The Chocolate Maven – Santa Fe

August 5, 2008

Short Take:  Fresh baked bread and bakery combined with local ingredients in tasty, healthy offerings.

Long Take:  Willamina and Higgins continue their travels in the southwest, today meeting up with more friends for lunch in Santa Fe, NM.  Higgins and Willamina were joined once more by Miriam (Cornelius had other duties to attend to, unfortunately) and also by Josefina, Quincy, Brutus, and Violet for lunch at The Chocolate Maven.  

The party was, it must be said, a tad doubtful as they arrived in the vicinity of the establishment.  It looked very much like a warehouse district with metal buildings.  (If you find yourself by the towing company, you’re almost there.)  Upon finding and entering the door, their fears evaporated in the savory and sweet smells that greeted them.  The hostess couldn’t seat the party until all were present, but once they were all accounted for they were seated within minutes.  The host took the party of seven to the 2nd floor via a spiral staircase.  

The menu contained a plethora of options including small plates, salads, two soups, sandwiches, entrees, and a large selection of potables.  The Santa Fe heat is a little intense for Willamina and Higgins, so waters were the first order.  Higgins also ordered a Black Currant Italian Soda and Willamina, an Orange Italian Soda.  The sodas were made the traditional way with a touch of cream or milk.  This pleased Higgins greatly–though Wiilamina was not happy with this development.  Fortunately, Violet found the Orange Italian Soda to her liking and was happy to accept it as her beverage.

If you decide to peruse their menu on-line, be aware the offerings are markedly different on-site.  

To begin the meal, the party ordered a salsa sampler platter (including tomatillo, ancho, and pico de gallo and fresh fried corn tortilla chips.)  The party was divided as to which was the best salsa.  Willamina and Violet enjoyed the tomatillo; Miriam preferred the pico de gallo; the rest chose the ancho (which had a deep smoky flavor.)  (Regular readers may remember that Higgins and Willamina find their palattes do not appreciate the higher end of the Scofield scale.  They found all of the salsas to be enjoyable.)  Josefina also ordered the balsamic glazed valencia oranges with candied pecans.   Higgins was doubtful about this selection, but was forced to change his opinion once he tried one of dressed slices of citrus.  In fact, most of the party  were persuaded to try a slice and were glad for the experience.  Josefina did wish they had removed all of the seeds before serving.

Violet and Brutus chose to share a Pesto Roman Style Pizza.  Josefina ordered a Ham and Brie sandwich.  Quincy and Willamina both had the Steak Au Poivre.  Higgins chose the Smoked Salmon Bialy.  Miriam had the Galisteo Grill (with the chipotle aioli on the side.)

Pesto Roman Style Pizza – It arrived hot, with the cheese melted over a hand rolled crust cooked in a brick oven.  The ingredients were evenly balanced over the canvas that was the crust.  The pizza was oblong shaped, cut into five strips, and was a meal all by itself. 

All of the sandwiches came on fresh baked sourdough or focacccia rolls.  The bread is often the key to a good sandwich and the bread at The Chocolate Maven is fantastic.  The bread was the shining star of the entire meal.  Flavorful, firm on the outside, soft on the inside.  

Ham and Brie – The Ham and Brie comes with a large portion of thinly sliced ham, a good amount of melted brie, and caramelized apples, with a balsamic glaze (Josefina declined to have the honey-mustard on the sandwich though graciously admits others may enjoy such a thing.)  The apples added a delightful fruity flavor to the ham and brie.  Josefina also paid a little extra to get a small side salad with the sandwich.  While the salad was uneventful, the roasted garlic vinaigrette was impressive.  All told, however, the salad wasn’t worth the extra cost of ordering it.

Galisteo Grill (Chicken) – Served on the same delicious bread, the chicken was cooked just right– still juicy while still being cooked through.  Miriam was impressed with the balance of the ingredients and the blending of the flavors.

Steak Au Poivre – The steak was thinly-sliced tenderloin marinated lightly in a sherry and then fried.  This made the steak amazingly tender while still having some crunchy spots.  Quincy had the sandwich as described with swiss cheese and fried onions and green chile.  Willamina asked for provolone instead of the swiss and no onions or green chile.  (The server and the cooks were happy to oblige the requests.)Both enjoyed their sandwiches as ordered.   Willamina chose the fresh made kettle chips for her side.  Though she would have preferred them a tad less brown, they were quite crisp and tasty.  Quincy chose to order the Garlic Rosemary Fries.  While those who tested them found them to be enjoyable, Quincy thought they were deceptively under-seasoned and inconsistently prepared.  (Some fries were undercooked and some were overcooked.)

