Glenn's Junk Chest

An assortment of Glenn's writings, photography, gaming resources, flash movies, and other creative output.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Dining: Favorite Five Madison Restaurants

For some time, I've been wanting to write some reviews of some of Madison's restaurants, and I figured I'd start out with reviews of my five favorites.

1. Crescent City
Rating: Amazing
Type of Service: Dine-in
Price: High to Very High
Favorite: 5-course chef's tasting.

Crescent City has been my favorite restaurant for some time now, and my wife and I go there often. While there are many excellent menu items, I almost never even look at them, opting instead to order one of the excellent chef's tastings, where the chef selects an array of dishes for you. With the 5-course, this is usually two appetizer courses, a fish course, a meat course, and finally a dessert. As a really classy restaurant, they're typically accomodating of special requests, but if you want to specify everything about your meal, don't order the tasting.

The reason this is my favorite restaurant, however, may not be the excellent food. The place is set up in the basement of Luther's Blues on University Avenue, with a long bar running the length, behind which is the kitchen. If you're going as a couple, definitely try to sit at the grill bar, as you can watch your food being prepared and ask the friendly chefs about what they're doing. When the person who actually cooked your food sets it in front of you and tells you what it is in detail, it enhances the entire dining experience.

If you're ordering a specific dish rather than a tasting, I think that the fowl and lamb dishes are better than the beef dishes, which sometimes seem a bit bland. Most weekday evenings, you can walk in without a reservation, but it's worth getting one if you can, and you often will need one if you want to sit at the grill bar. Occassionally they have special dining events, and these usually require a reservation. Parking in this region can be something a problem if there's an event, but there are some nearby UW parking lots that work well most of the time.

If you stop by, tell them Glenn and Liana sent you.

Update: Sadly, after a short drama early this year involving the building ownership, Crescent City closed. The head chef, Nate, has moved to the Blue Marlin, which is another excellent restaurant, but does not (sadly) have an open kitchen. As mentioned in the comments below, another excellent option would be Muramotos, which has a sort of sushi-style bar you can sit at to watch your food being prepared. It's got a lot more of a Japanese spin of course, but it's excellent. I'll have to do another set of restaurant reviews in the near future.

2. Lao Laan-Xang
Rating: Amazing
Type of Service: Dine-in or Carry-out
Price: Moderate
Favorite: Lunch Special #1

I think this tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Williamson street is the best asian food in Madison. It's not particularly fancy on the inside, and it's so small (only 7 or 8 tables) that if you want to go during peak hours you should expect to either get take-out or wait. But the food pays for all. I typically come for lunch, and have tried just about every one of the lunch items, and every single one of them has been astounding.

The cuisine is Laotian, which is a little like Thai. It can be very spicy, but as is common in Thai restaurants these days, you specify the desired level of spicyness for each dish on a scale: timid, careful, adventurous, or native lao. I'm a notorious spicy-food person, and I usually get the "careful", which is plenty spicy. If you're not into spicy food, I recommend you order off the bottom of the scale and get your food with no spice, or half-of-timid. I occassionally order my food "adventurous", and I'm always surprised at just how hot that is.

The food has a little variance from week to week, possibly from having different cooks in the kitchen on different days, but I usually find this adds to the experience rather than detracting from it. It does mean, however, that if you're really enjoying your food, you should savor it, for you may never get it exactly the same way again. In addition, like most restaurants of this type, vegetarians are easily accomodated with a lot of good options.

3. Wasabi
Rating: Great
Type of Service: Dine-in or Carry-out
Price: Moderate to High
Favorite: Spicy Scallop Roll

I love Japanese food, especially sushi, and Wasabi is nothing short of astounding for a sushi restaurant in the midwest. Perched above State, it's very popular, and often quite busy. The food is all good, but the sushi defintely takes a deserved center stage here. I've had sushi in many places, including Japan, Hawaii, and Florida, and Wasabi's sushi compares very favorably, which is quite a feat. About the only shortcoming is that, since everything needs to be frozen and shipped, the selection isn't quite as broad as near the ocean.

