Anda Marie Photography
The year of memorable special dinners finished with a soulful Eat for Equity dinner at Madison Sourdough that featured food foraged and hunted by attendees of the Chief Meskokonaye Youth Camp, hailing from the Red Lake Chippewa Nation in Minnesota.
Many of the best Madison bites of 2012 weren't on regular menus or even necessarily inside the hosting restaurant. They were at special events or pop-ups that dotted the culinary calendar with alarming frequency this year. Almost weekly there seemed to be yet another not-to-be-missed dinner promising an epic culinary adventure.
Calendar conflicts kept me from what I later learned were some of the greatest of these events: The wine dinners at 43 North, the Black Market Madison pop-ups, a Slow Food Tuscan dinner at Osteria Papavero, a chef Dan Fox dinner at Death's Door Spirits, an Underground Food Collective pop-up at Old Sugar Distillery, the Edible Madison Dinner at Cress Springs, Outstanding in the Field, wine and Champagne dinners with sommelier Michael Kwas at L'Etoile, as well as multiple dinners at the Madison Club (especially the fifth anniversary party for Fromagination). Not to mention the multiple near-regular special dinners at Harvest, Brasserie V, Sardine, the Vintage, and more.
While themed events can be pricey -- some can run well over a $100 -- they are typically excellent value. Such dinners are when chefs often do their most creative work, and ingredients and libations can be expensive and rare.
At their best, special restaurant events explore a culinary theme at a depth you may not have ever have experienced before. They are also great opportunities to meet like-minded people. Guests leave changed -- with new friends, minds blown, and palates expanded.
Here are a few of the special occasions I did manage to attend, and which offered some of the year's most exceptional tasting moments.
Back in March, L'Etoile's Bone Luge Brunch was an enormous hit. A platter of oysters set on verdant green (parsley) sea salt was a visually stunning starter, and the event provided the opportunity for participants to experience the novel combination of drinking sherry through marrow bone. It's a silly and delicious trend still going strong. The bone luge went on to find glory on the menu at Graze, and is also available at Merchant (and a few other spots that serve bone marrow and booze).
L'Etoile was also the site of a cheese, cocktail, and wine pairing contest -- one of the most entertaining evenings of the year. Three rockstars of cheese -- Chris Roelli (Roelli), Willi Lehner (Bleu Mont), and Andy Hatch (Uplands) -- talked about their cheeses and judged pairings. A cowboy showdown theme threatened to make the proceedings campy, but ensured the night was lively.
Nostrano stunned at more than one special meal this year. The first was a perfectly executed North Shore Distillery brunch. This was followed a few months later by a Goose Island beer and food pairing. A final St. George Spirits dinner with Charles Joly, the newly appointed director of Chicago's famed bar the Aviary, was among the year's very best meals. The cocktails were flawless, the food a divine match. Chef Tim Dahl gamely presented a geleéd version of a Boulevardier cocktail. The decadent, complex, chocolate dessert from this evening was the very same one chef Elizabeth Dahl prepared for the Isthmus Food & Wine Festival.
Merchant hosted a Madison-Milwaukee I-94 cocktail competition that brought the two cities together for an uproarious showdown. A large part of the state's bartending talent was in attendance. There was great camaraderie, and event helped expand cocktail culture in our state.A Pierre Ferrand dinner at Merchant brought the famous Cognac House's co-owner Alexander Gabriel to Madison for an evening of unforgettable rums and cognacs. Gabriel's easy charm was infectious, and the New Orleans-inspired food and drink pairings were sublime. Course two wowed: Anson Mills grits with Pierre Ferrand Cognac collards, smoked pheasant and Chartreuse, all doused under Andouille-red eye gravy and then garnished with grated licorice root and Angostura mist.
Merchant was also the buddy restaurant for the Papavero summer picnic at Black Earth Valley Farm. The afternoon began with a wild bus ride replete with buckets of wine as well as tasty cocktails served by a very nimble (it was a bumpy road) head bartender J.R. Mocanau.
So much talent on the grills made for an outstanding al fresco meal. There was live music and inspiring nude swimming in the farm's idyllic stream. The afternoon was a high point of the summer.
Papavero also hosted a five-course Paolo Scavino wine dinner. The piece de resistance was cinghiale in due modi: wild boar chop, wild boar terrine, and parmesan gratin. Essentially, boar two ways -- a succulent little chop as well as a rich terrine -- paired with the modern Italian vintner's heady Barolo.
I had the pleasure of supping with winemaker Ken Bernards at Sardine's Ancien wine dinner. A beautiful setting for any meal, Sardine's food was well matched to the expert wines. Bernards regaled us with stories of swimming with Great White sharks near his Bay Area home as the pairing menu came to a sumptuous conclusion: Braised veal cheeks, gnocchi, fava beans, roasted tomato, rutabaga, and oil-cured olives served with his '09 Shea Vineyard Pinot.
The historic Livingston Inn became the setting for a Downton Abbey-esque eight-course Escoffier dinner inspired by the 1903 cookbook "Le Guide Culinaire." The outfit known as Fox & Fox (chef Dan Fox and bartender Chad Vogel) prepared historic dishes at a level that would have made the great French chef proud. Twenty-four of us dined in the beautifully appointed west parlor at a single long table for this once-in-a-lifetime meal.
Dan Fox also helped prepare a Washington Island dinner with chef Leah Caplan and food writer Terese Allen at the Madison Club. It was a convivial, delightful, group and Allen described Washington Island life in loving detail.
No roundup of the year in special dinner food would be complete without mentioning SloPig, the heritage pig and punch super event that has brought the Madison and Milwaukee food scenes into closer contact and competition. The most recent was held in Milwaukee, and featured the best Madison and Milwaukee restaurants and bartenders. The Aviary team from Chicago joined in the fray this year, too.
The year of memorable special dinners finished with a soulful Eat for Equity dinner at Madison Sourdough that featured food foraged and hunted by attendees of the Chief Meskokonaye Youth Camp, hailing from the Red Lake Chippewa Nation in Minnesota. A bite of perfectly seared elk accompanied by a spicy Syrah, though simplicity itself, holds its own in my memory against the year's best special dinner pairings.