Madison restaurants go beyond the average cheese curds

We couldn’t get away with creating an “Eat Like a Madisonian” section without mentioning cheese curds, could we?
bowl of cheese curds from Cadre
Cheese curds from Cadre

We couldn’t get away with creating an “Eat Like a Madisonian” section without mentioning cheese curds, could we? Cheese in fried curd form is present on so many bar and restaurant appetizer menus in Madison. “You don’t have to have cheese curds on the menu, but if you don’t, it will be guaranteed to be the most asked about thing,” says Evan Dannells, owner and executive chef of Cadre, a new restaurant on University Avenue. While you wouldn’t go looking for curds at restaurants like Buraka, Dannells says, if an eatery is even a little European or American in nature, “Somebody’s going to be like, ‘Why don’t you have cheese curds?’” Dannells says. Even newcomer Mr. Kimchi, a Korean fusion restaurant on King Street, offers tteok-bokki, which are fried rice cakes that taste eerily similar to fried cheese curds. Tavernakaya serves tempura-battered cheese curds alongside its sushi, ramen and Japanese tapas dishes.

One of Madison’s food trucks, Curd Girl, sticks to offering curds and curds only, with a long list of dipping sauces to pair them with. Everyone is in search of the very best curds, evident in the uncountable number of “top cheese curds in Madison” lists you can find online. The curds at The Old Fashioned, Craftsman Table and Tap and Graze make regular appearances on those lists, including on our Best of Madison 2019 readers’ poll. All three stick to the traditional cheese curd formula: battered in either beer or, in Graze’s case, vodka, and served with a house ranch dipping sauce.

hand pulling one cheese curd

Cheese curds from Graze (Photo courtesy of Keni Rosales)

In Dannells’ case, he knew cheese curds needed to be on Cadre’s menu, but he didn’t want to offer a run-of-the-mill curd. “Not only are cheese curds distinctly Wisconsin, but people are very opinionated and critical and demand quality out of a cheese curd, in this city in particular,” Dannells says. So the process of figuring out how to present the iconic Wisconsin dish was a process.

After trying several kinds of cheese in his research, he opted for a goat cheese, or chèvre, made by Clock Shadow Creamery out of Milwaukee. “Goat cheese is a little lighter and a lot grassier” than a basic cow’s milk cheese curd, Dannells says. He fried some up and started thinking about pairings to enhance the flavor, and landed on the traditional French pairing of honey with chèvre. To give it some spice, he infused the honey with chili and added pickled radish to balance the heat. “But it was still missing just one thing,” Dannells says.

He was still contemplating another element when his fiancé offered an idea. “ ‘You could put blue cheese on it — then you’d have something funky in a different way to sort of combat the grassiness,’ ” Dannells recalls his fiancée saying. “And I was like, ‘Are you telling me to put cheese on cheese?’ ” Dannells responded.

Dannells tried it anyway, even though he had doubts it would work.

But it did. And it was really, really good, he says.

“So we’ve been doing it ever since,” Dannells says, noting that he should have known cheese on cheese would work in this state.