Tag Archives: restaurants

Land of Milk and Honey and Hummus and Beet Ballerinas

I visited Hebrew University for a week in January, and Peter Sarnak, no doubt thinking of my sadly out-of-date How To Eat Dinner in Princeton page, asked me if I was going to blog the restaurants of Jerusalem.  OK, so here’s a go.  Let’s start with the best thing I ate in Israel:

Beet Ballerina

This is beet ballerina with goat cheese at Cafe Itamar, on Moshav Ora just west of Jerusalem.  (Here’s an English writeup.)  “Ballerina” is a kind of pasta I saw on several menus in Jerusalem; I think it’s more or less campanelle?  Simple dish, but really well-made.  The pasta looks beautiful and tastes kind of rooty without really aggressively beeting at you, if you know what I mean.  And the rest of the meal was almost as good.  Cafe Itamar was a casual place, concentrating on the produce from the moshav’s collective farm, somehow very Israeli indeed despite having a fairly straight European menu of pastas, pizzas, and salads.  Worth the trip from town.

We spent one morning in the shuk at Mahane Yehuda — burekas and sweet, gelatinous sachlav at Gveret Burekas, kanafeh somewhere in the market, and then a terrific lunch at Mordoch, where a woman sits in at a back table speedily rolling kubbeh, which then appear in an awesomely sour yellow vegetable soup.  And there’s hummus, lots of hummus.

And more hummus at Hummus Asli in Tel Aviv, where we had the best malawech we ate in Israel, much flakier and lighter than the one we got at the the Yemenite Jewish restaurant Tamani in Jerusalem.  And the only falafel I ate while I was there, because I don’t think of myself as liking falafel, but Asli falafel changed my mind.  I didn’t eat any more falafel because I wanted to leave the toggle switched to “yes.”

As for Tamani, it was heavy and rich, a kind of soul food — good, but what I was really hoping for was something more refined, specifically the honey-rosemary chicken I remembered eating at the Yemenite Step twenty years ago.  There’s no more Yemenite Step and I guess no more honey-rosemary chicken either.  Was that all the hummus?  That was not all the hummus.  Because there’s also the Lebanese Restaurant — which my brother-in-law tells me isn’t Lebanese, but that’s the name, the Lebanese Restaurant — in Abu Ghosh.  Hummus, hummus basar (i.e with spiced meat), more kubbeh, this time fried, all served family style on long wooden tables in an immense, crowded, punishingly loud room.

Only one shawarma, but it was a shawarma laffa, or as Americans might call it, “burrito-style.”  Why don’t we eat it that way here?  I guess we do — here’s a picture of one from Illinois, which gives the general idea.  A burrito place has a sidebar where you can get salsa, and a shawarma laffa place — or at least Hashamen, the place my brother-in-law likes —  has a sidebar where you can get amba, which, wow.



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Babies, Alinea, cigarettes

A couple had a reservation at Alinea and their sitter cancelled at the last second and rather than absorb the $500 loss they decided to show up there with their 8-month-old baby.  It didn’t work out, the baby cried, other customers were annoyed, chef Grant Achatz tweeted to his follows to ask how he should have handled it:

Then lots of people went ape about it, as is customary.

Emotions about this stuff run very high, for some reason.  As for me, I wouldn’t bring a baby to Alinea.  Then again, I also wouldn’t think someone who did so was some kind of war criminal.

But what this makes me think about is smoking in restaurants.  Yes, younger readers, people used to do this!  (And in France, even though it’s illegal, they still do, right?  Help me out, French readers.)  If a baby’s crying in a classy place, I’d find it annoying, but I would never say it ruined my experience.  So I’m kind of rejecting the claim that a top-tier dinner is the same thing as a classical music performance or a play from this point of view.  Though see here for further thoughts on the relationship between high-end Chicago dining and the legitimate theatre.

On the other hand, if somebody were smoking at a nearby table?  That person is literally mixing a bad-smelling substance into the food I paid $500 for. It’s hard for me not to see that act as inherently more disruptive and dinner-ruining than a wailing baby.

Which is just to say that all these arguments about what rules should be “obvious to any thinking person” are kind of nuts.  The rules don’t have justification — they are social norms, which are self-justifying.  You shouldn’t bring a baby to Alinea because people, in this country, in this year have come to feel that their $500 buys them the right not to hear a baby.  In some places and times, it didn’t buy you the right not to have cigarette smoke in your food.  No one, back then, would have complained that the smokers in the room were ruining their special night — right?  But now we would.  Cigarettes haven’t changed, food hasn’t changed, noses haven’t changed:  only the rules we make up for ourselves have changed.

In the comments, feel free to rant about how much you hate smokers, how much you hate breeders, how much you hate non-smokers, how much you hate non-breeders, or what rights you consider yourself to have purchased when you go out for a very expensive meal.

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The best breakfast sandwich in Madison is the Breakfast Ricardo at Cafe Cortadito

Brand new at 418 E. Wilson, sharing space with the Cardinal bar.  Madison has not had a really good Cuban sandwich the whole time I’ve lived here; this seems very likely to have changed, if the Breakfast Ricardo at Cortadito is any indication; it’s a lot like a cubano, except it’s on a round Cuban sweet roll instead of grilled bread, and there’s an egg on it.  It is worth a special trip.

Cortadito is still working out some kinks; my croquettes were cold in the middle, and the kitchen forgot the guava pastelito I ordered with my sandwich.  I was going to comment that the fried plantains were more like potato chips than the dark, sweet long-cut plantains I was expecting, but it turns out that’s just the difference between tostones and maduros, and both are totally reasonable interpretations of “fried plantains.”

