There should have been more culinary surprises in 2006, considering how many restaurants opened all over town. But so many of the restaurants were so forgettable and generic, or just another notch in a chain belt, that it's hard to remember all the debuts.
Except for one - Sardine - and that one qualifies as the only surprise of the year, and an important new kitchen. That's because Sardine was strong enough to really help reinvent the dining landscape in Madison. It's one of the first large-scale dining rooms in town that knows how to mix savvy fun with serious dining, an informal sense of fiesta with good food, a true sense of style with a real sense of taste. The kitchen has already produced some classic dishes - the best skate wing I've ever tasted; an ethereal duck salad - but just as important, it's become a kind of clubhouse for Madisonians who expect the real thing, as opposed to another suburban chain restaurant or one of those forced, self-conscious hipster cafes that always get it wrong.
So that's the one new restaurant we've added to the list of local places that rate as consistently good, and that we return to again and again. The rest of the list of personal favorites has stayed pretty steady for 2006: Wasabi still puts Madison's other faux Japanese restaurants to shame, and not just because it's the only sushi bar in town that serves impeccably fresh fish and inventive rolls; its salmon teriyaki and noodle dishes show the same attention to detail and the same respect for ingredients as its peerless unagi and its kelsey maki.
The only other really strong Asian restaurant in town is Restaurant Muramoto, which also does fine by its very lush rolls but mixes in global flavors that are always exciting.
Lombardino's remains the best Italian restaurant in town, by a mile, again because it's the only Italian restaurant that respects its tradition but knows how to play with tradition, too, and that never skimps on the quality of its ingredients. A Lombardino's pasta dish is a lesson in what all the other local Mediterranean restaurants aren't willing or able to do.
The Caspian Cafe still does the most consistently satisfying lunches around, and Tornado Club's steaks are top notch.
Whole Foods still inspires a love-hate relationship. No other food store manages to turn grocery shopping into such a seduction (this is the only stop for a real selection of fresh-baked breads and creative take-out entrées), but too much of the food is overpriced, too much is borderline stale, and there is a disturbing ethos driving the place. Those useless paper cartons stacked by the take-out deli, the cartons that never close and aren't actually designed to hold more than a carrot or two, are symptomatic of a corporation that's willing to sacrifice goodwill for profit.
Other disappointments: L'Etoile (at least a recent meal, which featured good scallops sitting next to an uncouth, tasteless pile of lentils and spinach that added nothing at all to the dish), and the Capital Newspapers food critics, who need to sample more food when they review a restaurant, think critically, and consider that their real responsibility is to the hapless consumer.