April 2009

A Jim and Amy collaboration

It is late April, one of my favorite times of year. The world is green again, there is no more brown snow. Their is a chance (on at least some days) that we can sit on my deck and drink a glass of wine. Their is the sound of a cracking bat on TV again, with the return of major league baseball. But what really makes the season, is the return of the outdoor Dane County Farmer’s Market.

Since Amy and I first visited the Dane County Farmer’s Market (DCFM) in 1999, we have been truly in love with Madison. It is the heart and soul of our great city. But not only is it a great diversion from a hectic work week, it is also the market that, with a little thinking and planning, can be your primary source of sustenance.

So here are some reasons why the DCFM should be your grocery store.

1. Know your producer. There is nothing more comforting that being able to look your producer in the eye, shake his or her hand, and know him or her by name. You just don’t get this when picking up your apple at a grocery store.

2. Sense of community. Every walk of life shows up at DCFM. Street musicians, local artists, kids of all ages, jaded protesters, content farmers. It is all there. Most have a smile on their face. No one is in a hurry to leave. There are red wagons being pulled, pastry being devoured, and music being played. No one is hiding behind a metal cart.

3. Passion behind your food – you are buying from producers who are passionate, and knowledgeable, about their products. They take great pride in what they are selling.

4. Cash and check only (in most cases). No money going to the middleman of a credit or debit transaction.

5. Minimal carbon footprint. These products, on average, come from less than 100 miles away. Enough said.

Now, for the fun details. These are some of my favorite products we buy time and again from the DCFM.  This is not at all an exclusive list, but just a list of favorites.

6.  5 year aged cheddar from Hook’s Cheese – purely sinful, but glorious. Losing some of it’s bite at this level of aging, but gaining that more crumbly, slightly crunchy texture. A first rate cheese, and a jewel from such a dairy heavy market.

7. Asparagus from Matt Smith (Blue Valley Gardens) – a sign of spring. Realize, there are many great asparagus producers on the square, but Matt is the asparagus guru, as far as I’m concerned. Spargle is also offered (white asparagus).

8. Ramps from Richard deWilde (Harmony Valley Farm) – perhaps the greatest prize of spring (arguably better than morels). This is a wild leek, and it’s flavor is unlike any onion like vegetable out there. Part garlic, part onion, part leek, part cabbage, part shallot, all that rolled up into the best addition to scrambled eggs you could think of.

9. Heirloom peppers from Jean & Michael Martin (Jones Valley Farm) – in late summer and early fall, the oddly shaped and glorious color of these peppers draw you in to Jones Valley Farm’s beautiful display. Cook them any way you like, they give your mind and mouth a taste experience different from any pepper you’ve ever had.

10. Apple Cider from Bob Willard (Ela Orchard) – one of the only products rarely tried by late market goers (after 11 a.m.), tt sells out early, but for good reason. This is far and away the best apple cider I’ve ever tried. It is different each week, but Bob still makes a consistently delightful cider that is good for drinking cold, hot, or slowly reduced and added to a sauce or salad dressing.

11. Fresh chevre from Anne Topham, Fantome Farm – creamy, only slightly tangy, light, delicious. My favorite use is to add it to a fall salad of apples and walnuts, with a dressing made from Ela Orhcard’s cider mentioned above.

12. Raspberries from Paul and Louise Maki (Blue Skies Berry Farm) – who doesn’t love a good raspberry. Paul and Louise are some of the nicest people on the square. Their berries are grown with passion: orange, yellow and multiple varieties of red berries are available. Amy and I routinely visit their farm each year to pick our own.

13. Dried beef from John and Dorothy Priske (Fountain Prairie Inn and Farms) – I first tasted this dried beef on a sandwich at L’Etoile, and I have never gone back. Slightly salty, intense beef flavor in just one slice. Buy it for a very special sandwich.

14. Chorizo sausage form Eric and Carrie Johson (Jordandal Farm) – sausage in general from Jordandal is fantastic, but I especially like their chorizo. It is a perfect blend of spices, but not too greasy. I love to crumble it into a tortilla casserole with chipotle salsa.

15. Bacon from Tony and Susan Renger (Willow Creek Farm) – bacon that closely rivals Nueske’s bacon from northern Wisconsin, Willow Creek pork in general is a step above. Smoky, thick, and gorgeous when cooked. Enjoy it best in late summer on a BLT with market heirloom tomatoes.

16. Beef from James and Rebecca Goodman (Northwood Farm) – this is the source of my burger of the gods. This is pure organic meat from another friendly producer. I use their ground beef, adding only salt and pepper, for my ultimate home made burger.

17. Heirloom tomatoes from Quentin and Mary Carpenter (Carpenter Farm) – the most consistent, and reasonably priced tomato producers on the square. They do a beautiful job with a beautiful product. Heirloom tomatoes, as far as I’m concerned, are the crown jewel of summer produce. Nothing beats them, ever.

18. Wintered spinach from Bill Warner and Judy Hageman (Snug Haven Farm) – the star of the first market of the season, this spinach is delectably sweet. Put it in anything, but left best for a simple spinach salad.

19. All blue potatoes from John Aue (Butter Mountain Potatoes) – John is the ultimate potato head, and seems to know every potato in and out. He waxes poetic (pardon the pun) about his products. My favorite are any of his fingerlings, or his all blue potatoes, which are, in my opinion, the best way to truly taste the earth without putting dirt directly in your mouth.

20. Eggs from John Carr (Pecatonica Valley Farm) – another super nice guy on the square, John also offers many delicious meat products, including a killer smoked chicken. However, we buy our eggs almost each week from John, they are guaranteed fresh and flavorful.

