Archive for July 2012

Austin & TX Hill Country – Day 5

July 30th, 2012 — 10:20am

fhcBefore I head out on vacation, I figured I should probably finish my series of blogs from the last one. That would be the vacation we took back in April—to Austin and the Texas Hill Country. In case you missed the first four installments, here they are:

Austin & TX Hill Country – Day 1
Austin & TX Hill Country – Day 2
Austin & TX Hill Country – Day 3
Austin & TX Hill Country – Day 4
Austin and TX Hill Country Overview fhc1

So here it goes. Our last day of vacation was spent entirely in Austin. It was a whirlwind of activity with a focus on food and Texas history, and generally trying to pack in as much as possible into a single day.

We started with breakfast at Flip Happy Crepes, which I had fallen in love with during my first visit to Austin. It’s a great little breakfast joint in a beautiful silver airstream trailer that whips up the most fantastic crepes. Although it was nearly impossible to pick just two from the extensive menu, I settled on a little sweet and a little savory: the Peanut Butter Delight (with bananas, chocolate, almonds and chantilly cream) and the Scrambled breakfast crepe (with cheddar, spinach, tomato, and scallions). Paired with Fresh Press coffee, it was a fitting breakfast for our last day of vacation. texas-2012-192

Next up was a visit to Lance Armstrong’s Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop. Although it’s no secret I’m not the biggest fan of Lance’s, I enjoyed checking out the store. It’s beautiful—an impressive space with lots of eye candy in the form of bikes and bike accessories. I found a cool “Bike Austin” t-shirt that I purchased as a souvenir. (Because I really need another t-shirt with a picture of a bike on it.)

Afterward, I took Larry to the Whole Foods’ flagship store on Lamar Street. I had been there during my last visit to Austin, but I thought Larry would enjoy exploring the massive store. It’s like Whole Foods on steroids—80,000 square feet of foods of the whole variety. We were like kids in a candy store. texas-2012-202

Then, of course, I insisted on a trip across the street to Waterloo Records. It’s my goal to bring home a new vinyl record whenever I travel. I perused the latest offerings and finally settled on Andrew Bird’s latest double album, Break It Yourself, which I’ve listened to countless times since returning from our trip. It’s fabulous and I can’t wait to see him in concert in September.

Although I was still quite full from breakfast, it was time for lunch. And when the clock tells me it’s time to eat, I generally listen. Larry and I were eager for a return trip to Polvos Mexican Restaurant, which we had especially enjoyed the first day of our trip. This time we tried the Ceviche and a few tacos. Although they weren’t quite as earth-shatteringly delicious as the Chilaquiles breakfast from our previous visit, the dishes were still heads and tails above anything we’d find in Madison. I’d recommend Polvos in a heartbeat.texas-2012-212

Next came our Texas history tour. First, we paid a visit to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, located on the UT Campus. It was a nice follow up to the previous days’ drive through Johnson City. Luckily we arrived to the museum just days before it closed for several months for major renovations. I really enjoyed the exhibits and artifacts—love letters between Lyndon and Lady Bird during their courtship, a full scale model of the oval office during the Lydon administration, family videos, etc. Afterward, we made a brief stop at the nearby Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. With very limited time to spare, we covered the museum’s three floors and “The Story of Texas” in less than an hour. It’s a beautiful museum and the kind of place you could spend an entire day exploring. texas-2012-216

Then we stopped for a quick treat at Lick, an ice cream parlor that features all organic “honest”  ingredients from Texas. Although the ice cream left a weird film on the roof of my mouth, the flavors were unique and vibrant and the texture was wonderfully creamy. There were flavors like Cilantro Lime, Strawberry Basil, and even Caramelized Carrots and Tarragon. texas-2012-222

To cap off the day, we met my friend Kelly and her husband Brad for dinner at Contigo, a trendy outdoor spot in East Austin. It’s a place that features lots of fresh and local ingredients and a seasonal menu. We ordered a mix of small plates and chacuterie to share, and finished off with a nice “milk and cookies” dessert. It was great to catch up with those guys.

I think that sums up our vacation. Austin remains one of my favorite cities—a place with great food, interesting people, an and an eclectic vibe. There will always be more to explore.








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A Visit to Suwanasak Thai Cuisine

July 27th, 2012 — 6:50am

july-2012-169Last Friday night Larry and I drove across town to try Suwanasak Thai Cuisine, a family-owned restaurant in a small strip mall on Gammon Road near Woodman’s West. In a July 13 Isthmus “Food and Drink” article, reviewer Marcelle Richards described Suwanasak as “quite the strip mall find” and an “unassuming diamond,” further explaining that “it’s rare I have a meal like this, where I’m floored, really floored, with satisfaction.”