The non-sushi options on the menu are also quite good, and some, like the bento box meal, are excellent, and have a uniquely Japanese feel, but one gets the feeling that these items are mostly here to give non-sushi-eaters something to eat while their sushi-loving friends chow down. Liana compels me to mention, however, that the agedashi tofu appetizer is the best we've had anywhere. In addition, this place is not very good for strict vegetarians, as they use fish flavorings in their sushi rice.

4. Chautara
Glenn's Rating: Amazing
Type of Service: Dine-in
Price: High
Favorite: Curried Goat

This Tibetan/Nepalese restaurant is really a treasure. Sitting on State Street, it has a small lower level and a considerably larger upstairs. The atmosphere is especially nice for dinner, with low lighting and pleasant warm wood tones. The food, which resembles Indian cuisine, is typically very rich, and the menu has a lot of depth. I recommend paying especial attention to the appetizers, which are all excellent.

While there are plenty of meat-based dishes, there are also many top-notch vegetarian dishes available. I've always found the waitstaff to be very helpful in selecting suitable dishes for those who are unsure how to navigate the extensive menu. Chautara is probably not a good choice if you're on a schedule or in a hurry, as I've found that service can be a bit slow sometimes.

5. North American Rotisserie
Glenn's Rating: Great
Type of Service: Carry-out
Price: Low
Favorite: Spicy Puerto Rican Beans.

This restaurant used to be on Fish Hatchery road, and then it closed, and for a year, it was gone. I was devestated. I had come to rely upon it for quick, inexpensive, and delicious food. In fact, given the choice between this and a trip to a fast-food restaurant, it was often hared to find any reason not to eat here.

Fortunately, a few months ago, they reopened on Monroe Street near Camp Randall stadium, and their food and service seems unchanged, perhaps even improved. It's a friendly family-owned and run operation, and the specialty is rotisserie chicken. However, they also have fried chicken for those who favor that, and the sides, derived from various North American regions, are mostly excellent. I personally favor the Puerto Rican rice, Mexican refried beans, San Juan latin corn, and the Sweet potato fries.

But, I have to take time out here to mention the Spicy Puerto Rican Beans, which are the true reason this restaurant is in my favorite five, and are also the reason I was practically in withdrawl while they were closed. True to their origins, they are beans, in sauce, with chunks of ham, potato, and olives, all of which combine to give it a great flavor. However, unlike authentic Puerto Rican beans, these are screamingly spicy, which just makes them taste that much better. I literally can't get enough of them.

There are two other things about the restaurant that deserve special mention. First, since they can't use leftover fried chicken to make the soups and stews, they wrap it up and sell it cold the next day very inexpensively. In fact, you can get a really decent meal of cold fried chicken with a regular side for less than five dollars. Second, they have a special menu for Friday and Saturday nights, when they stay open very late to catch the bar crowd.

They had an official website, but it appears to be down. Update: I checked on 3/23/05, and the site was back up, with some pictures and a menu.

Well, that's it for now. Honorable Mentions to: Weary Traveller, New Orleans take-out, and Fitch's Chophouse. Hopefully I will write reviews for them at some point in the near future.

Click for information on my ratings and price info.


At 12:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Note that N.A. Rotisserie is slowly rebranding itself as "Kipp's" to position themselves better for franchising. It's still the best rotisserie chicken for sale anywhere.

BTW, readers demand more reviews! (Naysayers say nay!)

At 4:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you checked out Muramoto? Are you up for some Pan Roasted Duck Breast with Thai-inspired Maple Sweet and Sour Sauce? I'll drive. -Lin

At 8:53 AM, Blogger Glenn said...

Indeed I have. Shinji and his wife Kimiko have been pretty good to us in general. We actually took Rose there for her birthday, and Shinji gave her a small bowl of ikura, which made her pretty happy. Sadly, with my current financial crunch, almost all eating out is curtailed. If we decide to splurge and have a dinner out, Muramoto will be pretty high on the list, especially now that Crescent City has closed. :(


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