I am used to taking risks when I go out to eat. You don't order raw oysters or cold chicken feet without throwing caution at least a little bit to the wind. But the risk is not all on the part of the diner.
Thinking about food and risk, suddenly I'm picturing a map of Madison, all multi-colored and segmented, with little plastic army regiments sliding across the landscape. Instead of territories to conquer and continents to dominate, I picture the city's restaurants and the men and women who run them. The game of Risk is a game of conquest and of acquisition. The same can often be said for the restaurant business.
A lot of Madisonians aren't exactly keen on conglomerates and chains. But locally based chains serve multiple purposes - one successful restaurant can nurture another, for instance. And having east and west locations can save patrons from unnecessary drives.
Besides, ambitious restaurateurs don't want to settle for just one piece of the map. They want to expand. But they have to do it intelligently. Madison is fortunate in having a large group of local dining networks - or chains - that provide a kind of road map to dining in the area.
There are few local dining subjects more contentious than the Food Fight Restaurant Group. That balkiness about chains - or even perceived chains - really comes into play here.
With nine locations in its stable, plus a full-fledged catering operation, Food Fight has spread across the landscape very successfully. There are many ways to introduce yourself to the group's restaurants, whether you're looking for an elegant Johnny Delmonico's date night or a casual Tex Tubb's Taco Palace late-night. Ocean Grill's seafood is fresh; shipments arrive throughout the week. Whether it's upscale Fresco at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art or neighborhood hangout Bluephies on Monroe Street, a hallmark of Food Fight is consistency of product. I've never had a terrible experience at a Food Fight restaurant. All of them pay attention to appearance and atmosphere.
For me, the standout successes are the Eldorado Grill, which provides strong, flavorful meals from Sunday brunch to late dinner, and the group's three diner spots - Market Street, Hubbard Avenue and Monty's Blue Plate. All offer a spot-on neo/retro diner experience, complete with good coffee and great pie.
The brothers Berge (Prentice, Christopher, Finn and Bowe) are the somewhat iconoclastic men behind Madison icons like the Weary Traveler and Restaurant Magnus. The Berges are simultaneously driven and aloof, possessed of a keen vision for what they want but not necessarily food evangelists in the truest sense. Their ventures can feel a little hidden, almost understated.
But walk in to the Weary, and you'll see the testimony of the crowd. The Berges take risks, and those risks pay off pretty much every time.
Willy Street's Weary Traveler mixes South American, Asian and regional American influences into a hearty menu that provides a significant plate or bowl of food for your dollar. The nightly specials are often just that; the pork kee mow - a Thai recipe also known as drunken noodles - is a must-have when it's offered.
Natt Spil is known for its tweaking of Chinese dim sum under the banner of a northern European pub/club. An invisible banner, no less - Natt Spil's quirks include no exterior signage. The restaurant doesn't have a phone and doesn't take credit cards, either. But its menu is adventurous and impressive.
In the Berges' empire, the place where I take comfort in the surety of a great meal is Restaurant Magnus. Order from a variety of rotating creative dishes or get a quick bite at the bar, whether it's oysters or xinxim, a spicy Brazilian stew. Or stick with great cocktails and mixed drinks.
The pizzas at Ian's are off-the-wall, and you better come hungry. Ian's Pizza is a student favorite in Madison, offering slices of mac 'n' cheese, steak and fries, and barbeque chicken and pineapple pizzas until the break of dawn. Two locations, one on campus at Frances Street and the other closer to the state Capitol on State Street, have led to a third in Wrigleyville, Chicago, of all places.
Changing hours and interior remodeling have kept the Madison locations in something of a state of flux for a number of years, but it appears that the operation has settled back into its groove. Just be aware that a pizza box for a large pie might not fit into your car if it's as small as mine.
Pizza isn't the end of the line, however. Ian Gurfield lent some initial support to MATC instructor Joe Gaglio to get Gotham Bagels off the ground; it now has two locations. And when Gurfield saw a gap in the local dairy scene, he teamed up with Blue Marble Family Farm and Sugar River Dairy, the state's only artisan cow's milk yogurt producer, to produce Madison's first locally identified frozen yogurt. It'll be available at the Frances Street location starting on April 20. There are even rumors that Ian's is looking to expand farther afield in Wisconsin. When Gurfield decides to start minting his own currency, look out.
