If you went on sabbatical around New Year's Eve 2009, and are just coming back now, you've missed about a billion food developments in Madison. Even the quietest of them might force you to check on the status of your welcome home party reservations. There have been, shall we say, some changes in town.
The winds of change blew in from the city most wind calls home. Chicago chefs Tim and Elizabeth Dahl left their respective posts at Blackbird and BOKA to hang the shingle we now know as Nostrano, following the retirement of longtime Madison restaurateur Peppino Gargano. Time Out Chicago described the news as "a huge hit" for the Chicago dining scene, but their loss has so far been our gain.
Nostrano joins Francesca's al Lago, another Italian new arrival hailing from Chicago. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. storefront between Starbucks and Ocean Grill is Francesca's first foray outside of northern Illinois.
And Patrick Sweeney and Joshua Berkson have recently opened Merchant, a cafe and cocktail spot across from Johnny Delmonico's.
Dairy news kept Wisconsin in the national headlines in 2010, as the forces of raw milk righteousness rallied to support a bill legalizing farm sales of unpasteurized dairy products. Wisconsin Public Radio host Michael Feldman penned an opinion piece on the subject for the New York Times, and Madison hosted the International Raw Milk Symposium in April. The bill was eventually vetoed by Governor Doyle, but he did sign a bill naming Lactobacillus lactis Wisconsin's official state microbe.
Fans of raw dairy products had their own reason to celebrate with the arrival of Uplands Rush Creek Reserve in November. This aged raw milk cheese, only the second release from the Dodgeville dairy famous for Pleasant Ridge Reserve, was noticed by the New York Times and lauded by innumerable food sites across the country. The San Francisco Weekly named it one of the ten best cheeses of 2010.
Rush Creek Reserve is often available on the menu of perhaps the hottest of the new restaurants proliferating on the Capitol Square: Underground Kitchen. Along with those aforementioned Chicago insurgents, established local chefs have set upon the downtown with a ferocity previously unknown. Peter McElvanna -- formerly of Brocach -- opened The Coopers Tavern. Justin Carlisle -- formerly of Harvest -- opened 43 North in the former Cafe Continental space. And in perhaps the biggest of moves, Tory Miller vacated the legendary second floor spot of L'Etoile for a glossy, glassy street level space in the US Bank building, and added a gastropub named Graze next door.
The addition of Graze to Miller's new location was one of a handful of expansions for some of the Madison area's more successful ventures. The Old Fashioned absorbed the former L'Etoile/Cafe Soleil space and cut those brutal Saturday night waits for tables in half. Batch Bakehouse on Williamson is now open until 6 p.m. during weekday business to accommodate after-work traffic. Monona's Crema Cafe doubled up into the vacant Thai Garden, added a former Marigold chef, and is looking into a liquor license. The Great Dane universe expanded into the east side's Grandview Commons neighborhood where Cloud Nine and Jovian previously stumbled.
The foodie heart of Madison is perhaps stronger than ever, but a pair of abrupt departures prove that no talent is ever locked in. Though co-owners Christopher and Prentice Berge initially intended to close Restaurant Magnus and reopen as bike- and train-friendly Velo Bahn, the bizarre scuttling of the rail project by Governor-Elect Scott Walker turned the temporary closure into a permanent one. Chef Nick Johnson, a recent James Beard Award semi-finalist, has not yet announced a new project. Neither has chocolatier David Bacco, who left his eponymous Hilldale shop to "express his artful visions of chocolate full-time," according to the somewhat curious release from DB Infusion Chocolates' new owners.
Success is often all about momentum. The recent recession doesn't seem to be as big a roadblock anymore, and Madison continues to win publicity, buzz, and the hearts and minds of culinarians nationwide (including food writer and television host Anthony Bourdain, who stopped by for a November engagement at Overture Center).
As 2010 comes to a close, the momentum in Madison's food scene definitely seems to be carrying us toward a successful 2011 -- and noodles. Man, there are a lot of new noodle shops.