The arrival of Rush Creek Reserve, the cult cheese from Uplands, has become a yearly harbinger of approaching cold weather. When the gooey local favorite appears, it signals that dining habits are in the midst of adjusting to warmer, richer and heavier foods.
Here are some noshes, as well as some kitchen transitions, that stand out during these shortening - and fattening - days.
The restaurant Forequarter had the Rush Creek first, and has been serving it sliced crosswise to preserve the shape of the wheel as well as the spruce shell. It arrives on a beautiful wooden board with toasted nuts and house-made fruit compote. Paired with a glass of Riesling (at home, try champagne), this is one of the coziest offerings in town.
Forequarter also recently added a late-night menu for Thursday-Saturday, and is featuring fun, low-cost ($7-$9) plates like dumplings, fried vegetable chips, and beef tongue with a fried egg.
Chef Francesca Hong spent the summer honing the menu at 43 North and conveniently offers most dishes as small or large portions. The restaurant feels more relaxed now, though the food is anything but. Lots of cooking sous vide (water bath in airtight bags) means dishes come to the table prepared perfectly.
Hong's creativity pushes flavors to the outer limits of what is available in Madison, but even her simpler items can be stunners. Goat Stuffed Dates - stuffed with goat meat, not cheese - are an iconic appetizer. And the sweet-and-sour chicken wings with kimchi ranch dressing, paired with a snappy white wine, is an ideal happy-hour snack.
Longtime Tornado Steak House chef Andrew Lickel has left to run the kitchen at the handsome new Dudgeon-Monroe neighborhood spot Gates & Brovi. Former L'Etoile sous chef Ryan Klawitter has moved over to take the helm at the Tornado.
The change-up has been noticeable at the steakhouse, with accomplished specials appearing both at dinner and on the late-night menu. A recent New York strip with a wine and cognac sauce was classically French, the sauce rich and deeply satisfying.
Klawitter preserves the comfortable and familiar bent of the Tornado's enduring menu, while deepening and enlivening it. Expect great things.
It's worth adding that Tornado's Whiskey Tango Foxtrot cocktail was one of the first and best in the city to sport the newly available Templeton Rye Whiskey from Iowa. Templeton claims its recipe is an original Prohibition-era formula, favored by Al Capone. Even if it isn't, this is a superior small-batch rye with pleasing flavor. Substitute it for brandy in an Old Fashioned, or try the steakhouse's offering that mixes it with Averell Damson Plum Gin Liqueur and lemon.
Former Harvest chef Derek Rowe has popped-up in the kitchen at Nostrano, and the food execution there seems to have tightened even further as a result. A spot-on grilled octopus dish with harissa and tangerine oil is a good indicator of just how solid this kitchen is.
Osteria Papavero is the other restaurant that successfully prepares the tentacled sea-beast, but only occasionally in its specials. Of note to cheeseheads, chef Francesco Mangano ordered some 50 pounds of cheese direct from Italy, and the freshly herbed Tomini that he presented at a recent Terra Madre (Slow Food summit) fundraiser was life-changing. He has more Italian dairy in reserve, and it's making its way into the nightly menu.
At L'Etoile, new pastry chef Melinda Dorn is starting to dazzle as a result of what must be her increasing familiarity with local ingredients. A few desserts early on showed real promise, but were careful. That's changed with remarkable offerings like her Fantome Farm panna cotta with Wetherby cranberry compote and black pepper spice cake. The panna cotta is topped with a slightly caramelized meringue, and forms a decadent textural backdrop to crispy bits of savory cake. The herbaceous goat cheese flavor is fully present, and the dessert is compositionally fun, displaying both technique and whimsy. This is the work of a pastry chef hitting her stride.
Merchant has gone through a number of chefs and menu changes. Those in charge have continued to hunt for offerings that suit its customers' wide range of tastes and pocketbooks. All the effort looks to be paying off with new chef Michael Liotta. A solid list of classics like steak tartare, scallop risotto and "Chicken Under a Brick" are the welcome signs of stabilization.
Sample a standard entree like the red wine hanger steak, and the elements are impressive: potatoes are crisp, the steak is flavorful and tender, and the greens provide earthy balance. Whole-grain mustard is slathered liberally, which I assumed would be too acidic and punchy, but instead works as a delicious sauce. For $21, it's rightfully a popular plate.
Soon Liotta plans on serving a late-night brunch, 10 p.m.-1:30 a.m., seven days a week. This will be a boon to breakfast-food addicts, as longtime night-owl joint Willalby's has decided to deprive us of our evening egg fixes with its new, more traditional diner hours, 6 a.m.-1:30 p.m.