Smoked Salmon Bialy – The bialy had red onions baked into the top of it (Higgins loathes red onions) but they were easily removed.  The smoked salmon was plentiful with a rich, creamy flavor.  The locally grown tomatoes added a wonderful tang to the sandwich.  The dill cream cheese spread was lightly spread on the bread and pulled all of the tastes together.  


After walking through the bakery to get to the table, the party agreed that desert was definitely in order.  They ordered a few deserts for sharing.  Unfortunately, and shockingly after the lunch experience, the deserts were not all that impressive.

Belgian Chocolate Torte – While Brutus and Violet found the torte to be rich and chocolatey, it should be noted that their palates are still developing.  Quincy found it appropriately dense but decidedly lacking in dark chocolate flavor.  It was not much better than what can be found at some chain restaurants.

Belgian Chocolate Brownie Extravaganza – The sauce was the star of this dish, but the brownie held its own.  The brownie was, unfortunately, a tad on the dry side.  Higgins didn’t enjoy it at all and chose not to finish his.  Josefina and Willamina opined there was not extravaganza to be found unless it was an extravaganza of disappointment.

Carrot Cake – Once Willamina determined there were no raisins in the cake, she ordered it.  She didn’t find it to be that impressive and gave it to Higgins to finish.  (Willamina is famous for making a deluxe, three-tiered carrot cake that makes grown men weep for joy, so her standards are a little high.)  Higgins found the cake to be bursting with carrot flavor touched with a lot of cinnamon.  

Ultimate Chocolate Cheesecake – The cheese cake was light and tangy, but wasn’t at all what Miriam was hoping for.  The chocolate ganache topping was appropriately chocolatey but not on the top; Miriam had been hoping for a solid dark chocolate topping.  The title of the dish is rather misleading as the cheesecake is neither chocolately nor in any way ultimate.


As they walked out, they all paused and looked once again in the bakery cases.  It was suggested by one wag that next time they would order the sandwiches and get their desert from the bakery case.  This seemed like a good idea.  In any case, the sandwiches and the service make this cafe a place to return to–though not for desert off the menu.

The Artichoke Cafe – Albuquerque

August 3, 2008

(Willamina and Higgins have been on an unintentional hiatus– not from our normal epicurean experiences, but from expressing our experiences with you, our fine fans.  We’re off galavanting around the country and our change of scenery seems to have reinvigorated us.  Then again, it just might be the good company and good food we’ve experienced that is inspiring us to put fingers to keyboard once again.)

Short Take:  A upper scale restaurant with a relaxed, classic atmosphere and exceptionally well-prepared food of decent portions.  Absolutely wonderful.  Every dish was a winner.

Long Take:  This evening, Willamina and Higgins went with our dear friends, Miriam and Cornelius, to dinner at the Artichoke Cafe in Albuquerque, NM.  We had reservations for 6:00 pm on a Saturday night.  We found parking in the lot across the side street and were greeted by the parking lot attendant.  We were greeted as we walked in by the hostess and seated immediately at the white-linen draped table.  The waiter was there within seconds to offer us glasses of water.  (He didn’t even bat an eye when Higgins asked for a new glass of water minus the ever-present-these-days slice of lemon.)  

A basket containing three types of bread (an onion white, and two different fruit infused breads we couldn’t identify) and a small container of herbed butter (we guessed thyme) was quickly placed on the table.  Though the dinner menu was smaller than most restaurants offer, it was more than sufficient with multiple offerings that appealed to every member of our party.  (The menu included several vegetarian offerings.)  

We tried to order two appetizers: the assorted cheese plate and the pork, shrimp, and shitake mushroom potstickers.  We were disappointed when the waiter informed us they had sold out of the potstickers the night before.  We decided to stick with the cheese plate and skip the 2nd appetizer; instead, saving room for desert.

One of the many reasons Willamina and Higgins enjoy being with Miriam and Cornelius is their willingness to share.  Since each of us found multiple dishes we might like to try, we quickly decided to each order a different dish to share.  We ordered the pan seared duck breast, the fresh sea scallops, the beef tenderloin, and the salmon du jour.

