Best of Show 2014

Best of Show 2014
Panna cotta with fresh berries at A Pig in a Fur Coat last July.

I sort of made a New Year’s resolution that I wouldn’t do an end-of-year blog post, but like most such declarations, I’m going to break it. I’m not even sure what my resistance to doing it was. Perhaps it’s the inundation that these annual inventories have become, or the general pervasiveness of lists throughout the year in BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Thrillist and other electronic media. Obviously a concise, numerically ordered list is easy to read on one’s cell phone.

Rather than focus on the best new restaurants, new dishes or new chefs, I was briefly tempted to write about the worst new restaurants, new dishes and so forth. It would surely have attracted more notice (not to mention comments), but I’ll leave that to someone else.

Instead, I want to recall what was best for me about last year, at least when it comes to eating and drinking. I’m a little late—2015 has already given me lots of food for thought, but here are my ruminations about the past year.

Bang Bang Sauce
It’s a real epiphany: so simple, yet why didn’t someone think of this sooner? It’s pretty much equal portions of mayo, sriracha and Thai sweet chili sauce, but you can adjust the ratio to suit your taste. It makes a tasty condiment, especially for seafood or anything fried. It certainly runs circles around ketchup or cocktail sauce.

Branston Pickle
The past year was when I finally gave in and watched Downton Abbey (the first four seasons in ten days). When it comes to books, movies or TV shows that grip everyone else, I too often feel obligated to resist the lure. Inevitably, though, I give in and am hooked. After watching all that Edwardian drama, it was equally inevitable I would crave English cooking. (Only someone who is British born or has spent considerable time there will understand this.) Consequently, I was reacquainted with an old friend, Branston Pickle. A sort of chutney, it’s made from all sorts of vegetables, malt vinegar, dates, apples and spices and is just perfect with cold meats or aged cheddar—or, as the back of the jar suggests “in a cheese sandwich.”

Caramel and Salt Ice Cream
So often opposites attract, and in this case, it’s sweet and salty. The first time I encountered this seemingly odd couple was many years ago at Paris’s Maison Berthillon, one of the world’s premier ice cream emporiums. The caramel au beurre salé is one of its most iconic and popular flavors, made with caramel candies sprinkled with coarse sea salt. I think just because it sounded a bit strange was what attracted me to trying it. The end result was serendipitous. Fortunately I don’t have to travel to France to enjoy this treat. Several national ice cream companies have embraced the flavor, as have Chocolate Shoppe, Sassy Cow Creamery and Purple Door.

Heritage Tavern
I’ve loved this place since the day it opened late in 2013. Chef Dan Fox has taken the locally sourced concept to the next level with his personal relationship with his purveyors and by raising his own heritage hogs. Probably more importantly, as a chef he has mastered the use of flavor, color and texture. His menu is constantly intriguing without getting weird; the restaurant’s setting is stylish without being fussy. From craft cocktails to decadent desserts, Heritage Tavern always makes for a remarkable evening that doesn’t break the bank. It gets my vote for Best Restaurant in Madison.

It’s not that I didn’t like bourbon before (hey, I was born in Kentucky, and that would be heresy), it’s just I favored other alcoholic beverages more—gin, Scotch whiskey and even vodka. I’ve come to appreciate bourbon as a complex flavor: a bit smoky with a taste of molasses. The problem with bourbon is what some people do with it—like make mint juleps or an overly sweetened old fashioned. Where it is made, it’s best enjoyed with just a splash of branch—limestone water—that’s said to bring out its true character. That’s not to say it cannot be used in a cocktail. It certainly makes a great Manhattan.

Violet Beauregard
People always ask me to name my favorite restaurant. My answer depends upon the criteria used. I do know my most beloved restaurant is Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. Its cuisine is eternally memorable and never becomes boring; modern yet with a nod to revered Creole traditions. Equally attractive to me is its history and that of its owners, the Brennan family. The staff seemingly have endless stories to tell and service is with a panache you’ll only find in New Orleans. Commander’s Palace is frequently an inspiration for my own cooking … and drinking. Last year I stumbled upon a new cocktail invented there, the Violet Beauregard, made with bourbon, a fresh blueberry syrup and a garnish of sage (see the recipe below).

Maraschino Cherries
I loved them as a kid. After all, they came on top of ice cream sundaes and made fizzy drinks a Shirley Temple. As an adult discovering how they are made—cherries bleached white and then embalmed with a chemical brine of preservatives, artificial coloring and flavoring—they seem sort of silly at best. With the craft cocktail movement, real maraschino cherries have arrived on our shores. Made from marasca cherries, a popular brand is Italy’s Luxardo. Its primary product is maraschino liqueur, made from the sour cherries and their crushed pits which give it a distinctive almond flavor. Luxardo Maraschino Cherries are deep red and preserved in a heavy syrup flavored with maraschino liqueur. The only thing I don’t like about them is their price—about eighteen bucks a jar!

