Tag Archives: cuisine

Gourmet ganja? Marijuana dining is growing up, slowly

How to set a tone of woodsy chic at a four-course candlelight dinner served under the stars in the Colorado foothills:

Live musicians and flowers, check.

Award-winning cuisine, check.

Beer and wine pairings with each course, check.

Marijuana pairings? Oh, yes.

The 100 diners at this $200-a-plate dinner smoked a citrus-smelling marijuana strain to go with a fall salad with apples, dates and bacon, followed by a darker, sweeter strain of pot to accompany a main course of slow-roasted pork shoulder in a mole sauce with charred root vegetables and rice.

And with dessert? Marijuana-infused chocolate, of course, grated over salted caramel ice cream and paired with coffee infused with non-intoxicating hemp oil.

The diners received small glass pieces and lighters to smoke the pairings, or they could have their marijuana rolled into joints by professional rollers set up next to a bartender pouring wine.

Welcome to fine dining in Weed Country.

The marijuana industry is trying to move away from its pizza-and-Doritos roots as folks explore how to safely serve marijuana and food. Chefs are working with marijuana growers to chart the still-very-unscientific world of pairing food and weed. And a proliferation of mass-market cheap pot is driving professional growers to develop distinctive flavors and aromas to distinguish themselves in a crowded market.

“We talk with the (marijuana) grower to understand what traits they saw in the marijuana … whether it’s earthy notes, citrus notes, herbal notes, things that we could play off,” said Corey Buck, head of catering for Blackbelly Restaurant, a top-rated farm-to-table restaurant that provided the meal.

The grower of one of the pot strains served at the dinner, Alex Perry, said it won’t be long until marijuana’s flavors and effects are parsed as intently as wine profiles. But that’s in the future, he conceded.

“It’s still looked down upon as a not-very-sophisticated thing,” said Perry, who grew a strain called Black Cherry Soda for his company, Headquarters Cannabis.

Holding his nose to a small jar of marijuana, Perry said, “If I asked my mom or my dad what they smell, they’re going to say, ‘skunk,’ or, ‘It smells like marijuana.’ But it’s like wine or anything else. There’s more flavor profile there.”

But chefs and pot growers trying to explore fine dining with weed face a legal gauntlet to make pot dinners a reality, even where the drug is as legal as beer.

Colorado’s marijuana retailers can’t also sell food, so guests at this dinner had to buy a separate $25 “goodie bag” from a dispensary for the pot pairings.

The bags came with tiny graters for diners to shave the pot chocolate onto their ice cream themselves; the wait staff could not legally serve a dish containing pot, even though the event was private and limited to people over 21. Diners were shuttled to and from the event by private bus, to avoid potentially stoned drivers leaving the dinner.

Marijuana dining may become more accessible in coming months, though.

Denver voters this fall will consider a proposal to allow marijuana use at some bars and restaurants as long as the drug isn’t smoked, with the potential for new outdoor marijuana smoking areas.

And two of the five states considering recreational marijuana in November _ California and Maine _ would allow some “social use” of the drug, leaving the potential for pot clubs or cafes.

Currently, Alaska is the only legal weed state that allows on-site marijuana use, with “tasting rooms” possible in commercial dispensaries. But that state is still working on rules for how those consumption areas would work.

For now, marijuana dining is limited to folks who hire private chefs to craft infused foods for meals served in their homes, or to special events like this one, limited to adults and set outside to avoid violating smoke-free air laws.

Guests at the Colorado dinner were admittedly experimenting with pairing weed and food, many giggling as they toked between bites. It became apparent late in the evening that a rich meal doesn’t counteract marijuana’s effects.

“What was I just saying?” one diner wondered aloud before dessert. “Oh, yeah. About my dog. No, your dog. Somebody’s dog.”

The man trailed off, not finishing his thought. His neighbor patted him on the back and handed him a fresh spoon for the ice cream.

Diners seemed genuinely curious about how to properly pair marijuana and food without getting too intoxicated.

“I am not a savant with this,” said Tamara Haddad of Lyons, who was waiting to have one of her pot samples professionally rolled into a joint. “I enjoy (marijuana) occasionally. I enjoy it with friends. I’m learning more about it.”

She laughed when asked whether marijuana can really move beyond its association with junk-food cravings.

“I have also munched out after being at the bar and drinking martinis and thinking, ‘Taco Bell sounds great,”” she said.

Theme parks offering a smorgasbord of food options

In the early days of theme parks, food was often an afterthought — served and consumed quickly, so visitors could get back to riding Space Mountain or watching the Shamu show.

These days, visitors want more from their meals, and theme parks are offering them a smorgasbord of options. The breadth of menu items and restaurants is growing. Food festivals are flourishing. Chefs are creating dishes meant to give guests a fuller experience of the Jungle Cruise ride or Diagon Alley.

“I think guests expectations’ have changed over the years,” said Beth Scott, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts’ vice president of food and beverage. “Certainly with things like The Chew and the Food Network and social media, people are becoming much more savvy about their dining experiences.”

Theme parks are pleasing the palate

With 475 restaurants, kiosks and other food outlets, Walt Disney World in particular has become known for pleasing the palate. Its food-and-wine festival at Epcot has grown to 62 days. Hours of many Disney eateries have expanded too, with more serving breakfast. Many events have dessert parties attached. Heeding more than 700,000 special dietary requests Disney says it receives annually, the parks have introduced allergy-friendly “Snacks with Character.”

Eater.com last year published an in-depth online guide to Disney World, with guides to everything from ice cream to cocktails. Not everything got a great review, but editor-in-chief Amanda Kludt wrote that “pleasures can very much be found — not only pleasures but ingenuity, quirky surprises and pure joy .”

Ed Wronski, Disney’s director of food and beverage product development, said his company’s portfolio of restaurants has become more diverse over the years. “We . really expanded the different dining options for our guests based on the experiences they were looking for.”

Disney says its commitment to quality cuisine was demonstrated with the recent opening of its Flavor Lab near Port Orleans resort — a 7,000-square-foot building devoted to research and development across all Disney parks. About 20 employees work there full-time on an increasing number of new projects such as recipes for the Tiffins restaurant opening in Animal Kingdom this spring. Other new places executives point to include Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar in Disney Springs, featuring signature cocktails such as the bright green Reggie’s Revenge made of vodka and melon liqueur.

