The Badgers. The culture. The outdoor attractions. These are all good reasons to visit Madison, but my favorite reason is the food, and as a favorite family weekend destination, my family and I have eaten our way from Lake Mendota to Lake Monona.
For a town of less than a quarter million people, “Mad Town” could easily be called “Food Town,” as its food scene is as sophisticated as cities more than quadruple its size. For cutting-edge cuisine and local-centric culinary endeavors, there’s no better place to visit.
Part of the reason is the Dane County Farmers Market. Year-round, you can find fresh vegetables, cheeses, meats and more every Saturday, and in the summers, the country’s largest producers-only farmers market is held on the Capitol Square. You can spot many of the chefs in town, like James Beard award-winner Tory Miller, of L’Etoile and Graze, as they visit their favorite farmers early in the morning. Around the square you can find plenty of places to graze, too, including Fromagination, a local-centric cheese and gourmet shop.
A garden in the backyard of Grampa’s Pizzeria grows some of the herbs, edible flowers and vegetables that go into the cooking of Chef Gilbert Altschul. Housed in a completely remodeled former gun shop, the pizzeria sports a clean, modern vibe. Last time I was in town, I tried the Barberini: a tomato sauce base is topped with hot, hot calabrian chiles, creamy ricotta and garlic before being covered with watercress and drizzled with local honey. Hot, sweet and creamy, it was a treat. But while pizza may be the draw, the small plates and salads are equally stellar. Take the market salad. Colorful shaves of zucchini, squash and carrots are rolled up and interspersed with olives and the most delicate dairy orbs — chamomile yogurt that has been formed into spheres that burst into cream when your fork spears them. It’s the best example of molecular gastronomy integrated with regular cuisine I’ve ever seen. A great wine and craft beer list accompanies the menu, and one Monday each month, the chef hosts a wine dinner.
My family and I have also enjoyed memorable meals at the restaurants owned by James Beard Foundation Best Chef Midwest semifinalists John Gadau and Phillip Hurley: Gates & Brovi and Sardine. Gates & Brovi is aptly described as an “Italian-style fish house meets Wisconsin tavern.” I enjoyed a barrel-aged Manhattan with the night’s special, a fork-tender beef brisket, while my husband enjoyed his trout — until he had a slice of our son’s pepperoni and mushroom pizza. One slice led to another, and he would have finished the entire thing if he hadn’t already ordered the sea salt and caramel drizzled apple pie. The pie won first place at the Wisconsin State Fair, and with good reason — it was everything an apple pie should be.
A classic bistro, Sardine offers an enchanting setting on the banks of Lake Monona, and while the dinners are enchanting, the brunches are equally divine. Think crab, bacon and rock shrimp cakes with eggs, baked creamed eggs with gruyere and proscuitto, and delicate, fluffy waffles.
Another European-centric stop worthy to visit is Brasserie V, born of owners Matt and Andrea Van Nest’s love of French and Belgian cuisine. On my most recent visit, I loved my kale salad, but I just couldn’t stop eating the truffle oil and Parmigiano- Reggiano-laced frites.
Brasserie V is located just down Monroe Street from Orange Tree Imports. If you like browsing culinary stores, you’ll adore Orange Tree. This is the kind of store I get lost in — from the cookbooks to the culinary gadgets to the gourmet foods to the toy section — and most recently, I did. The store also features a small culinary school, and the very able staff can direct you to whatever gourmet implement you’re dreaming of. They easily helped me find some silicone baking liners and a box of Gail Ambrosius chocolates.
Gail Ambrosius is one of my favorite chocolatiers in the world, and her handcrafted dark chocolate gems are sold all over town. But if you have time, stop by her Atwood Avenue shop to personalize an assortment of exotic flavors like shiitake mushroom, jasmine tea and curry.
Another foodie must-stop if you’re a carnivore is The Underground Butcher. This food collective butchers meats, but it also has a classic, European-style charcuterie curing program. If you like fresh and cured sausages, this is the place to be. I liked the cured sausages so much that we stopped here a second time, just before leaving town, so I could pick up some steaks and fresh sausages to try back home. The boar pepperoni and Tuscan salami are new favorites.
While the Underground Butcher was my favorite non-restaurant food experience, my husband loved the House of Brews. Located in an industrial park, the House of Brews is unassuming, but its beers are anything but. As what is perhaps the country’s very first CSB or Community Supported Brewery, it’s an unusual concept. Like a CSA, you pay upfront, and you get a share of beers either weekly or monthly. Though my husband pronounced each beer stellar, the real winner was the Rickhouse Stout, aged in whiskey barrels. “Wow,” he said after the first sip. He still talks about that brew, months later.
House of Brews was definitely fun, but Death’s Door Distillery, in nearby Middleton, was eye-opening. Though you have to call to arrange tours — or visit the website for group tour dates and events — this craft spirits company is worth a tour to learn how they source organic ingredients from family farms throughout the state. At the end, samples of vodka, gin and white whiskey are available, but I also got to taste the new Kringle Cream and Wondermint liqueurs.
Foodie visits require food-centric hotels. I most recently stayed at two different hotels: the classic Campus Inn and the new boutique Hotel Red.
At the Campus Inn, my family and I stayed in a very plush and luxuriously appointed suite. One of the gourmet draws is the nightly-offered treat, an amazing (and complimentary) dessert buffet in the Chancellor’s Club. Breakfast is also free. Sipping a cocktail (made with local ingredients) on the patio is an ideal way to relax, too.
At Hotel Red, we stayed in a posh, modern suite with kitchenette and patio that was easily the size of the first floor of my house. The hip Wise bar dishes out meals and small plates, but I most enjoyed my chamomile-infused gin drink, the Honey Bee, which was beautifully garnished with edible flowers.
In the future, I might stay at the $100 million- remodeled Edgewater Hotel, where new Chef Thomas Welther will be creating modern, American cuisine with local ingredients. This can be the base for my next foodie adventure in Madison.
This article originally appeared in the 2014 fall/winter issue of Experience Wisconsin magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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