Picks and Pans – Madison, WI

Essen House

Apparently a trip to Madison is not truly complete until you have visited Essen House, ordered a plastic boot full of beer and recruited some friends to help you drink it without allowing the boot to touch the table until it’s empty. As we were to learn later in the trip (at the Corning Museum of Glass), the Germans have been making glass drinking boots for hundreds of years. And to what end, you might ask? While the great tradition of the drinking game is a venerated one, the Germans have found that it is greatly improved by adding the element of possible embarrassment to the mix. You see, drinking from a glass boot is a simple matter until, that is, you get to the ankle area of your boot, at which point the beer drinker falls prey to fluid dynamics and gets splashed in the face with beer as they finish their gulp. Luckily, we embarked on the boot drinking adventure with our experienced and benevolent friends, Jeff and Jen, who informed us of the impending beer-in-the-face and shared the technique used to avoid beer splashage. I, however, am not quite so benevolent, but trust in our readers’ problem solving abilities to figure it out themselves. Plus, a little beer in the face, doesn’t sound like the worst thing to ever happen to a person.

The Caribou Tavern

A neighborhood place where the bartender literally knows your name, Caribou Bar is a little dive-y, but only in the best sense of the word. We stopped in to say hi, duck out of the winter weather and get a Wisconsin brew, and, after reading the yelp.com reviews, I wish we had stayed for a Bou Burger.

Dane County Farmer’s Market at Monona Terrace

Madison, Wisconsin was the first place since leaving California where we encountered a significant Prius presence, so I wasn’t surprised to find that a city filled with hybrid car-loving locavores supports a year-round farmer’s market. The Dane County Farmer’s Market is a serious affair. Even in the throes of a Wisconsin winter, hundreds of vendors show up to hawk their wares, all of which are made or grown by the people selling them. Plus, in the winter the market moves from Capitol Square to the centrally heated Monona Terrace, a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, initially rejected by the city of Madison and then built posthumously, after Madison realized that they were sitting on a Frank Lloyd Wright goldmine.

The Old Fashioned

The Old Fashioned, located in downtown Madison, looks and feels like it’s been there for years. In fact, it’s only been serving its traditional Sconnie fare since 2005, but that doesn’t make the food any less delicious. We showed up for Saturday brunch and were lucky to squeeze through the crowd to find some seats at the bar. The Old Fashioned house burger may not sound like brunch food, but topped with fried onions, Bavaria’s hickory-smoked bacon, aged Cheddar, garlic sauce and a soft-cooked egg on a buttered and toasted roll, it was the ideal way to celebrate Saturday morning (or maybe early afternoon).

Poker at Jeff and Jen’s

Our friends Jeff and Jen are the kind of people that tend to gather a group of loyal friends no matter where they go, and one of the ways they often compel this group of friends to come together is poker night. Since it was Jeff’s birthday weekend, the poker party was in full swing on Saturday and we got the chance to interact with Jeff and Jen’s Madison peeps in all their glory (read: under the stress of competitive betting). It was the kind of fun that can only happen when people’s money and reputations are on the line.

Samba Brazilian Grill

Madison was certainly not the first place that I would expect my Sunday brunch to be served by guacho-clad college students, slicing large chunks of meat off of their grilling rods and directly on to my plate, but, that said, the meat was so good that the discordant ambiance was easily overcome. Steak for breakfast; yes, please.

Madison MOCA

On the day we were there I wasn’t in the mood to give MMOCA the attention that was its due, but I did sufficiently rouse myself out of my steak-y brunch torpor to realize that this museum was a remarkable place. I mean how often does a town of about 200,000 have its very own contemporary art space, let alone a full on museum with a decent permanent collection and enough presence in the art world to draw notable exhibitions? Given my experience, not often. Huzzah for you, Madison.

State Street Brats

Since Jeff had already hooked us up with some delicious home-cooked brats, we weren’t jonesing for the brats at State Street, but it was a good place to stop in, get a brew and warm up. And since we weren’t there during a Badger football game, we actually got to sit down.

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