The food you love most is the food you covet when you're the hungriest, and for me that isn't anything stylish or haute. I don't salivate over foie gras and caviar. I don't fantasize about any cunning molecular amuse-bouche, or a deconstructed strawberry shortcake, or duck three ways (one way is enough, thanks). No. What I picture when I'm really starving, when I'm itchy for the best bite, is something simpler.
What I imagine is the perfect sandwich.
I'm not sure why that is. I think maybe it's a case of culinary memory, since the sandwich is probably the first meal I really loved, as a kid, my homelier version of Proust's poor over-referenced Madeleine.
But I think it's also because a sandwich is the most complete sort of meal. The way a crusty slice of bread plays off a wedge of buttery cheese and a sheet of cured meat and a dollop of fresh mayonnaise is a little lesson in texture and flavor. At its best, it's unrivaled.
And maybe my hunger for the sandwich has something to do with Madison itself. Because when I think of the meals that have made the biggest impression on me locally, at least most recently, the meal is lunch, and the dish is a sandwich.
In fact, the creativity, whimsy and ambition of our best restaurants, and chefs, come through most clearly when they turn the sandwich into high art. And that means the best taste of Madison often comes at noon.
What are some of the local standouts? One of my top choices would be Gotham Bagels, which has added a whole new dimension to the downtown dining scene and which I'd rate as highly as any of the most ambitious, pricey restaurants in town for one simple reason: It does what it sets out to do perfectly, and what it sets out to do is make the perfect bagel. That may seem like a small thing to some people, but the perfect bagel is a wonder. After years of being subjected to the spongy, porous, tasteless faux bagels that haunted too many local lunch counters, I regard the Gotham bagel as an epic thing.
It's also a lesson in what makes a good sandwich, because a sandwich starts and ends with the frame, the bread, and if that isn't right, the sandwich won't be either. And the Gotham bagel frame is so good it doesn't need anything but a smear of cream cheese, and it doesn't really even need that.
These are hand-rolled, fresh-out-of-the-oven bagels. The golden crust crackles and the "meat" of the bagel has just the right amount of chew. The variations run the full gamut (onion, garlic, poppy, egg, pumpernickel, salt, everything) but it's the sesame, which offers a toasted, nutty accent, that is Gotham's queen. Add cream cheese, watercress for a nice layer of texture and translucent, pale pink lox (smoked Alaskan salmon in this case), and you simply have the best, most elegant sandwich, and meal, in town.
Though there are some Gotham rivals. The "Long-guy-land" sandwich, which layers fontina cheese, house-roasted turkey breast, arugula, tomato and mayo, makes for a perfectly balanced, subtle hoagie, the understated play of the turkey and fontina set off by the mayo and those sesame seeds again. And for anyone who wants something more exuberant, a two-fisted sandwich, the louder Canarsie, which stacks up mortadella, salami, capicolla, provolone, arugula, tomato and hot giardiniera vinaigrette, is the only meal you'll need all day.
But the bagel sandwiches are only one of Gotham's gifts. The other reason the place has become such a revelation to me is that it serves something else I thought I'd never see in Madison - a memorable pastrami sandwich. Gotham's high pile of pastrami on toasted rye with a squirt of mustard is a lesson in how to do things right. That's because this pastrami is shaved fresh off the brisket, in thin tender slices laced with just enough fat to add the richest flavor, and the stack of crumbling, silky meat is as seductive as anything you'd get in one of New York's few remaining authentic delis.
How do you top that? You don't, really - but you can equal it, by walking across the Square to another downtown ode to the ethereal sandwich: Marigold Kitchen. If Gotham focuses on doing a few things perfectly, Marigold (which is always jammed at noon, for good reason) has mastered an eclectic range of sandwiches, and does full justice to all of them.
My favorite is a grilled salmon sandwich. It features two big salmon fillets, almost buttery sweet, with roasted red pepper, a very refined goat cheese, a spread of olive and caper relish and the crunch of frisée, all layered between grilled sourdough. This medley makes for such a complex tumble of flavor that it qualifies as two meals in one; eat half for lunch and then eat the other half, without the bread, for a dinner that would shine in any urbane kitchen, including Marigold's sister, Sardine.