Then there’s the Magic Kingdom’s Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd. Skipper Canteen, an ode to the regions traveled in the Jungle Cruise ride. Dishes from Asia, South America and Africa include sustainable fish collar with yuzu-soy sauce.

When that restaurant opened in December, “reading the social media and the press, the way it was described, it’s not your typical theme-park food,” said Jean-Marie Clement, Disney’s director of food & beverage concept development. “They were talking about the flavor, the spices, the presentation.”

Growing sophistication

There’s still plenty of basic grub such as burgers and pizza to be found among the gourmet goodies. But local food blogger Ricky Ly said he’s been impressed by Disney’s increasing sophistication. He would like to see other theme parks introduce more high-quality, locally-sourced ingredients.

“A lot of their folks sometimes plan their trips around food,” Ly said. “To miss that demographic is, maybe, shortsighted for businesses looking to cater to the next generation who cares more about their food.”

Many try to get as much for their money by the using theme parks’ meal plans, the costs of which have regularly increased. Disney’s prices went up this week week after two years of staying steady.

The Rainforest Cafe at Disney's Animal Kingdom.
The Rainforest Cafe at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is one the early innovations in broadening dining options at theme parks.

SeaWorld is placing emphasis on its festivals, many of which feature something to eat. Its sister park in San Antonio last year debuted a Seven Seas Food Festival. For its Bands, Brew & BBQ, SeaWorld Orlando has started cooking the barbecue in-house and expanded the menu to include down-home delicacies such as a maple-bacon cupcakes and corn-chip chili pie. “It’s really taken it to a whole new level,” said Cathy Valeriano, SeaWorld’s vice president of culinary operations. In Orlando, SeaWorld also introduced New Year’s Eve four-course dinner with champagne and dessert reception.

Last year Universal Orlando joined the trend of events built around eating, with a dinner featuring Halloween Horror Nights’ scare actors.

At Universal Orlando, the opening of the first Harry Potter land in 2010 unleashed some serious culinary creativity. While planning Universal’s Wizarding Worlds, senior vice president Ric Florell and his team referred to now dog-eared copies of the Potter books filled with notes on meals, treats and drinks that they could bring to life.

Universal found its signature beverage in Butterbeer. The books didn’t specify its flavor, so Universal’s team had to use its imagination. After more than two years tinkering with the recipe, Universal delivered a foamy concoction that tastes taste of cream soda and butterscotch. Butterbeer now comes in several forms — even a fudge.

Universal’s two Potter lands also feature British pub fare, oddly flavored ice creams, and Wizarding World beverages including Fishy Green Ale, a minty beverage with blueberry boba-style bubbles.

The heavy theming can also be found in Universal’s Simpsons area, which when it opened in 2013 included Krusty Burger and Duff Brewery.

Grabbing an unusual bite to eat in these lands “completes the experience,” Florell said. “It’s the exclamation mark on the rest of your day.”


For Chef Lidia, good Italian cuisine is simple

New York chef and restaurateur Lidia Bastianich thinks the question of what constitutes great Italian cuisine has a “simple” answer.

“It’s a cuisine that’s simple, colorful and tasty,” says Bastianich, a James Beard Award nominee and host of PBS television’s Emmy Award-winning Lidia’s Kitchen. “It’s wedded to the seasons and makes nourishing sense if it is prepared properly.”

In Bastianich’s culinary world, less is more, when it’s prepared with passion and a little bit of love. 

She will share insights and techniques gleaned from years of experience at the Pabst Theatre Jan. 16, during An Intimate Conversation with Lidia Bastianich. Mitch Teich, creator and host of WUWM’s Lake Effect program, will moderate the event.

Think of Bastianich’s event as a master class in Italian cooking, one she says will be primarily a discourse that draws extensively on her personal experience and offers insights into what makes great Italian cuisine. The last third of the show will see Bastianich answering questions from audience members.

Bastianich says the most important piece of advice for budding Italian cooks is to ensure you get the right ingredients. Whether making pork or pasta, mussels or marinara sauce, your ingredients must be fresh and of the highest quality to lay the right foundation for any dish. “Once you have done that properly,” she says, “half of your work is done.”

The chef has chronicled her culinary wisdom in no fewer than 10 cookbooks, including the recently released Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine. The recipes represent a passion for her native Italian cuisine, much of which she learned from her mother and grandmother.

Bastianich was born in 1947 in Pola, a formerly Italian city that became part of former Yugoslavia after World War II and is now within Croatia. Her family fled shortly after Pola was annexed into the communist nation in 1947, eventually emigrating to the United States in 1958. As a teenager, she worked in a variety of New York bakeries and restaurants. In 1971, she opened her first restaurant, Buonavia (“Good Road”), in Queens with her husband Felix Bastianich.

Since then, the family’s empire has grown to include several Manhattan establishments, as well as restaurants in Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Missouri, and São Paulo, Brazil. A new restaurant is planned for Los Angeles in 2017.

Although other family members own several of the restaurants, Bastianich’s passion for Italian cooking drives every menu. Those menus also call on the chef’s heritage and lessons learned at her grandmother’s knee.

“My grandmother had a farm and we would make our own sausage, wine and grow our own vegetables,” Bastianich says. “I cook with passion, because it’s a way to go back in time and bring my grandmother with me.”

Bastianich still draws from her days on the farm when choosing ingredients for her dishes. Fresh tomatoes, garlic, herbs and legumes play major roles in her dishes — but not too many of them. She says too many amateur cooks overdose on ingredients.

“Be minimalistic,” Bastianich says. “Buy the best ingredients and use just enough to give you that flavorful taste. You can always taste along the way and add more of anything to take you where you want to go.”

Simple cuisine often excels in taste and texture, but it’s also harder to hide mistakes, the chef explains. Professional cooks almost always adjust ingredients during the preparation period and are prepared to make adjustments to other recipe components to keep balance in their dishes. Those adjustments also should apply to cooking times, temperatures, the amount of liquid added and other physical elements.

“You change one thing and down the line everything changes with it,” Bastianich explains. “You just need to understand the product you’re substituting and make the corresponding adjustment.”

