Friday, April 23, 2010

A Week in Wisconsin

She Who Must Be Obeyed and I returned Wednesday from what has become an annual spring trip to Madison and Racine, Wisconsin.

In recent years, the Madison part of the visit coincided with opening day for the Dane County Farmers' Market around the state capitol building. It also coincided with some early tulips, as seen in photo at right.

The pickings were slim last Saturday, as should be expected since spring in Madison is about two weeks behind Philadelphia. Cheese, of course, was plentiful, as was its sibling, curds, which only Wisconsinites and those seeking poutines can appreciate. Meats were available, and plenty of baked goods, but produce was largely limited to some greenhouse and root cellar items. Even with a paucity of produce, however, a trip to the market in Madison is always worthwhile.

The culinary highlight in Madison for us was a new restaurant, Cooper's Tavern on the north side of Capitol Square. It's billed as an Irish pub, but it's a lot better than that. (Though the one pub item I tasted was disappointing. More on that later.)

Beer is essential for any pub and Cooper's doesn't disappoint. They didn't have one of my fav Wisconsin brews, Spotted Cow, so I opted for its stylistic equivalent, Lake Louie Cream Ale. Tasty, but I still prefer the unfiltered Spotted Cow. Overall a lot of nice choices both on tap and in bottles: not an overwhelming number of beers like you'd find at Monk's but a broad selection to satisfy just about any craving. Speaking of Monk's, their Flemish Sour Ale, made in Belgium, made the draft list; Victory and Dogfish were represented among the bottles.

Bone Marrow!

For food I could not resist the veal bone marrow appetizer, a longitudinally sliced femur of fine fat. The lengthwise butchering of the bone made it easy to spread the marrow on points of pumpernickel. The whole dish was made even better by half a dozen cloves of roasted garlic to add even more depth to the marrow flavor.

With my diet blown between the marrow and the beer I went with a bowl of bacon-studded cabbage soup as my second and last course. Not exactly a diet dish, but no carbs beyond the cabbage's. It was a rich, vegetable soup that I'd gladly consume on a cold winter's eve.

My companions (SWMBO and Executive Chef Tim Larsen's mom, Marlette) went for the sliders, a salad and the cottage pie

SWMBO's sliders were made high quality meat and served on small rolls that seemed to be a cross between brioche and biscuit, accompaied by hand-made potato chips hot from the fryer. Her salad, one of four on the menu, was spinach with crunchy, sweet and savory accents provided by brandied cranberries,
walnuts, pear, apple, and crisped goat cheese in a balsamic vinaigrette.

The cottage pie was a bit odd on two counts. First, it wasn't cottage pie. Where shepherd's pie is traditionally made with minced lamb, cottage pie is beef. This cottage pie, however, was made from lamb. And it wasn't really a pie at all, or even a casserole where the meat and veggies form the bottom layer topped by mashed potatoes. Instead, this was a large lump of the potatoes topped and lamb and gravy. Certainly satisfying, according to Marlette, but not what I would have expected.

Highlights of the appetizers I intend to try on future visits include house made soft pretzels (strictly to compare with the Philadelphia version) served with a Belgian beer-Dubliner cheese dip; twice-fried Belgian fries (also done as poutine with gravy and curds); and, rounding out the appetizers, a take on Scotch egg using a local bratwurst patty as the wrapper. Among the sandwiches (all the popular meats plus burger, the latter accented with a couple strips of pork belly rather than bacon), I'd opt for the lamb on sourdough with tomato jam, caramelized onions and provolone. For an entree, I've definitely have to try the Pork Belly Mac with porter-glazed fresh bacon, Dubliner cheddar mac and cheese and baguette. Fish and chips, curried chicken (British style), goat cheese polenta and bourbon salmon with cranberries, truffled mushrooms, mashed and veggies are also on the entree list.

The lunch menu is pretty similar, less the entrees.

Coopers Tavern has only been open for a couple of months and still has kinks to work out: the server screwed up the order of service and, of course, blamed it on the kitchen. Tim wasn't in the kitchen, since we met him outside leaving as we were entering; my guess is he wouldn't be amused no matter where the failure originated. Still, that wouldn't keep me from returning. Larsen has created a something for everyone gastro pub menu that would be admired for both creativity and execution anywhere.

The following night we dined with an old friend of SWMBO, Jerry Minnich who long held tenure as the restaurant review for Isthmus, Madison's alternative newspaper. (Then again, everything in Madison is alternative; it's like Ithaca with a state capital thrown in.) Jerry took us to Bandung, a local Indonesian restaurant where he's a regular.

To start we shared an order of Otak-Otak, a fish cake grilled in banana leaf served with a spicy garlic peanut sauce. I would have eaten two orders myself: clean fish flavor and great texture set off nicely by the sauce. Jerry and SWMBO selected Krakatoa as their mains, a sizzling platter of lightly battered chicken breast (you could also get shrimp or tempeh) served on a bed of steamed veggies and bean sprouts with garlic sauce. Back to my diet, I ordered a bowl of Asse Cabe, shredded chicken attop soft mung bean noodles, lemon grass and jalapenos served in a candle nut and sweet soy sauce.

Bandung also offers a rikstaffel daily.


On to Racine, a city that until recently had more Danes than any other in the world save Copenhagen. And where there are Danes there's Danish.

The highest expression of the baker's art in Racine is the Kringle, the oval pastry pictured here at Bendtsten's. They come in myriad flavors, though the most popular for very good reason is the pecan; my favorite, though, is the almond macaroon.

Bendtsten's is one of three bakeries in Racine known for their kringle (the others are O&H and Larsen's), and each has their partisans. I'm in Bendtsten's camp. Maybe it's the 1920s era oven shown here. More likely is the fact that while the other bakers introduce vegetable shortening to their pastry, at Bendsten's is strictly butter, and lots of it. Whether you get one of the smaller single-serving pastries, a large kringle or any of their other goodies, Bendsten's has what my in-laws admitted is a flavor that "is how kringles used to taste".

Which is not to say that you should pass by the other bakeries. If cke is your thing, Larsen's is tops, especially their Danish layer cake, a soft yellow cake with raspberry filling and a luscious butter cream icing. Over at O&H, SWMBO adores the poppyseed sweet rolls (your basic Danish pastry). However, at O&H's Danish Uncle specialty store I make a beeline for the deli counter where I order the rollepølse, a brined, pressed lamb cold cut. Two pounds are now sitting in my home freezer.

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