Another year, another notch in the belt. Somehow, it was all worth it.
It is a rare event, indeed, when you can say that you've had a perfect restaurant meal - not one little complaint. But in 2006 I can say that I've had not one, but two. One at an old restaurant, one at a new - and the latter at a chain, no less.
Peppino's, operated by Peppino Gargano, whose Madison restaurant roots go back to 1974, is located in an 18th-century stone building at the apex of South Hamilton Street, across from the Inn on the Park. Here, in an intimate and comfortable setting, Peppino serves classic Italian cuisine that is virtually flawless. His attention to every detail makes for a memorable dining experience. Crab cakes bursting with the flavor of Chesapeake blues, an unbelievable spicy tomato salad dressing, moist and tender roast duck breast with Japanese eggplant, bok choi, asparagus and cranberry chutney. The delights just kept rolling out of the kitchen, proving once again that Peppino Gargano is one of the most talented and inventive chefs in Wisconsin.
Later in the year, I was introduced to Fleming's, an upscale steakhouse, one of 45 owned by the Outback chain. Never has a chain restaurant impressed like this one. In elegance and comfort, we found incredible food and service, always exceeding expectations. The waiter surprised us immediately with a plate of thin rusks and dips - cabernet and goat cheese, and champagne and brie. How better to welcome hungry guests than with a little surprise such as this? The steaks are perfect, all prime grade, hand-cut in house, well aged and cooked perfectly. The Madison staff was trained for a full month, and had to eat their way through the entire menu, before the restaurant opened in fall. Fleming's, chain or not, is a textbook example of how a good restaurant should be run.
There were other highlights through the year. We had a chance to sample the cuisine of one of Wisconsin's premier chefs, Sanford D'Amato, at his casual Milwaukee bistro, Coquette. We enjoyed - several times - the traditional flavors of Wisconsin at the Old Feed Mill in Mazomanie, where comforting pot roast and baked chicken soothe the soul, and at Quivey's Grove in Fitchburg, where even the menu names pay homage to local historical figures.
And I often return to some old favorites, where I find welcoming friends, comfortable surroundings, good food, and reasonable prices. The Avenue Bar. Monty's Blue Plate Diner. Husnu's. Lulu's. The list seems to keep growing.
The old and the new. Comfort and excitement. In Madison, it doesn't get any better than this.