Of course, we weren’t the only Madisonians who had read Marcelle’s  glowing review and made the pilgrimage in search of the egg rolls (“exquisite: meaty, fragrant and quite the steal”), moo waam (“succulent barbeque pork ribs in a sweet sauce hit with cilantro and lemongrass”), the whole sweet chili friend fish (“a little sweet, a little spicy, with delectably tender fish”) and the fresh mango and sticky rice.july-2012-171

Although the place was abuzz with activity when we arrived (the phone was ringing off the hook with take-out orders), we snagged one of the restaurant’s five tables and placed our order at the counter. We were told we’d have to wait longer than usual for our food since it was so busy, but the food was well worth the wait. And we didn’t have to wait all that long, either. july-2012-174

The flavors and quality of the food are outstanding. The staff is friendly and attentive. And the prices can’t be beat. While I thoroughly enjoyed everything we tried, my favorite was the fried fish with chili, herbs and tomatoes. For $8.95, it was an incredible steal and just so flavorful and succulent. I can’t wait to return to Suwanasak to explore more of the menu. The restaurant truly is a diamond. july-2012-168

I’m sure it’s all bittersweet for Marcelle—the joy of sharing a great find with readers and knowing Suwanasak will enjoy much-deserved praise and success, but surely she’s traded that for the inconvenience of having to wait longer for her food during return visits. And perhaps she’s also dealing with the wrath of other regulars who are not happy she’s given away their secret. I suppose that’s just part of the territory. As a food critic, if the food’s great, I bet you can’t help but scream it from the rooftop.

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Restaurant Week Review

July 26th, 2012 — 8:50am

july-2012-1961Last night we headed to dinner at Restaurant Muramoto as part of Madison’s Restaurant Week with our friends Matt and Julie. Restaurant week is a bi-annual event in Madison. Participating restaurants offer a prix fixe menu ($25) with 3 courses and 3 options of each course. It’s a great way to try new restaurants, especially high-end ones, to sample the menu at an accessible price point and determine if it’s a place worth returning to.

Even though Restaurant Muramoto first opened in 2004, this was my first time dining there. It’s Shinji Muramoto’s flagship restaurant, with a menu that focuses on Asian fusion. While the restaurant occupies a beautiful space, the decor and furniture are now noticeably dated and shabby. Upon entering the restaurant, I immediately fixated on the torn and tattered faux leather chairs and worn carpeting. Later in the night, these imperfections were less noticeable (dimmed lighting helps), but I certainly didn’t get the greatest first impression.july-2012-198

I’ll admit I was a bit surprised when I noticed sushi wasn’t featured on Restaurant Muramoto’s Restaurant Week Menu, especially since it’s a big part of their everyday menu. Still, I wasn’t crushed—the menu options sounded great, and I’m not the biggest fan of sushi anyway (I like it, but I don’t love it and crave it like some people do.)

I ordered the following options from the menu:

First course: King crab salad, lettuce, scallion, carrot, fried wonton cup, chile vinaigrette
Second course: Beef short rib, Korean BBQ, snow pea slaw
Third Course: Sweet corn tarte tatin, bacon ice cream, satsuma chips, sweetened creme fraiche

Larry ordered a slaw salad and the Bonito, Escolar, and Octopus Sashimi off the regular menu. july-2012-201

My meal was good. I enjoyed the King Crab Salad, and the Beef Short Ribs were okay. The dessert was outstanding. Of course I had to try it because of the bacon ice cream. I loved how the flavors from the sweet corn tarte tatin, ice cream and creme fraiche melted and melded together—it was delicious and incredibly unique. Portion sizes were on the smaller side. I was particularly disappointed with the portions of the beef short ribs entree. It’s never good to end a nice meal still a bit hungry. Service was fine, although noticeably slow at times.

But first things first, Restaurant Muraomoto needs to tackle their dated decor. First impressions are everything. And torn and tattered seats are doing nothing but docking points within the first few minutes. It takes an incredible dining experience to overcome a bad first impression. And I’m not sure my meal fully got me there.

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Vamos a Valencia

July 25th, 2012 — 3:53am

july-2012-164An excerpt from For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway:

“In Valencia I had the best time of my life. Vamos! Valencia. Don’t talk to me of Valencia.

What did thee there? Maria asked. The woman of Pablo sat down at the table with a bowl of coffee, a piece of bread and a bowl of the stew.

Que? What did we there. I was there when Finito had a contract for three fights at the Feria. Never have I seen so many people. Never have I seen cafés so crowded. For hours it would be impossible to get a seat and it was impossible to board the tram cars. In Valencia there was movement all day and all night.july-2012-162

But what did you do? Maria asked.

All things, the woman said. We went to the beach and lay in the water and boats with sails were hauled up out of the sea by oxen.

But what did you do besides watch oxen?

