The good land

In September on a gorgeous late summer weekend, Dan and I went down the road to visit our friends, Nora and Nate, in Milwaukee. As a kid growing up in Madison, trips to Milwaukee meant one of two things: a ballgame at decrepit- but lovable- County Stadium to watch Rob Deer, Robin Yount and Cecil Cooper lope around in baby-blue uniforms or a “we’re tired of winter and need to get out of the house and feel humid air” trip to the domes. This time around, upon arriving at Nora and Nate’s attractive and sunny hard-wood floored apartment across from the river, we abandoned our car for bicycles and pedaled unchartered (by us) Mill-e-wah-que territory. I believe I said aloud more than once: “I never knew Milwaukee had this many trees!”

Our first trip on the wooded bike path took us to Lakefront Brewery, home of one of my all-time favorite beers, Fixed Gear Red Ale. Our tour guide was an interesting combination of angry and cheesy, yelling at participants for talking but also leading us in a somewhat-inspired rendition of the theme song from ‘Laverne and Shirley.’ But, as all good brewery tour guides do, he kept us in the beer throughout the proceedings.

After the tour we traded our tokens for various samples of Lakefront’s offerings and sat next to the river until they kicked us out for a wedding.

Giggling as we were ushered away from the brewery, we hopped our bikes for the beach, weaving through the neighborhood where our cat, Danger Boy, was found mewing under a porch as a kitten. We made our way to Bradford Beach where our friend, Craig, was singing on a stage set up on the sand a hundred feet from Lake Michigan.

I reveled in the feeling of being on a surprise get-away as we cruised away from the beach past parks, old pavilions and people out enjoying the air. Dinner came next. Nora and Nate wanted to take us to their favorite restaurant, Roots. I traded shorts for bell-bottomed jeans, french-rolled my pant leg, threw our headlamps in my purse and we were off- another trip down the bike path took us to the restaurant on the hill, overlooking downtown. I believe I said aloud more than once: “I never knew Milwaukee had this many hills!”

Upon arriving at Roots, we noticed a nervous energy filled the air. Soon the news floated down to us- this was the last night this extremely popular farm-to-table restaurant would be serving dinner. Nora and Nate were crushed with the news, but we decided to live it up. We sat outside and were lucky to have their favorite waiter, a charming man with an even more charming South African accent. He and I must have thanked each other a thousand times over the course of the evening. We sipped on red ales and started with mussels nestled in a tomato broth that I sipped as a soup long after we divvied up the meaty mollusks. Next came the main course- Nora, Nate and Dan all opted for the grass-fed steak as I decided on the vegetarian succotash. I almost didn’t order this dish as the word ‘succotash’ for me conjures up images of a bad summer camp meal full of frozen corn and mushy lima beans, but in the end, I went for it, mainly on the recommendation of our waiter, who at this point in the meal I felt ready to trust with my life. The succotash was, in a word, heavenly. I can’t really describe it much more, except to confide in you that, in the middle of this fine-dining restaurant, I looked around to see if anyone was paying any attention before I picked up my plate and licked it clean.

I have only done that (in public) once before and it was the plate of the chocolate bread pudding at the Rendezvous Bistro in Jackson, Wyoming. If you’ve had it, you understand. (Additionally, that night our waiter in Wyoming informed us we were in the plate-licking section so it was okay.)

After the succotash we ordered dessert, but I honestly don’t remember what it was. I do remember, however, that Nora ordered tea, knocking the socks off our waiter when she asked for rooibos tea, apparently a favorite in his native South Africa. Delighted, he brought us a full tea service, complete with tiny pitchers of milk and honey. It was the perfect end to a beautiful dinner- sipping hot tea as the evening air grew chillier. We bid Roots goodbye and put on our headlamps, biking home through the quiet dark in the middle of the city.

The next morning Nate made us a delicious meal of eggs and bunsen burner coffee. We lazed around before deciding on one more adventure before Dan and I had to make our home. We were off to the biergarten. We headed the opposite direction on our bicycles two miles and landed in this magical place next to the river where I could spend every Sunday afternoon from here to eternity.

There were steins of beers, pretzals with mustard, good friends, corgis and a two-piece band featuring an accordian player from Slovenia. Alice Cooper was right. Milwaukee is the good land and I can’t wait to go back.

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State of the state

The following is a guest appearance on ‘Wisconsin Fun Next Exit’ by Dan Walkner.

Let’s make one thing clear: Wisconsin is not open for business.  Wisconsin is a business.  There is no reason why it isn’t flourishing; in fact there are many factors that should be propelling it forward.  We have ample natural resources.  We have a highly skilled and educated work force.  We have a variety of options for transportation.  Most importantly, we have no shortage of customers world-wide.  Why are we not turning a profit? 

Consider this situation.  You work for a company and the boss says the goal of the company is to make $250,000.  At the end of the year, after going over the books, the boss notices the company actually lost $39,000.  After reviewing the books drastically differently than all the other similar companies in your field, the boss now says the company actually turned a profit of $24, 000.  Although a paltry sum, it is in fact a profit.

