BY ALICE YORK
Though spring has not yet officially sprung, temperatures outside are begging to differ. The sunshine and green buds sprouting from the soil are beckoning us out of our winter hibernation a little earlier this year. It is a call to hop in our cars, roll our windows down, and have an adventure. This month, we say point your cars towards Madison, Wisconsin!
Just a quick road trip from our fair city (around 2 and a half to three hours, depending on how fast you are behind the wheel), Madison is home to the state’s capitol) and the University of Wisconsin, and is a hub of intellectual thought, culture, and politics snuggled in between two scenic lakes. The city is also quickly becoming the go-to destination for foodies looking for a weekend of fine food and craft beer. For a city so seemingly small, it has built up a burgeoning and vibrant food scene, with a wealth of amazing restaurants, as well as several craft breweries.
What other Big10 town can boast four restaurants from a James Beard Award-winning chef? A veteran of the New York culinary world, Chef Tory Miller settled into Madison over a decade ago, when he was brought in to oversee the kitchen of the highly lauded L’Etoile—a fixture on the city’s dining scene since Odessa Piper first opened its doors in 1976. Miller continues L’Etoile’s legacy of acquiring locally grown and raised products from the area’s farmers and producers. Of the French-inspired contemporary American dishes, standouts are the Hamachi, with baby cucumber, lovage, tiger lily, and chamomile; and the Fountain Prairie Farm Beef, with squash blossom, peekytoe crab, Heck’s new potatoes, king trumpet mushrooms, and Cabernet jus. L’Etoile’s wine selection offers more than 500 bottles from regions throughout the world, including ones from Wisconsin, and has secured them a spot on Wine Enthusiast’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants three years and counting.
Miller’s devotion to sustainability shines at his farm to table casual concept Graze, where pub-style menu options (like their award-winning Pub Burger) are elevated with fresh, local ingredients. This casual counterpart to sister restaurant, L’Etoile, is also known for its creative cocktails. The offerings on this expansive list pay tribute to classic novels and novelists in their titles, such as the Tequila Mockingbird and Gatsby’s Green Light.
Multi-tasker extraordinaire, Miller opened the doors to his third restaurant, the pan-Asian Sujeo, in 2014. Its name refers to the traditional Korean table setting of a chopstick set alongside a spoon, reflecting the chef’s Korean heritage (Tory was born in Korea, but adopted as a young boy by a Wisconsin family). The cuisine reflects his distant past and his present with a hybrid of Asian and American cuisines. Dishes include a Ma Po Tofu that combines ground lamb and soft tofu with house Sichuan chile sauce; and Gimbap, a smoked rainbow trout paired with trout roe, cream cheese, and a daikon pickle. The inventive fusion menu is complemented by cocktails that are equally east-meets-west and satisfying. We also love the restaurant’s interior: traditional Asian paintings are hung alongside canvases filled with graffiti, spread throughout the warm, intimate setting lined with vintage lights.
Above all, we must insist you try the busy chef’s recently opened Estrellón. Opened just last summer, this Spanish concept restaurant is inspired by Tory’s frequent travels to the Iberian country. The menu is built on small plates, made to share, marrying ingredients imported directly from Spain and those locally-sourced from Wisconsin. Each dish is beautiful in its simplicity, pared down to let each element and each flavor really shine. We are particularly taken with their à la carte offerings of jamón, breads, charcutería, and Wisconsin cheeses. The large paellas are similarly tantalizing and made for many to dig in and enjoy.
For those more interested in the glass than the plate, Madison is home to over fifteen craft breweries. These include Ale Asylum, Karben4, and Capital Brewing. Just outside the city is the famous New Glarus Brewery that’s been churning out favorites like Spotted Cow and Moon Man for over 20 years.
Though the city is an up-and-coming paradise for gourmands, we would be remiss if we did not offer up a few activities for in between meals. The University of Wisconsin, and the creative energy that surrounds it, allows for music and art to blossom in Madison. This can be experienced at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA), where an exhibition of works by local artist, American printmaker, and satirist Warrington Colescott, and prints by Frank Stella are currently on view. Adjacent to the MMoCA is the stunning Overture Center, where visitors can catch concerts and theater throughout the year.
To burn off some of those well-worth-it calories earmarked for decadent meals and bottles of beer, stop at a Madison BCycle station to rent a bicycle and take advantage of the city’s green bike paths that stretch from the shores of Lake Mendota to the stunning capitol building and through the university town’s residential neighborhoods. The city was voted the 4th “Most Bike Friendly City in the U.S.” by CNN Travel for a reason.
To sprinkle a little retail into your getaway, we offer Fromagination (when in Rome…), a perfect spot to choose some cheese to bring back in your overnight bag. If you want to be a particularly kind friend, you might opt for one of their gift baskets, filled to the brim with Wisconsin cheeses and other mouthwatering goodies. For your stylish gentleman, we recommend Context Clothing, which carries casual items like New Balance sneakers and A.P.C. denim, alongside of locally-made fine leather goods. We also dore Capitol Kids, a charming children’s store filled with books, clothes, and heirloom-quality toys.
You will need a place to rest your head after cycling, shopping, and of course, eating. For that we suggest The Edgewater, with its gorgeous views of the water. This has been the hotel of choice for celebrities like Elvis Presley, Elton John, Bob Hope, Bob Marley, and the Dalai Lama, and other discerning travelers since it opened in 1948. After an extensive renovation, the hotel reopened in 2014, with newly styled interiors that are subdued and tasteful, many with floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on Lake Mendota.
Enjoy your stay and be sure to share with us your favorite dishes!