Another Marigold standout is the chicken salad sandwich. It features big chunks of chicken sweetened with chutney and complemented by marinated cucumbers, tomato and aged cheddar for another thoughtful study in balance. If the cucumbers add a slightly pickled pop of texture, the sharpness of the cheddar bounces off the sweetness of the chutney. Then there is the Marigold Italian, which offers a luxurious avalanche of hard salami, capicola ham, roasted red peppers, fresh mozzarella, roasted eggplant and arugula on a firm, chewy ciabatta that holds its shape and stands up to the fallout of fillings.
Cafe Soleil, L'Etoile's ground-floor cafe, also does a good version of a meaty Italian, featuring Willow Creek ham and house-cured mortadella, along with a great cream-filled peanut butter cookie that's another form of sandwich.
If the Square is one epicenter of the perfect sandwich, it has a lunchtime competitor. That's Monroe Street, where the mom-and-pop kitchens line up in impressive formation.
Most impressive is Pizza Brutta, where the sandwiches are as good as the pies, and for exactly the same reason. Pizza Brutta, a purist kind of place, turns out one of the finest pizza crusts in town, a hand-stretched blend of flour, water, sea salt and yeast placed in an 800-degree, wood-fired Neapolitan oven. The exacting approach is used, at lunchtime, to make tBrutta's wood-baked ciabbata bread, which comes wrapped around soppressata, Wisconsin provolone and wood-roasted red peppers, for a hot pocket of a flatbread sandwich that tastes of that woody oven. The way the crusty dough - a combination pizza crust, flatbread and ciabbata - almost melts into the sandwich, so that the provolone and soppressata get tangled up in that hot, crackling, delicate version of pita, turns this into a seamless bite.
Brutta's two variations - a vegetarian caprese sandwich that includes house-made mozzarella, tomato, fresh basil, olive oil and sea salt; and a BLT pane that features pancetta, arugula, tomato, provolone and smoked tomato aioli - are just as satisfying.
A block further up Monroe, Brasserie V counters Pizza Brutta's winning austerity with a rambling sandwich menu that equals Marigold's.
The kitchen here turns out everything from a Reuben to an ahi tuna sandwich, a fried tilapia po'boy, a grilled chicken and blue cheese, and a barbecue pulled pork with red cabbage slaw. And it does them all well.
Even the simplest sandwich here, like a grilled cheese, thinks big. Forget some flattened cheddar. Brasserie V's grilled cheese on Madison Sourdough bread features provolone, Gruyere, cheddar, Parmesan and tomato, for a very cheesy, sublime salute to Dairyland.
I'm also a big fan of the kitchen's smoked turkey sandwich, which lays cheddar, avocado, spinach, tomato, onion, a very quiet smoked turkey and a bright chipotle-lime aioli between two crunchy slices of that same dense grilled sourdough bread.
Just as good: the muffuletta, a New Orleans-worthy pileup of Genoa salami, tasso ham, mortadella, provolone, tomato, onion, spinach, olive and roasted red pepper on a sturdy ciabatta roll.
Even better: a Paris-worthy croque monsieur that is a gooey, rich medley of applewood smoked ham, Gruyere and honey mustard. That's the kind of sandwich that will keep you satisfied until dinner, and maybe even breakfast the morning after.
Other good options are spread all over town. The Hubbard Avenue Diner in Middleton dishes up a creamy eggs Benedict and a bayou catfish sandwich. Nearby, the estimable Blue Spoon Cafe is full of choices; try the grilled tuna tapenade on cracked wheat bread, a portabella Reuben or a Cobb wrap bursting with grilled chicken, guacamole, chopped bacon and blue cheese.
On the east side the Weary Traveler's grilled walleye sandwich is worth a stop, and so is its West of the Andes sandwich, which starts with pico de gallo, avocado and chipotle mayo and then lets you add on your choice of veggies, beef tenderloin or tuna steak. And the pioneering Monty's Blue Plate on Atwood is still serving an all-American, only-in-America classic: a very meaty meatloaf sandwich that tastes as good as you remember.