Forequarter’s Sausage Platter with roasted potatoes, fermented cabbage, and mustard (Photo: Ten Photos)
A couple of hours on the road is a small price to pay for stellar food, exceptional service and a full belly. You can get your fill in Madison, Wisc., just a two-hour drive northwest of Chicago’s hustle and bustle, past Midwest farmland.
Madison is a lake-studded, tree-lined respite from the Windy City. Summers are breezy and sunny; come fall, the city turns crimson and golden; spring brings abundant blossoms; but steer clear in winter for obvious reasons. The University of Madison, Wisconsin adds sparkle to the quaint factor.
Fried Cheese Curds at The Old Fashioned (Photo: Ten Photos)
In a state where cheese rules, fried cheese curds will always have their place — we recommend The Old Fashioned for your fix. But over the years, Madison has seen an increase in chef-driven restaurants and small-batch goods that take the Midwest palate to new heights; Forequarter is one of them.
Forequarter’s Roman Spring cocktail made with watercress-infused gin and lime cordial (Photo: Ten Photos)
The space oozes rustic charm: tiled ceilings, low lighting, worn wood and a gleaming bar stocked with local spirits. Diners pack in nightly to snag the 18 coveted seats; reservations aren’t accepted, so you’ll likely wait — why not start with a cocktail? Operated by a collective of cooks, the menu, which changes almost daily, is inspired by what’s around, with an emphasis on cured meats. The company also runs a butcher shop — worth a stop in its own right.
Charcuterie at Underground Butcher (Photo: Ten Photos)
The charcuterie board is a must: ribbons of house-cured varietals accompanied by a crusty sourdough loaf, olives, cornichons and sharp mustard. Perfect for sharing, starters are rich in substance and range: venison culatello with fiddlehead fern and king trumpet mushroom giardiniera; oven-roasted meatballs sweetened with caramelized onion; braised burdock root with watercress, shellfish consomme and white soy.
Entrees are no lighter, and equally exceptional with dishes like: malt cavatelli with beer-braised lamb, shiitake mushrooms, carrot and hop oil; confit chicken leg with cornbread and juniper caramel; butter-poached skate wing with buttermilk pudding and chorizo. The drinks are as inventive as the food, so don’t hold back. Lighten your load with expertly-mixed beverages like vodka, celery tonic and lime; go all out with bourbon, Campari, chartreuse, sugar and lemon, or anything else on the day’s drink menu. The wine and beer lists are robust, thoughtful, and reference both local and global pours. Teetotalers can sip housemade soda and cola.
The details: While the restaurant doesn’t take reservations Monday-Saturday, it does accept them for Sunday evenings. As their site says, “Come early. Come often.”