When I wrote about my favorite bites of 2009 for Isthmus' year-end dining roundup, the exercise triggered an inevitable digression. I started thinking about the dishes I return to consistently as my fail-proof Madison meals.
In their own way, these constant personal favorites have become my own little pantheon of local classics, and the answer to the question any food writer gets asked a lot: What is the plate that won't disappoint? Everyone, of course, will have his or her own list, but here is mine, an addition to the items I mentioned back in December (those included Gotham Bagel's lox sandwich, Pizza Brutta's panini, and the understated pasta plates chef Derek Rowe is dishing up at Harvest).
1. Wasabi, which too often gets overlooked now that slicker sushi houses have opened, is still my perennial go-to restaurant because it simply serves the best sushi in town. That's partly because Wasabi's sushi chefs understand two things: that the best sushi starts with the rice (and the rice here is moist without being wet, always tightly rolled, and never overwhelming) and that even the most creative maki has to be coherent.
An ongoing favorite roll is the kitchen's double trouble - a roll of spicy shrimp topped by a complementary crown of spicy tuna. But it's the impeccable super Cali that really proves what the sushi chefs here can do. This definitive roll is stuffed with spicy crab, cucumber and tempura crunch, and then topped by tuna, salmon, super white tuna, avocado and roe. That sounds like a busy mouthful, but this is such a perfectly composed, thoughtful roll that it tastes seamless.
2. Despite increasingly sloppy sushi marred by an excess of gummy rice, Sushi Muramoto still takes pride of place at Hilldale's restaurant row for its consistently creative ambition. Miso-marinated black cod is hard to ruin, but Muramoto gets credit for doing a superlative job of balancing the firm, sweet flesh of the black cod and that echoing rim of even sweeter miso glaze. Just as good is the shrimp tempura, served with asparagus and a very seductive spicy mayonnaise, and the meltingly tender beef ribeye in a sake-soy butter sauce that satisfies meat cravings better than most steakhouses in town.
3. Lombardino's gets unwavering credit for taking a serious approach to Italian cooking, in a town that too often offers a lazy, predictable take on one of the world's best cuisines. Chef Patrick O'Halloran continues to challenge himself and his deservedly packed dining room with creative, authentic renditions of regional Italian dishes. There is always something notable on the frequently changing seasonal menus, but even basic, recurring dishes get the serious respect they deserve.
Take the anything-but-standard spaghetti Bolognese, which is always cooked perfectly al dente here (a small victory in itself) and topped with a complex sauce distinguished by locally sourced pork and beef.
4. Sardine does a lot of things well. The kitchen's skate wing in a lemon caper butter sauce is as good as it sounds. And the crispy chicken livers are a real salute to inner organs, lifted by a mustard prune sauce that redeems the too-often slighted prune.
But it's the peerless duck confit salad that rates a weekly reservation. Like any good dish, this one layers flavor and texture; the shredded duck gets tossed with snapping green beans, crunchy homemade potato chips, tomatoes, lardons, frisée and a big poached egg that leaks sunny yolk over the whole perfect mound.
5. The Tornado's steaks are as good as any in town, but its Friday perch special is better than all the other fish fries around. That's because the sweet perch are pan-fried, so that the very light, softly crunchy batter never overtakes the fish, and because the sauce of lemon, thyme, shallots and white wine turns the dish into something buttery and elegant.
One other thing to note: The price of these dishes averages out to about $15 - some are a bit more and some are a lot less - so eating well in Madison doesn't mean eating expensively.