One distinction Bastianich plans to emphasize is the difference between Italian and Italian-American cuisine. The latter is a style built almost exclusively around the cuisines of the southern Italian regions of Sicily, Calabria and Napoli, brought over by immigrants in the early 20th century. Cooks should never mistake one for the other, Bastianich says, but also must learn to appreciate both in order to become an excellent Italian cook. 

“Familiarize yourself through books and other sources,” she advises. “Travel to Italy, try some new contemporary Italian cuisine and, above all, experiment so that you’re serving your family what they want to eat and enjoy.”


An Intimate Conversation with Lidia Bastianich takes the stage at 7 p.m. on Jan. 16 at the Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. Tickets are $45. Call 414-286-3663 or visit pabsttheater.org.

Lidia’s Marinara Sauce

Makes 1 quart


¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

8 garlic cloves, peeled

3 lbs ripe fresh plum tomatoes, peeled and seeded, or 1 35-oz. can Italian plum tomatoes crushed by hand

Kosher salt to taste

Crushed red pepper flakes to taste

10 fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces


Heat the oil in a 2- to 3-quart saucepan over medium heat. 

Whack the peeled garlic with the flat side of the knife, add it to the oil and cook for about 2 minutes or until lightly browned. Carefully slide the tomatoes and their juices into the oil. Slosh out the tomato can with about 1 cup water and add to the mixture. Bring to a boil and season lightly with salt and crushed red pepper. 

Lower the heat until the sauce is at a lively simmer and cook, breaking up tomatoes with a whisk or spoon until the sauce is chunky and thick. Cook about 30 minutes for fresh tomatoes, 20 minutes for canned.

Stir in the basil 5 minutes before the sauce is finished. Taste the sauce and season with more salt and pepper flakes if necessary.

— from Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine

10 foods you must try in San Francisco during the Super Bowl

San Francisco is a city with serious food game, whether playing as multi-starred cuisine served in a white tablecloth hush or a simple crab cocktail eaten amid the boisterous clamor of Fisherman’s Wharf.

And with the Super Bowl heading to nearby Santa Clara, the hungry hordes hankering for a taste of the local food scene won’t be disappointed. If you’re lucky enough to be among them — whether you’re looking to dine on one of the city’s iconic standbys or venture into cutting-edge cuisine — here’s a guide to 10 foods and drinks San Francisco is famous for and where to find them.


Anchor Brewing and San Francisco have a history that goes all the way back to 1849, when German brewer Gottlieb Brekle arrived with his family. The brewery weathered earthquakes, fires and Prohibition just fine, but almost went under entirely when mid-century Americans developed a taste for mass-produced beer. In 1965, Fritz Maytag saved the place from bankruptcy, bringing back Anchor Steam Beer and writing a new chapter in suds history. You can get a first-person look at the brewery via tours available most days except holidays. The tours cost $15 per person, take about 90 minutes and conclude with a tasting. Reservations are required; you can make them here: http://www.anchorbrewing.com/brewery/tours . Another option is the 21st Amendment Brewery & Restaurant (563 2nd St.), which has a selection of house beers served with traditional pub grub.


This is the fish stew created in San Francisco by Italian fishermen in North Beach in the late 1800s. They’d toss into a pot whatever seafood was left from the day’s catch — crab, shrimp, clams, fish, etc. — along with onions, garlic, tomatoes, olive oil, wine and herbs. Italian restaurants started serving the dish and soon it was part of the region’s culinary lexicon. A solid bet in North Beach is Sotto Mare (552 Green St.). Tadich Grill  (240 California St.) also is a good choice.


This is a fully caffeinated city with coffee shops on just about every block. For something out of the ordinary, try Ritual, a pioneer in the craft caffeine movement. The flagship location is 1026 Valencia St. in the Mission District. Blue Bottle, which began across the bay in Oakland, has a spot in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. And for coffee with that little extra kick, try the famous Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista Cafe in Fisherman’s Wharf (2765 Hyde St.).


You can pick up a traditional crab cocktail at one of the many vendors lining Fisherman’s Wharf, http://www.fishermanswharf.org . For a different take, try it roasted and served with garlic noodles at Thanh Long (4101 Judah St.). Like your crab crispy? Get it shelled, battered and deep-fried at the R & G Lounge in Chinatown (631 Kearny St.).


For meals on wheels, check out Off the Grid, a roaming event featuring food trucks, carts, tents and live entertainment. Download the app to get information on schedules and participants. http://offthegridsf.com/


Oysters on the half shell are a longstanding San Francisco tradition. For an elegant take with a great view of the Bay Bridge try Waterbar (399 The Embarcadero). Starting Jan. 30 dinner will be accompanied by a free light show with the return of the Bay Lights, a display that flashes nightly on the west span of the bridge. Also on the waterfront, Hog Island Oyster Bar in the Ferry Building.


The region’s tradition of sourdough — bread leavened with a wild yeast starter or “mother” dough — dates back to the Gold Rush. Boudin Bakery, established in 1849 — according to bakery history the original “mother dough” was saved in a bucket during the 1906 earthquake — has a veritable shrine to sourdough at its Fisherman’s Wharf location (160 Jefferson St). It includes a museum and demonstration bakery. Another good place to try this crusty creation is Tartine Bakery (600 Guerrero St.).


Whether you’re parched from purchasing Pradas and other goodies from the boutiques of Union Square or simply resting up from an afternoon of window shopping, The Rotunda at Neiman Marcus is a fun spot to enjoy the elegant refreshment of afternoon tea. Set under a stained glass dome with views of Union Square, the restaurant serves teas, starting at $45, from 2:30 to 4 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 2:30 to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday (150 Stockton St., Level Four). Or try the Samovar Tea Lounge at Yerba Buena Gardens (730 Howard St.). English tea service starts at $24.


If you like Tiki bars, a stop at the Fairmont Hotel’s Tonga Room is mandatory. Set around what used to be the hotel’s indoor swimming pool, the bar features rain shows, live music and more kitsch than you can throw a tiny paper umbrella at (950 Mason St.). Another option is Smuggler’s Cove, which has more than 400 rums (650 Gough St.).


