Here in the Midwest, we’ve historically been just a bit slower on the uptake when it comes to embracing new food trends. Sure, we can boast that we “technically” invented farm-to-table, and that our grandmas have been pickling, canning and composting since the Great Depression, but let’s face it — it usually takes a few years before the flashy new culinary fads dreamed up by the coastal elites really take root here in flyover country. Sad!
That may sound self-deprecatory, but I’d argue it’s actually a good thing. You know how you’re never supposed to buy a car in its first model year? One might say the same thing about these fashionable foods whose moment in the spotlight is (sometimes literally) just a flash in the pan. And while some might lament the fact that Madisonians don’t have a local option for unicorn rainbow bagels, at least we didn’t waste $40 on a single black market cronut. And by the time national trends start showing up in Madison, we can be sure they’re properly vetted and have some staying power.
Still, with Madison’s restaurant scene booming and trend-conscious millennials driving demand, many of the newer spots in town have been incorporating the very latest in ingredients, cooking and serving styles.
Here are a few of our favorites, and where to find them.
Stuff in bowls
The humble serving vessel is having a major moment, thanks largely to the combined forces of Instagram, Pinterest and a renewed focus on simple, healthy eating. A picture-perfect bowl of artfully arranged ingredients is bound to garner “likes” on social media as well as restaurant menus.
In Madison, fast-casual spots like Forage Kitchen on State Street offer made-to-order grain bowls featuring of-the-moment ingredients like black rice, quinoa, roasted root vegetables and power greens. Bowl of Heaven, a California-based chain with a location in Hilldale Mall, focuses on the sweet side of the flavor spectrum, serving up chic and colorful “superfruit” bowls topped with stuff like low-carb granola, hemp flaxseed and coconut. Higher-end places are getting in on this trend, too. Field Table, the newer farm-to-table spot on the Capitol Square, offers more refined ingredients like charred salmon, maitake mushrooms, sea vegetables, freekeh (the “it” grain these days), whipped sweet potato, pepitas and lentils.
On Monroe Street there’s Everly, which serves a California-inspired grain bowl for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch that features a dainty spread of avocado slices, kale, sprouted lentils, quinoa, toasted oats, cashews and a sunny-side-up egg. While some stubborn diners might scoff at paying upwards of $12 for a bowl of hippie health food, here’s hoping that this fad continues to disrupt the traditional Western diet, for the sake of our planet and our waistlines.
Fat is back!
Anyone who lived through the culinary dark ages known as the fat-free craze of the 1990s will be glad to see that the stigma surrounding fats is starting to fade. A slew of studies in recent years have shown that saturated fat is healthier than processed carbohydrates. People are eating butter again — McDonald’s even swapped out margarine in favor of the real stuff on its Egg McMuffins last year.
It’s only fitting that local chefs have a fancy, artisanal take on this particular fad. Duck fat fries have been popping up at restaurants all over the city — Rare Steakhouse, A Pig in a Fur Coat, The Madison Blind, Heritage Tavern. Rich, luxurious and savory, duck fat is prized for its depth of flavor and has a chemical composition closer to olive oil than other animal fats.
Toast has outgrown its spot at breakfast. Everly tops it with whitefish salad and pickled veggies.
Everything on toast
For some, the sudden rise of “things on toast” (particularly avocado) being served in restaurants might be baffling. Why order something you can easily (and cheaply) make at home? Made famous in part by the endorsement of “lifestyle guru” Gwyneth Paltrow, the trend is right in line with the clean-eating movement (and it also looks great on Instagram).
In Madison, the aforementioned Everly takes this trend to the max with its truly decadent offerings, which include mushroom with bone marrow butter, whitefish salad with pickled vegetables, and (of course) avocado with chickpea puree and roasted red peppers. Black Locust Cafe on East Washington Avenue (formerly A-OK) offers some fancy toasts too — smoked ham with fried egg, gruyere, dijon and frisee; whipped cottage cheese with stone fruit pepper jam, honey and tarragon; avocado with piquillo pepper, red onion and lime marmalade. Bassett Street Brunch Club, on the ground floor of the campus Hampton Inn, does a classic avocado toast with black bean salsa and queso fresco plus a sweet whipped ricotta toast with dried apricots, mint, walnut and honey. At Crescendo, an espresso bar and music cafe on Monroe Street, the toasts are simple, delicious and budget-priced — avocado with salt, pepper and olive oil; peanut butter with granola and maple syrup; honey butter with almonds; and plain old butter. And Porter, the new coffee and sandwich shop at the former Milwaukee Road depot, has a breakfast-friendly version on a rustic rye, starring avocado and beauty heart radishes, with an n’duja add-on (speaking of trends, the spicy spreadable salami is made in town by Underground Meats).
Move over, meat
Vegetable-centric cuisine has been on the upswing lately. Bolstered by the triple-threat trends of health-conscious eating, local, seasonal produce and ditching carbs, it’s easier than ever for vegetarians to dine out at local restaurants. At Everly, you can easily make a meal from the vegetable small plates — beets, artichokes, eggplant, squash, brussels sprouts — even though they’re billed as side dishes.
Graft, a Midwestern-inspired small plates spot on Capitol Square, also does wonderful things with brussels sprouts and beets — and could even provide a wine pairing to match. Freshii, a fast-casual place on Gammon Road, specializes in ultra-healthy wraps, salads and burritos, with the option to add tofu or falafel as a protein.
And the veggie trend is poised to continue: Good Food, the popular Capitol Square and Library Mall food cart, is opening Wisconsin’s first low-carb cafe on Cottage Grove Road this April. The menu will feature fresh, grain-free, veggie centric dishes, including cabbage wraps and spiralized vegetable pasta.
Madison-area doughnut lovers’ prayers were answered in 2016, a year that brought our fair city not one, not two, but three fancy new doughnut shops. Over-the-top doughnuts have been around for over a decade (made famous by Voodoo Donuts of Portland, Oregon), but until recently Madison’s bakeries stayed pretty traditional with their approach to fried dough.
Field Table, in addition to being an upscale restaurant, also does fabulous doughnuts in a variety of ever-changing but always wow-worthy flavors: matcha, miso, cardamom, brandy old fashioned, strawberry-jalapeño. Plus, its kitchen has become famous for its cretzel — a cross between a croissant and a pretzel, filled with cheese.
Dough Baby Bakery on State Street does similarly insane and wonderful things with pastries, specializing in cake, raised and filled doughnuts that are fried in coconut oil. It has novelty toppings (Cinnamon Toast Crunch, chocolate cookies) and novel takes on classics (cheesecake doughnut, anyone?), plus cute little doughnut holes, called dough babies.
Hurts Donut, a Missouri-based chain that opened a location in Middleton in late 2016, is known for its absurdly large, candy-coated doughnuts and doughnut milkshakes. Best of all, it’s open 24 hours a day, and it offers “emergency” delivery via a repurposed ambulance. You’ll need it for your sugar coma.