We ate in pavilions on the sand. Pastries made of cooked and shredded fish and red and green peppers and small nuts like grains of rice. Pastries delicate and flaky and the fish of a richness that was incredible. Prawns fresh from the sea sprinkled with lime juice. They were pink and sweet and there were four bites to a prawn. Of those we ate many. Then we ate paella with fresh sea food, clams in their shells, mussels, crayfish and small eels. Then we ate even smaller eels alone cooked in oil and as tiny as bean sprouts and curled in all directions and so tender they disappeared in the mouth without chewing. All the time drinking a white wine, cold, light and good at thirty centimos the bottle. And for an end: melon. That is the home of the melon.

Que’va, said the woman of Pablo. The melon of Castile is for self-abuse. The melon of Valencia is for eating. When I think of those melons as long as one’s arm, green like the sea and crisp and juicy to cut and sweeter than the early morning in summer. Aye, when I think of those smallest eels, tiny, delicate and in mounds on the plate. Also the beer in pitchers all through the afternoon, the beer sweating in its coldness in pitchers the size of water jugs.july-2012-167

And what did you do when not eating and drinking?

We made love in the room with the strip wood blinds hanging over the balcony and a breeze through the opening of the top of the door which turned on hinges. We made love there, the room dark in the day time from the hanging blinds, and from the streets there was the scent of the flower market and the smell of burned powder from the firecrackers of the traca that ran through the streets exploding each noon during the Feria. It was a line of fireworks that ran through all the city, the firecrackers linked together and the explosions running along on poles and wires of the tramways, exploding with great noise and a jumping from pole to pole with a sharpness and a cracking of explosions you could not believe.

We made love and then sent for another pitcher of beer with the drops of its coldness on the glass and when the girl brought it, I took it from the door and I placed the coldness of the pitcher against the back of Finito as he lay, asleep, not having wakened when the beer was brought and he said, ‘No, Pilar. No woman, let me sleep.’ And I said, ‘No, wake up and drink this to see how cold,’ and he drank without opening his eyes and went to sleep again and I lay with my back against a pillow at the foot of the bed and watched him sleep, brown and dark-haired and young and quiet in his sleep, and drank the whole pitcher, listening now to the music of a band that was passing.”

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Devil’s Lake Camp-Out

July 25th, 2012 — 3:43am

A few more pictures from the recent family camp-out…








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Campground Cook-Off

July 20th, 2012 — 9:57am

Earlier this month, my brother and his girlfriend were in town for a week-long visit to spend time with family and tour the sites of Wisconsin. On the Sunday after the 4th of July, we had a family campout at Devil’s Lake State Park. As part of the outing, my  brother organized a “Campground Cook-Off” with the following rules:

– Each couple cooks a dish
– No prep, must do all cooking at campsite
– Only food from Wisconsin
– Extra points if you use only the campfire to cook

In some ways, the challenge seemed right up our alley—very Iron Chef. But in many other ways, Larry and I felt out of our element. We don’t have much experience camp cooking—certainly not over a campfire. Add the challenge of using only foods from Wisconsin and no advance preparations allowed, and we were nearly at a loss. In the end, we pulled together some tasty swiss chard tacos  inspired by a Rick Bayless recipe. Most of our ingredients came from the farmers’ market.

When Larry and I arrived to the campsite, we quickly discovered we had taken the rules much more literally than the others had. Once we realized we could bend a few rules, we were inspired to break out the salt and chipotle salsa, greatly improving the taste of our tacos.

In addition to the swiss chard tacos, our feast included a quintessential Wisconsin soup (with cheese, brats, and beer), stuffed peppers, beer can chicken, and fresh salsa with chips. All were very tasty.

The campground cook-off definitely provided a new and enjoyable twist on camping!

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A Vist to Mineral Point

July 19th, 2012 — 11:18am

I’d been eager to return to Mineral Point since my first visit about a year-and-a-half ago. It was December then, and an impending snow storm forced me to return to Madison before I felt like I had fully explored the town. But even after just a short visit, and even in December, I had fallen in love with the quaint town nestled in the hills of southwestern Wisconsin—its old stone cottages, unique community of artists, picturesque main street, and Cornish influences. In a place that’s often compared to rural England, it was like a whole new world to explore in my beloved Wisconsin.

Larry I decided to make the trip to Mineral Point last Saturday. Although a last-minute search for a B & B turned up empty, we figured a day trip would be just fine, too. We left Madison early, arriving in Mineral Point (about an hour’s drive) by 10 a.m. Our day consisted of a visit to Mineral Point’s Saturday Farmers’ Market, a tour of Pendarvis—a complex of restored early 1840s Cornish miners’ homes—by a costumed guide, a Cornish pasty lunch at the Red Rooster Cafe, a stroll down Main Street, a visit to Bruce Howdle’s gallery, a two-hour hilly bike ride through the countryside around Dodgeville, a dip in the town pool (with jumps off the high dive), and finally, dinner at Brewery Creek Brewpub.