Into veggies with a vista? Greens Restaurant is not just a vegetarian restaurant, it’s a high-end spot that has been nominated for best overall restaurant in America in the James Beard Awards and is set in historic Fort Mason Center with views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands (2 Marina Blvd., Fort Mason Center Building A). You also can find bountiful produce at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Markets held Tuesday, Thursdays and Saturdays. http://ferrybuildingmarketplace.com/farmers_market.php For a futuristic take on food, try Eatsa (121 Spear St.). There are no waiters or cashiers here. You place your order on wall-mounted tablets, then wait for one of the illuminated cubbies lining one wall to display your name in lights, indicating your order’s ready. Eatsa specializes in quinoa-vegetable bowls in myriad combinations. All are vegetarian and some are vegan.

A simple Cuban marinade can add big punch to oven fries

Most of the foods we eat — even among those of us for whom eating is a career — pass our lips and leave not even a fleeting memory. But then there are those that linger not just on our tongues, but in our minds. 

Over the years, a handful of such foods have entered my life. My great grandmother’s rustic pork paté. My mother’s spanakopita. The sunflower seed risotto I ate at a small restaurant in Copenhagen last spring. The sinfully rich liverwurst spread thickly on sourdough that was my afterschool snack when I lived in Germany as a child.

And there is mojo sauce. The first time I tasted it was during Hurricane Katrina, which had forced an extended stay in Key West. We ate dinner at a dive where the meal itself was forgettable. But plopped onto the table was a basket of fried plantain chips and a bowl of mojo sauce for dipping: orange and slightly chunky and flecked with green.

I had no idea what it was, but as soon as I tried it I couldn’t stop eating it. It was sweet and sour and tangy and refreshing with just a tiny hint of heat. It was similar to a salsa, but so much more refreshing. The waitress explained that it was a Cuban-style mojo, and that there are numerous mojo sauces from different parts of the world.

Cuban mojo generally consists of minced garlic, onion and parsley that are mixed with sour orange juice, lime juice, olive oil and a hit of cumin. Traditionally, it is used to marinate pork or for dipping chips, such as plantains.

I wrote down the list of ingredients, but never made it. Until now. I found the card on which I’d scribbled the recipe and remembered that flavor. Plantain chips don’t necessarily excite me, so I decided to recreate it paired with something big and bold — roasted potato wedges dusted with smoked paprika. It’s a perfect combination.


Start to finish: 45 minutes

Servings: 8


6 medium russet potatoes

Extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

2 teaspoons smoked paprika

Ground black pepper

¼ cup lime juice

2 tablespoons lemon juice

½ cup sour orange juice (or 6 tablespoons orange juice and an additional 2 tablespoons lemon juice)

½ small yellow onion, coarsely chopped

¼ cup loosely packed fresh parsley

2 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon sugar

½ teaspoon ground cumin


Heat the oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with foil.

Cut each potato in half lengthwise, then cut each half lengthwise into about 5 wedges. Mound the wedges on the prepared baking sheet, then drizzle with 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil. Toss to coat evenly.

In a small bowl, mix together about 2 teaspoons salt, the paprika and 1 teaspoon of pepper. Sprinkle this evenly over the potato wedges, toss to coat evenly, then spread the potatoes in a single layer on the baking sheet. Bake the potato wedges for 40 minutes, turning the wedges halfway through.

Meanwhile, prepare the mojo sauce. In a blender, combine ½ cup of olive oil, sour orange juice, lime juice, lemon juice, onion, parsley, garlic, sugar and cumin. Pulse on and off for 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until the onion and parsley are very finely chopped, but not pureed. Taste, then season with salt and pepper, pulsing again to mix.

The recipe makes extra mojo sauce, and you’ll be happy for it. Refrigerate the extra, then drizzle over grilled or roasted meat (especially pork) or vegetables.

Serve the potato wedges with the mojo sauce on the side.

Packing the perfect summertime picnic basket

Summer’s warm weather always brings out our inner love for an outdoor gourmet experience and we search for ample opportunities to dine al fresco. In addition to the right location and the right partner, of course, the secret is packing the perfect picnic basket.

We actually found an authentic picnic basket at an antique store in Sturgeon Bay last summer, but we’ve used everything from Coleman coolers to “picnic” backpacks. The medium matters less than what’s inside, so choose your carrier to fit your physical needs and, of course, the contents you intend to include.

Picnic sites can range from crowded social events to deserted beachside settings. The intent of your picnic may govern your choice of settings, and it also may influence the food you prepare and pack along.

So once you’ve got all the basics — a tablecloth if you’ve got a picnic table and a durable blanket if you don’t, plates and utensils, cups and napkins — you get to the most important question of all: What food should you pack? Your choices will have to accommodate food preferences and dietary restrictions, of course, but should explore different flavors, textures, colors and aromas. Picnics can give you the excuse you need to spend a little more or to experiment with more exotic choices.

Here are some considerations when packing for this year’s moveable feasts:

Bread: As the staple of life, having the right bread on hand is a serious consideration.

In the Madison area, that may mean a rustic baquette from Clasen’s European Bakery in Middleton or a sesame fennel baquette from Madison Sourdough Co. on the city’s east side. 

In Milwaukee, just about anything from Peter Sciortino’s Bakery on Brady Street will do — you can even slip a couple of the bakery’s rich and creamy cannoli into your basket for a delightful dessert surprise.

Wine: Many good wines, still or sparkling, suggest themselves. For some local flavor try Wollersheim’s dry riesling, which has already won gold awards at nine different wine competitions this year. Light, subtle and superbly nuanced, Wollersheim proves why this most versatile of wine grapes can produce a perfect picnic wine.

Appetizers: Many things fall into this category, including fresh cut veggies and succulent and savory Wisconsin cheeses, but keep in mind the finger-food ethos of outdoor dining and make it easy on yourself.

For something special, we visit the olive bars at Whole Foods and Metcalfe’s. We recommend dry-cured black olives with Herb de Provence or the mixed Greek olives with crushed chilies. Smoked oysters also offer distinct romantic possibilities.

Sides and mains: Picnics offer a chance to elevate creative salads from side dishes to main courses. One ingredient you should consider this year is quinoa. These seeds from the South American plant of the same name — technically a grass, not a grain — tend to show up more and more in cookbook recipes and commercially prepared salads, and is considered a complete protein with all nine essential amino acids. Add some Thai noodles, shredded kale and sliced apples and you will have all the flavorful nutrition you need.

