Wisconsin, land of the Paul Bunyan all-you-can-eat buffet.
If there was ever a phrase to strike fear into the heart of a Badger, it must be "prix fixe menu." First of all, it's French. Second, it means that somebody besides you decides what you get to eat. Socialism!
But calm down. Prix fixe (just say "pree feeks") or fixed-price menus are actually a good deal, and that should please everyone, even all-you-can-eat fish fry fanatics.
Think about the concept of all-you-can-eat: How much are you really supposed to be stuffing into yourself, anyway? While portions are often more modest on prix fixe menus, you'll feel sated. You'll be eating the chef's special efforts, in many cases, so you'll savor every bite. There's a much-needed injection of elegance involved: Dining becomes an event. And you won't feel the need to skip dessert, or be rolled back to your car on a hand truck.
While traditional prix fixe means that what's on the menu for that evening is chosen by the chef, some fixed-price meals available locally do offer choices from among entrees and sides. Three cheers for democracy.
Tuesday evenings, $30; wine flights, an extra $10
Taco Tuesdays have their place, but a Tuesday at Liliana's is a great way to celebrate anything from a birthday to the fact that you're not eating tacos. It's the night the Fitchburg kitchen offers its three-course Chef's Menu.
Each Tuesday is different (menus are posted in advance on the website). Although Liliana's has a New Orleans-inflected menu most of the time, for his chef's menu, Dave Heide's imagination may wander far from the Crescent City.
One recent dinner was inspired by Cuban and Caribbean cuisine: jicama and fried plantain salad, a crab cake and New York strip steak Napoleon, and for dessert, tropical fruit custards. St. Paddy's Day saw an Irish table: subtle clover salad with honey vinaigrette and warm brie, a rustic lamb stew with roasted potatoes and pungent kale, and for dessert, a malty Guinness brownie with Irish cream frozen custard.
Tuesdays, price varies, $15-$19
Tuesdays are Around the World night at Willy Street's Bon Appetit Cafe. The meals include appetizer, soup and salad and your choice of entree from among a handful of options.
A recent Mediterranean menu starred a tzatziki yogurt dip with grilled pita bread, a tahini-lemon soup with orzo and tomato; and a Greek salad. Entrees were vegetarian moussaka, kakavia (a Greek version of bouillabaisse), spanikopita, or chicken souvlaki.
Another dinner ranged from France to Egypt, with stops in Hungary and Marrakech. Dinner began with a goat cheese appetizer, followed by a lentil soup and a bulghur wheat salad. Entrees were Portuguese shrimp; a Jordandal Farms pork chop with polenta; polenta pasticciata (a polenta-based casserole, with Italian sausage, tomato sauce and bechemal sauce); Moroccan vegetarian couscous (with veggies and fruit from eggplant to apricots, with a tart yogurt sauce) or chicken kebabs and couscous. As Bon Appetit's roots are in Mediterranean cuisine, it's hard to go wrong with couscous- or polenta-based dishes.
This is one of the best prix fixe menus in town for vegetarians. Menus are posted on the Bon Appetit Cafe blog (L'Etoile
"Early Week" prix fixe Tuesday-Thursday evenings, $39
L'Etoile changes its prix fixe menu every week and posts it Tuesday afternoons on its website. Like all of L'Etoile's food, its prix fixe menu items are made from local, organic, seasonal foods. Menus from early March were still drawing on root veggies, with a puréed parsnip and apple soup with andouille sausage for starters, a grilled Fountain Prairie Farm skirt steak as a main course, accompanied with olive oil fried potatoes, arugula salad and a balsamic reduction. The portions may look modest, but the food is superb - no eating-by-rote here. And you have room for dessert, which is very good news indeed. Usually a cake is paired with house-made ice cream, in this case ginger cake with coffee ice cream.
A visit earlier in January found a menu no less inventive. To start, a mellow turnip chowder with cornmeal fried clams and red chili oil changed even a turnip-hater's feelings about the dusky-tasting, oft-maligned veggie. The true star of the evening, though, was a rich, velvet-smooth polenta topped with a ragout made with pork from the organic (and humane-certified) Willow Creek Farm, with a bright heirloom tomato sauce made from local tomatoes canned by the staff at L'Etoile last fall. A side of arugula was topped with SarVecchio cheese. This was an entree so lovely it could have served as dessert as well, but the light, buttery coconut cream cake with chocolate-banana ice cream made for an elegant finish.