The Assorted Cheese Plate came with three artisan cheeses, some slices of italian bread, two types of crackers, a medium sprig of purple grapes, and a small dollop of quince preserve.  (The jam and the nuts described in the on-line menu did not make an appearance.  We didn’t miss them.)  The three cheeses were ? (a soft, but solid, ricotta-like cheese with a very mild taste), compte (an aged, hard cow’s milk with a very strong taste), and ? (an aged, smokey monterey jack with a slight nutty flavor that we all liked best.)  The quince preserve was quite tasty, but there could have been more of it.  A fine way to start the meal.

The Salmon du Jour was grilled with a with a citrus glaze.  It came with garlic infused mashed potatoes and asparagus spears wrapped in prosciutto and grilled.  The salmon was meaty and tender and moist.  Flavorful and well cooked (Miriam very much enjoyed the golden crust of the salmon.)  The prosciutto added just the right hint of salty flavor to asparagus spears.

The Pan Seared Duck Breast was cooked perfectly.  The spices were less intense than we expected, and that was, we agreed, a good thing.  The pomegranate sherry glaze was very light and left only a touch of fruity undertones to the duck breast.  Higgins, who is not particularly fond of duck, found it to be a delightful, appealing dish.  The golden raisin relish appeared to have been mixed in with the root vegetable and brown and wild rice pilaf.  Miriam and Cornelius found it to be an excellent complement to the duck’s flavors.

The Fresh Sea Scallops were larger than expected.  Even though there were only two of them, they were more than enough for a meal.  The prosciutto wrapped around the scallops was grilled perfectly, the fat rendered off without leaving the dried ham tough or charred.  (A difficult culinary feat to accomplish, indeed.)  The scallops were covered with a very salty white wine and butter broth containing small pieces of prosciutto.  The broth lent its salty flavor to the roasted potatoes and green and yellow beans in the bottom of the dish.  The scallops were cooked perfectly and were still sweet enough to stand up to the sauce.  This dish tied with the duck for favorite amongst our party. 

The Beef Tenderloin was delivered as ordered, medium rare, wrapped in smoked applewood bacon.  The meat was flavorful, juicy, and well seasoned.  Unlike the menu listed on-line, the tenderloin was served with a gorgonzola stuffed portobello mushroom.  While the steak was very good by itself, everyone agreed the flavor was greatly enhanced when eaten with even a small portion of the mushroom.  (Miriam expected this dish to be best, but was pleasantly surprised by her duck and by the scallops ordered by Higgins.)

The portions were large enough to allow all four diners to share generously with everyone around the table.  Everyone was satisfied with what they ordered and enjoyed the other dishes as well.  We had just enough room to order two deserts-again to be shared: the Peanut Butter Chocolate Mouse Torte with Caramel Sauce and the Blackberry Balsamic Panna Cotta.

The Peanut Butter Torte was beautiful with its creamy peanut butter layer, its chocolate mouse layer, and the hard semi-sweet chocolate covering.  While it was difficult to share in a neat and orderly fashion, our four epicurean heroes managed it.

The Blackberry Balsamic Panna Cotta came in a sloped glass filled with a magenta custard and topped with three plump blackberries.  The balsamic undertone was quite pleasant with the sweet, tart custard.  Higgins suggested the two deserts together made for a high-end peanut butter and jelly experience.  (Higgins is fanciful when he has enjoyed a fine meal with good company. Willamina and Miriam contend that Higgins is fanciful most of the time.)

It is a very rare thing for everyone to not only enjoy what they ordered, but for everyone to enjoy what everyone else ordered as well.  The service was impeccable, with our water glasses being refilled promptly and with subtlety.  Each dish was surprisingly good and plentiful.  The restaurant was fine dining without being “snooty.” (Cornelius said it was only “hoity.”)  Each of our party would be thrilled to return to this wonderful establishment.

(The prices are listed on the menu, but if you are curious, our meal consisting of one appetizer, four entrees, two desserts, and one soft drink came to $170.00 including the standard tip.)

Golden Gate – Waukesha

September 16, 2007

Short Take: A vastly over-rated (literally) Chinese restaurant with mediocre food.

Long Take: A couple of weeks ago, Higgins and Willamina were looking for a new, good restaurant to try. Higgins, feeling rather clever, decided to search for a good restaurant via the internet. A search for top rated restaurants in the Milwaukee/Waukesha area turned up several articles about the Golden Gate restaurant. According to these artlcles, the Golden Gate has been voted 1 of the top 100 Chinese restaurants in the United States — TWICE! Wow. One of the 100 best Chinese restaurants in the small town of Waukesha, WI? That sounds too good to be true.