Madison’s reluctant chef Jonny Hunter captures the culinary spotlight with Underground Food Collective

Jonny Hunter moved to Madison 18 years ago in search of intellectual freedom and an environment that embraced a love of learning. After he found all that, he found something else: an opportunity to establish an alternative model for fine dining that has propelled him into the culinary spotlight.

Hunter is the co-owner of Madison’s Underground Food Collective, a multifaceted enterprise with catering, meat processing and fine-dining components. He serves as the chef at the restaurant, Forequarter, a recent venture that has been named one of the country’s top 50 new restaurants by Bon Appétit magazine. And on Feb. 18, the 35-year-old was revealed to be one of four Wisconsinites on the shortlist for a prestigious honor: the James Beard Award for best chef in the Midwest.

Hunter was joined on the list by fellow Madison chef Dan Fox of The Heritage Tavern and Milwaukee chefs Justin Carlyle of Ardent and David Swanson of Braise. Hunter wasn’t ultimately selected in the final round, though Carlyle earned one of five slots.

Hunter’s response to the nomination — “It’s great to be recognized individually for what we do, but it really is the people I work with who are doing this every day. The job they do is more important than what I do” — is so modest it’s tempting to assume he’s a native Midwesterner. But he was raised in Tyler, Texas, where he was brought up in a strict Christian household. It was that repressive environment that Madison marked an escape from, when Hunter moved in 1998. 

After a year of random jobs, he registered for classes at UW-Madison, majoring in English with a certificate in integrated liberal studies and eventually earning a master’s degree in public affairs from the university. 

The building blocks of the Underground Food Collective came in between. In 2001, Hunter and a group of friends took over Catacombs Coffeehouse, a Christian coffee shop located in the basement of Pres House, the historic Presbyterian church on the campus’s Library Mall. The group served students $2.50 vegetarian lunches and promoted a communal atmosphere. 

“Community was the most important thing here,” says Hunter, who before running Catacombs had worked in a variety of Madison restaurant kitchens and food carts. “I learned a lot about the role food plays in a community and how to cook for that community using vegetables and produce grown by people I came to know and respect.

“I never really call myself chef,” Hunter adds. “When we were working at Catacombs it was all about collaboration, being kind to each other, and for the experience itself to be good.”

The Catacombs years colored how Hunter looks at life and his chosen profession. In 2005, the reluctant chef and his Catacombs companions set their sights on applying their approach to food service outside of the religious environment of Pres House. 

“Since Catacombs was in a basement space, we named our food collective ‘Underground’ in homage to that experience,” he said. “We started to work with nonprofits to bring in food as part of their activities.”

The Underground Food Collective immediately set off in a unique direction, launching a series of pop-up dinners — not only in Madison, but also in Chicago and New York City. Hunter says the group would create its menu first, then rent out a restaurant space to execute the meal.

“People embraced the concept as a way for us to pursue culinary careers without taking on full-time obligations,” Hunter says. “We just wanted the opportunity to cook for people and do something creative and fun.”

The success of the dinners led to the formation of Underground Catering, which added structure and opportunity to the pop-up concept and set the collective on its current trajectory. The enterprise, the first of several owned by Hunter, his brother Ben Hunter and business partner Melinda Trudeau, involved the same organic and local produce with which the collective had been working, while adding locally raised meats.

It was the first in a string of additions, some more successful than others. The collective’s first attempt at a restaurant, the Underground Kitchen, opened in 2010 and closed nine months later after a fire (the space is now occupied by Heritage Tavern). More successful was Underground Meats, a wholesale meat processing facility opened in 2012 that offers charcuterie, sausages and salami, and Underground Butcher, a retail meat store that offers fresh cuts from humanely raised animals. 

Hunter’s culinary talents have shone brightest at the collective’s permanent home, Forequarter Restaurant, also established in 2012. “Forequarter is a tiny restaurant, but the food there is really driven by the creative process and is very typical of where we are in Wisconsin and that we have fresh vegetables available for only a limited time each year,” Hunter says. “We’re limited in many ways, but those limitations help us to make something unique.”

Hunter says the restaurant isn’t themed beyond that description, although root vegetables are prominent in menu items and many dishes are made using fermentation processes borrowed from Asian cuisine. It’s a process that lends a unique character to such dishes as a salad of pickled trout with smoked trout roe, celeriac mayonnaise and shaved vegetables ($14) or fried mushrooms with black garlic, black radishes and caramelized shallot vinaigrette ($8), two of Hunter’s favorite menu items.

The collective will expand sometime in 2015, when Hunter opens his next restaurant, Middlewest, at 809 Williamson St., next door to Underground Butcher. He says the restaurant will be larger than Forequarter, with a focus on Wisconsin culture, but resists getting any more specific than that, except to say it’ll retain a commitment to sustainable foods.

“I think that we run a different kind of kitchen than a lot of other restaurants. The structure has changed from the early days, but the principles stay the same,” Hunter says. “The team that works there is responsible for the food coming out. The menu is not an expression of a single individual, but the expression of the team.”

Hunter’s expression of the collective ethos is one embraced by many Madison consumers. And the more well-known his name becomes, the fewer the limits on how far the Underground Food Collective can spread its influence and further its cause.


Forequarter Restaurant: 708 ¼ E. Johnson St., 608-609-4717.

Underground Meats: 931 E. Main St., 608-251-6171.

Underground Butcher: 811 Williamson St., 608-338-3421.

For more details, visit undergroundfoodcollective.org.

Go For the Food: Bourbon in Louisville

In Kentucky’s bourbon country, the classic American whiskey isn’t just for sipping anymore.

Restaurants stretching along the Urban Bourbon Trail in Louisville are creating bourbon-inspired sauces and glazes to jazz up main courses, side dishes and desserts. The 6-year-old bourbon cocktail and culinary experience has grown to 34 establishments, adding more zest to the city’s nightlife.

The trail’s growth is part of a bourbon revival both nationally and in Kentucky’s largest city, where whiskey-making dates back to the late 1700s and where a portion of Main Street known as “Whiskey Row” was once home to as many as 50 distilleries before Prohibition.

