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Madison, WI dining


Elizabeth Ann
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I was last in Madison on May 4. It was a quick trip to adopt an abandoned Maine Coon Cat, but we had time for brunch. We intended to visit L'Etoile, but they were closed, so we went next door to The Old Fashioned, http://www.theoldfashioned.com/, and had an amazing meal of fried walleye, eggs and potatoes with great coffee. My friend and I both had the same meal, so I can't speak for anything else the restaurant produces, but their philosophy to use local ingredients definitely impressed us.

Bret

Edited by Bret Beall (log)

Bret S. Beall, MS, PhD (Cand), CEO

Global Organic Designs Lifestyle Services

www.god-dess.com

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I'll second The Old Fashioned if you're looking for quality 'sconnie' (Wisconsinite) food.

Ethnic suggestions include Restaurant Muromoto for fantastic Asian fushion food, Lao Laan Xang for some of the best Laotian food you'll find anywhere, Kabul or Husnus for Pakistani/Afgahni, or Himal Chuli for Nepali.

For fine dining, Harvest and Restaurant Magnus are both reliable choices. Tornado is a great old-school steak house.

And don't forget to stop by the UW Memorial Union Terrace for beer on the lakeshore!

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  • 2 weeks later...
  • 1 month later...

This past weekend, I again visited Madison, to take my nephew out to dinner as well as to do the Fall Art Tour in towns west of town. This is my report.

For dinner, we went to Fresco. This is a new restaurant from the Food Fight restaurant group. The menu is contemporary American.

The restaurant is located on the rooftop of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, whose entrance you use to enter the restaurant. The setting is absolutely stunning, with classy contemporary décor and floor-to-ceiling windows, looking out at the museum's outdoor sculpture garden and a view of the tops of other buildings, including the State Capitol.

We arrived at 7:00 pm on Friday and the restaurant was full, although no one was waiting. At 7:20, about half of the diners left; I assume there was a 7:30 performance at the Overture Center for the Performing Arts, which is around the corner from the museum and restaurant.

Here's what I had, or tasted (fortunately, the menu on their website is current):

- prince edward island mussels with coconut milk, lime, cilantro, jalapeño ($12)

- fall beet salad with roasted beets, mixed greens, warm chevre, toasted walnut, bacon-cider vinaigrette ($8)

- sweet corn chowder with alsum sweet corn, heirloom tomato, basil ($6)

- kodiak island halibut with goat cheese mashed potato, sautéed asparagus, spring lemon beurre blanc ($25)

- fresh seafood pasta with scallops, shrimp, mussels, halibut, salmon, sun-dried tomato, linguine, citrus-saffron broth ($24)

- seared duck breast with grilled bok choy, yellow pepper, fingerling potato, button mushroom, citrus vinaigrette ($22)

- buttermilk beignets with milk chocolate center, vanilla crème anglaise ($6)

- honey-poached pear brulee with Gentle Breeze honey sauce, lemon whipped cream ($5)

Everything I had was very good, not a clunker in the bunch; the seafood was fresh and everything was properly prepared and tasty. While saying that, I will also note that nothing really stood out as "WOW!!! Amazing!!!"... until the beignets arrived. Those were little bites of sheer bliss, hot out of the kitchen (watch out for dripping chocolate from the center!), even better than hot beignets at Café du Monde in New Orleans! Those were a "must have" if you go there and are looking for suggestions.

All in all, I liked Fresco a lot! The food may not be quite as good as Harvest, but it's very good nonetheless. And there are a couple of distinct advantages: the exquisite setting and view, and the reasonable prices. (Our dinner check for three, including $19.50 for a couple of glasses of wine and tax but before tip, was $136.62.) Fresco is a welcome addition to the Madison dining scene and I look forward to returning at some point in the future.