It is.

Higgins and Willamina decided to try out this local gem. They drove right past the restaurant the first time. It was hard to recognize in the old strip mall set back from the road. When they did find it, they were torn. The outside did not inspire confidence. On the other hand, the parking lot was full. Usually a good sign. As they walked in they were greeted by a very large Buddha and a poster advertising the restaurant’s most recent “Top 100” award. Inside the second door, they were greeted by more of the same– the stereotypical red cloth and hanging lanterns of every Chinese restaurant AND more posters from the “Top 100” contest. At the check-out counter, as they waited for someone to put their name on a list, they found another jade Buddha and a stack of “Vote for Us” cards.

The wait for a table was only fifteen minutes. Higgins and Willamina chose to wait by the door rather than in the bar. The Golden Gate has a full bar–much like you would find in a typical Wisconsin supper club. Long bar. Lots of stools. Many older people smoking at the bar. Televisions over the bar playing racing and/or football. And a few red hanging lanterns. (Buddha, apparently, stays on the restaurant side of the Golden Gate.) The bar was very full, very loud, and very, very smoky.

Higgins and Willamina were eventually shown to their table. A quick glance around showed a full dining room– the patrons almost exclusively caucasion and predominently over the age of 60. Niether Higgins nor Willamina are racist nor ageist, but when an Asian restaurant’s clientelle has the same look and demographic as the Denny’s down the street, they do begin to wonder.

The meal was a horrible disappointment. Even the water was an unpleasant experience. (It tasted very much like fish.)

In the many reviews and newspaper articles, people raved about the Golden Gate’s “Crab Delight Ragoon.” Willamina decided to try an order. Higgins, ever fond of samplers, ordered the Appetizer Plate (Egg Roll, Beef Kabob, Crab Ragoon, Shrimp Toast, Cantonese Fried Chicken, Fried Shrimp, and Shrimp Chips.) For entrees, Willamina chose the Kung Pao Chicken; Higgins, the Sesame Chicken. Willamina, being of delicate constitution, asked the waiter how spicy the Kung Pao would be. The waiter assured her it could be made extremely mild.

Crab Ragoon – The plate of six fried stuffed won-ton skins arrived. They were very large and exceptionally greasy. They were overcooked. The inside seemed to have only the barest hint of crab. We’ve had worse Ragoon, but we really can’t remember when.

Appetizer Plate – The only things of interest on this plate were the Shrimp Chips. Apparently, they can now take shrimp paste, feed it through some sort of extruder, and create styrofoam peanuts that taste like rancid shrimp. Interesting. Tasty? No. The Beef Kabab wasn’t greasy. That is the only good thing I can say about it.

The entrees arrived none-to-soon. Higgins and Willamina were somewhat surprised. Usually, portions at Chinese restaurants are, if anything, excessive. One need not worry about portion management at the Golden Gate– it is all taken care of by the kitchen. The medium-size oblong plates were each only half full. In this case, this turned out to be more of a blessing than we realzed.

Kung Pao Chicken – The Kung Pao Chicken had an over-abundance of celery. It also had an over-abundance of spicy hot. Neither Willamina nor Higgins could eat it. Oddly, the parts of the dish lacking in tongue-burning seasoning were also lacking in all other seasoning and taste.

Sesame Chicken – The menu described the Sesame Chicken as having a honey-based glaze. This was quite true. The six or seven chicken pieces (small pieces) were coated with, bathing in, a sickeningly sweet honey sauce. Higgins is famous for having a sweet tooth and he found the sauce to be cloyingly repulsive.

The waiter never did check in with us to see how our dishes were. When we were obviously not eating anything else on our plates, he did swing by and drop off the bill and the stereotypical packaged fortune cookies and two almond cookies.

The almond cookies crumbled when we touched them and the crumbs tasted like the water, only fishier. The fortune cookies? Higgins’ fortune read “Would you like to work in a Fortune Cookie Factory?” A fitting end to the meal, really.

How does such a place get the honor of being one of the top 100 Chinese restaurants in the country? The old fashioned way– they buy it. At the register, while paying the bill, Higgins looked at the voting cards they were handing out. If you vote for the Golden Gate, you are entered into a contest to win free food. The Top 100 “contest” is sponsored by the Chinese Restaurant News. It is purely a marketing campaign with no form of quality control or quality judging.

