A Year-end Look at the Cuisine Scene

A year-end look at the cuisine scene
By 77 Square reviewers Samara Kalk Derby and Susan Troller

The Madison restaurant scene seems to be getting better and better each year. 77 Square restaurant reviewers Samara Kalk Derby and Susan Troller take a look back at 2008, and dish on some of their favorite meals.

Best new restaurant: Three meals at Restaurant Muramoto were nothing short of stunning. Particularly intriguing are the sakizuke, Japanese amuse bouche, or pre-appetizer bite-size starters. Don’t miss the impeccable morsel of tempura king crab with truffled bearnaise sauce or the pan-seared scallop with curried cream. Also worthy is the assorted sashimi plate with soy cured big-eye tuna, salmon, escolar and yellowtail. My only criticism is that owner Shinji Muramoto shouldn’t have toned down the glamorous, lush atmosphere the space had as Cocoliquot. (SKD)

Best new chef: Charles Lazzareschi was a pleasure to watch as he won Dueling Chef honors at the Madison Food and Wine Show this fall, and his food at the newly refurbished Dayton Street Grille at the Madison Concourse Hotel is a pleasure to eat. He strikes a fine balance between respecting quality ingredients and putting his imagination to use in creating sauces that help his entrees sing. (ST)

Best fine dining restaurant: A three-way tie between Trees in DeForest, Nadia’s on State Street and Fresco on the top floor of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Trees serves up a wonderful Mediterranean pork chop topped with tomato and mozzarella cheese that comes dramatically wrapped in parchment. At Nadia’s, the pepper and Parmesan-crusted tuna served very rare with a roasted mango and ginger tomato coulis hits all the right notes. My favorite dish at Fresco is the lone vegetarian entree, a decadently rich gnocchi. All three restaurants do amazing things with salad. (SKD)

Best drink: There are many reasons to recomment the new Restaurant Muramoto, and chief among them is wonderful bar manager Zach Sauer and his excellent creation, the ginger saketini. He begins with a house-made ginger infused vodka and adds chilled sake, a splash of yuzu (made from a Japanese citrus fruit) and finishes it with a splash of Canton, a ginger and cognac-infused liqueur. It’s a superb companion to a perfect little plate of sushi. (ST)

Best appetizer: All of the tapas at La Brioche True Food, which opened recently on University Avenue, sound appealing. But the stars of the show are the seared scallops, which are as good as sea scallops get. Three plump scallops were expertly seared and served in a fantastic tequila lemongrass glaze. (SKD)

Best soup: Jennie Capellaro makes several kinds of vegetarian and vegan soups for Alchemy and Mother Fool’s Coffee House on the near east side. Her ground nut stew makes virture its own reward, with a fabulous savory meal in a bowl. It’s so chock full of veggies and spices you’ll never miss the meat. (ST)

Best entree: Casa del Sol in Fitchburg does fine with tacos, enchiladas, tamales and chile rellenos. But it really shines with the tilapia en salsa poblano y cilantro, a gorgeous plate of food. The mild fish is drenched in salsa verde, which camouflages the tilapia and six large shrimp. The seafood comes with plenty of white rice, pineapple salsa and wonderful zucchini sliced in thin strips. (SKD)

Best old favorite revisited: If it’s fixed, don’t break it. That’s been the policy at Otto’s Restaurant on Mineral Point Road for many years, and it’s easy to see why customers are so loyal. There are no surprises: The food is excellent and the drinks deftly mixed and sophisticated. Sitting on the deck listening to jazz on a summer evening is as close as any grown-up is likely to get to treehouse paradise. (ST)

Best pasta: The namesake pasta at Talula, opened this year by Mary Reed and Keith Blew (of Fyfe’s fame) where U.S. 51 crosses Cottage Grove Road, seduces you into finishing it all. It’s fettuccine in a white wine cream sauce with shallots, mushrooms, herbs and asiago cheese. I tried to be disciplined, so I could take half of it home, but I wound up eating nearly all of it. (SKD)

Best fish fry: The unassuming Bridges Golf Course has one of the best Friday fish fries in town, and the best part is you don’t have to wait for a table. There’s not much of an atmosphere, but the fish is excellent and so are the prices. Go with the basic beer-battered cod. You get three good-sized pieces of moist fish with wonderful breading. All the sides are first-rate, too. (SKD)

Best bar food: A tie between Alchemy and Mickey’s Tavern, within walking distance of each other on Madison’s near east side. Alchemy’s menu is not only intriguing and creative, but health-conscious as well. Seek out the dolmades, grape leaves stuffed with herbed rice and sauteed until soft and succulent. Other standouts are the sweet curry shrimp salad sandwich, stuffed grilled cheese sandwich and the buffalo melt. At Mickey’s, don’t miss the “sexy fries,” which are some of the tastiest, non-greasy fries around. (SKD)

Best place for kids: Good Times in Fitchburg is a local interpretation of Dave & Buster’s, a national restaurant and arcade chain. My 3-year-old daughter loved the elaborate, colorful game room. It’s a whirl of activity and includes two of my favorite games, air hockey and Ice Ball (formerly called Skee-Ball). It’s just a buck for four games worth of tokens and the better you play, the better prizes you can pick. The food is less exciting, but the thick, juicy burgers can compete with the best in town. (SKD)

Best place to weather a blizzard: Arbat, the Russian restaurant just off Fish Hatchery Road in Fitchburg, wins this category, hands down. It’s hard to know whether it’s the full page of vodkas, the over-the-top-rich Russian specialties or the friendly atmosphere created by chef/owner Alex Nikitin that makes you feel like you’re happy to park your troika and sit near the fire until some of that snow disappears. (ST)

Best advocate for local food: Kudos to the REAP (Research Education And Policy) Food Group, and their ongoing efforts to bring farmers and local consumers closer together. Their annual Food for Thought Festival (next year they’re bringing author Michael Pollan to speak), Bike the Barns and Local Night Out events have been great fun and a fine way to encourage home cooks, stores and restaurants to increase their use of a wide range of products from area farms.

The buy local principles REAP espouses help the environment and help our area’s economy, too. And, of course, the food just tastes much better than something packed who knows when and shipped thousands of miles. On a national level, we’re hearing more about the principles of fresh/whole/local when it comes to food. Some of the most visionary leaders of that worldwide movement have their roots sunk in the rich soil of southern Wisconsin. (ST)

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