On Saturday morning, we went to Marigold Kitchen, which I'm sure all the locals have dined at. (I had not considered this for my previous visit because it was for a brunch on Sunday, when Marigold Kitchen is closed.) We arrived a bit before 9 a.m. on Saturday, and there was a line, about ten minutes until our order was taken; while we were there, the line shortened, then reached that same length again - not too bad for a weekend morning. Like everyone else, we waited in line, gave our order, and sat down. The food was quite good (we had their featured pumpkin pancakes, eggs, their spicy home fry potatoes).

We then wandered to the square to check out the farmers market. We had heard about the farmers market, but hearing and seeing are too different things. It was quite impressive - perhaps the best farmers market I've seen.

On our way back to Chicago, we again stopped in Madison for dinner. We wanted something a bit more casual and not as elaborate for dinner. We looked through the listings we had with us, and chose Pedro's Mexican Restaurant at their location on the east side. At first we were a bit concerned; when you walk in, sit down, and look at the menu, the restaurant screams "non-authentic chain Mexican". However, once we received our food, we understood why it is highly regarded in Madison. The food was good - not earth-shattering, not the best Mexican food ever, but quite good, better than it needs to be. I'm sure the bigger reason for its popularity is the value; for $8.99 each, we got the chile relleno platter, which included a beef chile relleno, a chicken enchilada, and a pork tamale, in huge portions. The fact that we were able to be seated immediately on a Saturday evening was an added bonus. So Pedro's was a great choice for our needs.

There was one other food highlight on our trip. West of Madison, we stopped in Mount Horeb at the Mustard Museum. This is a great place for anyone who likes mustard. What I really loved was the store, more so than the "museum exhibits" of mustards and containers. They have a huge selection of mustards (also available on their website) and they are happy to serve you samples of any mustards you would like to try.

Hope this information is helpful to those looking for food advice in Madison.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Two comments on Madison:

(1) I recently dined at Bandung for the first time in several years. I shouldn't have stayed away because the cooking here in wonderful. The menu is primarily Indonesian.

(2) The Muramoto empire is single-handedly doing tremendously exciting things in the Madison dining scene. The newly relocated, original Restaurant Muramoto is the flagship, Sushi Muramoto has truly brought world-class sushi to Madison for the first time, and Kushi Bar Muramoto has brought Japanese-style tapas to Madison. A very exciting concept, written about in this week's Isthmus.

Check these places out!

Liam

Eat it, eat it

If it's gettin' cold, reheat it

Have a big dinner, have a light snack

If you don't like it, you can't send it back

Just eat it -- Weird Al Yankovic

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  • 2 months later...
  • 3 months later...

Isthmus - Madison's newsweekly - recently featured a nice article providing an overview of the city's restaurant scene. Check it out here.

With a two-year old, we're not getting out as much as we used to, but here are a few random musings based on recent dining experiences:

- Based on two recent experiences - one during Restaurant Week admittedly - Harvest seems to have slipped a few notches. For its price point, both recent meals did not meet the standard, and the RW meal just wasn't good at all. In contrast, L'Etoile delivered the goods in our most recent visit there.

- Brasserie V on Monroe St. is dishing up some of the tastiest food in town these days, along with yummy Belgian and Belgian-style brews with which to wash it down. Don't overlook V's periodic specialty dinners.

- For anyone venturing into Stoughton, check out the Main Street Pour House at 121 E. Main St. It features regional craft beers, tasty appetizers, salads, and burgers, and frequent live music in a beautiful space formerly occupied by a cabaret theater.

Liam

Eat it, eat it

If it's gettin' cold, reheat it

Have a big dinner, have a light snack

If you don't like it, you can't send it back

Just eat it -- Weird Al Yankovic

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I need a little help here in looking for a place to take mom for mothers Day in Madison.

We'll have Mom in her 70's as well as a 8 yr old great grandson. We'll be picking up the tab for the six of us and need to keep it reasonable but would love some creative suggestions on some decent dining values at decent in or within 30 miles or so of Madison.

