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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

daily bliss: a weekend in Madison

Last week, I had the pleasure of dining in Madison, Wisconsin all week long. This first installment chronicles the weekend that started my adventure, a short 36 hours that Gregg and I spent together, and with friends.

We arrived on Saturday morning, ready to hit the Capitol Square and the Dane County Farmers' Market. We joined the slow, lurching crowd and marveled at early summer produce, amazing plants, pretty peonies, and hearty breads. We paused on a street corner to hydrate with bottled water, and watched a small crowd of pro-Walker supporters get overshadowed by a group of brazen, nude bicyclists. After stocking up on Cress Springs Bakery bread, we left the throng and headed to Graze for a light brunch. Gregg ordered the egg special, which included a dollop of the most delicious hashbrowns we've ever eaten, while I ordered the seasonal pancakes topped with compound butter, strawberry compote, and maple syrup.

That evening, we spent time with friends C and C!, who shared some of their favorite eateries with us: dinner at Lao Laan-Xang, fruity drinks at Jolly Bob's, and a glass of wine at the Weary Traveler, all on the currently deconstructed Willy Street.

I'm a fan of southeast Asian cuisine, and I was eager to distinguish the differences between Laotian and Thai cuisine. I found the flavors similar, and perhaps the biggest difference was the combination of vegetables in the curries. I ordered the famous squash curry with tofu, spiced at level three...a generous three. A mouth and back of the throat sizzling three. Two Singha beers tampered the flames.

A fruity concoction at nearby Jolly Bob's extinguished the lingering flames. My drink--the Seafoam--looked like tropical waters, and tasted of pineapple and amaretto. We talked of vacation and dreamed of warmer climes before heading down the street to our next stop.

The Weary Traveler was an early meeting place for the Leftist Cocktail Party, a Madison based group who gathers weekly in solidarity during these troublesome times in Wisconsin. While I've missed the actual parties, I attend vicariously via facebook, and was excited to see one of their favorite hangouts. I enjoyed a glass of pinot noir and the dim, wooden, eclectic ambience.

The next morning, we joined our friends for a brunch blowout at Sardine, a French inspired bistro. Champagne cocktails, bloody marys, and monster mimosas filled our table as we developed a strategy. Our friends suggested eating in stages, and so we (er, they) began with mussels and oysters.

The presentation of both fruits of the sea was stunning, but I choose to crunch through the airy, buttery layers of a perfect pain au chocolat.

The cool, damp morning gave way to warmth and overcast humidity as we sat outside on the patio, framed by bright flower planters, and overlooking Lake Monona. The next course arrived--a simple fines herbes and gruyére omelette, served with frites and a mixed greens salad. The omelette was pretty and delicious--the tang of tarragon tasted quintessentially Parisien. A glass of Italian rosé was the perfect accompaniment.

We hesitated only momentarily when presented with the dessert menu, which featured a layered chocolate and hazelnut creation that rivaled the layered chocolate and hazelnut creation I enjoyed in Paris last Spring. Gregg and I tried to linger over the slim rectangle of crisp nut crust and creamy ganache, sliding our forks through the thick caramel. However, within minutes the dessert was a memory and a final taste in our mouths.

After saying goodbye to our friends, we headed downtown to explore State Street and to people watch as our lunch digested. Small boutiques and large bookstores beckoned us inside, where we mostly window shopped. We sat outside at the Union Terrace at UW-Madison and drank beer (!) while watching boats sail across Lake Mendota.

We headed to the nearby Monroe Street area to shop at Trader Joe's, relax over Italian sodas at Barriques, and then finally, eat dinner at Pasqual's. As our burritos and tacos disappeared, I started to feel sad that our weekend together was over. Gregg was heading home while I was staying in Madison for a week of workshops. I longed to hop in the car with him and chat about our adventures on the drive home, but alas, I checked into my hotel room and began preparing for the week ahead...


  1. Just clicked on the Next Blog button on Blogger and found yours - I really like your blog - great photos too!

  2. Nice outing! I didn't know Madison has such a good foodie scene to explore. How cool! :oD

    I think it's easier to distinguish Thai food from Loatian food here in the States than back in SE Asia (my dad is Thai) since Thai restaurants here tend to Americanize their food a bit (sweeter and creamier than back in the home country). Loatian food is simpler, I think. Fewer ingredients with more veggies, but you get to taste everything. :oD

    Anyhow, thanks for sharing your trip. Hope summer is going well in the Midwest!

    Smorg :o)

  3. thanks, Lesley and Smorg for your visits to my blog!

    Smorg, your description of Laotian vs. Thai perfectly expresses the taste difference I experienced but couldn't quite put in words.

    I have another Madison food post in the works...stay tuned!