My wife and I just spent a thoroughly enjoyable, childless, four-day weekend in Madtown. In a state where it is almost impossible to order something that hasnt come out of a fryer, Madison is really a culinary anomaly: good restaurant options, some very good grocery stores and delis, and one of the best farmers markets in the country. The residents really embrace organic farmers and artisinal food producers. The stuff you will find in small neighborhood markets (on quiet residential side streets, no less) would be amazing for Chicago, much less somewhere in Wisconsin.
LEtoile, the mid-wests answer to Chez Panisse, is the grand dame of Madison food scene. Even when you arent eating at the restaurant, you can get Odessa Piper quality produce and products, from many of lEtoiles vendors, at the Saturday farmers market, which surrounds the capitol building. You will get the story behind everything you eat at LEtoile. Dinner started with an amuse bouche of a bite sized BLT. What a BLT! I could have been happy with an entrée-sized sandwich for dinner. Maine peekytoe crab salad with cilantro-lime mayonnaise was served on a roasted Bee Charmer (the farms name) sweet corn relish in a stemmed glass. The corn was so outstanding, it made the peekytoe crab seem like the humble ingredient in the dish. I can still taste the corn a week later. Duck confit filled herb crepes were drizzled with a red currant sauce. The crepes were as light and flaky as a Parisian croissant. After eliminating a steak and a polenta dish (a vegetarian option) from the five entrée choices, we were down to halibut, rainbow trout, and a chicken dish. When we consulted the waiter (the same waiter who very capably took care of us a few years ago), he suggested the seared halibut with chanterelle/white wine cream sauce and served with LEtoile mashed potatoes and more of that Bee Charmer corn (YES!) as well as a free-range chicken with a summer truffle, cognac-foie gras sauce. The chicken came with more of those great mashed potatoes and a killer cabbage. The high quality of the produce was also very evident in the potatoes and the cabbage. We shared a delicious peach/raspberry crisp with homemade (or made in house) vanilla bean ice cream. The space is on the second floor of a building with a very nice view of the capitol. FYI, BYO is allowed ($20 corkage), but keep in mind they do have a very good wine list (and a sommelier), with many older selections. Unless you have a decent cellar, its not a good idea.
When Nancy didnt want another what she calls big meal at Harvest, on Friday, we went to my Saturday choice, Lao Laan-Xang. The small (twenty-some seats) storefront Laotian/Thai spot on Willy Street could probably hold its own in the company of the high quality Chicago Thai restaurants. We only ordered three dishes, but what we had was really good. Even though I really love the texture of the toasted rice in larp, the pork larp was great without it; beautifully seasoned, including a generous amount of great basil and served with sticky rice. I questioned the waiter about the red curry, mainly because it was served with Thai eggplants, but he thought the Panang curry was a better choice. Deeply flavored and rich, without being very sweet, it was served over a really generous amount of very good beef. The only just OK dish was Khua Mee, a Laotian version of Pad Thai. Our waiter, who was one of the owners couldnt have been nicer. He was very receptive to allowing BYOing (a nominal $15 corkage), since they only have a few supermarket options. An added bonus is that the room was a warm and welcoming (again, for a storefront Thai) as the owners.
Saturday became a wild card and we found Yirgalem, an Ethiopian restaurant on Monroe Street. It is a handsome room, painted in a dark cinnamon; this is not a storefront ethnic spot. We are Ethiopian novices, but the owners son, who couldnt have been nicer, was our waiter and he took very good care of us. Besides making some ordering suggestions, he would check in to see how we were doing and between courses and at the end of our meal, provided us with cultural and historical background information. We felt like we were eating at a friends house. An amuse of crisp, fried injera chips, which were served with a thick chickpeas dip, kind of an Ethiopian hummus. I thought it was more flavorful than hummus, very rich and garlicky. The very good injera is made with teff, not flour. We started with Berbere Katenya, which is injera spread with berbere, seasoned extra virgin olive oil, and Ethiopian style farmer's cheese and rolled. Our entrees were served on a platter, family style, along with some collard greens, salad, and cooked lentils. We ordered Yebeg Alicha, lamb strips in a curry and Yesiga Wat, beef strips berbere sauce. The entrees were very satisfying, with deep, complex flavors. They were also very receptive to allowing people to bring wine (another nominal $15 corkage), although they did make some attempt at a wine list.
Our first Madison breakfast was at Lazy Janes on Willy Street. Dont miss the great scones. We had an almond and fresh blackberry, and the blackberry was phenomenal, huge fresh berries surrounded by a not too dry crumb. We also had seiten hash with eggs and raisin toast and a BLT. Good breakfast. A tip for first timers, you order at the counter and find a table. They will call your name when your order is ready. Watch out for the psycho counterwoman.
We walked a block to Marigold Kitchen after doing the farmers market. Painted in various shades of earth tones, it is a bright, contemporary space. You also order at a counter. We ordered from the special board over the counter only to later find a full printed menu at another counter. Fresh cherry (great cherries) pancakes and scrambled eggs with cream cheese and scallions served with Marigold fried potatoes were really good. The thin sliced potatoes were very crisp and flavorful, but a tad greasy. We had a just ok lemon scone while waiting for our order. After placing your order, give your name to a hostess and they will put your name on a list for a table. I wish we had seen the full menu prior to ordering because I would have killed for the duck confit hash.
Sunday mornings breakfast at Montys Blue Plate was another winner. Second best scones of the trip, again while waiting for our order, another blackberry and almond. The blackberry was a little better at Lazy Janes (probably only because of the quality of the berries), but the nut scone was really good here, much more flavorful. Nancy had a Mexican breakfast burrito, which was very good. I had a Mediterranean version of eggs Benedict. A whole wheat English muffin split in half and covered with sautéed artichokes, red bell pepper, capers, olives, and garlic, topped with a couple of eggs and served with hollandaise on the side. The sliced fried, and not very greasy, potatoes were the best of the trip. We had a great breakfast with great people watching.
We had some very good ice cream at Babcocks at the University of Wisconsin and we also had frozen custard at Michaels. I have heard a lot about Michaels, and while it was good, Gregs in Mundelein is its equal but does not get any recognition.
If you need a place for cheese, salami, and olives for snacking, Relish Deli has a nice selection, as well as decent sandwiches.
We spent a beautiful late summer afternoon touring Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wrights home and studio in Spring Green. It was a very knowledgeable 2-hour tour of the buildings and estate. If you have been to the Oak Park home and studio, you should see this as well. They are trying to raise 40 million for renovations. Great designs, but not always the best executions, as with most of his properties.
25 N. Pinckney Street
21 N. Pinckney Street
1146 Williamson Street
2623 Monroe Street, Suite 150
Lazy Janes Café
1358 Williamson Street
118 S. Pinckney Street
Montys Blue Plate
2089 Atwood Avenue
1923 Monroe Street
1605 Linden Drive
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Michaels Frozen Custard
2531 Monroe Street, 608.231.3500
3826 Atwood Avenue, 608.222.4110
5602 Schroeder Road, 608.276.8100