The boss calls you into his office.  He says, “Hey, our company did great this year.  We didn’t quite hit our goals, but everything is going as planned.  I do have some bad news, though.  You won’t be getting a bonus.  Frankly, you won’t even get a raise.  Well, in all honesty, you’re going to be taking a pay cut.  But the good news is you aren’t being laid off like many of the others.  So thanks for your perseverance and a job well done.  Keep up the good work!”

Why is the company not working and who’s to blame?  Is the construction worker in line next to me at the grocery store to blame?   Is the person standing in front of your child’s classroom to blame?  Are you to blame?  Am I? 

In the world of work, very rarely are you afforded the opportunity to fire the boss.  In politics, the game is set up to make it nearly impossible.  The boss hasn’t been doing his job.  The argument that the new boss is going to take away my guns (which he isn’t, of course) is not enough of an argument for me to keep the old boss.  Let’s fire the boss and get back to work.

36 Hours in Bayfield

Nestled along the shoreline of Lake Superior, gazing out sleepily at the Apostle Islands, lies the dormant town of Bayfield, Wisconsin. Come summertime this place will be hopping with kayakers, campers, concert-goers, seasonal workers and black bears. In the winter, it’s tough to find a place that is a) open and b) serves beer. But dig deep, and you will be rewarded. While Bayfield may be resting up for summer, there is plenty of food, drinks and fun to be found. You just have to be resourceful, which is what it’s all about in Wisconsin in the wintertime. Plan a trip to Bayfield in March for the Winter Festival and prepare to schmooze with the locals. Here’s what you need to know, if you go.*

 Friday

1:30 p.m. 1) SOMEBODY BUY THIS KID A SODA POP (OR A CHAI TEA)

Along Highway 63 on the way to Bayfield, you will find the town of Hayward, infamous for  a giant fish. 

While in Hayward, make sure to stop at Backroads Coffee & Tea (10526 Dakota Avenue, Hayward) for an afternoon cup, recommended by this brave young man who spends his lunch hours helping to keep the dream alive.

 3:30 p.m. 2) WELCOME TO THE PINEHURST INN

The Pinehurst Inn (83645 State Hwy 13, Bayfield), offering eco-friendly lodging with views of Lake Superior, is the place to stay. The rooms are cozy, the complimentary breakfasts are organic and delicious (ours included yogurt with granola and blueberries, egg and mushroom quiche with whole wheat crust, and tart apple cider), and the vintage bathtubs have claws. The owners of the inn, Steve and Nancy, are friendly and knowledgeable- they love the area and have lots of recommendations about where to go and what to do.

4:30 p.m. 3) DOES ANYONE KNOW WHERE WE COULD FIND A BEER?

After a brief stroll around downtown Bayfield, it’s time for happy hour.

Which may end up being more difficult than you would think in Wisconsin. On a Friday. At 4:45 p.m. But luckily there is the Pickled Herring Club at Pier Plaza Restaurant (1 Rittenhouse Avenue) in downtown Bayfield.

Not only will you find beer, you may just be entered in a ‘crazy sweater contest/raffle’ by your friendly server (who may just call you the next day to inform you that you have won, despite the fact that your ‘crazy sweater’ was a kelly green cardigan). 

8:00 p.m. 4) A GOOD THYME WAS HAD BY ALL

For a memorable dinner head south from Bayfield toward the town of Washburn. Look for the yellow house on your left. An upscale restaurant featuring local ingredients, Good Thyme (77180 Hwy 13, Washburn) is not to be missed (unless you get to Washburn, and then you have gone too far).

If you eat meat, try the meatloaf with blue cheese; if you don’t, the house salad with miso dressing is a highlight. Either way you slice it, be sure to order a dessert martini and try not to spill it on yourself. 

Saturday

10:oo a.m. 5) I KISSED A POLAR BEAR

Traditionally held on the ice between Bayfield and Madeline Island, this year’s Run on Water event was a 3. 5 mile run next to the water on the scenic Brownstone Trail, due to unstable (non-existent) ice conditions. If you place (6th- out of 13- narrowly beating out a man in his 80s who was running on snowshoes), you can look forward to arranging a personal awards ceremony with a polar bear.

11:00 a.m. 6) HELL YES I WOULD LOVE A KIM CHI BURRITO

After a morning run through the snow, head to Big Water Cafe (117 Rittenhouse Avenue). Order a cold fusion (possibly one of the more delicious iced coffee beverages you could ever have), a kim chi burrito that is the epitome of healthy and hearty, and a cookie. Go back the next day and do it again.

1:00 p.m. 7) IT’S FIVE O’CLOCK SOMEWHERE (GREENLAND?)

For a festive atmosphere, stroll to Maggie’s (257 Manypenny Avenue). The walls are brightly painted, there are flamingoes everywhere, they have a good selection of beer and they are open past seven. It’s a great place to load up before an epic trip into the woods.