Louisville touts itself as the gateway to bourbon country, and for many visitors the restaurants and bars are part of a day-night bourbon experience.

During the day, they tour distilleries about an hour or less away in rural Kentucky, where iconic bourbons such as Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve and Four Roses are crafted. At night, they flock to Louisville’s bars and restaurants where bourbon is a main course.

“It’s a perfect complement to our Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour, since you get to savor the authentic distillery experience by day and then enjoy the cosmopolitan allure of the Urban Bourbon Trail at dusk,” said Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. “Many of our guests use Louisville as their home base to enjoy their unique hotels, nightlife and culinary scene.”

The bars are well-stocked — many establishments are typically stocked with anywhere from 50 to 150 varieties of Kentucky’s signature spirit — and the bourbon-inspired dishes are as varied as the whiskeys crafted by Kentucky’s master distillers.

At St. Charles Exchange, there’s an appetizer dubbed Elvis on Horseback — bacon-wrapped, peanut butter-stuffed dates with bourbon-banana vinaigrette. The Brussels sprouts at Marketplace restaurant feature bourbon-sorghum hoisin and almond. Lilly’s serves up pork rib-eye with pork shoulder, summer succotash and grilled peach bourbon coulis. At Sidebar at Whiskey Row, the “Hung Jury” burger is layered with bourbon mushrooms and onions.

For dessert, options include Derby Cafe’s Kentucky bread pudding with bourbon sauce and whipped cream. The “Wilbur sundae” at Doc Crow’s includes brown butter praline ice cream with a bourbon caramel ribbon atop cinnamon pork rinds, sprinkled with candied bacon and topped with a bourbon cherry.

The vast array of bourbons offered at the bars includes hard-to-get whiskeys. Bourbons Bistro, a founder of the Urban Bourbon Trail, features an average of 125 regular bourbons, 20 to 25 reserve bourbons, and 35 rye whiskeys.

The Vernon Club, a bourbon bar housed in a bowling alley, keeps 300 bourbons on the menu. Its offerings of rare bourbons include Michter’s 20 Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey, the cultishly popular Pappy Van Winkle bourbons, and Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Four Wood.

At the Old Seelbach Bar, customers can sip a smooth single-barrel bourbon or a classic cocktail at a restored bar from the early 1900s. The bar is a big draw at The Seelbach Hilton Hotel, a stately fixture in downtown Louisville. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald used The Seelbach as a backdrop for Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s wedding in “The Great Gatsby,” and the hotel was a favorite hangout for Al Capone.

Many of the restaurants and bars on the Urban Bourbon Trail are a short walk from some of the city’s main attractions, including the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory and the Muhammad Ali Center. Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, is a short drive away.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said the trail has spiked the city’s status as a year-round tourist attraction. A half-dozen new downtown hotels are either planned or being built, and several micro-distilleries will start production in the next couple of years, he said.

“It’s been great for the economy, and good for the spirit of the city,” the mayor said.

If You Go…

URBAN BOURBON TRAIL: Louisville, Kentucky; http://www.bourboncountry.com/things-to-do/urban-bourbon-trail/index.aspx

ST. CHARLES EXCHANGE: 13 S. Seventh St., Louisville, 502-618-1917, http://stcharlesexchange.com/

MARKETPLACE: 651 S. Fourth St., Louisville, 502-625-3001, http://www.theatersquaremarketplace.com/

LILLY’S: 1147 Bardstown Road, Louisville, 502-451-0447, http://www.lillyslapeche.com/

SIDEBAR AT WHISKEY ROW: 129 S. Second St., Louisville, 502-384-1600, http://www.sidebarwhiskeyrow.com/

DERBY CAFE: 704 Central Ave., Louisville, 502-637-1111, http://www.derbymuseum.org/derby-cafe.html

DOC CROW: 127 W. Main Street, Louisville, 502-587-1626, http://doccrows.com/

BOURBONS BISTRO: 2255 Frankfort Ave., Louisville, 502-894-8838, http://www.bourbonsbistro.com/Bourbons/home.html

VERNON CLUB: 1575 Story Ave., Louisville, 502-584-8460, http://www.vernonclub.com/

OLD SEELBACH BAR: At the Seelbach Hilton, 500 S. Fourth St., Louisville, 800-333-3399, http://www.seelbachhilton.com/03_b_dining.php 

Milwaukee restaurant groups offer menu of choices

Milwaukee’s dining scene isn’t as well-known as Chicago’s or New York’s, but Brew City is far from starving for quality culinary options. The metro area hosts a feast of high-quality, creative food and drink options that cater to big spenders and average Joes alike.

The originality of the city’s dining venues is so impressive that it’s surprising to learn how many of them are operated by the same ownership groups. Just three of those groups — Bartolotta, Mojofuco and SURG — manage more than 30 restaurants, bars and eateries among them. There’s an obvious financial benefit available to owners who can pull it off, no easy task in the current economy.

But the real accomplishment is not in having a successful portfolio of restaurants. It’s in pleasing the palates of Milwaukee — and elevating the dining scene in the process.


Brothers Joe and Paul Bartolotta have been building their line of restaurants for more than 20 years. But all they originally wanted was a single really great one — and Joe didn’t even realize he wanted that at first.

“(Paul) knew exactly what he wanted to do, and I didn’t,” Joe Bartolotta says, reflecting on their post-high school days. While Paul took the culinary path, graduating from MATC’s restaurant and hotel management program in 1980 and studying Italian cooking with master chefs in New York City and Italy, Joe stumbled into a DIY business and management program, working at restaurants throughout NYC and learning as he went. “There was really no school for that at the time,” he says, “so the best way to learn was to roll up your sleeves and do it.”

When the two returned to the Midwest, they had the skill sets and the drive necessary to create that one great restaurant: Ristorante Bartolotta, which opened its doors in 1993. Located near their childhood home in Wauwatosa — Joe wryly notes they visited the restaurant as kids when it was a pancake house — Ristorante Bartolotta was an unusual Italian restaurant for its time. The menu focused on Northern Italian cuisine, which uses less meat and more heavy red sauces, olive oil and herbs.

Ristorante Bartolotta was a hit, earning a four-star rating from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel immediately upon opening. But it also made Joe realize the job he’d built for himself was going to make him a “prisoner” of the restaurant.

