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Saturday, February 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 1.0° F  Fair
The Daily
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Madison menus gone wild! Dishes to try as spring feels a lot like summer
The grilled calamari plate from Graze, accented with piquillo coulis.
The grilled calamari plate from Graze, accented with piquillo coulis.
Credit:Carolyn Fath

The prolonged blast of warm air that toasted the Upper Midwest for most of March has culinary life here out of sync. Cocktail programs are shifting gears quickly to respond to the higher temperatures, but in kitchens, chefs are scratching their heads. What produce is local and organic right now? Unfortunately, not much; root vegetables, the first nettles and some early greens.

The other night I opened the menu at L'Etoile only to realize that I had already nearly missed sturgeon season. Normally this is a greatly anticipated bright spot in March - for years I've enjoyed grilling it outside while freezing - and here it was going off menus already. I missed it because instead of the usual order of things, I've been prematurely gorging myself on the light and bright foodstuffs I crave when cold gives way to warmth.

The Great Heatwave has me eating like it is late June. Here's what I've been noshing:

A surprise hit dish at State Street's Rising Sons Deli was the perfect accompaniment to an afternoon that reached nearly 80 degrees. Yum neua is a beef salad with bright yellow peppers, onion, carrots, cilantro, lemongrass and mint. The sauce is sweet and sour, spicy from chilis and pungent from fish sauce. In short, tropical and glorious.

Red Sushi Grill on King Street has been running special rolls with thinly shaved strawberries on the outside. Typically, this kind of roll doesn't appeal to me, but with the door kicked open on a sweltering evening, it was the right time to try one. It worked; the strawberry was delicious with the crab, avocado and tuna, adding a sweet and sticky highlight to the fats and sesame.

Sal, who works the counter there, also passed over some high-grade uni. Great uni sucks the heat right out of the surrounding air just like ferns do. Alien edible gossamer pudding, it is one of the planet's strangest textures - and the subtle flavor of the sea lingers as a slightly acrid aftertaste.

On the Argus patio, the first shandy of the year arrived, using Gumballhead Wheat Ale from Three Floyds Brewery of Indiana and fresh-squeezed lemonade.

At Atwood Avenue's Stalzy's Deli, the first picnic-ready and bike-friendly snack of the year appeared with their new piragi (not to be confused with pierogi). Lighter than you would suspect, it consists of a slightly crunchy brioche-like bread with bacon inside. It tastes like the old country, if your old country is Latvia.

At L'Etoile, Ruben Mendez's One Way Street is a tangerine shrub with a pinch of Korean chili that tastes like the essence of tangerine. A shrub is an alcohol-based fruit syrup that often also contains vinegar. Prior to refrigeration, this was a way to preserve fruit. In this cocktail, it provides a subtle sour and acidic undertone.

Graze has a beautiful new grilled calamari plate that has multiple elements at play. Squid bodies are stuffed with housemade Italian sausage over a sunchoke puree, while the tentacles are separated and charred crispy. A rich tapenade quenelle contrasts with a bright, smoky piquillo pepper coulis, while micro-greens add further color and texture.

Down the block at Merchant, the Pork Belly Dog is already famous, and deservedly so. This thing is a force of nature, and one of those menu items that is simply born iconic. I like to take it a step further, as blogger Scott Meskan of does, and add a Nami Moon Farms duck egg on top. It screams summer fun. Or maybe it just screams, period.

At Nostrano, there was a light and infinitely refreshing celery salad - heirloom apple, chicory, pistachio. It was cooling, tart and lemony.

However, the most memorable bite of the entire heat wave had to have been the first taste of homemade Camembert (made in a Slow Food Madison cheese class with Leah Sugar), accompanying magnificent bread from the Baker's Window on State Street. It made for the perfect hiking picnic at Columbia County's Gibraltar Rock.

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