From Chinese to Mexican, American or even a good old diner or a killer Burger joint or something a little more fancy but not too over the top for price. Any creative or fun ideas in the $10-15 (20 if we had to push it) per person are greatly appreciated

(I it was my day we'd be at L'etoile-but that for 6 break the bank)

thanks!!

Edited by T Raveret (log)
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The Avenue Bar, 1128 East Washington. Nothing fancy, straight-forward food, reliably executed. Excellent value. A menu like a diner's (well, not as extensive as a Jersey diner, but fairly broad). Something for everyone, including a kids' menu: hot dogs, grilled cheese, chicken strips, PB sandwich. Definitely within your budget, so long as you don't order the porterhouse.

Sunday dinner specials:

Baked Chicken ($10.95)

Roast Beef ($10.95)

Roast Pork ($10.95)

Baked Ham ($10.95)

They come with soup or salad, potato and veg. Lots of other choices (mostly fried fish/shrimp) but mostly in the $12-$17 range. You can get an $18.95 top sirloin or ribeye steak. Menu also has burgers and sandwiches.

Link to menu and website.

I would urge you to make a reservation for Mother's Day if you intend on going there. It will be busy.

Bob Libkind aka "rlibkind"

Robert's Market Report

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ok too funny-- so far the avenue bar and pedros are two of our usual haunts! Pedros was where we went for mothers day last year!!

great ideas we've enjoyed both of those in the past --just looking for something new or a different dining experience both are great choices---

Sardine looks interesting I'm checking them out.

We'd even consider a good burger joint!!

Thanks- any additional ideas come to the top of the list ?

Edited by T Raveret (log)
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If you're into good burgers, for my money Dotty Dumpling's Dowry is where it's at. I don't hesitate to say they're the best in town. It's a turn and burn kind of place though, so don't expect to luxuriate over the food for a while. If you don't deem it Mother's Day material but haven't been, I strongly suggest you check it out if you're into burgers.

nunc est bibendum...

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That is too funny!

How about a Sunday drive to New Glarus? Do a beer-tasting -- $3.50 a person at the brewery, plus you keep the glasses -- then follow with a meal at Glarner Stube.

We enjoyed lunch at Glarner Stube in mid-April during our annual trip to Madison and found it quite nice (and filling). Hearty, homey food. I forget the prices, and they aren't lised on the website menu, but they were well within your budget.

Six could easily share the fondue for an appetizer. Then move on to sandwiches or entrees; the later include various wursts, schnitzels, chicken, fish, etc. If you do the tasting at the brewery, you can get a coupon (or is it a receipt?) that entitles you to a small beer at the restaurant.

Afterwards you could walk it off visiting the touristy-shops of town.

New Glarus is just under 30 miles from downtown Madison, a 45-minute drive.

Again, it's Mother's Day and you'll have a long wait (if you get in at all) if you don't have a reservation.

Here's Glarner Stube's website.

.

Bob Libkind aka "rlibkind"

Robert's Market Report

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That is too funny!

How about a Sunday drive to New Glarus? Do a beer-tasting -- $3.50 a person at the brewery, plus you keep the glasses -- then follow with a meal at Glarner Stube.

We enjoyed lunch at Glarner Stube in mid-April during our annual trip to Madison and found it quite nice (and filling). Hearty, homey food. I forget the prices, and they aren't lised on the website menu, but they were well within your budget.

Six could easily share the fondue for an appetizer. Then move on to sandwiches or entrees; the later include various wursts, schnitzels, chicken, fish, etc. If you do the tasting at the brewery, you can get a coupon (or is it a receipt?) that entitles you to a small beer at the restaurant.

Afterwards you could walk it off visiting the touristy-shops of town.

New Glarus is just under 30 miles from downtown Madison, a 45-minute drive.

Again, it's Mother's Day and you'll have a long wait (if you get in at all) if you don't have a reservation.

Here's Glarner Stube's website.

.

New Glarus is a real treasure. The Glarner Stube has wonderful kalberwurst, roesti and onion soup. There is polka dancing for the local wives while the men go to the bar room for a few drafts.

