Another year of eating has come and almost gone in Madison. Those years that begin with a presidential inauguration always seem to breeze by faster than others. Indeed, even the advent of a new administration in the nation's capital had an impact on the food scene in Madison, as Troy Gardens' Claire Strader was the top vote-getter of three finalists for the unofficial position of White House Farmer.
Her accomplishment, which has yet to be formalized by President Obama, was not the only national attention Madison received in 2009. News outlets from National Public Radio to USA Today discussed the release of Hook's 15-Year Cheddar in early December. The reactions varied from awe to disbelief to disdain, depending on the source. Luxist, the blog of all things fancy, loved it; Consumerist, advocate for shoppers' rights, was predictably snide.
Wisconsin took New York by storm this year, as local food advocates Ben and Jonny Hunter led their Underground Food Collective to the East Coast for three-meal engagements in January and May. Both visits were lauded by journalists and bloggers alike. The Hunters may be underground, but at least they're legal; the 50 cases of New Glarus Spotted Cow that were confiscated from a Manhattan Sconnie bar were less so. There's been no word yet as to whether the bar's owner has suffered any of the potential penalties for serving an unlicensed brew.
That's not to say there aren't Madison names on the foodie crime blotter, though. Riddled with small-claims cases, the east side's Cloud 9 Grille closed somewhat abruptly in March. Despite promises to the contrary on its website, Cloud 9 did not return; new owners have taken over, and Jovian Taphaus is the new tenant. Even more serious were the charges levied in August against Hyungirl and Jongyean Lee, owners of Riley's Wines of the World and Samba Brazilian Grill. After pleading guilty to charges related to false tax filings, the Lees will serve staggered prison terms in addition to paying significant fines and fees. Their businesses are still operating, but the long-term future of their liquor licenses is in doubt.
Also in doubt is the very existence of Brickhouse BBQ, also owned by the Lee family. It was scheduled to open last August, and was granted a liquor license by the city in November 2008. That license has since expired, and no clear progress has been made on opening the restaurant. Other signs of premature or unfounded optimism exist near the corner of Broom and West Johnson, where Logan's Roadhouse has been slow in developing. Owners had hopes for a late-fall opening. Things have gone slower that that -- gutting a space that large is bound to offer unexpected setbacks.
Isthmus reported in October on the long gestation period for long gestation period for Cooper's Tavern, and while a soft open was hoped for the new Capitol Square gastropub by early December, downtown diners are still waiting. Perhaps most surprising, though, is that it is now listed as a Food Fight venture on that restaurant group's website. Still, no new opening date has been posted. The most definite of all dining downfalls, however, was that suffered by Appleton's Supple Group and their plans for a new location of Fratellos Restaurant on the shores of Lake Mendota. The poor hotel market sunk Fratellos, which was to be anchored to a new Aloft Hotel.
But we had some luminary food figures stop in between the lakes over the last year. Fellow eater of strange things Andrew Zimern visited Madison and other Wisconsin locales in July for his Travel Channel show, Bizarre World. Okay, so he only got as "bizarre" as mac-and-cheese pizza, but he was here! Best-selling author Michael Pollan made an even bigger splash during his September speaking engagement at the Kohl Center. With his adherents in full attendance and his opponents at full throat, Pollan spoke to simple, local, and responsible food culture in a town where that movement has already gained a solid foothold. You can't blame his fans for feeling a little like they were seeing the Beatles at Shea Stadium.
At the end of any year, it's always nice to look back and consider the things for which we're all thankful. I'm thankful to live in a city where chefs like Shinji Muramoto (Restaurant Muramoto) and Derek Rowe (Harvest) ply their trade; both were 2009 semifinalists (PDF) for the James Beard Best Chef in the Midwest award. I'm thankful to live in a city that once again has been recognized as having the best farmers' market in the country. I'm thankful that I only had to eat a couple brats in helping Bratfest finally set a new record again. And I'm thankful for being in Madison again for 2010, for all the new restaurants, dishes and food experiences it will bring.