Apparently, democracy isn’t the best way of doing everything– at least not when combined with capitalism.

Higgins and Willamina will not be returning to the Golden Gate.
And from now on, they will take what they read on the internet with a grain of rice.

Cubanitas – Milwaukee

August 27, 2007

Short Take – Cuban cuisine done well. Colorful, fun setting. Very affordable.

Long Take – Some weeks ago, Higgins and Willamina met two friends, Ludmilla and Pavel, for dinner in downtown Milwaukee. They were looking for somewhere new, somewhere fun, somewhere all of our food preferences would be well served. (Pavel doesn’t eat red meat. Ludmilla is a vegetarian. And Higgins and Willamina? Well, they are rather “particular.”) After looking over a few options, Cubanitas was chosen.

Cubanitas doesn’t accept reservations, but when Higgins called and spoke to the hostess, he was told that seating wouldn’t be difficult if they arrived before 6:30 pm. Higgins and Willamina arrived at the restaurant around 6 and had their choice of tables in or out. Not a fan of dininng on sidewalks, they chose a table inside, near the back (not under one of the many speakers hanging from the ceiling.) Pavel and Ludmilla arrived a little before 6:30. At the time of their arrival, there was only a couple of tables left open.

Cuban cuisine is spicy without being hot, flavorful with fruity marinades and sauces. It also commonly uses cumin, something Higgins isn’t very fond of. It is not normally known for its vegetarian options– though Cubanitas addresses this directly in their menu, suggesting that vegetarians combine appetizers to make a full meal. Ludmilla did just that.

We started with some Apertivos.
Empanadas – Higgins and Willamina tried the Picadillo con Queso (ground beef and cheese) and the Pollo (chicken with olives and raisins). Each order came with two medium (3 bites) empandas. We were a little leery of the chicken/olives/raisins combo, but it was very good. Ludmilla and Pavel tried the Espinaca con Queso (spinach and cheese). All of the empanadas were well filled, deep fried without being greasy, crispy and flaky on the outside, and extremely tasty altogether.

Croquettas de Jamon – Higgins and Willamina also ordered the ham croquettes. They were not as we expected. The were tubular in shape, served three to the plate. Inside, the texture was that of a creamy ham salad. It was amazingly good.

While deep frying isn’t a part of traditional cuban cusine, these empanadas and croquettes were wonderful. We almost ordered more of them. We decided to save room for the main menu.

Sandwich Cubano – The classic cuban sandwhich with roasted pork, ham, swiss cheese, a dill pickle, and a mustard spread all pressed between Cuban bread. The menu states “Change it and it’s not a Cuban sandwich!” Admonition not withstanding, Higgins ordered it with mayonaise rather than the mustard spread. The waitress was very gracious about the change and the cooks didn’t come out to express their disgust with his culinary infraction. Cuban Bread is absolutely necessary for this sandwich and makes the whole thing. The bread Cubanitas uses is as authentic as anything in Ybor City. It was, simply put, a delicious sandwich. It went even better with the Black Bean Soup, Higgins ordered as a side dish.
Higgins also ordered a root beer. They didn’t carry the Virgils listed on the menu, but offered a root beer he was unfamiliar with. It was a very good root beer with a very distinctive taste. There was a fruitness to it which normally would have been offputting but worked amazingly well in this brew. Higgins ordered a second one to finish off his meal. (Higgins doesn’t recall the name of this Cuban root beer, but intends to call and find out. When he does, we’ll be sure to let you know, dear readers.)

Pollo Tropical – Pavel ordered the tropical chicken. A chicken breast marinated in tropical juices. As Pavel said, “Chicken and fruit, what isn’t to like?” The chicken was well flavored and cooked properly. It was an enjoyable dish. Pavel was disappointed in his decision to have the Frijoles Colorados (red beans) as his side dish. The red beans were somewhat bland– not nearly as flavorful as the black beans.

Lechon Asado – Willamina ordered the roast pork. Willamina had high hopes for this marinated, slice pork dish–and she was not disppointed. Higgins was looking forward to trying the side of Mojo the meal came with– but once it arrived he changes his mind. (Pieces of boiled Cassava floating in a watery garlic and onion oil. It didn’t look very appetizing.) Willamina assuaged his disappointment by allowing him to have some of the delicious roast pork.

