I like meat. I like vegetables, too, and I try to eat a lot of them. Hooray for omnivores. But although I do like eating meat - and by that I mean all sorts, beef, lamb, pork and veal - I have never much enjoyed the steakhouse slab o' meat experience. Not that there's anything wrong with the simple, straightforward presentation of steak, salad and potato. It's just that most of the time I prefer my meat in smaller doses, with more variety in its accompaniments than the steak-and-potato formula provides.
Madison restaurants offer many delicious, elegant, even healthy alternatives for meat eaters, arising from an impressive variety of ethnic cuisines. Here are some of my favorites.
Restaurant Magnus has elegance and simplicity down to an art with a menu that emphasizes seasonings and cooking methods - smoking, curing, brining - derived from the Scandinavian repertoire. The flavors of cinnamon, cardamom, caraway and juniper are rarely used in standard American meat cookery. They might seem exotic at first, though the sheer deliciousness of each dish ultimately wins out.
Meat eaters looking for something new will find it hard to choose among the cinnamon-smoked lamb chops ($28); a wild boar tenderloin, cured using toasted, crushed cocoa beans ($29); or a surprisingly tender caraway-seared venison served with a venison carpaccio ($32). The accompanying sauces and vegetables are flavorful artworks themselves. Sure, Magnus is a splurge, but one you will not regret or quickly forget.
Inka Heritage features many delights from the Peruvian repertoire. Meat eaters will appreciate the lomo saltado ($14), in which bite-sized chunks of marinated beef tenderloin are wok-flambéed with onions, tomatoes and cilantro. Mild and savory, served with rice and french-fried potatoes, it makes a delicious and satisfying meal. In lomo a la huancaina ($16), the chunks of beef tenderloin are stir-fried with grilled mushrooms and served with broiled potatoes and rice over the huancaina, a delectable cream sauce flavored with cheese and aji amarillo peppers.
For something completely different, try the seco de cordero ($14), a lamb shoulder stew flavored with beer and cilantro and served with beans, rice, fried yucca and Creole sauce.
At Samba Brazilian Grill, it's a meat festival every night. A dining experience, as opposed to merely a meal out, Samba offers a prix fixe, two-course feast, featuring a range of grilled meats and chicken ($35, or for salad bar only, $17). After diners make a trip or two to the salad bar - a veritable cornucopia of green salads, roasted vegetables, prepared salads, olives and cheeses - servers dressed as gauchos arrive one by one to offer meats from the Rodizio grill.
There are 10 different grill offerings, and one of the nice things about the Samba experience is that because the meats are carved at your table, it is possible to eat according to your appetite. Take a small taste or a larger serving. The gauchos will come back to give seconds if that's what you'd like.
Among my favorites from the Samba grill is pichana, Samba's signature top sirloin. Tender, juicy and flavorful, the sirloin is marinated before grilling in red wine, red wine vinegar, roasted garlic, rock and sea salts. The linguia sausage is a powerhouse of salty-spicy-sweet flavor. Also memorable is the pork tenderloin, brined with honey, rock salt and chilies before roasting.
Brilliantly combining the best of Asian and American barbecue, the Haze has become one of our go-to restaurants for a Saturday lunch or on nights when we just don't feel like cooking. Ribs, brisket, chicken, pork or sausage are available in Eastern (served with rice) or Western (served with Texas toast) barbecue styles. Sometimes it's hard to choose between, say, the spicy miso vs. the Texas dry rubbed brisket ($14), or the char-siu vs. chopped pork ($10). A lunch favorite is their truly addictive version of banh mi ($8), a Vietnamese sandwich of pork, chicken or sausage with mayo, cilantro and extraordinary house-made pickled root vegetables on a crusty roll from Batch Bakehouse.
Part of the yummy fun at the Haze is selecting (and eating) your side dishes - one with lunch or two with the big plates. Beans, crisp house-made slaw, fries or potato salad are always available, and an array of awesome seasonal sides changes regularly, with everything from sautéed greens to rich, savory mashes, grilled mushrooms and singular pickle salads.
From the Himalayan traditions of Nepal and India with a bit of Mediterranean inflection, Dobhan offers several excellent beef and lamb dishes, beautifully spiced to please most carnivore palates. But for something different, try the Goan goat curry ($15). Bone-in, Wisconsin-raised goat meat is cooked to falling-apart tenderness in aromatic, house-blended spices with tomato and cilantro. Or for lunch, try the Dobhan Himalayan yak burger ($7.50), made with Green Bay Yakkers organic beef and served with a house-made pickle and fries.
Most people are familiar with the varieties of pasta available in the tradition of Italian cuisine. What many don't realize is how much the Italians love their meat. Nothing exemplifies Italian meat cookery better than a good braise, a fact well understood at two of Madison's best Italian eateries.
At Lombardino's, I always feel I've hit the jackpot when lamb ragu ($19) is on the menu. A locally sourced lamb shoulder is braised slowly in red wine, San Marzano tomatoes, fennel seed and fresh rosemary, tossed in all its succulent, fallen-apart glory with tagliatelle pasta and topped with Sardinian Podda cheese. Rich, with a depth of flavor only proper braising can offer, the lamb ragu makes an unforgettable meal.
And if you're a fan of meaty Spaghetti alla Bolognese, do try Lombardino's version ($17), another richly delicious, slow-simmered sauce using locally raised beef and ground pork, pancetta, tomatoes and white wine, topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
On the menu at Osteria Papavero, where the dinners often taste delightfully as if prepared in an Italian home kitchen, are braised, Tuscan-spiced spare ribs, or Costoline Brasate alla Toscana ($17), served with Tuscan kale. Or for pasta, try the wonderful Pappardelle col Cinghiale ($16), egg pappardelle tossed with slow-braised Texan boar.
At Mediterranean Café, Fayal Belakhdar for years has been making a delicious and satisfying meat-eater's alternative with his casserole-type offerings he calls terrines, from the French tradition of preparing ground meat loaves in earthenware dishes. Usually a part of his daily specials menu, a typical terrine will combine seasoned, finely ground sirloin with vegetables and bulgur wheat, each generous portion served hot with yogurt or pepper sauce. For $7.25, including Greek salad and rice, a carnivore looking for a change of pace can hardly go wrong.