The bakery across the street is the place for breakfast and Reuf's Sausage has a wonderful selection.

This whole town is a treat.

Tim

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  • 1 month later...

This may seem like an odd question, but I work at an artisan bakery here in Madison and we're interested in expanding our business with restaurants. We currently deliver bread to about half the top restaurants mentioned in this thread, but what would be some restaurants where the food is really high quality but the bread is somewhat lacking in Madison? Those would be good candidates for us to see if they are interested.

Our breads are heavily influenced by French techniques, but we want to start experimenting with other styles as well. But for now, Asian and latin and Mediterranean would be out of our current level of expertise.

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  • 10 months later...

The culinary highlight of a week in Madison for us was a new restaurant, Cooper's Tavern on the north side of Capitol Square. It's billed as an Irish pub, but it's a lot better than that. (Though the one pub item I tasted was disappointing. More on that later.)

Beer is essential for any pub and Cooper's doesn't disappoint. They didn't have one of my fav Wisconsin brews, Spotted Cow, so I opted for its stylistic equivalent, Lake Louie Cream Ale. Tasty, but I still prefer the unfiltered Spotted Cow. Overall a lot of nice choices both on tap and in bottles: not an overwhelming number of beers like you'd find at Monk's back home in Philadelphia but a broad selection to satisfy just about any craving. Speaking of Monk's, their Flemish Sour Ale, made in Belgium, made the draft list; Victory and Dogfish were among the Philadelphia area brews represented among the bottles.

For food I could not resist the veal bone marrow appetizer, a longitudinally sliced femur of fine fat. The lengthwise butchering of the bone made it easy to spread the marrow on points of pumpernickel. The whole dish was made even better by half a dozen cloves of roasted garlic to add even more depth to the marrow flavor.

With my diet blown between the marrow and the beer I went with a bowl of bacon-studded cabbage soup as my second and last course. Not exactly a diet dish, but no carbs beyond the cabbage's. It was a rich, vegetable soup that I'd gladly consume on a cold winter's eve.

My companions (She Who Must Be Obeyed, a.k.a. SWMBO, and Executive Chef Tim Larsen's mom, Marlette) went for the sliders, a salad and the cottage pie.

SWMBO's sliders were made high quality meat and served on small rolls that seemed to be a cross between brioche and biscuit, accompaied by hand-made potato chips hot from the fryer. Her salad, one of four on the menu, was spinach with crunchy, sweet and savory accents provided by brandied cranberries, walnuts, pear, apple, and crisped goat cheese in a balsamic vinaigrette.

The cottage pie was a bit odd on two counts. First, it wasn't cottage pie. Where shepherd's pie is traditionally made with minced lamb, cottage pie is beef. This cottage pie, however, was made from lamb. And it wasn't really a pie at all, or even a casserole where the meat and veggies form the bottom layer topped by mashed potatoes. Instead, this was a large lump of the potatoes topped and lamb and gravy. Certainly satisfying, according to Marlette, but not what I would have expected.

Highlights of the appetizers I intend to try on future visits include house made soft pretzels (strictly to compare with the Philadelphia version) served with a Belgian beer-Dubliner cheese dip; twice-fried Belgian fries (also done as poutine with gravy and curds); and, rounding out the appetizers, a take on Scotch egg using a local bratwurst patty as the wrapper. Among the sandwiches (all the popular meats plus burger, the latter accented with a couple strips of pork belly rather than bacon), I'd opt for the lamb on sourdough with tomato jam, caramelized onions and provolone. For an entree, I've definitely have to try the Pork Belly Mac with porter-glazed fresh bacon, Dubliner cheddar mac and cheese and baguette. Fish and chips, curried chicken (British style), goat cheese polenta and bourbon salmon with cranberries, truffled mushrooms, mashed and veggies are also on the entree list.

The lunch menu is pretty similar, less the entrees.