Ludmilla, as mentioned previously, created a vegetarian meal by combining several Ordenes Indviduales (side orders): Platanitos Maduros (sweet plantains), Frijoles Negro (black beans), and Ensalada de la Tia (Aunt’s salad – roasted peppers, tomatoes, and onions in a balsamic vinaigrette.) Ludmilla and Pavel had never had the sweet plantains and ordered them at Higgins’ and Willamina’s strong urging. (They ordered a plate for themselves as well.) The sweet plantains were very tasty. The black beans were also very good. While Ludmilla enjoyed the salad and the dressing, she wasn’t as fond of the overabundance of and oversized nature of the onions it contained. To round out the vegetables, Ludmilla ordered a side of yellow rice, which was mellow, flavorful, and well prepared. Ludmilla also ordered her first Mojito– the national drink of Cuba. She described the drink as “strong, interesting, and very minty.” She didn’t finish it (Ludmilla reminds everyone that her lady-like constitution and good manners preclude her from finishing strong cocktails.)

For Dessert
Flan – Higgins ordered the flan. Higgins is a fan of flan- though his standards are rather high. This flan was not up to his standards. It wasn’t very creamy and the burnt caramel sauce leaned way too much towards the burnt side of the equation.

Brownie con Helado de Coco – Pavel and Ludmilla split this Brownie sunday with coconut ice ceme and rasberry sauce. The brownies and the ice cream were enjoyable– and the portion served was almost more than the two of them could finish.

By the time the four left the restaurant, the tables and the bar were full– and there were people waiting to be seated. The volume level (remember those speakers) is rather high, so low conversation isn’t possible. But, the atmosphere and food isn’t really intended for such a meal. Cubanitas is a place you go to eat, drink, and and be merry with friends and family. It is a place for fun.

Balzac – Milwaukee

August 25, 2007

Short Takes: First-rate gourmet Small Plates off of Brady Street.

Long Take: Willamina and Higgins enjoy tapas. Perhaps it is the appreciation for smoked meats and cheese one often finds on a Spanish inspired menu. Then again, it could be the overall environment of sharing and trying new flavors.

Willamina went searching for a new restaurant to try on a Saturday evening. A reservation was made for Balzac Wine Bar for 6:30 pm, and when they arrived the restaurant was empty. They had a choice to sit in the stylish, candle lit dining room or on the pleasant patio. Due to the gorgeous evening and the very loud rap music pounding inside, they opted for the patio.

The waitress was pleasant and attentive. Balzac is known for its very large collection of wines from around the world chosen by a sommelier on site. They have wines by the bottle, glass or “tasting.”

Willamina and Higgins started the dinner with a cheese plate, opting for an apple wood smoked cheddar and a mild white cheese. The cheese plate was artfully arranged, surrounded by crackers, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, apple slices, walnuts and thin slices of french bread.

It was pleasing to the eye and the palate.

Willamina and Higgins then had panchetta wrapped asparagus in a wild mushroom cream sauce. This was a delicious and well executed plate, from the slightly crisp panchetta to the perfectly cooked asparagus. The mushroom sauce was a great backdrop to the dish. Higgins remarked that it was only missing bread as an additional means for enjoying the leftover sauce. The waitress, upon hearing this, kindly brought a small basket of bread to the table.

The final dish was a plate of three pan-seared scallops with a sweet potato mash and wilted spinach sautéed with garlic. The scallops were beautifully caramelized and tender. Higgins remarked that the sweet-potato mixture was a tad bitter from an overabundance of cinnamon, but when eaten with the scallop was quite good.

The dessert menu had about 5 options including a “creme brulee flavor or the day.” Willamina was disappointed to hear that they did not have this dessert available, despite it being on the menu. Mildly disappointed but sated, Higgins and Willamina headed off into the Milwaukee skyline sunset to make their way home.

They plan to return to Balzac again, possibly with friends equally interested in sharing a small plate or two.

The total cost of the meal (2 cheese plate, 2 small plates, 3 wine tastings, and 2 glasses of juice) came to $60.

The Sushi Box – Madison

August 12, 2007

Short Take – A family owned, operated Sushi store-front restaurant. Not only the best sushi place in Madison, but the best place we’ve eaten sushi (second only to an expensive place in Kauaii, Hawaii.)

