This time of year, when the ground is frozen and the Farmers' Market is reduced to selling mostly hope, there is a surprise culinary bright spot - the noodle bowl. This is its season.
Whether you're returning hungry from skiing or sick and in need of a little love in a ladle, no food is more comforting or better for reviving the senses than noodles in steaming broth or stock. Here are a few of the best slurps among Madison's ever-expanding options.
Ramen mania has been gripping both coasts for a few years now, and Madison is lucky enough to catch the wave with the arrival of Umami. This little house on Williamson serves gratifying versions of tonkotsu (pork), shoyu (soy) and miso ramen using noodles from RP's Pasta. What style you choose depends entirely on your flavor preferences.
In winter, I enjoy the thicker liquid and soft mouthfeel of the miso ramen ($11). This style hails originally from Hokkaido and incorporates corn kernels to deliciously nutty and sweet effect. Because Sapporo is the capitol of Hokkaido prefecture, miso ramen also pairs perfectly with a draft pour of the beer from that city.
For an offering that's short on complexity but long on freshness, Ha Long Bay offers Mi Rau Cai ($7), an egg noodle vegetable soup. Although the restaurant also serves pho (pronounced fuh) and egg noodle bowls with a variety of meats, this veggie version is the star. A generous plate of fresh Thai basil, bean sprouts, jalapeÃo and lime arrives alongside a huge bowl of bright green peapods, broccoli and napa cabbage. The soup also contains tofu, mushrooms, baby corn and carrots. Add a little soy sauce and Sriracha and this cheap option becomes one of Madison's best.
Dumpling Haus in Hilldale Mall serves a similarly straightforward Haus Noodle Soup ($9). While it requires a little work because the meat is still on small bones, I like this superb bowl with pork rather than beef. There is plenty of bok choy, green onion and ginger to add life, and the broth is both richly complex and subtly balanced. The noodles at Dumpling Haus are thinner than Japanese-style udon but thicker than ramen, and are similar to what might be in a Western chicken noodle soup - pillowy while still toothy.
If you enjoy thick udon noodles, Wasabi makes a clean, high-quality version of Nabeyaki udon ($10.50). However, it is Takara's Nebe udon ($13) that reigns supreme. Served in a blisteringly hot iron pot that looks like it's been dredged up from a shipwreck, this noodle bowl is a sight to behold: crab, chicken, cabbage, broccoli, enoki mushrooms and egg fill the crock, while two long crispy tempura shrimp are perched atop the rim. The vegetables are slightly charred before being immersed in broth, and every slurp is infused with the taste of high heat. It is relatively expensive, but worth the splurge for the flavorful extravaganza.
For something less pricey, Wah Kee's ginger, scallion and wonton noodle ($7) is a Madison classic that's still appealing and filling. Wah Kee makes its own noodles, and provides decent value even though the broth is a little thin and salty.
Get better value for the quality at the west side's Saigon Noodle. Here $7 gets you a huge bowl of pho with a plate of purple Thai basil, jalapeÃo, bean sprouts and lots of juicy lime wedges. Pho is a beef broth with rice noodles that can come with a choice of protein, including tripe and tendon. The most approachable is likely to be #16: steak, flank and meatball.
The broth at Saigon is rich with melded flavors ranging from deeply beefy to slightly spicy and sour. Bad pho is identifiable by, among other things, the sense that someone dumped in Chinese Five Spice powder at the last minute. It's worth trying Saigon's broth to get an idea what a good stock should be like.
Finally if, like me, you get noodle fever at odd hours - say, late night or during brunch - two notable choices are Graze and Natt Spil. Graze uses Wah Kee's noodles and employs its formidable kitchen to create a beautifully mannered lunch/brunch ramen noodle bowl ($10). That exquisite version contains colorful shaved red radishes, a soft poached egg, seaweed and skillfully cooked pork shoulder and belly.
By contrast, Natt Spil's Duck Duck Soup ($4/$7) is a fast, cheap and tasty blast of egg noodles from RP's with thin slices of duck resting on top. If friends or family are arriving late after having missed connecting flights, or you just need an evening pick-me-up yourself, this is the noodle bowl. Available until 1 a.m.