I found out that I got a ridiculously nice job in Chicago today so I figured that since I’d be leaving Madison soon I should go do that thing I’d been putting off for 3 years. I paid a visit to L’Etoile, the most highly regarded restaurant in Madison.

I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get a reservation but it turned out not to be a problem. L’Etoile is located adjacent to Graze, run by the same people, but unlike Graze (spoiler alert) it is not mediocre. Step through the doors opposite the entrance to Graze and suddenly the noise level goes from raucous to muted, and suddenly I feel incredibly under dressed. However, this being Madison, and people being inordinately nice here, no one sneered at my goofy plaid shirt and jeans.

I ate too much. We both ordered three courses and of course I can never pass up a charcuterie plate. This was the first charcuterie plate I’ve had anywhere that wasn’t disappointing. Rillettes tend to let me down, but today’s pork and lavender offering was decent. Bresaola was the surprise winner, with the generous serving of paté coming in second. Between the canape, amuse-bouche (a lovely slice of smoked ham wedged between two savory biscuits and set off quite well by a Shiraz plum jam) and charcuterie I was already 40% full, but I was starting to feel like this might just be the first place since Rosemary’s Restaurant to justify the existence of fine dining.

My first course was a Vietnamese shrimp salad, with toasted sushi rice tossed with various fresh vegetables, thai basil, and a nuoc cham dressing. The rice was perfectly toasted with a lovely golden brown crust, and the dressing was better than most nuoc cham dressings I’ve had in the past. Our other first course was a mediocre Petit Frere cheese (apparently a Wisconsin creation), melted and served with slivers of cherries, pears, almonds, and mango-honey vinaigrette. For a dish that relied on cheese, the cheese just wasn’t good enough.

Second courses were a chevre mushroom risotto with matchsticks of pear and aged balsamic; short rib goulash. The risotto was excellent, great texture and creaminess. The balsamic was very fine stuff, and I gotta get me some of these Moonglow pears they use for everything because they are fantastic. The short rib goulash was disappointing, and not JUST because our bar is set incredibly high after having had goulash in Vienna. This just wasn’t a goulash, it was a goulash soup at best. The broth had too much paprika, there was no meat to speak of, and the “crème fraîche-chive dumpling” was just a lump of crème fraîche. Why would you call that a dumpling? That’s just misleading.

Main courses were a seared sturgeon with bratwurst, beer braised cabbage, salsify puree and mustard sauce; pheasant with dried fruit couscous, veggies, currywurst, Garam Masala date jus. These were both excellent. Must say, the chefs at L’Etoile excel at technique. The pheasant was so perfect, in seasoning and execution. The dried fruits in the couscous were reconstituted just the right way, and complemented the pheasant so well. The date jus was spectacular. I just didn’t understand why there was a currywurst on the plate. Or why the veggies consisted of bok choy and cauliflower. I mean, they were delicious … but why? The other dish was much the same, with individual components being perfectly cooked and seasoned … but why have a bratwurst, braised cabbage and … seared fish. Really well seared fish, but still. Clearly I must be a philistine.

We would have liked to try some dessert but our stomachs wouldn’t allow it. They gave us some complimentary sweets anyway, and those were wonderful. The caramel hickory popcorn had the best texture of any popcorn I have ever had, with a lovely flavor. The bittersweet chocolate truffle was delicious but I could not taste the ginger they claimed was in it. Pate de fruit of apricot had an unpleasant texture like a thick grainy jam, could have used some more pectin or something.

Summary: The chefs there really, really know how to cook food. Flavors were almost all fantastic. Textures were fantastic. Component combinations were sometimes questionable. Goulash soup does not equal goulash.

Verdict: Fine dining with almost no regrets, pretty hard to achieve.

Orient House

Info at : http://www.orienthouseonline.com 

We went here for Chinese New Year because we decided that, at some point, we had to TRY to find somewhere besides Fugu for Chinese food.