Long Take – A few weeks ago, Higgins and Willamina were traveling through central Wisconsin on their way to a family event. They were hungry and wished to eschew the typical offerings that impersonate food (fast or otherwise.) Higgins and Willamina, having spent some time in Madison, remembered a favorite fast food option. A quick call to an old friend revealed that the the Sushi Box was still in business and still located on the near west side, at the corner of Highland and Old University. Granted, this location was in no way “on the way” to where they were headed– but the detour would be well worth it if the food was as remembered.

It was.

The Sushi Box is very small and is not known for its atmosphere. There are five or so tables inside and a counter-top along one one wall with stools. Since our last visit, they’ve added to the stereotypical sushi posters a large flat screen television. Don’t worry– no day time television blaring at you. The flat screen is linked to a camera over the sushi chef’s station, so everyone can watch their rolls be made (just like a traditional sushi bar.)

The matriarch of the family is behind the register, near a hot station with deep fried shrimp sticks, potstickers, and other special tidbits. Higgins and Willamina avoided those–they are all right, but were closer to the fast-food side of the continuum and were avoided on principle, this time.

The patriarch of the family, or one of the sons, is directly behind the counter area making the freshly prepared sushi. If you ignored the flat screen TV, it was as if Higgins and Willamina had never left– a little memory bubble come to life.

And the sushi? The sushi, if anything, was better than we remembered. We ordered a Philadelphia-Maki (Smoked Salmon and Cream Cheese), an Ebi-Maki (Shrimp Tempura and Cucumber), and a Tekka-Maki (Tuna). Total cost: $14
It was prepared before our eyes, assembled artistically into one large to-go container with a container of fresh soy sauce and a container of fresh eel sauce (a habit Willamina picked up from a fellow foodie friend), and handed to us with a smile in less than 5 minutes. As we prepared to walk out the back door (the Sushi Box has two parking spots behind the storefront in what looks like a person’s driveway), the matriarch smiled and invited us to come back again– and not wait so long this time. (She actually remembered Higgins as a customer. Very touching.)

Higgins and Willamina got back on the road and ate their sushi. A little less than civilized, but possibly the easiest and healthiest fast food option in the world. The Philadelphia rolls were stuffed with large pieces of smoked salmon that were bursting with flavor. Along side them, within the rice blankets, were equally large pieces of real Wisconsin dairy cream cheese. The Sushi Box does not skimp on its ingredients. The combination was wonderful– a mixture of melting flavors in our mouths. The Shrimp Tempura rolls were also well filled–the shrimp being quite large and yet still flavorful and tender. The tempura was light and still a little crispy with no hint of the greasiness that so often occurs in cold, fried foods. The Tuna Roll? Well, even with our expectations set high and then set higher still, the tuna was a surprise. One does not expect fresh, flavorful sushi-grade tuna in the middle of the American heartland. It was layered with subtle flavors and was creamy in texture. The only place Higgins and Willamina remember having tuna that fresh and that good was in Hawaii.

Higgins and Willamina are glad the Sushi Box is still offering their tasty treasures to the masses– but with quality and friendliness like this, it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. When next we travel through or by Madison, we’ll be sure to stop in again.

Gracious Events (Catering) – Wauwatosa

June 11, 2007

We have a new sort of review for you today. This weekend, Higgins and Willamina had the pleasure of attending a posh wedding reception in the Milwaukee area. For reasons related to our mundane jobs, Higgins and Willamina receive many such invitations every year. We rarely attend. In this case, the location was stunning, the couple was fun, and the food was supposed to be fabulous. How could we refuse? The entire event was arranged/catered by a company called Gracious Events. The bride just raved about the simplicity of using them. They coordinated the rental chairs, the flowers, the drinks, the food, and all the other details that make receptions so entertaining (and difficult to plan.)

Short Take: Gracious Events serves GREAT food. Wonderful service. Some trouble with other details, however.

Long Take: Gracious Events will plan your event as large or as small as you like, apparently. This wedding was an outdoor wedding with a reception in a nearby hall. The couple chose to go with Gracious Event’s “Small Plates & Serving Stations” for their reception. This set up entails a modified buffet table set up. Rather than having one table where people serve themselves, there are 3-5 “stations” where people are served a specific entree (with its accompaniments and garnishes) in a small bowl or plate. Guests can visit as many stations as they wish as often as they wish. As the dinner stations are being set up, there was an appetizer station and servers with trays of appetizers circulating around the open bar on the patio. Lovely, really.

Peach Bellinis – Higgins and Willamina had never had a bellini before. Our tastes in alcoholic beverages being what they are, we weren’t as impressed. The sparkling wine they used was too dry for us. Then again, that may be exactly how they are supposed to be made. They did look pretty.