So he started looking for ways to expand the prison bars. After an 18-month struggle with Milwaukee County, he obtained permission to transform a neglected pavilion into Lake Park Bistro in 1995, winning accolades for its authentic French bistro cuisine. Italian steakhouse Mr. B’s followed in 1999.

Joe says Mr. B’s was the tipping point: “When you have three restaurants, a lot of people approach you with opportunities.”

Those opportunities have made Bartolotta Restaurants Milwaukee’s premier fine-dining group and one of its most diverse. And it’s still growing. In 2012, Bartolotta’s opened a modernized supper club, Joey Gerard’s, in two locations (Greendale and Mequon); Miss Beverly’s Deluxe Barbeque, a carryout-focused barbecue restaurant opened in July adjacent to Joey Gerard’s in Greendale.

Bartolotta credits the balancing act to his 1,100 employees, many of whom have built careers with the company. He says he prioritizes his workers’ happiness — if they’re happy, they’ll keep diners happy.

The Bartolotta Restaurants’ latest project is the food court in the U.S. Bank building — a once-perfunctory space now known as the Downtown Kitchen. It provides dine-in or carryout options, including a kosher-style deli, Pizzeria Piccola pizza and Northpoint burgers.

“It’s like a food court,” he says, “but a really cool food court.”

Although Bartolotta admits there are days where the business feels too big to manage, they’re evened out by days when he recognizes his growth has enabled his employees to build careers in the industry. And that, in turn, has helped Milwaukee build a reputation of its own as a city with solid fine-dining options, both at Bartolotta restaurants and elsewhere.


It seems like Scott Johnson and Leslie Montemurro should have had a top-level research and development team guiding them, the way they’ve opened restaurants. They opened Hi-Hat Lounge right when craft cocktails returned in vogue. Palomino opened in Bay View just as Gen X Milwaukeeans began to migrate there. Balzac jumped on the small-plates bandwagon long before the style became a staple.

Guess again. Johnson says they’ve just been lucky since the day he and Montemurro returned from a cross-country road trip and decided to open a neighborhood coffee shop like those they’d enjoyed while visiting different cities.

Neither Johnson nor Montemurro had managed a restaurant before opening Fuel Cafe in 1993. But back then, it wasn’t about building a big restaurant group.

“I was a punk rocker and anarchist,” Johnson says. “I was traveling a lot at the time, and I wanted some way I could keep traveling and have a job to come back to.” 

Things didn’t quite work out that way. Fuel was a hit, as were the coffee shops, bars and restaurants Johnson and Montemurro opened in the years that followed, each launched as inspiration struck.

Initially, Johnson and Montemurro participated directly in management. But after a few years, they stepped back, creating an operating structure that let them focus on big-picture issues and empowering the head staffers of each location to have a free hand in hiring and management.

“It doesn’t make sense for me to hire employees to work for a manager — they should hire their own people,” Johnson says. “That took us a while to figure out. We were figuring it out as we went.”

Perhaps it’s their hands-off management style that’s enabled Johnson and Montemurro to work well with other entrepreneurs in the city. They originally teamed up with Mike Eitel and Eric Wagner to open Hi Hat, Garage and Balzac, then part of the Diablos Rojos restaurant group along with Trocadero and Cafe Hollander. Eitel and Wagner eventually broke away amicably, taking Trocadero and Hollander to form the Lowlands Group. (Lowlands Group was unable for comment on this story.)

Johnson and Montemurro also share ownership of Comet, Honeypie and Palomino with the brother-sister duo Adam and Valerie Lucks, and Kristyn St. Denis is a co-owner at both Fink’s and the three BelAir Cantinas.

It’s a complicated but beneficial arrangement. Johnson says the Lucks’ intervention helped save Comet Cafe from a slump by focusing more heavily on food options. And the group would never have opened a second BelAir, if not for St. Denis. She exhibited a flair of intuition similar to Johnson and Montemurro’s, when she found a building in Wauwatosa for sale and recommended that the group take advantage of a neighboring restaurant boom before it was too late.

Johnson says they’ve been fortunate not to close any restaurants, attributing that both to talented employees and to chance: “We’ve made a lot of mistakes, but luckily none of them were really too bad to sink us.” 

Mojofuco Restaurants’ biggest project right now is opening the latest BelAir Cantina on Downer Avenue, where it will replace VIA Downer in a few weeks. After that, Johnson thinks the group will rest for a while on its bay laurels. Or will it?

“I wouldn’t mind just taking some time off, all of us, take a year to travel more and maybe work less,” Johnson says. “We say that, but then some cool opportunity comes up and we want to jump on it. We’re constantly asking, ‘What are we missing?’”


Created in 2008, SURG Restaurant Group is one of the newest groups on the scene. But the group’s partners, Omar Shaikh and Mike Polaski, have been around longer. Shaikh opened Carnevor in 2006, and Polaski opened both Umami Moto (in its original Brookfield location) and Mi-Key’s shortly before the two joined forces.

The company’s presence has exploded in the past few years, now encompassing just under a dozen locations throughout downtown Milwaukee and the suburbs.

SURG’s growth is especially impressive considering that two of its former flagship locations were hurt by Ryan Braun’s steroid scandal last year. SURG previously operated two restaurants sponsored by Braun — Graffito and 8*Twelve. After Braun’s admission that he’d used steroids, Shaikh and Polaski chose to ditch both names.

Those weren’t the first restaurants the group shuttered. The pan-Latin restaurant Charro closed in 2012 after four years of inconsistent business, and the piano bar Nuovo Centanni closed the same year.

But each loss has proven to be an opportunity for SURG to pivot and try a different concept. “We like to evolve,” Shaikh says.

So they did. Nuovo Centanni was quickly replaced by the tag team of Gouda’s Italian Deli and Bugsy’s, a classic sandwich shop by day and a 1920s-themed bar by night. Minor tweaks to the former 8*Twelve focusing on local vendors made it farm-to-table restaurant Hōm, a concept so popular the group has already opened a second location.

And earlier this year, SURG on the Water opened as a private event space in Graffito’s former location. (A new restaurant is planned to take over Charro’s space, but Shaikh says it’s too early to release details.)

