One look at the Madison dining scene this year and it’s hard to believe the country is in the midst of a great recession. Newcomers like 43 North, K Peppers and the Green Owl added to the area’s culinary landscape even as favorites like Cafe Continental, El Pescador and Doug’s Soul Food shut their doors. Judging by what opened in these 12 months, diners’ demand for Mexican food, locally sourced cuisine and craft cocktails boomed. Here are some of the year’s standout dishes and drinks.
Best pre- or post-show snack: Popcorn and pickles at Graze, 1 S. Pinckney St. Anyone who’s entered a movie theater knows the suggestive power of freshly popped popcorn. L’Etoile’s new gastropub sibling, Graze, takes it one better with baby rice (a Wisconsin-grown variety with a small hull) drizzled with truffle oil and grated SarVecchio, a Parmesan-like cheese. It’s salty and earthy and completely addictive, especially with Graze’s long dish of pickled things — radishes, butternut squash, jicama — it’s all good.
Best seasonal cocktail: Basil smash at Sardine, 617 Williamson St. We discovered the basil smash when we went looking for creative uses for garden herbs in cocktails. With simple syrup, lemon juice and Tanqueray gin combined with a generous amount of the green stuff, the basil smash tasted fresh, sweet and tart, a winning combination.
Best new chain: Harold’s Chicken Shack, 707 S. Gammon Road. It was a close call between two Chicago imports — Francesca’s al Lago, a chic Italian set-up downtown, and Harold’s, a spunky fried chicken purveyor located on the west side — but the win goes to Harold’s for serving up hot, extremely fresh fried chicken and cornmeal-crusted fish that tastes like it’s coming from a friend’s kitchen. The South Side Chicago institution’s first Madison location is a welcome addition to the Madison dining scene, if not our waistlines.
Best use of kale: Underground Kitchen, 127 E. Mifflin St. Kale can be a bit of an intimidating vegetable. It’s darker than spinach and tougher than your average leafy green, but Underground Kitchen has tamed it into glorious submission, no cooking required. The kale salad, a mainstay on the merry-go-round menu at the restaurant, is simple perfection, with thin strips of kale rubbed tender with oil and lemon and then spiked with feta-like ricotta salata cheese and various nuts. We never thought we’d say this about kale, but we’re totally addicted.
Best new restaurant for desserts: Nostrano, 111 S. Hamilton St. The hard part wasn’t choosing Nostrano for best new desserts, it’s which dessert to highlight. Should it be the affogato, that sinfully delicious combination of housemade gelato and piping hot espresso? What about the incredible crespelle — chestnut crepes with candied kumquats, fresh, creamy mozzarella and dark chocolate gelato? And we’re still daydreaming about that finanziera, brown butter cake with roasted pears, hickory nuts and maple gelato.
Best new chocolate: Pecan smokies at Gail Ambrosius, 2086 Atwood Ave. Gail Ambrosius received some major press this year — the Food Network stopped by, and Bon Appetit gave the chocolate shop a nod in its December issue. She’s known for dark chocolate, but we’re mad for the crunchy pecan smokies made with toasted pecans dredged in Ale Asylum wort (a sweet, malty liquid), Ecuadorian chocolate and applewood-smoked sea salt.
Best comfort food: Scandinavian chicken dinner at The Old Fashioned, 23 N. Pinckney St. The half chicken, prepared with a cinnamon, juniper, cardamom rub and cooked over a wood fire, offered flavors right out of Grandma’s kitchen (and she was a dynamite cook). Coupled with dressing with sausage and currants, smashed red potatoes, buttered parsnips and carrots, the meal was as comforting as a favorite cardigan sweater and those fleece-lined slippers from L.L. Bean.
Best B.L.T.: The Green Owl Cafe, 1970 Atwood Ave. Madison’s new (and only) vegetarian restaurant impresses with its flavorful T.L.T. with avocado. Subbing in for the “b” is a smoky baked tempeh. Served on slabs of hearty Madison Sourdough wheat with lettuce, tomato and avocado, this sandwich is the lunch item we consistently return to (and we’re meat eaters!)
Best new distillery: Old Sugar Distillery, 931 E. Main St. This small distillery has developed a loyal following, thanks in part to smoky Cane and Abe Rum and dry finish honey liqueur. Distiller Nathan Greenawalt is often the guy behind the bar on Thursdays and Fridays — the only two days the distillery’s open for tastings and tours (check the website, madisondistillery.com, for holiday hours). Try the Honey Cap, made with the honey liqueur, lime and soda water. It’s seriously smooth.
Best old food discovered anew: Eggs from reporter Susan Troller’s backyard chickens. You know all that hype about fresh eggs from your own chickens? It’s all true. One of the best meals of the year combined fresh poached eggs (thank you, Nora and Scarlet) on homemade bread with a side of freshly picked, steamed asparagus. Add good butter, salt and pepper and it’s perfection on a plate.
Best “new” cheese: Hook’s 15-year cheddar, sold locally at Fromagination, 12 S. Carroll St. Was there really any question about which local cheese made the biggest impression on our minds, hearts and taste buds? This cheese is worth its weight in gold, which is good, because at $50-$60 per pound, it’s not cheap. The combination of pungent cheddar flavor, moist-but-crumbly texture and crunchy crystals from age makes this cheese something that is truly special and well worth waiting a decade-and-a-half to taste.
Best interior: Tie between Nostrano, Underground Kitchen and the Green Owl. Nostrano and Underground Kitchen had a lot to live up to, with each replacing venerable Madison institutions in Peppino’s and Café Montmartre, respectively. Each has done so spectacularly thanks in part due to makeovers from the ground up — Nostrano combines warm, earthy tones with salvaged windowpanes hung on the wall for a stylish, but rough and homey feel, while Underground Kitchen has lightened up the former wine bar, matching natural sunlight with lovely blond wood features and white candles. The Green Owl’s interior is unexpectedly modern and sleeker than it looks from the outside, with a funky collection of vintage owls just behind its bar. At each of these places, you’ll come for the food, but the atmosphere will mean you’ll never want to leave.
Best foodie challenge: Willy Street Co-op’s Eat Local Challenge. Technically, none of us succeeded at this challenge, held for the first time this year from Aug. 15 to Sept. 15. But the charge to eat more locally produced food, from honey to yogurt to sunflower oil, is a valuable and enduring one. We’re looking forward to taking up the local mantle again early next fall.