Extremism in defense of tastiness is no vice.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Le Roi est mort. Vive le Roi!

This weekend is always a disappointing one for the Madison foodie. It marks the time that the Farmer's Market shrinks down, moves inside, and enters into a semi-torporous state, not to return to its full glory until rhubarb magically transforms into asparagus. The Capitol Square would be a little gloomier--sure, L'Etoile and Harvest would still be there, of course, and Cafe Soleil and Marigold would still offer the best breakfasts and pastries in town.

But what of the cook? The entertainer? They remember winters past, dark times of want, and excessive supermarket shopping. And my God, what of the cheese?

Thanks to Fromagination, this winter will be a little warmer than last. I first visited the Carrol Street boutique at its opening, but reserved any commentary until I could see their selection of imported cheeses, which arrived about a week ago. As I walked in the door, the name had put me on my guard. I was apprehensive that it might serve as a pretentious echo of the tourist-friendly shops that peddle cheese hats to football fans on the weekend. Suffice it to say my worries were grossly unfounded.

I could reflect on the pleasant, upscale-retro ambiance, or the fact that the shop espouses a number of earth-friendly policies, but that would detract from the food. (I won't, however, neglect to mention that the shop's flat screen was playing an episode of The French Chef, always a good sign.)

Their cheeses have been selected with a connoisseur's palate and a clear love of their product. Never mind that it's been near impossible to find quality Wisconsin cheese outside of the Farmer's Market itself; Fromagination is not only the first store to offer a wide selection of the artisanal Wisconsin cheeses, they've also managed to narrow them down to the crème de la crème.

Hook's superlative, incredibly sharp 10 year cheddar? It's there, alongside the Five Year. Fantôme Farm's incredible, rich, ash-dusted Moreso? There, as is their chevre. Carr Valley's Cave Aged Marisa? Bleu Mont's Bandaged Cheddar? Uplands' Pleasant Ridge Reserve? They're all there.

The selection of imports is nearly as impressive. There is, of course, gorgonzola and parmigiano reggiano from Italy, cheddar and Stilton from England, Brie and Camembert from France. More surprising are entries like the semi-soft Chimay Grand Cru, a Cambozola (a triple cream blue crossed with Brie), and--oh baby--mozzarella di buffala.

And the staff knows their stuff. On a busy Friday evening, a transplanted québécoise offered me a sample of the aforementioned 10 Year and extolled with me the virtues of crystalline cheddar; I agreed, and said she had to try the 12. Later, I asked about Bries, and was happily surprised when another employee pointed out the amazing Rouzaire Fromage de Meaux that I had missed.

Even the little touches are done perfectly. Wine, beer, and other accompaniments are present, as is a small but respectable selection of charcuterie. While this is to be expected, their careful selection is not. The meats are well chosen, and their baguettes aren't just baguette's--they're from Cafe Soleil, easily the best in the city and probably the best in the state. (Add guanciale, guys, and you'll have to drag me bodily from the store.)

Any Madisonian serious about food owes it to him or herself to visit this shop. They're socially conscious, clearly passionate, and provide an amazing depth and breadth of quality product. In short, Fromagination is easily one of the best things to happen to Madison's culinary scene this year.

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