If I was limited to one meal a day, in Madison, I'd choose lunch. And if I was limited to one dish, it would be the sandwich. That's because Madison has mastered the sandwich in all its glorious forms, so you never have to seriously consider that inglorious, microwaved (ding!) Subway loofah. If you want a great pane, wrapped in wood-baked ciabatta bread, go to Pizza Brutta. If you're hungry for a classic croque monsieur, smoked turkey or (when it's on the menu) a fantastic crab salad sandwich, head to Brasserie V. If you're itchy for Yiddish taam, get the Gotham's lox and cream cheese on the only good sesame seed bagel in town. All of Marigold's lunches - especially the chutney chicken salad on toasted bun - are little marvels.
And if you actually want to do some work and make your own sublime cheese sandwich, Fromagination is the cheesy epicenter. In fact, this artisanal cheese shop on the Square should be a Wisconsin landmark. Its thoughtful range of Wisconsin cheeses (from Carr Valley black sheep truffle to Edelweiss Creamery's Emmentaler, Roelli Cheese's Dunbarton Blue, Dream Farm's chevre; the list goes on and on) is like a running salute to Dairyland's, well, dairyness, and its signature dish.
But if you don't want to go to all that taxing trouble of constructing your own hoagie, the sweetly stinky treasure box of a shop offers another feature: prepared takeout sandwiches. Are they worth the trip, when a trip around the Square offers so many other lunch options? Well, not at first bite. And that's for a simple reason. Fromagination's sandwiches are premade and refrigerated, so what you'll be handed, already wrapped to go, is a chilly torpedo. And if you bite into that torpedo too quickly you'll mostly taste a jangle of harsh, frigid flavors and arctic bread. It's not exactly a meat popsicle, but it's a lot colder than a good sandwich should be.
The crucial trick is to let them sit for at least 10 or 15 minutes, so the flavors can breathe and come back into their own. And then most of these sandwiches blossom.
The best of the current bunch (new sandwiches come and go) include two sandwiches that rival any in town. The salami and Wisconsin (of course) provolone cheese, laid over a giardiniere of oil-cured olives, capers, pepperoncini, lemon zest and olive oil, all packed into a crusty Madison sourdough French baguette, is as good as it sounds. Like the better Fromagination sandwiches, this is simpler than it reads because the ingredients all harmonize perfectly, so each bite is a whirl of totally coherent flavors. Just as good is a Nueske's smoked chicken breast, cut into velvety slices, paired with blue cheese, lettuce, chives and Wisconsin cheddar, and packed into that crunchy baguette again.
What else works well? The Nueske's smoked turkey breast on walnut bread with cranberry relish and Camembert tastes like a mouthful of Thanksgiving. And a rustic roll sandwich stuffed with ham, Wisconsin Fontina cheese and a scoop of daikon slaw, carrots and red onion could do without the onions but pops with flavor after the slaw warms up. I'm a lot less taken with the roast beef with creamy horseradish, pickled onions and Swiss cheese, if only because the thin slices of beef get washed out by those bigger accents. And, oddly, the veggie sandwich is a bust. Why stick to cheddar when you have a shopful of more interesting, unexpected choices?
For an extra $1.50 (sandwiches alone are $7.50) you get kettle chips and a chocolate square, but the waxy Ghirardelli square isn't worth it. If you're really bent on a big finish to lunch, I'd get the Lindt hazelnut mousse bars or Lane's feathery, autumnal pumpkin cookies.
Raphael Kadushin's feature story on Marrakech appears in the October issue of Condé Nast Traveler, and his posts on eating everywhere appear on Epicurious.com.