Extremism in defense of tastiness is no vice.

Monday, September 3, 2007

One Night Stand

I’m not the first to compare food with sex, and I won’t be the last, but the comparison has become a cliché for a reason. At their best, both arouse the five senses and the animal center of our brain, eventually leaving us happily exhausted—and perhaps in search of a cigarette— but always craving more.

Like most people in Madison who care about food, I bravely crawl out of bed on Saturday mornings, fighting through Friday nights of too little sleep and too much beer, for my regular fling at the Capitol Square. After hitting the snooze for the fourth time, I’m hopefully still early enough to beat the rush of strollers and undergrads. This week I’m not; I’ll have to walk around them. Shallots and the now ubiquitous heirloom tomatoes are in season, and I’m running low on the former while my Green Zebra plant isn’t liking the new balcony as much as the old one. And there are, of course, the recurrent pleasures of the market: another taste of Hook’s 12-year, (an excellent, strong cheddar that is the equivalent of a culinary kneecapping), the continued search to determine which vendor produces the best of whatever cut of pork I’m looking for that week, the inevitably failed attempt to resist Katie’s superlative pastry—the best I’ve had outside of Paris— and Tim’s flawless macchiato at Café Soleil. Before the morning is out, I’ll have plans for a beet and chevre pizza, and I’ll be carrying an impulsively purchased rabbit, no clear design in mind, but mumbling incoherently about the virtues of braising.

When the tryst is done, I head home relatively satisfied, with a familiar smile that says “until next time, dear.” But this week betrayal is already in my heart. As if by a painted, bar time harlot in a tube top and go-go boots, I’ve been beckoned. I know what’s going to happen, and I go anyway.

I want to like Taste of Madison. I really do. Yet it’s hard to take seriously a food festival that features such varied culinary low points as Little Caesar’s, Red Lobster, and the confusingly named Carlos O’Kelly’s. Arriving from State Street, the mind boggles to process a purportedly Mexican restaurant proudly flying, alongside the Mexican and American flags, six two-foot, inflatable Tabasco bottles. We all know these places exist, of course, but do we as a city want to honor them in the same space where, only hours before, an artisan cheesemaker lamented that she would love to sell her goat’s milk, but that government regulations meant that it wasn’t legally viable?

There are, thankfully, exceptions. Bluefies’ jerk chicken nachos reflect their white-washed corporate origins, and their cheese sauce is questionable, but the chicken is properly cooked and seasoned, adding a mild but pleasant bite in place of the standard jalapeños. (I pass on their cookie dough egg rolls, a dessert that never should have made it to the concept stage in the first place.) Café Costa Rica’s crisp patacones (unripe plantains mashed into small cakes and deep fried) are easily my favorite dish of the day. Served by the cook, they contrast nicely with the restaurant’s rich red beans, and fresh cilantro lightens the dish without feeling like the tacked-on addition it often becomes. I’ll be finding my way to their Butler Street location soon. While it’s geographically just down the street, their soulful, authentic food is worlds apart from the celebrated mediocrity that is most of our city’s dubious gastronomic gala.

In the end, as I make my walk home in the harsh light of day, I feel a little dirtier. No, I don’t regret what I’ve done. But thinking of rabbit, patacones, and novelty hot sauce balloons, I can’t shake the feeling that we can do better.

2 comments:

Jennifer said...

You started a blog! Yay! I'll be reading :)

Daniel said...

Brian is my hero. Culinary or otherwise.