Wednesday Date Night: Dinner for two, $40
Cloud 9 Grille's approach is slightly different; choice and sharing are both involved.
For $40, you and your date split a bottle of wine and dessert, but choose your own starter (soup or salad) and entree. The entrees are mahi mahi, a 10-ounce ribeye steak, chipotle chicken pasta or raspberry chicken salad. You'll have to duke it out over the desserts - chocolate cheesecake or lemon bars. You also have to share the view, a stunner overlooking east Madison and Lake Monona from the far side of I-39/90. The restaurant is closed right now for staff retraining, and should be open again in 30 to 60 days.
Sunday night chef's blind tasting menu, four courses for $30, with sake or wine pairings for an additional $15
What's on the menu for the Sunday night dinners isn't announced in advance via Muramoto's website or even written down anywhere. The menu can get decided fairly late in the process, says a server, who nonetheless rattles off from memory the plates from the previous Sunday, which involved beef short ribs, lamb shank with asparagus, and a shrimp skewer, with a mango ice cream topped with a lime reduction sauce for dessert.
This is one of those situations where you should trust the chef and enjoy the ride. Extraordinary plates of Asian-fusion food emerge from Muramoto's kitchen.
The pairings are usually sake, but occasionally (depending on the menu) wines.
Chef's blind tasting menu daily, four courses $42, with wine pairings for an additional $16
The three entrees and dessert that comprise the Blue Marlin's tasting menu are more like tapas than a big fish dinner. The featured items change daily and are different from anything else on the day-to-day menu. The tasting menu allows the chef to change things up, order a special fish or be more experimental.
Some recent plates have included a crab spring roll with chili sauce, poached sea scallops with soba noodles, and grouper with a butter and caper sauce, finishing with a slice of chocolate cake. Warn the kitchen of any major food dislikes or allergies in advance, because you won't know what's coming to your table beforehand. And that's half the fun.
Often chosen as one of Madison's most romantic restaurants, the beautiful gate has one of the most generous offerings in town at just $17. It's dubbed a "three-course entree special." Start with a choice of salad or soup. We always recommend the Porta salad, with its crumbles of cheese, salami and ham, chickpeas and buttermilk dressing - but the Caesar and Mediterranean are also available.
There are six entrees to pick from (all also available on the regular menu): an eight-ounce top sirloin, steak braciola, seafood tetrazzini, stuffed calamari, stuffed filet of sole and Alaskan salmon. Steak braciola - sirloin that's been stuffed with capicola ham and topped with cheese - is a good deal; if you're looking for something simpler, try the salmon, served broiled with red potatoes. Dessert is the one course that's decided for you, chocolate mousse.
Fleming's spring prix fixe menu began March 20 and will run until just before summer starts, June 20. The three-course meal starts with a choice of a butter lettuce salad or spring vegetable soup. Choose from three entrees. The first is a jerk steak, with a parsley-garlic sauce and red onion salsa. The second is roasted spring chicken Jamaican style, marinated in coconut milk and island ginger, served with roasted sweet potatoes and plantation bacon. Or choose broiled salmon steak, marinated in a citrus-pepper garlic sauce, with a black bean cassoulet. Dessert is a tropical pineapple tart with vanilla ice cream topped with caramel sauce.
Ruth's Chris Steak House has a "Ruth's Classics" menu in place for a three-course meal featuring a starter, entree, side dish and dessert. There are four entrees to choose from: a 6-ounce filet and shrimp, a fresh fish selection, a stuffed chicken breast or barbecued shrimp. Start with a choice of Caesar or house salad or a seafood gumbo. Pair the entree with mashed potatoes, mushrooms, creamed spinach, broiled tomato or broccoli. Dessert is the one course where you have no choice; it's berries with sweet cream and chocolate mousse.
Sunday evenings once a month. Prices vary according to menu and number of courses
Harvest goes about the prix fixe a little differently, turning it into a one-of-a-kind event. The restaurant features monthly dinners focusing on one aspect of eating local and organic. For instance, in late March the restaurant shone the spotlight on the pleasures of eating Wisconsin-raised, grass-fed beef. Harvest's next Sunday special dinner is a six-course Northern Italian Wine Dinner on April 19, followed by a five-course spring asparagus dinner on May 27. Reservations are required.