Walk on the wild side with these 10 dining spots

It starts out with a bang: the holidays and an explosion of excessive eating and drinking. Any cold weather concession of eating comfort foods—roasted meats, starchy side dishes, heavy sauces and rich desserts—vaporizes soon after Valentine’s Day and its orgy of chocolate.

In these days that turn dark and gloomy, I gravitate toward brown liquor and heady red wines, but eventually even they lose their winter solace. Yet, it’s too early to pretend its spring. Asparagus, strawberries and Pimm’s Cup will come soon enough. For me, now is an interval to appease my jaded pallet with all sorts of ethnic food, the more unfamiliar the better. It’s the perfect occasion to shake off my cabin fever and dine out. Time to enjoy something I’d never think of making at home. Time to indulge in an exotic cocktail, too, without breaking the bank at the liquor store.

Sujeo. If this place won’t wake up your taste buds, surely you’ve checked into Motel Deep 6. Granted, some have embraced this pan-Asian diner merely because it’s different. I love it because it’s differently delicious. Cultures collide here in a most happy way. The KBC—Korean Broasted Chicken—is truly inspired and gives fried chicken new culinary significance. The small bar makes excellent cocktails like the Shipwrecked—ginger-infused rum with coconut, lime and Angostura bitters—that will have you longing to be stranded here.

Ha Long Bay. Forget the egg rolls and moo goo gai pan; take a walk on the wild side. Ha Long Bay has an exemplary selection of Southeast Asian specialties, but I always order the soulful Vietnamese selections. Mint, ginger, star anise, cinnamon, and pepper come together in exotic dishes that always hit the mark. In my eternal quest for something a bit out of the ordinary, it would be difficult to pass up the fried whole red snapper with basil, lemongrass and mushrooms.

Francisco’s Cantina. Going out for dinner doesn’t have to be expensive. Francisco’s is proof of that. Better yet, it offers a wide variety of south-of-the-border favorites and, of course, margaritas and cerveza. As prevalent as Mexican food has become in our culture, I somehow never find it mundane. Perhaps it’s the liveliness of flavors—peppers, cilantro and lime—that just shout surf and sand.

Nostrano. By this time of year, I’ve had my fill of pasta and red sauce. Nostrano’s modern Italian menu changes seasonally and the focus here is on fresh—both ingredients and ideas. What has become one of my all-time favorite winter treats is its recipe (below) for a warm Brussels sprouts salad. Desserts here are shear fantasy and every bit as titillating.

La Taguera. I’ll admit, before this place opened I wasn’t really familiar with Venezuelan cuisine. Not surprisingly, it’s influenced by many cultures, European and native. Everything I’ve tried on the menu here is delightful, especially the national dish, Pabellón a caballo—shredded beef with black beans and fried plantain that’s topped with a sunny-side-up egg and served with an arepa (a flatbread made from corn flour).

Swad. I love Indian food, but especially when it’s frigid outside. With its butter-colored walls, long list of tempting dishes, and friendly staff, Swad couldn’t be more welcoming. Whether you like it hot (Shrimp Vindaloo perhaps?) or not (silky Lamb Korma), there’s something sure to please most everyone. I always order too much, but the leftovers are just as good reheated.

Layla’s. This hole-in-the-wall location in the basement of the HI-Madison Hostel has been a magnet for small restaurants: Cuban, Costa Rican and now Persian. Layla’s is only open for lunch, but appropriately since owner Laila Borokhim serves what in this country was long known as a “plate lunch.” The menu changes frequently and includes many types of subtly spiced stews served with rice. Normally, I’m not a fan of baklava—too often insipidly syrupy—but here it’s a real joy made with brown sugar and flavored with cardamom.

That Barbecue Joint. I guess I’m not a true Sconnie since I don’t grill out all year long (I don’t wear shorts when the wind chill factor is 20 below, either). I admit that barbecued brisket and ribs are among the first foods I miss as winter drags on. I like pretty much everything they do here, sides included, but the Brisket Chili is a nice slant on a seasonal mainstay.

Salvatore’s Tomato Pies. Pizza can be so boring but never so here. Now with two locations, choose from menu regulars like the Antipasto—a vegan variety like no other in town, or specialties that include the spicy Jalapeno Assesino with chorizo and carnitas. When in doubt, use your imagination to build your own pie from a huge choice of quality ingredients.

Glarner Stube. If there is any country that knows how to do winter right, it has to be Switzerland. Assuming the roads are plowed and passable, take a short jaunt down to New Glarus to this snug little café. Classic cheese fondue was just made for a cold winter’s day. Wiener schnitzel, geschnetzelets, and roesti are all tempting and worth-the-drive treats.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees

1. Pickled Currents:
¼ cup crimson raisin vinegar or sherry vinegar
¼ cup water
½ cup sugar
½ cup currents

In a small saucepan, combine vinegar, water and sugar. Whisk vigorously over low heat until sugar dissolves. Bring to a gentle simmer then remove from heat and add currents. Let stand 10 minutes. Strain currents and reserve pickling liquid.

2. Bacon:
4 ounces guanciale or pancetta, finely diced
1 tablespoon oil

While the currents stand, fry the meat in the oil over medium-high heat until crisp. Drain and reserve the pan drippings.

3. Guanciale Vinaigrette:
¼ cup current pickling liquid (from above)
3 tablespoons guanciale or pancetta drippings (from above)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper

Combine ingredients and whisk vigorously until vinaigrette emulsifies. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

4. Farro:
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1½ cup farro
3 cups water
2 thyme sprigs
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Reserved currents (from above)
2 tablespoons pine nuts
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

In large saucepan, heat olive oil; then add the farro. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until lightly toasted. Add water, salt and thyme. Bring to a boil. Cover and gently simmer over low heat until water is absorbed and grains are tender, about 25 minutes. Fluff grains, discard thyme sprigs. Add the currents, pine nuts and parsley and toss with a little vinaigrette. Set aside.

5. Salad:
1 pound medium-size Brussels sprouts, outer leaves removed and vertically sliced in half
3 to 4 large red cipollini onions sliced (or 1 small red onion, halved and cut into ¼-inch slices)
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and cracked pepper
Frisee
Reserved crisp bacon

While the faro cooks, combine the sliced Brussels sprouts with the sliced onion and toss with a liberal amount of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast in the preheated oven, stirring about every 10 minutes, until edges turn golden brown, about 25 minutes. Set aside.

6. To serve:
At serving time, toss the Brussels sprouts, onions, frisee and fried bacon with a light coating of vinaigrette. Arrange the mixture on top of the faro on the serving plates.

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