Door County Fruit
Speaking of cherries, obviously in Wisconsin they are synonymous with our favorite summer vacation destination. But a couple of years ago, I discovered Door County apples and peaches—yes peaches! Local produce constantly trumps that brought in from afar, but I was actually amazed how good these peaches were—probably because of my southern upbringing and prejudice. Still, Door County fresh cherries are a special treat and I’m constantly looking for new ways to enjoy them. As a substitute for the expensive Luxardo Maraschino Cherries, fill a glass jar with a lid full of washed and pitted sweet red cherries (leave the stems on if that’s an option). Then, fill the jar to the brim with Luxardo maraschino liqueur, cover and store in the refrigerator. They get better the longer they sit! 

Metro Market
It’s not the biggest supermarket to ever open here. In fact, those who are used to having a choice of every major brand available might be disappointed. That said, it is a large store with incredible selection especially when it comes to its specialty items, service seafood and meat counters, large in-store bakery and an ever larger deli. As is the trend with grocery stores today, there’s a plethora of prepared foods to go—everything from a barbecue to gelato. I’ve never been in a store where so much attention and expense was spent on the lighting to showcase its wares. When it comes to boutique ice cream brands, Metro Market has the Madison market cornered with the likes of McConnell’s from Santa Barbara, Graeter’s from Cincinnati and, perennially at the top of everyone’s “Best Ice Cream” list, Steve’s from Brooklyn. It may not be Wegmans, but it’s a nice addition to shopping options.

Panna Cotta
I love all types of creamy custards—crème brûlée, crème caramel, flan and panna cotta. Unlike the others, panna cotta usually doesn’t contain eggs, but cream and milk thickened with a little bit of gelatin. Traditionally, it is served with fresh berries or fruit, as was the spectacular version this past summer at A Pig in a Fur Coat (the wintertime preparation includes honey, figs, caramel and white chocolate). Of all the licentious desserts I devoured this past year, this panna cotta was simply one of the most satisfying.

Grampa’s Pizzeria and Salvatore’s Tomato Pies
Just when you think there’s not room for another pizza joint, there is. Both of these restaurants explore pizza beyond sausage and pepperoni. Farm-to-table ingredients combined in ingenious ways on a crust that is no afterthought and make for exceptionally delicious pizza. As serious as both their efforts are, they have put back the fun in eating pizza for me.

Sometimes more new restaurants mean just more of the same. Tory Miller’s latest endeavor is a pan-Asian café like no other place in town. Classic Asian dishes inspire the eclectic and sometimes exotic offerings that are all deftly constructed from locally sourced ingredients. The vibe is east-side hipster and Sujeo has quickly settled in as a popular neighborhood hangout for lunch, dim sum brunch on weekends and dinner.

La Taguara
I’ve never been to Venezuela, but surely the fare at this simple café must be Venezuelan home cooking at its best. Soulful helpings piled high on your plate make a great alternative to franchise fast food. Even the least adventurous Sconnie should find solace here with a wide assortment of fried appetizers, bottled beers and main courses that are flavorful but not spicy.

Underground Butcher
This has become one of my favorite haunts and not just because it’s a couple of block from my house. (This is certainly the first time I’ve experienced the joy of having a neighborhood butcher.) I go there often, not just for the fine meats and personal service, but for all the many other things they sell: artisan cheese, barbecued brisket on Wednesdays, house-made condiments, pickles, jams and even baked goods. There are a few cooking knickknacks, some local produce and a small-but-always-tempting selection of wine. Fortunately, a long time ago I figured out it’s all about quality and not quantity.

Cheddar Crackers
I am unashamedly addicted to these little crackers made at Underground Butcher. My only complaint is they sell out all too frequently. Made with Hook’s two-year-old cheddar, they are nothing less than fabulous and put Cheez-Its to shame! I hope I don’t later regret further spreading their fame.

Promises Yet Fulfilled
Several new restaurants in the works for some time, including 1847 Stamm House, Julep and midwestern, hopefully will open in 2015. Stay tuned.

RECIPE: The Violet Beauregard Cocktail


3 fresh sage leaves
2 ounce bourbon
Lemon wedge, juiced
3/4 ounce blueberry simple syrup*


Shake the bourbon, lemon juice and blueberry syrup over ice in a cocktail shaker. Strain into a chilled cocktail and garnish with sage

*Combine 1 cup sugar, 1 cup boiling water and 1cup fresh blueberries (or defrosted frozen blueberries) in a large glass measuring cup. Muddle the blueberries. Strain the syrup into a clear storage container.