I was in Madison on Saturday, watching my Badgers beat up on Northwestern, and taking a share of the Big Ten title. But I had thrown out a query a few days earlier, asking for recommendations on a good place to eat dinner (since I went to school there, I was already familiar with Hüsnüs). Several responses came back, including The Old Fashioned, Quivey's Grove and Sardine. But there seemed to be an overwhelming chorus pushing for Nostrano, the new restaurant from Chicago restaurant alums Elizabeth and Tim Dahl. Both chefs have logged extensive time at some of the city's top tables - Elizabeth at Boka, and Tim at Blackbird. But when it came time to start a family, "the thought of raising kids in the city on two pastry chef's salaries wasn't really an option," Elizabeth, a Peoria native, told me. The fact Tim had grown up in Madison made the move a little easier.
The restaurant sits in a former Italian red sauce joint just a few yards from the Capital building. Decorated with antique window frames and recycled materials, the Dahls have installed a comfy bar upfront, showing off a swath of small-batch liquors like Death's Door gin, Zaya rum and Chichicapa mezcal. With an impressive cocktail list, they're already several legs up on their Madison competitors. But it's the menu that makes you want to sit and linger awhile.
Be sure to lead off with a Midwestern charcuterie platter that would be right at home at The Publican: salsiccia, turkey liver mousse, housemade salumi and paté are balanced with a garlicky caponata, balsamic shallots and some excellent grilled bread. I kept thinking, these are pastry chefs, and yet the savories look amazing. "We wanted people to know that we love to cook, not just make dessert," Elizabeth told me.
A great example of a light starter is the yellowtail crudo, fanned across a plate that's scattered with tiny bits of char-grilled octopus, sliced caperberries and Cara Cara orange segments, tossed in a lightly-dressed salad of radicchio and frisée. My son ordered it, and polished off the entire order. "It's a little hard getting deliveries everyday from people like European Imports," Elizabeth said. "We have no problem with Tekla [cheese] but some purveyors will only deliver up here with a minimum order of $1,000 or will only make a drop-off once a week." Their delivery challenges didn't seem to impede a luscious seafood brodetto that could stand up to any cioppino.
The tomato broth alone is worth the drive - laced with spicy chile oil and full of oily, salty, fishy unctuousness, I sopped up every bit of it. I only wish there was a little rouille on that bread for an extra garlic-saffron punch. My son ordered a whole wheat pappardelle, which was bound together by an extremely rich lamb ragù:
We were all, of course, looking forward to dessert, since that's what both chefs had made their reputations on in Chicago. My son opted for a sorbetto made from lemon verbena, scattered with finely-chopped Sicilian pistachios, a smattering of fresh blueberries and tiny cubes of goat's milk cheesecake:
I couldn't get over how the sweet/tart sorbetto and tangy cheescake matched so well with the fresh berries. My choice was even more Fall-inspired: a finanziera, consisting of a brown butter cake, plated with soft, slow-roasted pears, a few crunchy hickory nuts, and a bright-yet-subdued maple gelato:
We were stunned and yet totally sated. The fact that this kind of food is being served in Madison is nothing short of a revelation. True, there has been steady progress since the days of L'Etoile, but it's also a sign that serious food culture has come to the land of beer, brats and cheese curds. I can't wait to go back to Madison and try the rest of the menu at Nostrano. Chicago's loss is absolutely Mad-town's gain.