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Madison, Wisconsin: Meat, Cheese, Repeat

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Never have I seen such a seductive town as Madison, Wisconsin. Nope, not New Orleans, not New York, but this capital city between two lakes in the northern Midwest, renowned simultaneously for educational research and drinking prowess, tempered by what is at times unbearably frigid weather (but that can be fun, too—who gets a “snow day” in grad school?). Yes, as a double graduate of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I have watched time and again an eye-rolling high schooler dragged on an admissions tour by her alumni parents (a gleam in their eye so bright with nostalgia they’re practically planning another toga party) only to watch that student show up the next day with the same wide smile and a bright red UW Badger hat, exclaiming, “This place is awe-some!!” Legendary UW football coach Barry Alvarez said when recruiting athletes he just had to take them down State Street, the pedestrian-only main drag that connects the capital building to the campus, populated with restaurants, bars, and shops. The city takes care of the rest.

But yes, Madison can be serious, too. The university is highly respected for its (almost 100) research departments—in the news recently for embryonic stem cell breakthroughs—and in 2007 the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that 57 of its disciplines were in the top ten in scholarly productivity, which placed it second after the University of California–Berkeley. Coincidentally, Madison’s dedicated political activism has earned it the nickname “the Berkeley of the Midwest.” Its population is eclectic, with students from around the world—Ethiopians and Indians mixing with a farm kid from Prairie du Chien 100 miles away. Not surprisingly, the food has moved beyond bratwurst and cheese curds (though always prominent on menus), and, for its size, Madison is a contender for progressive and varied cuisine, but yes, those deep-fried, down-home goodies should probably get us to the gym a little more often.

Can you see the capital? Kind of surprised more houses aren’t painted red and white school colors.

One really cannot do a post about Wisconsin without discussing cheese curds (pictured at very top, left, with onion rings and five dipping sauces… naturally) and Sheboygan bratwurst (above), both at the Old Fashioned, specializing in all things Wisconsin.

Um, we like beer here.

I’d say Nick is ready for another Wisconsin tradition: Friday fish fry.

The Saturday farmer’s market around the capital is always bustling.

Hook’s cheese—famous for its aged cheddar—is sold throughout the country. Cheese curds sold out!

Great name. Plus, jerky, people.

Note the Green Bay Packers jacket on the baby. We start ‘em young.

No corn syrup in lady-shaped containers here—only the good stuff!

A major market attraction: the Hot & Spicy Cheese Bread from Stella’s Bakery, which, don’t you worry, can be mail-ordered. Just clear your schedule for any other carbs that month.

If the market’s not on, head across the street to Fromagination for cheese, gifts, and more.

After a good night of drinking, there’s only one place to go: Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry for burgers.

Did I mention we like beer?

There are two separate but equal ways to approach the hangover…

The Heart Throb: pepper jack cheese, bacon, and new signature sauce (chimichurri-like)

Stanley’s Blue Ribbon: ranked number one at the annual employee cook-off, it’s made with cream cheese, BBQ sauce, and an onion ring. Yowza.

We walked off lunch with a stroll to the unusually quiet Memorial Union Terrace overlooking Lake Mendota.

I do love that Wisconsin doesn’t take itself too seriously. Plus, we have a lot of material to work with.

For anyone who knows about the Wisconsin-Illinois rivalry, “F.I.B.” does not stand for “Fine Italian Beef.”

A favorite guilty pleasure, and all-time best seller, around these parts: the mac n’ cheese slice from Ian’s Pizza.

One more stop on the meat train: I cannot visit Madison without a pepper steak at Tornado Room, an old-school clubby steak house. And how can you not love a place with a sign like this? They should hand you a martini just for entering.

First up, Wisconsin-size breadsticks. (No surprise, that butter was dangerously good.)

The choice of soup or salad, as well as a side dish, comes with each steak dinner (heads nod approvingly in the Wisconsin tradition of value-added meals). Try the Caesar or wedge salads.