Coopers Tavern has only been open for a couple of months and still has kinks to work out: the server screwed up the order of service and, of course, blamed it on the kitchen. Tim wasn't in the kitchen, since we met him outside leaving as we were entering; my guess is he wouldn't be amused no matter where the failure originated. Still, that wouldn't keep me from returning. Larsen has created a something for everyone gastro pub menu that would be admired for both creativity and execution anywhere.

The following night we dined with an old friend of SWMBO, Jerry Minnich, who long held tenure as the restaurant reviewer for Isthmus, Madison's alternative newspaper. (Then again, everything in Madison is alternative; it's like Ithaca with a state capital thrown in.) Jerry took us to Bandung, a local Indonesian restaurant where he's a regular.

To start we shared an order of Otak-Otak, a fish cake grilled in banana leaf served with a spicy garlic peanut sauce. I would have eaten two orders myself: clean fish flavor and great texture set off nicely by the sauce. Jerry and SWMBO selected Krakatoa as their mains, a sizzling platter of lightly battered chicken breast (you could also get shrimp or tempeh) served on a bed of steamed veggies and bean sprouts with garlic sauce. Back to my diet, I ordered a bowl of Asse Cabe, shredded chicken atop soft mung bean noodles, lemon grass and jalapenos served in a candle nut and sweet soy sauce.

Bob Libkind aka "rlibkind"

Robert's Market Report

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  • 1 year later...

I just got back from a long weekend in Madison. I was very happily surprised by the restaurant/bar scene there. The last time we'd been there was four or five years ago, and though there were some decent restaurants at that time, it seems that Madison has exploded into a foodie haven since then.

We started out at Cooper's after reading rlibkind's review - it didn't hurt that it was practically next door to our hotel and had a nice selection of Belgiums on tap - and it was great. We didn't have dinner there, but over the course of a couple days stopped their three times for beers/appetizers/light lunches.

The first day, we got some recommendations from our bartender for other good restaurants, and they proved to be spot-on. In addition to Cooper's, I can also recommend:

Underground Kitchen: hard to find (no sign outside) so make sure you know the address. We stopped here for cocktails and appetizers, and the cocktails were hands-down the best we had in Madison. Interesting combinations, light and not overly sweet. Ended up eating the house-made charcuterie plate that blew us away - a combination of very high quality traditional dry cured salamis with a few unexpected highlights, like a spicy soft sausage from (I think) Africa. Also a nice selection of Wisconsin cheese and bread with whipped lardo to balance it out.

Merchant: This place looks like a coffee shop from the outside. We stopped there for lunch/drinks one day, and were happy. Pork-jowl Cubano was nicely balanced, salty and just a bit gooey. Had some oysters, too, and they were fresh and delicious. Decent beer/wine selection. They also have a small but nice grocery & alcohol selection. We picked up some Bittercube bitters there, a nice find.

Nostrano: We had no fewer than three unsolicited recommendations to this place in one day. This was the only real dinner we had the whole time we were in Madison, as we are typically happier with light fare and drinks. The cocktails here were good, and you could tell the bartender is passionate about what he does, but overall a bit too sweet, even after telling him we preferred them dryer. Food, though, was amazing. We had the scallop and oxtail dish, a combo I wouldn't have expected, but it worked. Also had Risotto with Morels and a Lamb Ragu, both out of this world. Way more food than we normally eat between the two of us, but we scarfed it all down, along with dessert.

Service was a bit of a problem, it was very slow, and more than once our drinks came out one at a time, leaving one of us to sit and wait while the other imbibed. There was also a huge wait between our first and second courses, at least 30 minutes. Luckily, we weren't in a hurry, so it wasn't a big deal, but it needs to be mentioned. We were there on a Saturday night, and it was pleasantly busy but didn't seem like so many people that it should cause problems in the kitchen.

Brasserie V: This is the only spot that isn't downtown that we went to. It's not far, just a couple miles west, and is well worth the drive. Amazing selection of beer, including a Flanders Red Ale I'd never had before so I was VERY happy. We were there for a late lunch, and plowed through two orders of Moules et Frites and a Belgian salad (roasted Belgian endives, frisee, bacon, yum). If we had more time, we'd be there again. Very fun place.

