Saturday, October 20, 2012

Wisconsin Wooing

I had so much fun in Wisconsin last year, I decided to make it an annual trip to visit my dearest friends in Madison. It was a whirlwind weekend, but some of the best fun I've had in a long time. This is a long post. Like, really long. But I want to remember every detail.

I arrived Friday afternoon, and we immediately commenced what we do best: eating. Elisa took me to the Old Fashioned, where we had salads (mine had salmon, bacon, cucumber, an amazing deviled egg, and tarragon vinaigrette) and shared a plate of shoestring fries with garlic aioli-- this fries and aioli thing definitely became a theme of the weekend.
Our next meal was a late dinner on Friday night at Graze. We went there last year, and I put in a special request to go again, since I still dream of that soft pretzel and cheese board. We ordered the same appetizers-- I made sure to get a picture this time and Matt snagged the cheese list for me. Our cheese board included the Moreso (goat), Pleasant Ridge Reserve (cow), Marieke Golden (cow), Bandaged Cheddar Reserve (cow), and the Little Boy Blue (sheep). I favored the Moreso and the Little Boy Blue. Our entrees followed: light and crispy fish and chips for Elisa, grilled sausages with truffle mashed potatoes for Matt, and top sirloin with cauliflower puree and mushroom leek hash for me. Yes. It was as amazing as it sounds. That sirloin was the most meltingly tender little thing.


The next morning, the weather was so moody, with a lovely mist settling in on Lake Minona. We began the most delightful brunch at Sardine with croissants and pain au chocolat, which will never fail to whisk me back to 7th grade French class. The pastries were flaky and airy, delicate while impossibly crisp on the outside.
So . . . brunch is super troublesome for me. I am an ardent supporter of waffles, french toast, and pancakes-- any carbohydrate delivery system for pure maple syrup, basically. But I just can't handle that amount of sugar before 6pm. I always end up ordering a savory, protein-heavy dish at brunch, and then I feel disappointed. So, when perusing the Sardine menu, I realized, hey! I'm on vacation. I get to do whatever I want! So I ordered two meals-- one to entertain my sweet tooth, and one to keep my pancreas in check. This was an outstanding decision on my part, if I may say so.

My sweet brunch was a buckwheat waffle with cinnamon orange butter, maple syrup, and fresh berries. Buckwheat has that King Midas effect, only more like cardboard instead of gold. Don't you find that when you try to be healthy by ordering buckwheat you feel a little sad inside while you chew that stuff? Not so with these waffles. These were light, fluffy, and airy. A flavorful and delicate crumb with the slight crispy exterior. I never knew buckwheat could induce visions of maple syrup-laden clouds. And the cinnamon orange butter was divine, creating a warm, Christmas-y vibe. Joy to the World!

I alternated bites of waffle with my second brunch: crab, bacon, and rock shrimp cakes in a chipotle beurre blanc sauce. Often seafood cakes are weighed down with Old Bay seasoning, and then mounded in a sort of soggy fry. These were honest-to-goodness fried little cakes, crisp and crunchy without even the slightest trace of excess oil. The inside was a perfect blend of the three stars, each flavor hitting individually and finishing with a perfect harmony of flavors. And the flavors were never overpowered with any particular spice, though perfectly seasoned. The dish also came with an egg, which I ordered over-easy on the waiter's recommendation. Perfect! And a lovely little salad with a bright and punchy dressing over mixed greens, fresh corn, tomatoes-- I wish I had room in my stomach for more than a few bites. This entire plate was my absolute favorite of the entire weekend.
(Numerous reports state that Sardine does nearly everything perfectly. So if you find yourself in Madison, this is my first and foremost recommendation.)

 Dinner that night was such an event. Matt, Elisa, Amanda, Spencer and I ventured out to Nostrano. It is nestled in this tiny little hip space-- we had high expectations. Our waitress was a hipster blonde version of Bryce Dallas Howard, and super helpful describing dishes to us-- it actually made me want to be a waiter, interestingly enough. You can help these people decide what to eat, and describe the food to them. Then, you get to see their joy when they enjoy the food. Clearly I am romanticizing this. At first the simple menu was intimidating me-- definitely took me back to my Mesa Grill experience where I had to remember that I was at a really nice place, so everything would be incroyable. First, one of the small plates was called Little Gem Salad. I think I had to order it based on name alone. It had candied olives and beets which is actually gross to me, but I couldn't not eat something called Little Gem Salad. The olives were not my thing, as predicted, but the beets combined with the softest goat cheese and perfect greens was positively delightful.

I was in the mood for something light as my entree, so I passed up the pastas, ragu, sausage, etc in favor of the Red Snapper, which I had never eaten before. It came with mussels, clams, and squid in a tomato broth with chile oil. I had just finished telling Matt earlier in the day that mussels did not appeal to me in the least. But I want to broaden my culinary horizons, and this seemed a safe place to do it. It was all wonderful. The snapper was perfectly cooked: light, flaky, with the crispest skin. I totally rocked those mussels and clams without a hint of squeamishness. I was pleasantly surprised by both the taste and my courage. And inspired by my air of gluttony earlier in the day, we all shared the orecchiette with housemade fennel sausage and brussels sprouts. And, I will never fail to be wooed by brussels sprouts, so even though I enjoyed my snapper, maybe I wish the orecchiette had been mine, all mine? We all shared three desserts in the end, and interestingly, none of them stand out. We all agreed they were just average. Kind of a let down at the end of an incredible night, particularly because the two owners are husband and wife chef, and the wife is a pastry chef, so we were prepared to be wowed.


 Sunday was the day for us to all come together and cook. We snacked on a beautiful cheese plate (arranged by Matt) for most of the day while Matt and Elisa worked on braised short ribs and mashed potatoes (mashed in a food mill! why have I not done this before??). I made lemon garlic and gruyere brussels sprouts (no such thing as too many brussels sprouts). Amanda brought over a delightful butternut squash puree and sauteed (I think?) swiss chard fresh from the farmer's market.


And thanks to Jessie, we had a perfect idea for dessert: Mississippi Mud Pie-- a flourless chocolate cake layered in an oreo crust with homemade dark chocolate pudding, topped with whipped cream. The six of us ate nearly half the cake, and I have thought about it at least twice a day since coming home, wishing I were at Matt's apartment with a fork, finishing it off.

Monday I had to return to reality. Elisa and I stopped at an awesome Indian buffet and Fromagination before heading to the airport. I picked up a nice little chunk of Humboldt Fog, which I've been dying to try since I read about it in Immortal Milk. I'm eating it now with a fresh baguette from the farmer's market, and that sharp chevre is seriously hitting the spot. 

Lest you think all we did was eat, we also went to two movies. And we talked a lot. I can't believe such a high number of my favorite people ended up in Madison, of all places. But I'm not complaining about having a reason to visit! Until next year!


  1. This all sounds amazing, but I'm most envious of the company!

  2. This post is fantastic. Man, we ate some great food. I'm so glad you came and so glad I'm coming your way soon.

  3. Hi Courtney! I know it's been awhile since your last post, but I wanted to nominate you for a small blog award because your food always looks awesome. You can read more about it here:

    Hope you, Sam, and Bria are doing well!