It may seem difficult, given the growing tide of new restaurants in Madison, to choose a top 10 list of favorite dishes. But when I started to think about this list I found it wasn't really hard at all. That's because a favorite dish is more than simply good eating. It should be something you return to again and again, it should be imprinted on your sensory memory, and it should be one of the first images that flits through your brain whenever you're hungry. While there are plenty of dishes that taste fine, there are very few that you wind up eating again and again, and that signify a perfect bite. Everyone, of course, will have his own list, but these are the dishes that I could live with, on rotation, if I had to.
Wasabi: Agedashi tofu and tiger roll
Admittedly, that's two dishes, but they combine into a perfect whole. While tofu can be an insipid thing, Wasabi's is lightly fried in Japanese broth, so it has a perfect, delicate, crackling crunch. Then it's garnished with bonito flakes, green onions and spicy radish for a very subtle toss of acidity and spice. It's a perfect warm-up to the more filling tiger roll, which is the best maki in town. Inside: shrimp tempura fat with shrimp, not batter. Circling the prawn: eel, sweet eel sauce, strips of mango and sesame.
This all makes for a tumble of flavors - fruity, nutty, greasy, sweet, fishy. The other, seemingly mundane thing that makes the maki perfect: It's tightly rolled, and the rice is perfectly polished, so it avoids a loose, gummy texture (along with the prevailing "bigger is better" approach to designer rolls that seems to confuse sushi with a church dinner or a fish fry).
Tornado Club: Strip steak
As an aspiring but clearly failed semi-vegetarian, I have a fear of tenderloin, but to be honest it's more of an aesthetic misgiving than an ethical one. Those big knobs of chewy, ultimately tasteless meat seem designed to choke you. But the Tornado's very reasonably priced and always close-to-perfect strip steak comes on a silver plate, topped by a big onion ring and sizzling in its own juices. The ratio of char to meat is balanced, so each bite is a little duet of tender steak and that seared frame. Add the crisp slab of iceberg wedge lettuce with the French blue cheese and you'll feel almost healthy.
Sardine: Duck confit salad
Sardine keeps rotating dishes, but the duck confit salad always stays fixed on the menu, for good reason. It's the best salad in town.
What makes it so perfect is the range of flavor and textures. The disks of light homemade potato crisp add a crunch to the toss of tender duck, snapping green beans, frisee, diced tomato and bacon lardon. The bonus: a big poached egg riding on top that bleeds its creamy yellow yolk over everything. Best of all, the dressing, too often an afterthought, is a clean, bright, almost tart blend of olive oil, duck and bacon fat that brings out the salad's lusty flavors.
It's hard to choose the best of Lombardino's because so much of the menu is so good (especially the coherent, dramatic antipasti, like the always knockout bruschettas and a recent barbecued octopus). It's also hard to choose because the menu keeps changing shape by season, so just when you settle on a favorite it gets replaced.
But when it comes to pasta, there are no real competitors in town (except for Harvest). A prime example of how good the pastas can be: the always toothsome and properly al dente spaghetti Bolognese, which is anointed with a meat sauce made from Cates Family Farm beef, Jordandal Farm ground pork, pancetta, tomatoes and white wine, for a Dairyland-goes-Tuscan reverie.
The seafood pastas also consistently make the case for the beauty of clean, understated Italian cooking. Await the return of a signature dish: a linguine tossed with fresh littleneck clams, rock shrimp and pancetta, sautéed with cream, garlic, parsley and a touch of chili. For vegetarians, the pappardelle with mushrooms and black truffle is memorable too.
Gotham Bagels: Lox and cream cheese
A sandwich is only as good as its bread, and while there are some really memorable sandwiches in town, there is nothing better than Gotham's dark brown sesame seed bagel filled with just about anything, because the bagel has the proper chew. But if you add lox, scallion cream cheese, a spray of watercress (Gotham's "Brighton Beach"), and then toast the bagel, you get a gooey classic that would feel at home in Brooklyn or the Lower East Side. And if Gotham finds a more reliable source for its lox (say, lightly smoked and cut much more thinly, so the strips of salmon are almost translucent), the result will be a little masterpiece.
Umami Ramen and Dumpling Bar: Pork buns
David Chang has become one butch culinary star on the basis of his pork buns, but the last Chang bun I had was a chewy, indifferent thing. Try Umami's rendition instead. For the price, it's just as good as any of the buns popping up all over now, because the Chinese mantou bun itself is pillowy and slightly sweet and makes the perfect pocket for the fatty strips of very porky braised pork belly. The addition of pickled baby cucumber, scallions and hoisin sauce gives it just the right sweet-and-sour tang.
Quivey's Grove: Popover Glover
Served in the Stone House, this isn't a stylish trendy dish, and that's one of the things I like about it. Like most of Quivey's food, it's something of an anti-trendy throwback.
The kitchen deserves credit for retrieving all those Midwestern recipes that have just as much gravitas and glamour as any ethnic cuisine. I like their take on lots of dishes, but the popover is a mouthful of pure nostalgia for any Midwesterner. A scoop of the tender chicken, mushrooms, thick creamy yellow gravy and popover, a little chewy around the edges and soft inside, is the definition of soul food. The popover cycles on and off the menu here, so look for its return.
I'm still looking for a perfect pizza in town and haven't found it, but a combination of two pies comes close to an ideal. Add pesto to Paisan's super hot and you get a rousing blast of spicy cheese, pepperoni and peppers, leavened by the nutty pesto. Order the pizza Salsiccia (crumbled fennel sausage, roasted onions, house-smoked mozzarella, cremini mushrooms) from Brutta and you get the more purist, classic Neapolitan taste of a wood-fired oven.
Combine the wonderful smoky crust running along the rim of the Brutta pizza and a bit of the kick of the Paisan's pizza and you'd have a triumph.
Plaka Taverna: Moussaka
I was surprised to find this on the list myself - sometimes a dish sneaks up on you - but Plaka's moussaka is a feathery, delicate stack of eggplant, ground lamb and slivered potatoes topped by a perfect cloud of béchamel sauce. Eggplant never tasted so good, and béchamel sauce should never have gone out of style.