Osteria Papavero: We ended up here one night for literally a second dinner. We'd eaten at the Old Fashioned (always fun in a touristy-Wisconsin way) and the bartender couldn't shut up about Papavero after we'd told him how much we like good Charcuterie. According to him, the owner at Papavero was the guy who brought good Charcuterie to Madison, and did the hard work to get the restaurant inspectors to approve his dry-cured salamis for sale. We got the charcuterie plate, and it was really nice. Much more traditional than we got at Underground Kitchen, but delicious. A couple terrines, a loose blood sausage, duck and lamb prosciutto and a duck pastrami that blew us away. Like Brasserie V, this place is on the short list for going back for an entire meal.

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As the former food writer for the MATC student paper (and hopefully continuing similarly following my transfer to UW this fall), I have a few recommendations.

Cooper's Tavern:

A good alternative to the often mediocre brewpubs around the square. While the cuisine won't win many points for novelty, the execution is solid. Especially of note is the $8 Cooper's Burger, which trades the streaky bacon and Kraft for thinly-shaved pork belly and a slice of aged cheddar. Don't concern yourself over the "Irish Pub" thing - despite (or perhaps as a result of) the restaurants' stewardship by an actual UK expat, there's no thematic nonsense.

The Tornado Steakhouse:

I have no doubt that the proprietors of the Tornado have heard of nouvelle cuisine and molecular gastronomy, but they're not having any of it. The enormous iceberg wedges studded with Rocquefort and ferocious steaks are straight out of the Eisenhower administration, and I wouldn't have it any other way. The prices are high and the variety is limited (aside from a few lonely fish dishes as a sop to vegetarians and dieters, it's a glorious sea of red meat and cholesterol), but should you wish to indulge your inner caveman, I'd be hard pressed to recommend better. The drinks are good, too.

Los Gemelos:

This is the definitive Mexican taquería. West coast emigrees undergoing taco truck withdrawl will appreciate the excellent and extremely affordable a la carté menu, all items available with a truly absurd number of fillings. For those desiring more elaborate fare, more substantial entrees like chuletas are available, almost all under $10. I would particularly commend the excellent tamales ($2!) and quesadillas con chorizo ($3!), which are almost more like empanadas than the floppy tortilla assemblies of America. The only real quibble is that the chicken served in many of the a la carte items is inexplicably unseasoned, but there's a good six or seven more to chose from, so who cares?

The Icon:

Under the outward display of retro kitsch is a tasteful bar with some rather extraordinary tapas. Directly adjacent to the Overture Center, it's a pleasant place to enjoy a light meal before attending a symphony. The significant cost has barred me from sampling more than a small fraction of the menu, but what I've been able to sample of the menu has well justified the price, including a novel but extremely pleasant dish of lamb in bourbon sauce. It is of note that a selection of the less spendy tapas go half-price during happy hour, though I never seem to make it.

Fuzzy's Tacos & Capriotti's sandwiches:

Stay away. This means you.

Edited by jrshaul (log)
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I was back in Madison in late April and got to try another dish at Cooper's Tavern, as I vowed after my visit last year.

The Pork belly mac 'n cheese is a pig-lovers delight. Eat it!.

As for that veal marrow -- the gent sitting next to me at the bar had one portion and when he knocked that off, ordered another. Not a bad idea.

Also on this trip, I visited the National Mustard Museum, which moved a few years ago to Middleton, a suburb of Madison, from Mount Horeb. During my visit there was a celebration honoring the winners of the 2011 World Wide Mustard Competition and an Iron Mustard Chefs Competition (using the winning mustards). Cooper's Tavern Exec Chef Tim Larsen was one of the competitors, but you'll be surprised who won the cook-off. You can find a report, undoubtedly with more details than you need to know, on my blog here.

Bob Libkind aka "rlibkind"

Robert's Market Report

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