21. Sweet Corn from Richard deWilde (Harmony Valley Farm)  – I didn’t want to mention one vendor twice, but I just can’t go without mentioning that the sweet corn from Harmony Valley is to die for. Sweet corn in general on the square is far better than the grocery stores, but Richard grows a particular varietal, or grows it in a particular way, that produces the best sweet corn I have ever tasted.

22. Carrots from Cate & Mat Eddy (Ridgeland Harvest)- organic carrots that taste sweet, crunchy, and abundant. This producer in general offers top quality produce, I also love their swiss chard, and winter squash.

23. Concord grapes from Dale and Cindy Secher (Carandale Farm) – another highlight of fall, the fruit that produces my favorite pie.


Visited February 6th, 2009.

Primary author – Jim (Amy will comment once her life is less hectic)

Amy and I had been talking about trying Monroe St. Bistro for few months. This seems to be the latest restaurant trend in Madison, the bistro. As far as I can remember, it all started most recently with Sardine (one of our absolute favorites), then Brasserie V, now Monroe St. Bistro. Apparently, the proprioters were once at Brasserie V. 

We were first pleasently surprised when we were seated immediately. We had seen large crowds, sometimes waiting outside the door, when driving by multiple times before. The environment was nice enough, unpolished, casual, open feel, more akin to a english pub then a stodgy french bistro.  Tables were aligned just how Amy likes them (please turn on sarcasm), jammed next to one another, close enough to reach over to your neighbor and steal a frite. This close to your neighbor feel fits the overall feel of the restaurant, however. Monroe St. Bistro is yet another restaurant with what seems to be a common one in cold climates: missing a vestibule.  So, as I’ve said in previous reviews, wear your jacket.

Service immediately underwhelmed us. Our waitress greeted us long after we had already made all our choices. Generally, the mark of good service is a general feeling of “welcome.” A greeting within 2-3 minutes, a warm smile, and a “I’m happy you are here” is all I ask. However, when greeted with an immediate “do you know what you want to drink?”, I immediately feel rushed. When we asked what specials there were for the night, we recieved a “isn’t the menu good enough” look. We also had to ask for a list fo the soups de jour. I certainly don’t enjoy being up-sold, but on the other hand, I like to know my options.

The menu was what you would expect for rustic french bistro fair. Steak frites, moules et frites, quail.  Appetizers including bacon wrapped dates, cheese and charcuturie plate, and plain frites.

We started with the crab cakes, which was our first introduction to the theme for the evening. The chef was apparently narcoleptic, and a big fan of high heat. Indeed, a crab cake should have a nice, golden brown crust, but this was a notch beyond. The Old Bay tartar sauce was nicely flavored, but a touch on the salty side, while the arugula corn salad was missing a bite of acid to round out the richness of the dish, but depite this, was the highlight of the dish, I thought.

Falling asleep briefly at the grill again, the entrees were equally charred. I had the burger. As you will see in other reviews, I honestly believe the burger is one of the hallmark measures of a restaurant’s success. This one was, did I already mention, charred. The bun was also over toasted. There wasn’t enough aioli to add the moisture needed to make up for the dryness of this burger. We also ordered the frites, a necessary choice for any bistro. They were not apparently cooked by the narcoleptic chef, but instead by a more attentive fry cook. Intead of overcooked, they were overseasoned. I rarely say there is too much pepper, but today, there was too much pepper on those frites.

Amy had the Mahi-Mahi. Again, it was overcooked and tasted of my burger.

So, as you can see, Amy and I were very much underwhelmed with the Monroe St. Bistro. That might be in light of knowing how good the other Bistro style restaurants in town were, but it is hard to look past the inattentiveness of both the waitstaff and kitchen in forming our opinion. So, try it yourself at your own risk, unless you are a fan of “well done.”

Author – Jim (Amy will comment later once her life is less hectic)

This blog is an opportunity to write my rants about the restaurant industry in general. It is a chance to get all my complaints about the poor decisions restaurant owners make on one page, so maybe I can minimize them in actual reveiws. This is somewhat of a spouting off, so forgive me. You have to understand one disclaimer: you may read a rant and associate with a Madison restaurant. Please do not then assume I am painting that restaurant in a completely negative light. These rants are only part of the big picture. So without further ado, here is why your favorite restaurant may suck.

1.  The waitstaff writes their name on the table with a crayon when they first come to your table.

2. They have to explain why they are pouring olive oil on a plate  when presenting the bread.

3. You can easily see into a very disorganized, messy kitchen.

4. There are 4-5 menues for each person to peruse.

5. The water is tepid.

6. The trash can in the bathroom is overflowing with paper towel, or there is no toilet paper or paper towel left.

7. “New york cheesecake” on the dessert menu.

8. “Chicken curry” next to “chicken mole” on the menu. Pick one, maybe two cuisines, and go with it.

9. The words “$ (blank) for shared dishes” on the menu.

10. A gratuity added automatically for parties of only 5 or more.

11. Closing time 9 p.m..

12. The words”no substitutions please” on the menu.

13. An appetizer menu with only fried items.

14. A charge for a bread basket.

15. Beer served in a frosted mug. (You may disagree if you don’t like to taste your beer, or if you like to hold an ice cube in your hand)

16. Wine, or any drink for that matter, poured just millimeters from the top of the glass.

17. Glossy, greasy finger printed menus.

18. Random dusty, kitschy crap as decoration all over the place.

19. Having to move around another laminated marketing cube in order to fit my plate on the table.

20. Menu itmes created or endorsed by Food Network chefs.

21. Surly teenage hostesses texting on their cell phone.

22. A 10 page menu.

23. An add-on possbility for every menu item, “would you like to “load” your fries?” (aren’t they loaded already?)

24. Waitstaff with an obviously soiled apron.

25. A wine list with only one or two producers.