An 8 oz. filet with an onion ring and local beets

Pepper steak with Cognac-cream sauce and Wisconsin-size hash browns (yes, I ate salads for a week before this trip).

The next day we wanted to cleanse ourselves of the cheese and meat binge, so we ventured to Graze for lunch. L’Etoile has long been the “fancy dining” option on the capital, and Graze gastropub is its latest addition, both with brand new glass walls facing the capital building.

Chef Tory Miller (with stints at NYC’s Eleven Madison Park and Judson Grill) carries on food pioneer and former L’Etoile chef Odessa Piper’s beliefs in the importance of sourcing ingredients from nearby farms; one wall spotlights a local farmer.

I really, really wanted to like Graze, but I have to admit I left disappointed. Here, the Bún: grilled halibut and gulf shrimp, rice noodles, spring vegetables, peanuts, cilantro, mint, chili-lime vinaigrette. The vinaigrette was so heavy on lime that I’m sorry to say household cleaner came to mind.

Andrew enjoyed his falafel po’ boy with iceberg lettuce, tomato, cucumber, onion, and tahini rémoulade. I liked the idea, but it was a lot of bread. Perhaps a pita would have worked better?

Since I only ate about half of my Bún, I ordered a grilled cheese (so much for the cleanse) to fill up before our afternoon flight, but the Hook’s cheese wasn’t fully melted, the bread had little heft, and it simply fell flat.

On the bright side, it made me realize how good the grilled cheese was (with a satisfying side of roasted tomato soup) at the Coopers Tavern a couple days before:

Plus, how could you not love the “snug room” here? That’s the bartender peeking through our window to deliver drinks and food.

This is basically city wallpaper. Thanks for the memories, Bucky!

Other recommended restaurants—have you been?:
[New] Underground Food Collective, Nostrano, Merchant (great cocktails)
L’Etoile
Sardine
Greenbush Bar (pizza)
Eldorado Grill (Texas Torpedoes)
The Blue Marlin (seafood)
Weary Traveler (Bob’s -organic- Bad Breath Burger)
Mickies Dairy Bar (Scrambler and a milkshake)

Other “Weekend” Posts:
Napa Valley
Cabo San Lucas
Day trip: Tijuana
San Diego
Portland, Oregon
Los Angeles
Palm Springs and Joshua Tree
Milwaukee (Yes, Milwaukee!)

May. 19 2011 |
  1. chip engman

    I think Madison needs a new PR director…especially for the eats the city has to offer. Any candidate we know?!
    Great reporting…makes me want to get on the plane to Madison tomorrow.
    C

  2. LiztheChef

    My husband is a cheesehead and spent undergrad and med school years as a Badger – also rowed crew…Madison is a great, great place. When I show him your terrific post he will be ready for another trip “home” – me too! Lovely shots – and I’m hungry!

  3. oliver

    i’m dreaming of a new glarus spotted cow in a bucky pint glass

    on wisconsin

  4. Babs from Monona

    I love Coopers! If you are as lucky enough to run into Peter and Tim, you can order off the menu. Some of the combinations they come up with are out of this world…..if you can get them to make boxty with coddle, you are in for a real treat.

    Perhaps Jane didn’t have time to eat / drink at some of the true “best of Madison” spots….but not to be ignored is The Great Dane. Perhaps one of the best establishments for micro-brewed libations and people watching. Or Sardines….a wonderful place for brunch overlooking Lake Monona. Both true gems in Madison.

  5. jane

    Hi Babs — thanks for the tips on Coopers!
    You’re so right about Sardine, I forgot that one, and have added it above to recommended places.
    I’m not sure if I agree about Great Dane’s pub food, but I always loved a good game of shuffleboard there. :)
    Thanks again for commenting!

  6. DanO

    Great photos and they made me hungry and stuffed at the same time.

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