So many downtown restaurants have recently opened, surrounding the Square in a tight culinary huddle, that it can be daunting to decide where to go and what to eat. So here is a quick, blatantly subjective guide to the crush of options: my tally of the best dish (in some cases dishes) at the new kitchens, and the plates that are actually worth your time and shrinking money.
Of course, dining out in Madison may be an increasingly moot point, once everyone but the rich gets gutted by Gov. Walker's wrecking crew (and it's only month two). So try to taste the best of this bunch quickly, before the sacrosanct moguls and blatant oligarchs fill all the tables, or the kitchens start closing for want of clients.
Underground Kitchen: This is still by far my favorite of the new downtown kitchens. Yes, it's noisy, but it's as much boho hangout as restaurant, so some people come for that buzz alone. (A hint: When tables are communal you shouldn't expect an intimate dinner.) And not every dish succeeds. But what helps Underground stand out from the competition, and makes it Madison's most confident, coherent and consistently exciting new restaurant, is a relentlessly creative kitchen - one that is passionate about local sourcing, and that keeps experimenting with affordable, inventive but never trend-driven dishes that usually shine.
The menu changes constantly, but among the reliable standbys is a meat board always worth getting, not only because UK is religious about its own processed meats but because the carnivorous selection is creative. Currently it includes duck pate, summer sausage, saucisson sec, rabbit bacon and the always knockout rillettes. The board comes paired with the best bread in town (from Madison Sourdough).
The other must-have here is one of the bargain-priced veg dishes. If beets in any form are on the menu they will be juicy, fruity and supernal; the currently listed beet salad, with citrus, blackberry vinegar and crème fraiche, could double as dessert.
Graze: My first visit to Graze, a few weeks after it opened, was choppy.
Until recently it was considered unethical for a reviewer to file a critique of a restaurant before allowing it a month to get organized, tweak the starter menu, and resolve issues (that's the policy Isthmus still follows and that the Wisconsin State Journal, the Capital Times, Yelp and almost every culinary blog has unjustly trashed, in the name of a meaningless, snarky rush to a scoop that cheats both the restaurant and the consumer).
When I returned to Graze recently, many of the initial problems had been addressed. In fact, one of the dishes I liked least that first month is now one of my favorite dishes in town, and reason enough to fight the crowds at this no-reservation bistro: The pork buns are pillowy, almost feathery, and stuffed with melting pork belly, pickled vegetables and sweet hoisin. I could eat, well, a lot of them.
Also supremely good is the Graze burger. The $19 tab is high, but the mound of ground sirloin, ribeye and short ribs, with caramelized onions and cabernet jus on a sesame-seeded brioche, is one definitive burger.
Nostrano: Nostrano hasn't gotten the attention it deserves, maybe because it's parked on that lonely corner of the Square, or because some of its prices seem dangerously high (to wit, the $10 brussels sprouts salad). But the quality of the food here is consistently impressive (like an elegant grilled sturgeon with chickpea aioli, roasted artichoke and salsa verde).
And the desserts are by far the best downtown. Forget the usual crème brulée to panna cotta to flourless (why?) chocolate cake suspects. Nostrano's Copetta - a confection composed of buttermilk gelato, toffee pudding, bananas and Sicilian pistachios - is one ethereal work of art.
Merchant: Those odd signature toasts still need work, but for $8, the stack of pork belly, eggs and lentils is a seductive dish. And if the deeply satisfying seafood stew goes up as a daily special, order it fast.
43 North: This ambitious, high-end kitchen has wisely pared down its busy, trend-conscious, sometimes awkward menu to the best dishes, and ironically it's the most straightforward, old-school plate - a beef strip loin with horseradish - that comes out flawless.
Raphael Kadushin's feature on Holland in spring, for Conde Nast Traveler magazine, was awarded gold prize for best 2010 magazine destination piece by the North American Travel Journalists Association.