This place was promising because they have pig’s ear on the menu. Along with some other stuff you don’t usually see in the extremely Americanized places, such as Mei Cai Kou Rou. After waffling a bit I decided to go with the red cooked pork, even though I do love mei cai kou rou. We also got our standard veggie dish, green beans.

The pig’s ear was a bit on the spicy side for a cold salad dish and slightly over salted, but still good. The red cooked pork needed another hour or so of braising, even if the flavor was good. Unfortunately they don’t give you any of the braising liquid in your dish, which is the best part, and utterly delectable over rice. The best part of the meal was the green beans, which were sauteed with an incredibly tasty mixture of ground pork and red chilies that Schmoops dubbed “Pork Candy”. The green beans themselves were not at the apex of textural perfection often attained by the chefs at Fugu, but still damned good.

I would definitely visit Orient House again to try their mei cai kou rou and to get another round of pork candy.

Verdict: Tasty.

Goodies! Creme Brulee Coffee Cake

The reduced price “please take these items home today we beg of you” bakery at Woodman’s is a veritable gold mine.

What is this you ask? Why, it is only the best freaking coffee cake I have ever had in my life. The Creme Brulee Coffee Cake made by Nikola’s Bakery of Bloomington, Minnesota.

Schmoops says that if it weren’t for the fact that he has a minor reason to keep himself looking good (I think it’s because he has a girlfriend but he never really clarified), he would eat this whole thing.

Or maybe both these whole things.

If you zoom in on the label you will see why reduced bakery sections are amazing. These two marvelous confections cost me ninety-nine cents each. That’s down from a retail price of six dollars. And all because they “expired” yesterday.

I dare you to tell me you’ve never eaten bread that “expired” two days ago. Because these two beauties probably won’t survive the next two days anyway.

Bahn Thai

Info at : http://www.bahnthai.741.com

Writing about Thai restaurants is hard. Since I first had Thai food on a family vacation to San Diego (Red Lamp District, got my parents to try something other than Chinese food and enjoy it, small victory) each visit to my favorite Thai restaurants in Las Vegas and Reno were highly anticipated events. In Las Vegas, Archii’s was the best, even after they expanded their tiny 15 seat restaurant business and opened up a huge, trendy Bistro … ridiculously close to my house (score). To this day I have never had better Thai iced tea anywhere. When I moved to Reno, Bangkok Cuisine did the impossible and pushed me out of my (luscious) Pad Thai comfort zone into the realm of (heavenly) Spicy Basil Noodles (which I have never seen anywhere else).

The night I went to Bahn Thai I realized that the part of me that couldn’t wait until my next visit to a Thai restaurant had died. I hadn’t been to a Thai restaurant in Madison for at least 1.5 years. We experimented with a few places when we first moved here but none of them were very good. Sai-Bai Thong was the top dog Thai place when we moved here. I have never seen more flies in one restaurant. It was disgusting. And the food sucked ass. As for the other places we tried, for some incomprehensible reason a lot of the top-ranked places here seen to think that ketchup is a quintessential ingredient in Pad Thai.

When your Pad-Thai comes out ketchup colored, not tamarind colored, run. Run for your culinary principles.

But Bahn Thai was actually OK. Yes, the Pad-Thai was too-bright orange, but it hit all the right sweet-salty-tangy spots. The curry was the usual Wisconsin rendition of homogeneous sauce plus pre-cooked incredibly unappetizing chips of chicken breast, but the flavor of the curry (why did I even ask for chicken in it? Haven’t I learned anything by now?) was OK. It wasn’t like some places around here where the curry just tastes like unseasoned peanut goo.

What am I even saying. If I still lived in Las Vegas I would never go to this place again. But so far it’s the best Pad-Thai I’ve had in Madison.

Verdict: Tolerable! Best Pad Thai in Madison!