While grand machinations are often required for successful growth, there are times when restaurateurs can afford to just lie back and soak in success. John Gadau and Phillip Hurley run a little family of Madison restaurants, and they know all about biding their time.
From sweet home Chicago to the restaurant scene of California and back, Gadau and Hurley learned and honed their craft. They worked separately in such reputable joints as Michel Richard's Citrus in Los Angeles and Billy West's Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. It was ambition that brought them back home.
The opening of downtown breakfast and lunch spot Marigold Kitchen in 2000 was the culmination of their desire to open a Midwestern restaurant without the insanity (the restaurateurs generously use the word "intensity") of a big-city location. Then, for six years, they waited and devoted their time to Marigold. When their ideal location in the old Machinery Row building became available, their second restaurant, Sardine, became reality.
Menus at both Marigold and Sardine are carried off well, with atmospheres that support the food. Marigold standouts include pillowy blueberry pancakes and a breakfast sandwich whose praises are sung all the way around the Square. Meanwhile, the atmosphere at Sardine is unrepentantly French, but the dishes tend to whisper their provenance. The bacon-kissed crab cakes are particularly superb, not suffering in the least from excessive bread or onion. Marigold Kitchen and Sardine demonstrate that perseverance can pay off over a more full-throttle philosophy.
"No man is an island, entire of itself," wrote the poet John Donne. The three restaurants founded by chef Shinji Muramoto prove the theory that one man, if not an island entire of himself, can still do some pretty amazing things under just his own name.
Shinji Muramoto is one of Madison's superstar chefs. He won the Dueling Chef competition for three consecutive years at the Madison Food and Wine Show. He's charismatic, creative and talented. And his restaurants have continuously grown and advanced since the flagship Restaurant Muramoto opened its doors in 2004.
Since then, Sushi Muramoto opened at Hilldale Shopping Center. The original restaurant moved into the space vacated by Cocoliquot (whose operators helped turn Shinji's first venture into reality). The original space was then turned into Kushi Bar Muramoto, a hip translation of the Japanese izakaya bar food model.
The menus at the Muramoto triumvirate are at once genuinely Japanese and also smartly modern. At Restaurant Muramoto, it's possible to order monkfish liver or a gunsmoke roll, a thinly disguised version of a salmon BLT containing smoked salmon, bacon, tomato and watercress. Escolar, clam and flounder accompany the more popular hand-packed sashimi varieties at Sushi Muramoto. At Kushi Bar Muramoto, chase elegantly rugged cocktails with skewers of teriyaki chicken livers and deep-fried French horn mushrooms. The Muramoto restaurants are both a means to an end and an end in themselves.
Everybody with a car drives past 'em. If you're like me, befuddled by the parking arrangements on the Capitol Square, you drive past L'Etoile, Harvest, Café Soleil and the Old Fashioned more than once per trip.
The four successful yet totally distinct restaurants are the center of gravity for Madison dining. They form the intersection of the three-dimensional grid: fancy and casual, innovative and traditional, light and massively caloric. The universe virtually bends around their import. Over the top? Maybe, but these operations are definitely celestial.
"The Star." That's what L'Etoile means, and it is accurate. Founded in 1976 by Odessa Piper (who herself has become something of a cloistered empress of the Madison food scene, retired to the background but still exerting influence), L'Etoile has proven itself time and time again as the jewel in the crown of local restaurants. Chefs work there before moving on to their own kitchens - Shinji Muramoto included - and Madison foodies mark their years by number of visits there.
Café Soleil is the downstairs sibling to L'Etoile, featuring a lighter and more daytime-focused menu. Two storefronts down is Harvest, headed by Tami Lax and chef Derek Rowe. While there is no official affiliation, it's no coincidence that both worked at L'Etoile earlier in their careers. After establishing Harvest as a worthy rival to L'Etoile's prominence, Lax and Rowe joined Patrick and Marcia O'Halloran (who also operate local favorite Lombardino's) in opening the Old Fashioned right between L'Etoile and Harvest. The Old Fashioned's supper club/tavern tribute concept has worked from the beginning, and locked into place the dominance expressed by the three restaurants around it. Their constellation anchors the foodie firmament.
The restaurants that make up these local food groups aren't guaranteed to be here forever. All empires decline and fall. It's up to us to support the worthy ones.