Writing about food is like babysitting a toddler. You've got to keep an eye on where all the playthings are. New toys are found or demanded, old or broken ones are cried over, and at some point you're probably going to have squash where it doesn't belong.
Writing about food in Madison is like that, but on top of a speeding train. We're not a big town, but we're awfully tumultuous. Last year was no exception to that rule. As we reflect on the year that was, take in a small sample of some noteworthy culinary developments of 2008, and some new ones yet to come in 2009.
With three high-profile closures in the Williamson/Atwood area this year -- MoCo Market, Fork and Spoon Cafe, and Cafe Zoma -- my very own neighborhood is witnessing the immediate impact of both local and national economic turmoil. Add to that list losses like Sucre on the Square and Cocoliquot on King, and you've got an already volatile restaurant scene going positively critical. Not every eatery, cafe, and night spot can have Food Fight or a Berge behind it; how can small local treasures survive?
Resist the urge to turn to manufactured outlets. Stay local with your suppliers. Give money to those farmers, growers, and other raw material providers who might in turn spend money at your establishment. There's no need to let Sysco run your whole operation. People like my friend Lee Davenport of Pamplemousse Preserves are creating wonderful comestibles on a local level; continue to utilize them, and keep your community afloat around you. It'll come back around eventually. But do be careful not to set yourself up for sure failure; your model should allow for some measure of success given strong business. We've had enough martyrs to the cause of growth and New Urbanism. A recession is not the time for falling on one's sword.
Trend: Out-of-towners coming to stay
Last year, Reedsburg favorite Erin's Snug Irish Pub launched a Madison location in the AmFam neighborhood on the east side. That was apparently just the opening volley. While Mexicali Rose of Wisconsin Dells couldn't stick on Cottage Grove Road, last year saw the arrival of the entire La Baguette operation from Minocqua. Friends of mine who vacation in the northern tier were ebullient in singing the praises of this very authentic French bakery. My few trips to the west side have found business at La Baguette to be brisk and enthusiastic. The lardon fromage bread (bacon and cheese for us Yanks) is amazing.
In 2009, look for Fratello's to open near the Sheraton on John Nolen Drive. With four locations between Green Bay and Oshkosh and another in Milwaukee, Fratello's (and its associated Fox River Brewing Company) has become the Great Dane of northeast Wisconsin.
Trend: Dial 'M' for 'Maximum capacity'
Locally-owned taquerias continued their advancement throughout Madison in 2007. 2008 might have witnessed the cresting of that wave. By my account, only Taqueria Guanajuato was opened last year, taking over the space vacated by The Bamboo Hut. I'm not one to speak poorly of a good taco, but I think Madison has indeed reached its limit for the amount of traditional Mexican fare it can support. That can and will change as the population continues to shift, but for now the dozen or so locales should do nicely. Even fans of chain Mexican can rest easy now that Chipotle and Qdoba have opened east side locations.
Another mass-produced 'M' has reached a respectable level of saturation in the Madison market: Mongolian barbeque. Although it might be better labeled as pseudo-Mongolian, the lo-fi stir-fry restaurant model has taken off in the last few months. Flat Top Grill, for some time the lone outpost of the cuisine, has been joined by Hu Hot on the west side (opening soon) and BD's Mongolian Barbecue (maybe opening someday) on the east side. For large cooking surfaces, simple preparations, and more ambiance than authenticity, your needs are now being met.
Wish: Citywide late-night dining
I guess with the issue for some restaurants of maintaining a steady income, a lot of other wishes and trends will need to be re-evaluated for financial feasibility. But I'd really like to see a few more late-night spots around town. Even downtown, non-bar nightspots are hard to come by. Natt Spil and Kushi Bar Muramoto are extremely trendy examples of post-midnight dining, but not everyone has a pair of thick, black-rimmed eyeglasses or a plaid shirt to wear to such a place. Starbucks on University flirted briefly with 24-hour operation, but has now trimmed it back from 4:30 a.m. to midnight; even giants have to sleep. Let's all hope things start to pick up economically, and then maybe places like Curry in the Box, Maharaja, or Crema Cafe can expand to accommodate us night owls.
Trend: Celebrating the scene
This year was my first trip to the Taste of Madison. I enjoyed myself, and was happy to see people flocking to the more challenging stalls. Lombardino's and Bluephies were busy, but so was Buraka. That being said, it's an event that might be categorized as more of a survey course on the Madison restaurant scene. Madison Restaurant Week, on the other hand, is more like a 200-level class. In 2008, it expanded to include a summer week as well as the winter offering. I'm not saying I made it happen, I'm just sayin', you know? The list of restaurants is out for Winter 2009, and it looks pretty good -- all right, L'Etoile!
In addition to the major food events of the Madison culinary arena, smaller and more targeted events continue to highlight slices of city dining. A heirloom tomato tasting at Fresco in September was remarkably varied and quite tasty, if perhaps poorly attended. It's your loss, people; all I'll say is "mini-BLTs." Harvest continued its tradition of a holiday game dinner, and offers a number of other special event evenings throughout the year.
Madison's food scene is indeed picking up a big-city head of steam. Look no further than outfits like Underground Food Collective and the School Woods Supper Club for evidence of such. Semi-private, semi-secret foodie events like these have been gaining popularity in larger metro areas, and I don't think it's unfair to say that it's Madison's turn. Diners in Madison are becoming more and more literate about the local food chain and restaurateurs would be wise to take that into account. Our town really is turning into a great place to eat, and it stands to get even better in 2009. Mangia!