An obligatory part of summer in Madison - along with the Farmers' Market, a brat on the Terrace, a jerk platter at Jolly Bob's backyard patio, and the Dane County Fair, where the corn dogs are as big as a cone of cotton candy - is the Country Drive. Some people know lots of country drives, but we've only mastered one, and our houseguests, frankly, are getting a little sick of it. But then they're guests (a.k.a. freeloaders), and I still say it's the best daytrip in southern Wisconsin.
This is the trip: You drive past Verona, exit onto WI 69, stop at the little strip of galleries in Paoli, take in the chalets of New Glarus (this always impresses the houseguests, unless it's the third or fourth time they've seen the chalets, in which case they turn surly), and then build to your big crowd-pleasing climax, five miles south, in Monticello.
Monticello itself usually satisfies even the pickiest houseguests (i.e., ours) because it's a bona-fide heartland Brigadoon. There is something about that perfect Main Street, lined with flat-topped brick storefronts, that feels time-warped, and also oddly louche. You'll want to pose in front of the town drugstore (which has been turned into the town museum) where two tile panels happily advertise the enticing twin promise of "Drugs" and "Sodas." And then there is Gempeler's Supermarket down the street, which still posts a sign hawking "Alpine Boy Sausages." Boy Sausages sounded to our morbid, hysteria-prone houseguests a little cannibalistic, but even the vaguely nauseated will perk up when they enter Monticello's centerpiece and abiding attraction, the Dining Room, which is the real reason we make this drive so often.
Opened in 1996, when David "Wave" Kasprzak and Jane Sybers had to give up their State Street restaurant Deb and Lola's, the Dining Room features Kasprzak's blended heartland meets Asian, Southwestern and Mexican cuisine, and Sybers' collection of museum-quality textiles. The dining room's gray paneled walls, on a recent July Friday, were hung with a typically eclectic collection of hand-knit sweaters, a loden coat and a few surprise puppets, and the table quickly filled up with some of the kitchen's signature appetizers. While the spice-rubbed pork carnitas - meaty little nuggets served with flour tortillas, diablo sauce and guacamole - added the Mexican accent, it was the plate of grilled sausages and the platter of cheese bread that offered an entire Wisconsin ecosystem in one sitting. In fact, the grilled cheese bread, topped with melted Havarti and Swiss cheeses, and served with sauteed mushrooms and pickled roasted garlic, is worth the drive alone.
It also sets the tone for Kasprzak's cooking. While his simpler dishes, like a grilled swordfish, are fine, the real reason to come to the Dining Room is for its heaped platters of unabashedly rich cuisine, and these tend to reach their baroque apex with the meatier entrees. Not that there was anything wrong with our five immense sauteed shrimp paired with jalapeño rice, tequila lime cream, chipotle tomato sauce, and black bean and jicama salad. But the grilled beef tenderloin filet topped with a Worcestershire glaze and served with blue cheese cream and mashed potatoes was a flamboyant take on meat and potatoes. And the pork cutlet entree is the kind of dish you remember months later. Crusted with cornmeal, dressed with a poblano cream sauce, crowned by a sweet pepper tortilla salad and served beside a heap of cheddar grits, the cutlets were a proudly stacked study in anti-minimalist cooking.
So were Kasprzak's desserts - especially his trademark sticky toffee pudding, sprinkled with toasted pecans and capped, if you ask, by a cloud of whipped cream that melts into the caramel sauce. Even the pickiest houseguest is going to be sated by that kind of finish, and no one is going to say a word if you drive through New Glarus on the way back, for one more look at those chalets.