But who cares about that because as I mentioned this is the best breakfast sandwich in the city.


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Even Ian nods

Readers of this blog know I am a major booster of Ian’s Pizza, so I was thrilled a few months ago when Ian Gurfield announced he was opening a more upscale pizza place, S2 Pizzabar, just a few blocks from campus.  And S2 Pizzabar lived up to my expectations, serving individual-sized pizzas on a good thin crust with locally sourced toppings in a big handsome bricky room.  At last the cursed address, home to dead restuarants Opa, Maza, and the Saz, could serve lunch in peace!

But no — apparently even Ian couldn’t make a living at 558 State, and S2 Pizzabar will close on March 17.  The place was pretty full both times I ate there; I’d be curious to know in more detail what made this business fail so quickly.  Even Opa lasted longer, and Opa was always kind of empty and confused.

If you’re on State in the next couple of weeks, stop in and get a pizza while you still can; it’s good pizza and I’ll miss it.


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Mabuhay is worth a try

Years ago I wondered where all the Filipino restaurants were.  Now there’s one in Madison!  Mabuhay, at 1272 South Park in the same strip mall with the Taj, is a small operation, no waiters, just a husband-and-wife team and a small buffet. The atmosphere is very casual (mismatched plates, bottles of sauce still with the price tags on them from the supermarket) but the food is pretty serious.  Not fancy, but homey and good.   I liked a fried, smoky fish something like a big sardine, and the split pea soup with fish chunks and vegetables, but my favorite dish was a simple one, just little chunks of grilled meat in a sweet, dark brown glaze.  I could have eaten three plates of this stuff (where I hope it’s understood that  “could have eaten” means “did in fact eat.”)  None of the dishes are labeled so I don’t know what it’s called, but it looked a lot like the Filipino barbecue described here; if that’s what it is, then the glaze is made of soy sauce, brown sugar, lemon juice, ketchup, and a lot of 7-Up.

Now that is home cooking.

Update:  On my last trip I asked the chef and she confirmed, yep, it’s 7-Up barbecue I was eating.  While researching this point I also learned that 7-Up contained the mood stabilizer lithium citrate until 1950, which makes you wonder why they didn’t call it 7-Neither-Up-Nor-Down.

Mabuhay also sometimes serves laing, which is much better than the linked photo makes it look.

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Z is for zero to go

After seven and a half years and 779 entries, JM and Nichole have completed their task of eating at every restaurant in Madison in alphabetical order.  It started out as a wacky blog idea and became a much-loved constant of Madison’s food culture.  I don’t know what they’re planning to do next, but I’m sure it’ll be cool.

CJ and I had the honor of joining the “Eating in Madison A to Z” strike team at a number of restaurants, including Pizza Oven, Outback Steakhouse, and La Mestiza.

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Es apulkat (avocado coffee shake) at Calasan Diner

  Calasan Diner is an Indonesian fast-food place that opened last month at Old Sauk and High Point, just inside the Beltline (same shopping center as Alicia Ashman library.)  Es alpukat is an Indonesian sweet drink made with avocado, instant coffee, and condensed milk.  You can get the latter at the former and I was glad I did.  At lunch they just serve fried chicken, which comes sweet or salty — I preferred the salty.  I didn’t know Indonesian fried chicken was a thing, but it is!  At dinner there’s a full Indonesian menu.  A welcome addition to this relatively restaurant-free neighborhood.

(Ultra-brief rundown of other restaurants around there:  in the same shopping center is the pretty good Swagat, notable for often having some Indian-Chinese dishes on the buffet.   Oliva is a Turkish pizzeria which doesn’t serve iskender kebab so I don’t go there.  But they recently expanded into a bigger space (formerly yet another depressing Atlanta Bread Company) so I’m guessing their pizza’s good.  Down Gammon most of the way to Mineral Point is the likeable Cilantro, “interior Mexican” at a high price point and a lethally untrafficked location.)

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Always eat at restaurants with Cochon in the name

This heuristic has served me well at Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal, and at Le Cochon Dingue in Quebec.  Wednesday night it was a winner again in New Orleans.  Since some of my readers may still have a New Orleans dinner or two ahead of them, let me recommend Cochon — no more than a 15 minute walk from your special session.  If you’ve just got a lunch left, their afternoon deli Cochon Butcher is also supposed to be good (and is also covered by my heuristic.)


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Lamb and black truffle sausage: Osteria Papavero, you crazy bastard, I love you

One of the appetizers at Osteria Papavero is “antipasti di tartufo” — three dishes with black truffle, subject to chef’s whim and different every night.  Truffle is one of those ingredients that I know is distinguished and I know is expensive but which has never really revealed its charms to me.  Papavero is helping me out with that problem.   I think I’m going to go ahead and order this dish every time I go, because it’s consistently the highlight of the meal.

Tuesday night, one of the plates was a truffled lamb sausage. Long, dark brown, a little pocked, served in a loose coil, looking a little disturbingly like — well, I’ll bet you can guess what it looked a little disturbingly like.  But it was superb:  coarsely ground, a little gamy or smoky, and rich as hell, without being, you know, stupidly rich.  One of the best things I’ve eaten in Madison.

Papavero has a Christmas tree with comic photos of the staff in place of ornaments.  Also a Xerox of the greatest New Yorker cartoon of all time:

Image courtesy of a post by Daniel Radosh, who observes that the caption is not identical with the one that originally ran in the magazine.  But this version is the one I know and admire.

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Fried blog

In reference to the previous post, my mom asked me “How do you fry a blog?”  I’m not sure, but I imagine the result would be something like MadisonFishFry.com.   Tempting reading on a cold Friday!

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