Throughout the day we met several interesting people, too. There was Mark from the farmers’ market, a fellow cyclist, who commutes to Madison for work, but calls Mineral Point home. And Our Pendarvis tour guide—a quirky Californian who came to the area in the 1970’s and watched Mineral Point transform from dilapidated buildings to a beautiful community. Next, were the cyclists on a tandem visiting from Atlanta, who were kind enough to share with us a printout of their bike route. Then we met Jan Johnson, a watercolor artist at Howdle Gallery, with whom we enjoyed a lengthy conversation about Bruce’s latest installation, her thoughts on living in Mineral Point, and her personal transformation and journey as an artist. Oh, and then there was the man we met on Main Street, who tried to convince us that he had the cure to cancer (apple juice and honey), and that his magic wand (a silver ballpoint pen-looking thing, apparently filled with black diamond and crystal dust) could cure just about anything else.

It’s a beautiful town with rolling hills, a fascinating history, and an abundance of eclectic artists and galleries, but more than anything, it’s the people of Mineral Point who make it such a unique and special place.

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July 18th, 2012 — 4:13am

june-2012-294I was unfamiliar with the dish Peperonata before discovering it in a cookbook and making it as an appetizer for a recent dinner party. It’s essentially a pepper stew (this particular recipe makes a spicy Peperonata, but there are endless variations) that works great with fresh summer vegetables and herbs as an antipasto. We found most of the ingredients at the farmers’ market—sweet red peppers, red onions, fresh herbs, and mozzarella and a crusty baguette on which to serve the stewed peppers. The impressive dish was beautiful and the flavors were complex. Definitely a great way to kick-off our Italian-themed dinner.

Peperonata (from Earth to Table; serves 6)

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp chili flakes
4 large sweet red peppers (about 1 3/4 lbs.) thinly sliced lengthwise
3 cups sliced red onions
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped
2 tbsp capers
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp fresh oregano leaves, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a large skillet, heat 3 tbsp of the oil over medium-high heat. Add garlic and chili flakes; saute until aromatic, about 1 minute. Add peppers, onions and thyme; reduce heat to medium and saute until peppers are softened, about 6 minutes. Add capers and the remaining oil; saute until flavors are combined, about 1 minute. Transfer pepper mixture to a shallow plastic or stainless steel dish.

Turn of heat, add vinegar to skillet and reduce by half. (The residual heat will be enough to reduce this small amount.) Using a rubber spatula, scrape vinegar over pepper mixture. Stir in oregano. (The heat from the peppers will help release the flavor of the oregano.) Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Make ahead: Let cool, cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.) This spicy dish goes very well with silky smooth buffalo mozzarella and crusty fried bread.

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Concerts on the Square

July 12th, 2012 — 8:43am






Last night was a great evening for Concerts on the Square—the third in this summer’s series put on by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. It’s the first concert I’ve made it to this summer. The theme was “Sweeping Soundtracks” with guest artist Sergei Belkin. My favorite moment was when the orchestra played the theme song from Downton Abbey. It brought me right back to last season’s heart-wrenching drama, making me yearn for next season’s episodes. Fittingly, the WPT truck was there filming the concert for broadcast across the state this Saturday night as part of WPT’s  “Summer of the Arts.”

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Blueberry Upside-Down Cake

July 12th, 2012 — 4:49am

june-2012-305Having tackled several strawberry recipes in June, I figured it was finally time to move on to a new summer berry: blueberries. Just over a week ago, we had Larry’s parents over for dinner at my place and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to try a new recipe I’d been eying up in the cookbook, Earth to Table. Larry and I purchased two pints of farm-fresh blueberries from the market and I set to work with my cast-iron skillet. The resulting cake was delicious—the dense, cornmeal-y cake lifted up the rich, blueberry topping and a generous dollop of whipped cream and a a sprig of mint finished this perfect summertime dessert.

Blueberry Upside-Down Cake (from Earth to Table; serves 8)

1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup lightly packed brown sugar
3 cups fresh wild blueberries

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
4 large eggs
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup plain yogurt

Prepare the berries: In a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Add brown sugar and cook, stirring constantly, until sugar is completely dissolved, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat and distribute blueberries over butter-sugar glaze; set aside.

Prepare the cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees . In a large bowl, sift together flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt; set aside.

In a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream sugar and butter until very light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Add vanilla and mix until smooth. On low speed, mix in flour mixture. Fold in yogurt. Spread batter evenly over blueberries in skillet.

Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of cake comes out clean, about 50 minutes. Let cool for 15 minutes, then run a knife around the inside edge of the skillet. Invert a large plate over skillet and, using oven mitts, turn skillet upside down to flip cake onto plate.

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