanal cheeses and I'm here to buy a 1/4 pound of four varieties that will travel well back with me to Toronto. What do you have for me to taste?" and "I'm looking for wines I can't get back in Toronto - you know, they have government-run liquor stores there and the selection isn't great."

Places I'd go back to in a heart beat:

Cafe Soleil - the casual lunch spot of the famed L'Etoile Restaurant that's been serving up "seasonal menus...inspired by the artisans and small sustainable farms of the Midwest and... rendered with a French technique" since 1976. My $20 lunch was more than memorable: a cup of roasted cauliflower soup with bits of chorizo sprinkled on top with a drizzle of garlic olive oil and the market salad: local greens, pear, fennel, red onion, blue paradise cheese, pecans and creamy lemon-garlic vinaigrette, with slices of grilled chicken on the side. Oh, and the above-mentioned macchiato!

25 N Pinckney St, (608) 251-0500,

Fromagination - a beautifully presented shop that has a "passion for spectacular artisan, specialty and organic cheeses." With the help of the knowledgeable man behind the counter, I sampled and smuggled back 4 cheeses that I don't think usually make it out of state. The descriptions (corrected for spelling) are theirs, but having just had a cheese plate for dinner with a couple of glasses of 2005 Tait Basket-Pressed Shiraz, I wouldn't argue with them:

Dante by WI Sheep Dairy Cooperative - a firm cheese made with sheep's milk from flocks in WI and nearby states; flavour is pleasantly sheepy, buttery and nutty.

Bandaged cheddar by Bleu Mont Diary - a hard British farmhouse-style cheddar, cloth-bound and cave-aged with big flavour and good balance.

Farmstead gouda by Holland's Family Farm - a hard traditional farmstead gouda made by a Dutch cheesemaker with WI cow's milk, with a sweet carmelized flavour (my favourite of the lot, with its crumbly, crystalline texture)

Pleasant ridge reserve by Uplands Cheese -a hard, handmade Alpine-style raw milk cheese, only made when the cows are grazing on pasture, with nutty and subtle floral notes.

12 S Carroll, (608) 255-2430,

Fair Trade Coffeehouse is the perfect place to re-caffeinate, check email and transport yourself back to college. I wasn't able to report back to nodrog on the make and model of their grinder and espresso machine (I have got to remember to get that stuff down), but my latte was damn good!

418 State Street, (608) 268-0477,

Harvest Restaurant, two doors down from L'Etoile, received all the accolades noted above for its "menu enhanced by seasonal locally-grown, and organic ingredients." (See, I'm telling you... this is a foodie town!). The meal easily made up for the so-so service (long waits to order and between courses; a substitution request apparently denied), and were we really in a rush to get back to watch Obama and McCain rail into each other anyway?

Amuse bouche: Little white tureens of gazpacho (with a peppery kick)
Appetizers: Slow Roasted Beets,Toasted Hazelnuts, Ader Kase Reserve Blue Cheese, Hazelnut Vinaigrette ($8) & Salad of Field Greens, Herbs, Winter Vegetables, Sherry Walnut Vinaigrette ($6).

Entrees: A special of braised short ribs served on polenta ($27) & Porcini Salt Rubbed Angus Tenderloin, Spinach, Roasted Fingerling Potatoes (missing but not substituted in my case), Porcini Mustard (36).

The total came to $50/person, each with appetizer, entree and non-alcoholic beverage (they had a reasonably priced and interesting wine list, including nearly a dozen half-bottles, but we had to be up early...).

21 N Pinckney St, (608) 255-6075,

The Gift Shop at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (yeah, that's right - I don't actually recommend the museum itself, which should more appropriately be called "two small rooms of mediocre art"). The shop has a remarkable collection of jewelry, handbags, scarves, and crafts, many by Wisconsin artists. Kristin Lewis' Yofi scarves, "triple layer chiffon" are must-haves.

227 State Street, (608) 257-0158,

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