The case for omakase
The first time I heard the work "omakase," I had been emailed a secret menu for an "underground dinner party" that enlisted my assistance. The Japanese word means "I'll leave it to you," and diners allow the chef complete control over their dining experience.
The idea was simple: Invite a few people to dinner at an undisclosed location. Don't reveal the menu, the guests or the chef. See who shows up. Knock their socks off. Let them spread the word. He'd cook. I'd be helping in the kitchen, serving, busing, hostessing and whatever else might be needed.
The event transformed my approach to dining. For me, seeing what happens when diners allow a chef to work magic, sans special orders, preconceived notions and picky eaters, was like seeing live blues music for the first time. Rather than a mere convenience or excuse to leave the house, dining out was an act of arts patronage.
As someone who once experienced anxiety over large menus and nutritious choices, I thought about how freeing it is to simply sit back, push the menu away, order a drink, and place your evening in the hands of the capable artist you've come to see. When I get the chance, chef, I'll always leave it to you.
-- Julia Burke
Eating at the bar
For a lot of eaters, fully experiencing a restaurant means waiting at the hostess stand, being seated at a table and interacting with the environment through a single waiter or waitress. It feels welcoming and safe.
For me, I often find this contrived bit of dining theater constricting; I want more action. I find it at the bar.
There are a number of reasons to eat at the bar. It can be less lonely while dining alone; it can mean better service because the bartender is always in front of you; it can be faster if you're in a hurry; and since no one is waiting for your table, there's no rush.
But the number-one reason is that when sitting at the bar, you become a vicarious part of an establishment's particular scene.
For me, eating is as much social as gustatory, and I want to participate. I want to discover what makes a kitchen tick, engage with an employee or gain the perspective of a total stranger next to me.
Not to say that a full sit-down dining experience is anything to be scoffed at, but if you let your inner comfort-seeking introvert always win and direct you to a table, you're missing out.
-- André Darlington
Thinking like a restaurant
I've worked as a cook, an expediter for the dining room, busboy and headwaiter. Where most people only have one point of view, the one from the table, I try to see the experience holistically. When I eat out, I try to put myself in the mind of the chef. If the chicken entree is there as a "safe" option, choose something more adventurous. If one person is lingering over appetizers but everyone else is done, chances are good the chef is going to fire the entree anyway -- meaning some dishes may be cooling by the time they hit your table.
And always arrive right when a restaurant opens or right before it closes. These are the windows where the kitchen can treat each dish with the loving care it deserves.
-- Adam Powell
Adventure on wheels
I trace my curiosity about food sold from small hut-like outlets back to a family trip out west when I was eight. In Scottsbluff, Neb., we saw booths that looked like Fotomat kiosks selling something called "tacos." "What's a taco?" I asked my parents. (First clue that this was long ago is the Fotomat reference; the second, that no one in the family knew what a taco was.) "It's a kind of pancake," I remember them saying.
"Can we get one?"
Now I'm free to step up to any cart, truck, booth or gazebo and order whatever I like. It feels like vacation.
It's easy to chat with the person who cooked your food -- often the same person dishing up the goods.
I love the friendly mother-daughter team who make the home-style Japanese food at the Zen Sushi cart. It was there I first encountered unfussy stews like Oyako-donburi and Niku-Jaga that I liked so much I learned how to make them at home. I love the messages they post on Facebook announcing their specials and reminding their mostly student clientele to "dress warmly" against the cold weather. Zen Sushi has accomplished the trick of bringing a distant land to Madison and yet making downtown Madison more like a neighborhood.
-- Linda Falkenstein
Creating the total beer experience
When I go out, I take a very conscious look at the tap list -- considering what I might want to eat, for proper pairing, but also to add as much value as I can to the experience of a beer out on the town.
I don't always go for the fancy-pants rare taps. Sometimes I want something simple, straightforward, ubiquitous, like a Hopalicious. But I would be lying if I didn't admit to looking over the tap list, scanning for beers I can't get in bottles easily -- your Goose Island Bourbon County Barleywines, your Dave's Brew Farm Funk Series -- and submarining whatever food plans I might have had in the interest of pairing something with a must-drink beer. On very rare occasions, even I, overthinking drinker that I am (just ask my wife), will say to hell with it and drink for beer's sake, pairing be damned.
I love finding sneaky-good tap lists around town: Roast, Blue Moon, Grampa's Pizzeria. Even Dexter's, a spot every beer geek in Madison knows, still surprises me sometimes. I love seeing what elaborate configuration of glassware will carry my beer to my lips at Brasserie V, and whether the inscribed brand matches the beer I'm drinking. I love the first sniff, the first sip, the last. And the impending joy is what makes that first glance at the beer list such an essential and exciting part of my Madison dining experience.