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Saturday, December 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 33.0° F  Overcast
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The Big Eat 2010 is a microcosm of Madison dining

We are a nation of nibblers. As I was walking over to The Big Eat at Monona Terrace on Monday night, I passed by a local restaurant where a man in the window was digging into a good-sized steak. It looked perfect, ready for a photo shoot, in fact, but I was just as happy contemplating the many small plates I'd be getting over the course of the next couple of hours.

The Big Eat is an annual event put on by Isthmus and, along with Madison's CW, WBUW, Magic 98, Fred Astaire Dance Studios, Budget Signs and Specialties, Econoprint and Kesslers Diamonds, to benefit The Family Centers. (The Family Centers include The Respite Center, Canopy Center, Family Enhancement, and The Exchange Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse.)

Some people at an event like The Big Eat scope out all of the food and drink booths first and then swoop in after the items that strike them as the most appealing. And I admit that makes sense. I, however, am a haphazard nibbler. I followed the lead of what consumer research has shown is a common American habit -- I walked into the room and turned right. Hence I started with a tart fish ceviche from Cancun Mexican Restaurant.

My next stop was Liliana's, the New Orleans-style restaurant from Fitchburg. Liliana's had four menu items, all great -- an endive boat (a small field greens salad held in a bit of endive, with nuts and blue cheese); puffy gougeres; shrimp and crawfish "shooters" (hard to "shoot" out of their diminutive container, but with wonderful tomato and seafood flavor); and samples of spicy muffaleta po'boys.

By that time, a few items that were generating buzz in the room: Marigold Kitchen's tart and tangy wild mushroom bruschetta with garlic and rosemary goat cheese, with a tangle of microgreens on top. Taj Indian Restaurant's vegetable curry and its chicken tikka masala. Pedro's roasted corn and black bean tamale topped with mole sauce and an accompanying margarita.

Ultimately, Marigold's bruschetta won the audience vote for favorite appetizer (as well as most creative presentation and friendliest staff). Tutto Pasta-State Street won the audience award for favorite entree with its vegetarian ravioli, with a spinach filling and a rich tomato cream sauce topped with freshly grated parmesan cheese. This also won for favorite vegetarian entree.

Las Cazuelas, the new Mexican restaurant at 15 N. Butler, took the audience award for favorite ethnic entrees, and Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier nabbed favorite desserts with a selection of dark chocolates. Wollersheim Winery once again won the audience vote for "favorite beverages."

But I was intrigued by some other offerings. Dobra Tea's hot Indian chai was as different from the drink going by the name "chai" at Starbucks and other coffeehouses as apples are from endive. The dark, sweet, milky tea was assertive, almost chocolatey, with earthy, husky undertones. Fromagination paired cheese with figs and honey on a bit of crusty bruschetta. La Mestiza's chips and guacamole were killer, with the chips almost a hybrid of a corn and a flour tortilla, and fried puffy, the guacamole fresh and chunky.

The Willy Street Co-op made a cream-curry carrot soup, but I was most intrigued by its garnish, something called a fennel and pepper grissini -- a crispy little stir stick that could be a stand-alone hit as a snack food.

And that was the end of my nibbling. Carr Valley's reliably wonderful cheese and The Chocolate Shoppe's ice cream would have to wait for another day. Las Cazuelas had small containers of Pastel Tres Leches cake with covers, so I put one in my pocket to eat later. It was as rich and creamy as you'd expect a cake made from sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream to be.

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