This was such a crushingly bad year on so many global, apocalyptic levels (the dying dollar, the gutted economy, the smoking war) that it seems churlish to complain about the quality of the tapas.
But food reviewing is by nature a decadent thing, and then of course it's easier to focus on tiny, edible things than our larger national suicide. So if we're thinking small, what would I change for the new year? Pretty much everything that happened locally, in terms of food, in 2007. This was a discouraging year for Madison's culinary scene, and almost none of the many restaurant openings made much of an impression at all, beyond an abiding impression of mediocrity, except for one.
That savior is Sushi Muramoto, which finally gave Hilldale and the near-west side what they both desperately wanted: an actual restaurant worth going to, and the only new kitchen of the year (like Sardine, the year before) run by a chef who knows his food, who is serious about what he is doing, and who is accomplished enough to offer his own culinary style and voice, instead of some amateurish copy of a passing fad. And there isn't a better, cleaner meal in town than an order of Muramoto's anago sushi followed by a scallop maki.
The other local standouts of 2007 are all familiar standbys. Sardine continues to hold its own as a savvy, dynamic, genuine kitchen and its duck confit salad and its skatewing are still some of the most reliable, impressive dishes anywhere (though I'd love to see the kitchen play more with its menu and add new dishes more regularly, and I'd retire the tough veal dish).
Wasabi is still the only restaurant on State Street that gives the mile of insipid gruel some credibility; its sushi is as good as Muramoto's, and its teriyaki salmon is one of the best pieces of fish in town. Tornado Steak House is still worth a weekly trip, not just for its supernal steaks but for its clean take on a Friday fish fry. Lombardino's just keeps getting better because it never stops evolving; its changing seasonal menus always feature ambitiously creative pasta dishes that call out all the thoughtless pastas slopped up by our other local Italian restaurants.
I also like Quivey's Grove for its rich take on regional cuisine, the Capitol Chophouse at the Hilton for its truffle oil fries and the béarnaise sauce you can order with some very good steaks, and Bruegger's Bagel Bakery (yup, a chain) for a decent bagel that's even better toasted, with a smear of cream cheese and passable lox.
The best sign of hope for the new year? The newly opened Pizza Brutta on Monroe, which I've only had a chance to quickly sample but which looks very promising; the pizzas are pulled crisp and light out of the wood-fired oven and come crowned with a clean, understated toppings, instead of that cheese fondue glob that destroys too many Wisconsin pies. Toast the new year with its prosciutto arugula pizza and you'll feel a little twinge of hope.
- Raphael Kadushin
It was a good year for eating in Madison. We gained a few really good new restaurants, lost a few, ate food nearly every day of the year, and didn't gain too much weight. Here are some highlights:
Dish of the Year. It's gotta be caldo siete mares (seven seafood soup) at El Pescador, the new Mexican restaurant on East Washington Avenue. This beautiful soup merges squid, crab legs, clams, oysters, mussels, calamari and shrimp, all in a big soup bowl, swimming in a spicy red sauce flecked with cilantro. It announced its presence by a crab claw clenching a lime wedge, poking up from the middle of the bowl. A magnificent dish, beautifully presented.
Fresh Spaghetti. When RP's Pasta moved from Willy Street to larger quarters on nearby East Wilson, it incorporated the Fork and Spoon Cafe into the operation. And now you can get a big plate of RP's freshly made spaghetti with a tomato and basil sauce and two large meatballs for under seven bucks. Can't beat that with a breadstick.
Jambalaya Joy. Meanwhile, Babs' French Quarter Kitchen moved into the space vacated by RP's to serve its New Orleans specialties, including a superb jambalaya, this one made with aromatic but not overly spirited andouille. The shrimp creole, also recommended, is rich with the flavors of okra, tomato, onion, garlic, cayenne, and paprika, and laden with a generous number of good-size shrimp. A good spot for dinner on a cold winter evening.
Crab, Crab, Crab. Crab comes in many forms at the new Mad City Crab House, on upper State Street. Best of the lot is the crab cake Oscar, one or two (your choice) large cakes, well stocked with lump crab, pan-seared, topped with a rich Hollandaise sauce loaded with more king crab bits and served with grilled asparagus. The same cakes can be ordered blackened and enlivened with a peppery spice.
Authentic Mexican. Late in the year I discovered La Mestiza, a wonderful little Mexican restaurant in Market Square on Odana Road. It's always great to find another truly authentic Mexican cuisine that's different from all the others, and this one certainly is. My favorite is the borrego en chile pasilla, a perfectly wonderful lamb shoulder, simmered lovingly and long in a dark, pungent chili pasilla salsa. The fork-tender lamb and the spirited chili salsa seem destined for each other.
Bar Food Elevated. When Madison outlawed smoking in bars and restaurants last year, Mickey's Tavern, on Willy Street, had to think of a new way to survive. Fortunately, Mickey's owner, Janie Capito (of Lazy Jane's Cafe) thought of the perfect answer - food! She took best advantage of the small Mickey's kitchen to devise a most inventive menu of elevated bar foods. In my book, the star of this show is the chili con carne, richly studded with chunks of tender beef. In fact when the Isthmus ad hoc chili committee tested eight representative chilies from around town, Mickey's was judged best.
And now, as we head into 2008, what new treats are in store? We'll just have to wait and find out. As Orson Welles once said, "Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what's for lunch."
- Jerry Minnich