At Restaurant Muramoto, the raw quail egg rules the roost.
Let's be frank. The Easter Bunny ain't no religious figure. Yes, I know, there's a religious holiday right there in the name. Even though Coca-Cola may not have been involved with it, that bunny is about as theological as Santa Claus. You don't have to believe in squat to throw down some Peeps.
Easter is a pretty good eating holiday, in fact -- lamb, ham, raisin buns, and almost as much candy as Halloween. The Western world is awash in seafood leading into the holiday, as practicing Catholics swear off red meat for a month. Gastronomes with no such restrictions can buck the trend, or cruise along happily in the wake, snapping up various piscine restaurant specials and yes, sometimes Filet-O-Fish sandwiches.
There's one symbol of easterosity -- a concept I'm using in the spirit of Stephen Colbert's "truthiness" -- that crosses almost all demographic lines, and that's the egg. Children decorate 'em. Cadbury fills chocolate versions with an ultra-sweet yolk/albumen stand-in and wraps them in nigh-impregnable foil. In this season of eating, it's kind of a shame that there's so little focus on eating eggs themselves. I intend to remedy that with an Easter egg hunt by way of a bar crawl.
Cuisine hailing from the British Isles has a somewhat sketchy reputation in the States, at least. "Sludgy, dull, and starchy" about covers the litany of critiques, perhaps with a dash of "embarrassingly named" menu items -- spotted dick and wet nelly, anyone? I can attest that well-prepared British food is not nearly as bad or funky as we've been led to believe. This is definitely the case with the Scotch egg.
I like to describe the Scotch egg as a ball of breakfast. A hard-boiled egg is covered in ground sausage, then breaded and deep-fried. This crispy bomblet is often served with hot mustard. The caloric content gives it some bad press, and the smooshed-together nature of the recipe tends to inspire more consternation than it should. But the fact is, Scotch eggs are delicious.
Brocach Irish Pub is, by my appraisal, the only restaurant in town that serves Scotch eggs. It's not as if they're a challenge, but their presence on the menu only serves to make a pint of Guinness in Brocach's stony yet cozy atmosphere all the more appealing. A jar of Colman's Mustard, spicy and almost punishing to the sinuses, accompanies every Scotch egg served. The shell of breading is crunchy, egg and sausage make a rich and satisfying interior, and the mustard amplifies everything. Brocach will occasionally cook the eggs a little too long, and they can get dry and crumbly; as long as you're not fall-down drunk, picking up little pieces of deep-fried goodness is a small price to pay.
On this side of the pond, the concept of "bar food" has taken on a decidedly more composed and -- dare I say it -- polished persona. A Google search for "American bar food" brings up spinach and artichoke dip, nachos, and chicken wings. What happened to the risk? Where's the danger in mozzarella sticks? How can we as red-blooded Americans be expected to take advantage of our reduced inhibitions if there's nothing more dangerous than fried calamari on the menu? What happened to the pickled egg?
Most of us know pickled eggs as the things in the jar at Moe's Bar in The Simpsons. They just float there, a static punchline of inebriated cartoon foolishness. I'd bet that more people would take a chance on eating the worm in a bottle of mezcal than down a pickled egg, as there's just no positive pop culture value to the eggs. At least Milton's t-shirt at the end of Office Space mentions eating the worm. And I'm not sure I find a lot of fault in this knee-jerk reaction. I like hard-boiled eggs, and I like pickles. I might even like them at the same time. But in the same food item? Meh.
If there's one place in Madison that combines the friendly and quirky confines of a Midwestern corner bar and the hygienic assuredness of a good restaurant into just the kind of place where you could take a flyer on a pickled egg, it's The Old Fashioned. Nestled amongst the bottles of Korbel and house-infused blackberry brandy are two jars of pickled eggs, one regular and one spicy.
The unifying trait is that both varieties have been toughened by the pickling brine. The whites have been turned into a rubbery evil twin of a hard-boiled egg. Never have I eaten a cooked egg and thought, "this could stand to be tougher." The spicy variety, meanwhile, sticks to your gullet like napalm, a counter-intuitive reaction since vinegar can be used to cleanse capsaicin from the skin. One try is enough, though; I'm happy to leave these eggs in the jar.
The ultimate sign of egg respect is to let it stand on its own. This is alleged to be literally possible on the spring equinox, but in restaurant terms, the egg is rarely served solo. There's always cheese, or veggies, or some sort of interruption to its natural state. I love deep-frying, but if you're honest with yourself, you'll admit that you taste more breading and mustard than egg in the Scotch bomber. Pickling is nearly a war crime against the egg's natural environs. If you want egg, naked and proud, you gotta find it raw and in the buff.
I hear metaphoric tires squealing. Yes, raw eggs. "Salmonella!," you shriek. Well, sure, raw anything can pose a health hazard, and that includes carrots and spinach as well as eggs. But the inside of an egg is generally harmless -- although not entirely sterile, as had long been thought. It's the shell that can harbor the really nasty stuff. If you trust that the eggs have been handled carefully, washed thoroughly, and you aren't pregnant, elderly, or immuno-compromised, you can down a raw egg not only without fear but with great enjoyment. And I know that raw eggs are often cracked over piping hot bibimbap or ramen, but you see how that's cheating, right? It cooks the egg!
At Restaurant Muramoto, the raw quail egg rules the roost. These little jewels are served in two of its one-bite sakizuke, the Japanese equivalent of the amuse-bouche: the Kobe beef tartare and the oyster shooter. For the latter, a raw oyster comes in a small shot glass filled with ponzu soy sauce and one raw quail egg. It's buttery-smooth and not chewy at all, with the tartness of the vinaigrette juxtaposing the creaminess of the egg yolk. It's fantastic. The Kobe beef tartare is, as you might expect from the best of the world's beef, equally delicious. A small column of raw beef serves as the nest for one quail yolk. Tiny, complex, and entirely wonderful. It's a long way from the raw beef "cannibal sandwiches" made at my grandparents' house.
Whether you celebrate Easter or not, spring is the perfect time to indulge in a little egg cookery. There are any number of viable options, be they omelet or puff, souffle or quiche. Deep-fried is the way to go if you want to fight off a little drunkenness; when Kushi Bar Muramoto offers them, try the fried quail egg skewers. Pickled eggs might be the on-a-dare repast of someone in the joyous throes of said drunkenness. But my money's on the raw variety at Restaurant Muramoto, as often as I can get them. I don't even need to know the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars to find a good day to eat 'em.