Servers were extremely friendly at The Big Eat.
The Big Eat has been described as a smaller-scale Taste of Madison, but held indoors and with shorter lines. I guess that's pretty close. Another difference: It's an annual event put on by Isthmus, along with Madison's CW, Magic 98 and St. Mary's, to benefit Sweet Sophie's Restaurant and Catering. A curried parsnip and apple soup with parsnip chips was a knockout, and while it was the first food item I sampled, it stood out. It was sweet but not too sweet, and the crispy, salty parsnip chips set off the creamy soup. Sweet Sophie's other entree, French Toast Casserole, was also a welcome dab of comfort food.
The Willy Street Co-op always hits it out of the park for The Big Eat, and its Calabrian Braised Pork Shoulder on Fennel-Currant slaw continued that tradition. The slaw was actually my favorite part, quite tart, but with the sweeter currants to balance it out. Definitely a keeper for summer picnic season.
I wouldn't want to forget Artamos Meats and Deli, which featured an Indian-influenced turkey korma on couscous and a decadent sweet potato bisque (it gave the parsnip and apple soup from Sweet Sophie's some stiff competition). Mermaid Café spotlighted its house specialty, Caribbean carrot soup, which completed the root-vegetable soups on hand. Mermaid also featured two unusual shortbread cookies, a lavender and a spicy coco that held quite a kick.
Liliana's Restaurant brought a number of different canapés. Our table especially enjoyed the eggplant with red pepper coulis, and a fun salad canapé resting in a little endive leaf-bowl. A cassoulet from Sardine, with white beans, duck, lamb, and sausage, set off with frisée, was another very popular plate. Its sister restaurant, Marigold Kitchen, ran out of its potato rosties with cream before I had a chance to try one, but its shrimp cakes with remoulade were right on.
Africana and its fried plantain with red hot sauce were very popular with everyone I talked to, and its nem appetizers were so popular I again didn't get a chance to try them. I think Africana should bottle that hot sauce and sell it.
Athens Gyros of Westport is already one of my favorite spots on the north side. It spotlighted its gyros with homemade tsatsakis sauce. Ditto Captain Bill's, which highlighted its house clam chowder. And Taj Indian Restaurant showcased its chicken tikka masala, which won an award at last year's Taste of Madison.
This is when I started bogging down. I sampled cubes of vanilla cheddar, apple smoked cheddar and cranberry chipotle cheddar from Carr Valley Cheese. I had little tastes of tamales from and shrimp ceviche from La Mestiza. I missed out on ravioli and tiramisu from Tutto Pasta-State Street, reubens from Whole Foods, and many, many desserts from Monona Catering, , The Chocolate Shoppe. I did sample the wonderful vegan dark chocolates from Capital Brewery and its Maibock to drink, a sweet, nutty spring beer that managed to go well with the onslaught of cuisines I was pairing it with. If you were looking to mix your alcohols as well as your cuisines, Wollersheim Winery won the audience vote for "favorite beverages." Pepsi was also on hand with non-alcoholic waters and fruit juices.