Noodle Express

Info at : http://bestnoodleexpress.com/info.html

A month or so ago I was browsing in the Asian Midway Market when I saw beauteous things for sale. Duck wings, roast duck, Shanghai Kao-Fu, etc. I was super excited and found out that the place that made these delicious items was Noodle Express, and vowed to go there soon.

The first attempt was not so successful, they hadn’t ironed out the kinks in the operation yet. We went for dinner but they were doing a buffet, even though the website said that they only did lunch buffets, not dinner buffets. When we asked if we could order a la carte, we were informed that the kitchen was overwhelmed and it would be a much better idea not to. So we left.The place was packed with Chinese people though, so that boded well.

All in all their website is a terrible source of information. The hours don’t seem to be accurate. The website and the sign on their door say that they are open for lunch, but the place was utterly empty when I arrived for my take-out order. The Chinese menu said that they have only dinner buffets every day, and Chinese-style brunch buffets (a.k.a zao cha, “morning tea”) on the weekends. The websites says they have lunch buffets, and never mentions dinner buffets.

They have an unreasonably large menu with so many different styles of Chinese food (northern, Shanghainese, Sichuan, dim sum, hot pot) that … I almost want to call their bluff and order something completely obscure so I can see their look of “Damn, didn’t think anyone would actually order that, how is that cooked again?” It turns out that I didn’t have to try very hard though. Since the website only has a copy of their Americanized menu on it, I ordered off of that menu. The first thing the proprietor said when she saw me was, “How come you didn’t order off the Chinese menu?” Um. Because it was not on the website. So I ordered a lunch special of chicken in garlic sauce, and Mock Duck.

The fact that they had mock duck on their menu was the main reason I wanted to try them. But it was beyond disappointing. Instead of mock duck, I just got beancurd. Which is not mock duck. And it didn’t taste that good, it kind of tasted like ketchup was an ingredient. The chicken in garlic sauce was also a bad rendition of that dish. I have to go back at least once and order off the Chinese menu though, if only because the proprietor lady was super nice to me. She kept offering me things for free, and I kept refusing them. But when she shouted at me “Hey, we just finished roasting some ducks, you want some?” I had to buy half a duck. I just had to. In the end I walked out the door with about five more pounds of food than I needed, including some free kimchi (oh yeah, in addition to doing every imaginable type of Chinese food, they also do vietnamese pho and korean cold noodles and accompanying dishes) she gave me without my consent.

I’m not going to lie, the free stuff and the discount I tried to refuse were undoubtedly because I’m Chinese. But she was still nice.

The duck was Beijing-style. This means that the emphasis is placed on perfectly crisped skin, which is meant to shaved off the body in paper thin slices and sandwiched in a crepe with green onions and hoisin sauce. Just like most Beijing-style food, I never liked it as much as southern food. When eating Beijing-style duck I always use the pieces of meat instead of the paper thin pieces of skin in my crepe, and ask for Cantonese style duck sauce in addition to hoisin. However, it was a surprisingly well executed Beijing-style duck. That said, I’d still rather go to Wah Kee Noodles and have their Cantonese style duck, which, while the skin is not crisped at all, is just plain tastier due to the application of, well, SEASONING.

But, damn, those things on the Chinese menu sound good. I’ll have to give them another chance.

Dumpling Haus

Info at : www.dumplinghaus.com

I have this theory that the only reason their restaurant is called Dumpling Haus is because that domain name was available. Which makes a lot of sense to me, I mean the only reason I have www.luluz.net is because after trying endless permutations of my name that was the only acceptable on available. I would have loved www.luluzhang.com but it belongs to some oddly artistic Chinese girl. Cry.

I had a bad feeling about Dumpling Haus when I read their website and it said that they specialize in Beijing style food. Most things I have to say about Beijing style food are in the post linked here.

But I heard good things about Dumpling Haus, and so I tried it. It was terrible. I didn’t think it would be that bad, even though it is overpriced (’cause it’s so bad, see? It’s all connected), but it was bland and thoughtless.

