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Thursday, November 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Light Snow Fog/Mist
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The signature dish of Madison restaurants
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Credit:Timothy Hughes

Plenty of restaurants have a signature dish or cocktail. But when the restaurant names itself after that dish, the pressure is on. The kitchen had really better do that one well. A handful of Madison eateries have a namesake menu item. Fortunately for us, they do indeed go about these eponymous eats and drinks the right way. If you're willing to travel between courses, you could make quite a meal by following this path through some of Madison's most vibrant kitchens.

Sardines
at Sardine

It's not that common in Wisconsin, but a fine starter course is a plate of sardines.

For any seafood consumption these days, the conscientious diner should consult a good seafood watch list, like the one from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The state of our oceans is much worse than many realize, and we should do our best to eat wisely. In this effort, sardines are supremely virtuous.

I'll be blunt - they're the rabbit of the sea. Rapid breeding means we would really have to work to put a hurt on their population. Wild-caught Pacific sardines are an abundant and replenishing resource right now, and in Madison, Sardine is doing them the right way.

Much of Sardine's menu is focused on seasonality and sustainability. Sardines have come and gone, and with each iteration the kitchen has produced a slightly different plate. The little fishes have come out with flageolet beans and grilled bread, or with peppers, olives and pistou vinaigrette. They're currently pan roasted with chile-braised white beans and endive.

Sardines aren't tilapia or haddock; their flesh is soft, oily and aromatic. If you don't like fishy fish, they may not be for you, though they should be. Sardines contain lots of omega-3 fatty acids, making these delicious starters from the Sardine kitchen infinitely more enjoyable than taking fish oil pills.

Baguettes
at La Baguette

While a crusty boule of sourdough doesn't always facilitate the idle tear-and-snack, that's practically the raison d'être of the baguette. There's nothing that can make you feel more continental than walking down the street with a baguette sticking out of your bag.

The history of the baguette has been contentious. Is it French or Austrian? Should it be long and skinny or more like a football? Should it boast big, irregular holes or a moderated interior that's just perforated enough to let light through?

My answers on this quiz are a) French, b) long and skinny and c) a moderated interior, and my experience says that La Baguette agrees. Its baguettes, like most of the breads on its heavenly baker's rack, are just golden-brown enough to crunch, but not so crusty that you couldn't eat half the loaf during the car ride home without needing to stop at the Octopus for full interior vacuuming. And certainly, the mellifluous French spoken behind the counter will put you in the right frame of mind.

Sourdough
at Madison Sourdough

"Cooking is an art, baking is a science," or so says the old aphorism. There's no better evidence that there's something to it than sourdough bread. That crusty, crunchy exterior. A crumb so soft and tender it almost gives way to butter, but not quite. Good sourdough bread exhibits a science so magical it approaches alchemy.

Yet there's a similarity to the cheesemaker's art, with the same loving care and historical long-view applied to sourdough live-culture starters as to cheese aging planks. See the bubbles and gaps in the heart of the loaf, evoking Swiss cheese.

Given sourdough's resemblance to an actual living creature, it feels appropriate that cutting into a fresh loaf isn't too far removed from breaking down a chicken or lobster. Your knife had better be sharp, and your vacuum cleaner at the ready; there will be crumbs.

Madison Sourdough's classic white sourdough makes a fantastic grilled sandwich - it's my go-to for tuna melts - but is equally adept at sopping sauces and soups. The ovens at Madison Sourdough have earned their eponymy.

Old fashioneds
at the Old Fashioned

The International Bartender Association recognizes 65 standard cocktails, codifying their recipes and establishing the standard for their preparation. So how is it that the old fashioned, thought by some to be the first modern mixed drink, can have such widely varying components?

Short answer: because the standard allows for variance. The IBA states that an old fashioned can be composed of bourbon, scotch or rye whiskey. Rye, usually in the form of Canadian Club, is the preferred base alcohol for Don Draper of Mad Men. A canvas of recipes online shows a slight preference for bourbon.

One recipe that never gets enough respect is the - and I mean the - Wisconsin variant: one made with brandy, topped with 7-Up instead of soda. The IBA places the old fashioned in the "pre-dinner cocktail" category, but this baby's so sweet you're just as likely to drink it for dessert. Me? I'll pretty much drink 'em any time, and there's no better place than the Old Fashioned.

But I'd never had anything but the Wisconsin version. I asked the bartenders at the Old Fashioned for their patrons' preferences. They figured about 70% of the orders were for the brandy sweet model; 20% were for a bourbon sweet, and the remaining 10% ordered the house rye whiskey iteration, made with Seagram's VO.

At the Old Fashioned, they're all terrific, although I think I liked the Mad Men version the most.

Marlin
at Blue Marlin

There are sure things on the seafood watch, and there are more measured recommendations. Farmed salmon is a big no-no. Trawl-caught Atlantic cod should be avoided, but the Pacific variety is a good alternative. And while the striped marlin population is plummeting, certain catches of blue marlin can be a safe main course (depending on which watch list you subscribe to).

While new restaurants open around it, Madison's Blue Marlin is a veteran of the downtown dining scene, continuing to bring fresh ocean fish to Wisconsin. Prime blue marlin season generally starts in April and runs through October, but so long as the fishing is good, Blue Marlin offers it year-round.

Fresh fish shipments six days per week ensure that your marlin hasn't been out of the water very long. Additionally, Blue Marlin changes its menu every two or three months to reflect seasonal ingredients. The winter version is caraway-crusted with beet ravioli and horseradish crème fraiche, but your marlin may vary.

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