Saturday, August 19, 2006

neighborhood notes

So what’s it like living downtown?

Take the last twenty-four hours in this place. What did they bring me? Sure, a good dinner, just a short walk up from the loft. A bit over-priced, but very good nonetheless (see post below). Preceded by a drink called la Vie en Rosé.

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What else?

A loud train passing just outside my windows. A very loud train, tooting with the full force of a heavy hand sitting on the claxon.

A walk on nearby State Street, where construction has been ongoing. For years.

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…and where all sorts of musicians find a warm spot on the sidewalk.

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A market with the colors of late summer.

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A deranged human being standing outside my apartment building at 4 am, shouting expletives for twenty minutes straight… before moving on to another building further down.

A musician playing all instruments all at the same time

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Flowers at my local flowershop, going for 50 cents a stem. I’m known there by now. If they put out a street sign announcing a sale on stems, they know I’ll come in on the way home from work. Here, I took these off their hands. They’re resting at a café table. I’m known at the café as well. It's Jo's. Yes, the same: medium skim latte, extra hot.

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the reluctant food critic returns (to places of yore)

I read with interest the Isthmus snippet about the changing Madison restaurant scene. Like any vibrant town, Madison has its share of closures and openings.

And yes, I am looking forward to the South-American-Asian-influence in the kitchen of the about-to-be-opened The Local at the tip of King Street (remember when that used to be Café Europa maybe some half dozen eateries ago?).

Perhaps even more so, I am eagerly awaiting the new Italian place on Sherman. The chef hails originally from Marsala, Sicily – one of my favorite destinations from this past summer. He can’t be bad. Everyone in Marsala Sicily knows food (unless he was thrown out of town for his wimpy approach to cooking… let’s hope not).

But I wonder if the new is going to be taking us away from that, which is already there. Mind you, there are some Madison favorites that I never could wrap myself around with the enthusiasm of everyone else. I don’t mean to knock down some of the State Street standbys, but come on – let’s not argue good food. Comfort food, maybe, but when the need for comfort passes so does the need to return to any of them.

Still, there are the fairly new spots that have too many empty tables for comfort. I do not like to eat at a place that has empty tables. It makes me feel that the entire waitstaff is participating in my conversation.

Take Crave off of State Street. Now, you may have issues with Crave. I may have issues with Crave. But I remember how it provided the one cheerful moment of an otherwise bleak November 2nd 2004. I sat in a daze, munching meat loaf, drinking red wine, hearing the quiet voices of those around me. I survived that day in part thanks to that meat loaf.

Last week, I went back to Crave. I go there with daughters sometimes when they are in town. It seems a “girls’ night out” type of place. Besides, it was Monday and Sardine and Cocoliquot were closed.

Empty. Two, maybe three other tables occupied. Oh oh. Have we shifted our fickle hearts and pointed them elsewhere?

In the meantime, it is Friday and I cannot get a reservation for Sardine. I call just as the office opens and am given options normally reserved for a New York day-of-eating conversation. “No, sorry, nothing then. Would you like to come in at 5? (no!) Maybe I can fit you in at 9:15…" (maybe not)

I have better luck at Cocoliquot. I get a 7:15 table. Is this a good thing? Well, I remember being treated to a dinner there several weeks ago on a Wednesday. The place was only half full. Half full also means half empty.

On this night it is buzzing and so I buzz with it. Come on, it’s a perfectly fine place! They have improved the menu considerably since their opening moments a year or two back.

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The snails in pistou are fantastic. The sea bass is perfectly prepared and the fries (unlike at the otherwise fine Sardine) are not brittle from overfrying.

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I would do something about one section of their wine list – it cannot be that you only have a Long Island rosé left for the summer! But that’s just me. A summer menu without a nice Mediterranean rosé is like a concert without the music.

There aren’t many places in Madison where four people can eat well, drink wine and walk away without spending most of that month’s paycheck. Cocoliquot, thanks for having us. We wont forget you. We’ll be back. Right after we do another run over to Sardine.

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Cocoliquot: eating at the bar is also an option