How can food be thoughtless? Well, how can a restaurant charge eight dollars for a light-lunch-sized portion of peanut noodles with nothing but a light sauce, scallions, and some julienne cucumber on them? Are you fucking kidding me? As if that weren’t bad enough, the first thought upon taking a bite is: “Where’s the … hot sauce, soy sauce, ANY SAUCE”. I imagine it’s very similar to the sinking feeling a dieter gets when they take their first bite of salad. Even if it’s an adequately dressed salad there’s still a feeling that you’re eating something insubstantial and bland. But hey, there’s an entire (small) plate of it there for ya! It’s partially my fault for ordering peanut noodles. I guess I should have gotten something with meat in it or something. But I never thought it would be so plain, simply because all the other peanut noodles I have ordered in my lifetime have never been this spartan, and I would never serve something this insipid as a main course dish.

We also had the Haus Buns and the Potstickers. If I had known ahead of time that the filling for these two were exactly the same, I would have gotten another flavor of bun. In any case they looked authentic on the outside but were badly executed within. Neither the buns or potstickers had a drop of juice on the inside, which is instant fail. The filling, a nondescript pork and cabbage with too much rice wine and not enough aromatics, was rubbery. I have always read in cookbooks that you should not overwork ground meats for fear of ruining the texture, but this is the first time I have seen it demonstrated. I think that if I had a mind to, I could have bounced the balls of filling off the floor like Silly Putty. Instead of serving dipping sauce with the potstickers, they poured sauce over the potstickers and then they served a dipping sauce with the buns. What the hell is that? You don’t serve sauce with buns. The pastry wrapping the buns had a sour flavor, maybe the sauce is to help hide that.

I am trying not to take the fact that their business seems pretty good as an insult to … Chinese food, or something.

Verdict: I don’t know what Dumpling Haus is an insult to, but it’s an insult to something, most definitely.


Wah Kee Noodles

Info here.

Wah Kee Noodles was the first restaurant in Madison that made us think, hey, this is actually delicious. Which was … surprising. Dining in Madison has been a process of having hopes, having hopes dashed, having hope tentatively peek out of its grave, repeat. This restaurant was the first to break the cycle, for which I am eternally grateful. At one point I considered begging the chef for a job in the kitchen, in order to steal the secrets of their Thai iced tea, their lovely lovely noodle broths, and their perfect spicy-sour-sweet sauce for their Bun Ga noodle dish.

Bun Ga is heavenly stuff. Remember this when you look at their gigantic menu.

I haven’t had that many things on the menu, but I like to think I’ve hit the high points. The noodles in broth all feature perfectly cooked noodles in a wonderfully flavorful broth, with a couple of toppings that somehow stay full-flavored after soaking in the broth. If you think this sounds like Japanese ramen, it kind of does. The difference is this is simpler yet more delicious (much more delicious if you’re comparing it to the stuff Umami serves down the street, for example).

The “noodles in broth” category is great, but the real highlights of the menu are the Chef’s Specials, and the House Special Noodles. Each one of the Chef’s Specials are Chinese specialties that are literally cooked nowhere else in Madison. Take Guilin’s trademark braised pork belly with taro. From the House Special Noodles, the Stewed Pig Hock noodles (cue heavenly choirs) can’t be found anywhere else within <whatever the distance is between here and Chicago>. Finally, the crowning glory: they actually have the things printed on their menu. At least twice here in Madison I have gone into a Chinese restaurant, ordered something to do with duck, only to be told that they don’t actually have any duck. When might they have duck? They don’t know. Or that I had to order it days ahead. Screw that. If you’re not going to have it ready, or any idea when you might even have it, take it off the damn menu.

And really, if you have to ignore things on your menu, stop stocking the cheese for the damnable crag ragoons, and stock DUCK instead.

Verdict: Inexpensive delicious *Chinese* Food.