Each of SURG’s restaurants has a very different format, but Shaikh says they all share certain characteristics. Attention to detail is one: The restaurants are meticulously constructed, most of them developed by the firm Flux Design. Another common factor is the sense of intimacy they offer diners. Although the two Hōms are large spaces, many of the other restaurants are deliberately small.

SURG restaurants also now share behind-the-scenes cohesion. SURG director of marketing Jaime Jacobs says the restaurants’ managers have begun working together more frequently as a way to help promote the group as a whole, which is one of Shaikh’s goals. 

Overall, Shaikh says the company plans to keep expanding and tweaking things as it goes. “We’re going to be pretty busy,” he predicts.

So make your reservations now.

Bartolotta restaurants:

Ristorante Bartolotta, Northern Italian cuisine 

Lake Park Bistro, French bistro dining 

Mr. B’s, high-end Italian steakhouse

Pizzeria Piccola, thin-crust Neapolitan pizzas

Bacchus, contemporary American cuisine 

Northpoint Custard, burger and custard stand 

Harbor House, New England-style seafood 

Rumpus Room, steampunk-influenced gastropub 

Joey Gerard’s, modern supper club 

Miss Beverly’s Deluxe Barbeque, American smokehouse barbecue 

Bartolotta Catering & Events

Mojofuco restaurants:

Fuel Cafe, Riverwest coffeeshop 

Comet Cafe, local, from-scratch diner 

Hi-Hat Lounge, craft cocktail club 

Palomino, Southern comfort food 

Garage, bar with brunch 

Balzac, wine and small plates 

Honeypie, from-scratch food and desserts 

BelAir Cantina, California-style Mexican 

Fink’s, casual cocktail bar

SURG restaurant GROUP:

Carnevor, high-caliber steakhouse 

Umami Moto, Asian fusion 

Mi-Key’s, comfort food meets cocktail lounge 

Distil, artisan cocktail bar 

Gouda’s Italian Deli, Italian sandwiches and groceries 

Bugsy’s, ’20s speakeasy bar 

Hōm, Wisconsin farm-to-table 

SURG on the Water, private event venue

Oktoberfest begins September — are you ready to pour?

As you’re reading this, there’s probably enough time left to catch a flight to Munich for the annual opportunity to drink copious amounts of hearty German beer from 1-liter tankards with 6 million of your closest friends. Ach du lieber!

On the other hand, if you don’t have the opportunity to stagger across the Theresienwiese (“Therese’s meadow,” where Munich pitches 14 mammoth beer tents) with the rest of the bierleichen (“beer corpses,” a popular German term for those who overindulge), you can still celebrate the Bavarian festival of Oktoberfest in Wisconsin. 

The misnamed annual beer celebration begins on Sept. 20, at the moment Munich Mayor Dieter Reiter pounds the first spigot into the first keg and announces “O’zapt is!” — “It’s tapped!” Reiter’s stroke of the mallet will launch more than two weeks of malt-headed, well-hopped consumption that doesn’t conclude until the last drops are drained on Oct. 5.

The festival began in Munich, but it’s wildly popular elsewhere, including here in the Badger State. For the past half century, one of the largest celebrations has taken place in La Crosse — Oktoberfest, USA. This year’s installment convenes on the banks of the Mississippi River Sept. 25–28. Buy one beer or six, march in the parade of your choice, dance to the funk band Here Come the Mummies! on Saturday night, and then find a comfortable bar stool to watch the Packers once again defeat the Bears on Sept. 28 while you get cupshoten — aka drunk (oktoberfestusa.com).

That same weekend, New Glarus Brewing Co. brewmaster Dan Carey will don his lederhosen, tap a keg of, presumably, his brewery’s Staghorn Oktoberfest beer, and launch the Swiss community’s Oktoberfest celebration. The party begins Sept. 26 at 1 p.m., and runs through Oct. 28. Cheese fondue, a chain saw woodcarving competition and other events round out the weekend’s festivities (swisstown.com/festivals-2014).

In Milwaukee, consider the entire metro area a de facto Oktoberfest celebration during the latter half of September. Oktoberfest is the crown jewel of the city’s German heritage, and you can count on Mader’s Restaurant, 1041 N. Old World Third St., Karl Ratzsch’s German-American Restaurant, 320 E. Mason St., the Old German Beer Hall, 1009 N. Old World Third St., and many other businesses to pull a pint to celebrate Oktoberfest.

Want to start Oktoberfest early? Of course you do. Then drop by Glendale’s Heidelberg Park during the first four Fridays and Saturdays in September, where weekly Oktoberfest celebrations will take place at the Bavarian Fest Garten (oktoberfestmilwaukee.com).

Of course, you can always celebrate at home. Wisconsin has a number of locally available Märzenbiers, a dark Bavarian lager that’s considered the official beer of Oktoberfest. It’s brewed with either more hops or slightly more alcohol to better preserve it and give it a fuller flavor than most lagers. And it should be no surprise that Wisconsin’s got a lot of other German brews available to complement Märzen.

Here’s a mixed six-pack you might want to try.

Many German brewers still make Märzenbier, originally produced in the spring to last through the summer, the season in which Bavaria outlawed brewing to preserve quality. The most popular brands include Spaten Oktoberfest ($8.49 per six-pack), Weihenstephaner Oktoberfestbier ($7.99), from what claims to be the word’s oldest brewery, and Paulaner Oktoberfest Märzen ($7.99). 

Doppelbocks — a malty variant of the German lager with a little more firepower — have become increasingly popular. Two of the best are Spaten Optimator ($8.49 per six-pack) and Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock ($12.49 per four-pack.). The Optimator is rich and refined, with complex aromas and tasting notes; Celebrator is all that and more, with notes of toffee, caramel and a dark-malt roastiness.

For something truly unique and powerful, try a Kulmbacher Eisbock ($12.99 per six-pack). Discovered by accident, an eisbock — literally “ice bock” — is a doppelbock that has been intentionally frozen to concentrate its ingredients, resulting in enhanced flavor and greater alcoholic strength. 

At 9.6 percent alcohol by volume, eisbock is a special treat best served in snifters rather than steins. After a little of that Teutonic tonic, you’ll be ready to leap into your lederhosen or don your dirndls and dance a sprightly polka on your patio. Your neighbors will understand — it’s Oktoberfest!