Wisconsin Market Station – This station had individual white ceramic plates with a nested dish. The plate contained Truffled Chevre, Aged Irish White Cheddar, and Sage Derby cheeses. The dish contianed roasted pistachio nuts, a cranbery compote, and brioche toast points. The cheeses were some of the best we have ever tasted. Not too strong– but extremely flavorful. The taste combination with the cranberry compote and nuts was amazingly good. We started off sharing a plate and ended up getting a second one anyway. (Shame on whoever poached the toast points off of the plates remaining.)

Passed Hors d’ Oeuvres – As we were marveling at the cheese plate, smiling servers were passing by with trays of small mini samplings. We had a shrimp cake (very tasty), a chicken samosa (quite good), and an Irish cheddar toast (which was our favorite.) The servers were very efficient and friendly and the appetizers were plentiful and flavorful.

Grilled Pork Tenderloin station – Glazed grilled pork tenderloin served over a crispy mushroom potato salad with fried leeks as a garnish. The tenderloin was perfectly cooked and went very nicely with the potato salad.

Corriander Chicken station – Slightly spicy chicken pieces served over a sweet corn risotto garnished with creme fraische and white scallions. This dish had a little heat from the chicken and the risotto, but the creme fraische kept it to a manageable, enjoyable level. The rice is prepared partially before the event and then the risotto is completed right before serving– it was quite good.

Soy Grilled Salmon station – Soy grilled salmon served over wasabi mashed potatoes and garnished with a gingered mustard sauce. Higgins and Willamina, as you may have surmised, have sensitive taste buds (wimpy, really) and so we skipped the wasabi mashed potatoes. Unsure of the gingered mustard sauce, Higgins asked for a serving without the wasabi mashed potatoes and with the sauce in a separate bowl. The server didn’t even pause to blink. With a smile, a fresh dish to match my request was prepared and handed over. Wonderful service. The salmon was perfectly cooked. (Our unfortunate experience earlier in the week was just highlighted by the flavor and texture of this salmon. One does not expect catered food to be better than restaurant food. In this case, it very much was the superior of the two.)

Asian Trio station – This station was the most whimsical. On the right, trays and trays of freshly rolled, sesame sprinkled California rolls awaited guests. On the left, skewers of indvidual plum glazed shrimp layed out in a wheel pattern. And in the middle, Chinese take-out boxes filled with a sobe noodle salad. The rolls were delicious, the shrimp sweet and tangy, and the sobe noodles were cold and spicy. Chopsticks were available for those brave enough or skilled enough to want them.

There was also a kid’s station that served fruit on a stick (melon cubes and strawberries) and chicken strips and one other offering (we apologize for not remembering– Higgins and Willamina were a little distracted by the other offerings.) We didn’t taste any of these offerings, but the children seemed to thoroughly enjoy them.

There were three desserts at the dessert station.
Mini Chocolate Cupcakes – Very rich, moist chocolate explosions.

Mango Tapioca Parfaits – Mango pieces mixed with exceptionally large tapicoa pieces in what appeared to be a simple syryp solution. Covered with whip cream and coconut shavings. The taste was OK, but not worth seconds.

Chili Chocolate Shake – An unpleasant surprise. Served in a small glass with a straw. Sipping a taste, the first flavor is an unusual chocolate. The second flavor is an intense heat on the tongue. We very much did not care for this. (In fact, we would appreciate it if people would stop mixing odd spices with our chocolate. It is very disturbing whenever we encounter it.) To be fair, the four-year old and his father sitting next to us enjoyed the shake immensely, having seconds and thirds.

This was, without a doubt, the best meal we have had at a catered event. It was good, it was fun, and it was interesting. No rubber chicken to be found anywhere. On the food and the service, we would highly reccomend this company.

That being said, a couple of other details outside of the food preparation/service did seem to be troubling. The chairs for the event weren’t set up until 20 minutes before the wedding was to start– guests had already started arriving. The same chairs were needed for the reception, but no one was available to move them, so dinner service was delayed by 45 minutes or so. Most troubling, the flowers for the service and for the wedding party were not delivered until 5 minutes before the scheduled start time of the wedding. This pushed the wedding start back by 15 minutes. Not a disaster, of course– but the event planners/caterers should never be the cause of a late wedding. We can only guess at the cost of the service Gracious Events provides, but we assume it doesn’t come cheap.