2:30 p.m. 8) COUGARS AND SASQUATCH AND BEARWOLVES, OH MY

After a beer in town, it’s time for more adventure in the snow. Drive two miles south to Ski Hill Road and hang a right for Mount Ashwabay Ski and Recreation Area (32525 Ski Hill Road). Home to Big Top Chautauqua in the summer, Mount Ashwabay is a charming ski area in the winter. If you enjoy cross country skiing, the Mount Ashwabay/ Jerry Jolly trail system covers 40 kilometers of trails.

If you have an overactive imagination, you may consider skiing with a companion through the quiet and snowy forest, or just sit back and enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes from wondering again if you are supposed to fight back against a bearwolf or turn and run for cover.

Take this excitement to the next level when you end up at the top of a downhill ski run on your cross-country skis.

My insider tip? Stay to skier’s left along the traverse and snowplow like hell.

6:30 p.m. 9) BARN PARTY  

After a lively day of fun in the snow, return to the Pinehurst for a shower and a cribbage game and then head back to Mount Ashwabay for the Winter Bash. Featuring live music in a heated barn, South Shore beer, and a bonfire, it’s the perfect way to kick off your Saturday evening.

10:00 p.m. 10) THE BEST FROZEN PIZZA YOU HAVE EVER HAD

Beware the early closing times of restaurants in the winter in northern Wisconsin. But thanks to a tip from our new friend Blaze (a local ski hero at Mount Ashwabay) and his wife, I can tell you with all certainty that if you can make it to a place called Stage Door Bar in Washburn (123 W Omaha St), you will be rewarded with a magical-tasting homemade frozen pizza. Local legend (at least it seemed like legend at this point in the evening) is that these pizzas are made from all organic and local ingredients by an elderly couple who may or may not be elves. They live somewhere near Washburn on a farm and produce a frozen pizza that is well worth the trip to the far reaches of northern Wisconsin in March. Or in any month, for that matter. Hopefully see you this summer, magical pizzas and Lake Superior- I’ve got a gift certificate from winning a crazy sweater contest to redeem.

*Thanks to the New York Times travel feature, 36 Hours, for the inspiration for this post.

Big Water Cafe & Coffee Roasters on Urbanspoon

I can’t help falling in love with you

Madison, I’ve fallen madly in love with you all over again. Although our love affair never really ended, things had started to feel a bit stale. But you snuck up on me yesterday and reminded me of what I loved about you all along. It really started on the bike path. I had almost forgotten what it feels like to leisurely cruise past (still dormant) community gardens, smiling strangers, friends having fires, chirping spring peepers and corgi duos. And then there was the pitcher of Lake Louie Scotch Ale– possibly the world’s greatest beer- and the small order of sexy fries shared with a spiritual hero (Lauren, I will pack the boyfriend and cats in a camper and see the country!) on Mickey’s back deck. Today there was another trip on the bike path, lunch at a vegetarian restaurant

where a Jameson and orange blossom lemonade cocktail was on special

and the bar next door was hosting a meat raffle.

Now I’ve got jeans drying on the clothesline, two happy cats sunning themselves in the yard and iced coffee in my jar. Ah, Madison. It’s good to have you back.

51 meatless things to try in Madison before Lake Mendota thaws

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Several weeks ago I stumbled upon Andre Darlington’s blog where he listed 50 things that are quintessential Madison. And then last week I discovered this blog and a woman named Holly who took Darlington’s list on as a challenge. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. And that somebody is not me (too meat-centric). However, I have decided to riff on their idea and simultaneously one up them with my list: 51 Meatless Things to Try in Madison Before Lake Mendota Thaws. And because it is one of my favorites, I will borrow Darlington’s #15 and make it my #1.

51 Meatless Things to Try in Madison Before Lake Mendota Thaws

1) Walnut Burger at Harmony Bar (add blue cheese and fried onions)

2) Veggie Ramen at Umami Ramen and Dumpling Bar

3) Blueberry Scone at Lazy Jane’s (or Raspberry or Blackberry)

4) Whiskey Old Fashioned Press at Weary Traveler

5) Three Cup Tofu at Natt Spil (the best tofu dish in Madison, in my humble opine)

6) Peanut Butter and Jelly Bar at Batch Bakehouse

7) Sweet Potato Fries with Tarragon Mayo and Jalapeno Blackberry Jam at Alchemy

8) Margherita Pizza at Pizza Brutta

9) Popcorn at Graze

10) Cesar’s String Cheese at Willy Street Co-op

11) Black Bean Tacos at Burrito Drive (don’t forget to add pickled onions!)

12) Any Tapper (preferably post-Packer victory) at Laurel Tavern

13) Butter (really more like savory frosting) at Tornado Club (bread optional)

14) Spinach Nan at Taste of India

15) Bottle of Miller High Life and Bag of De-lish-us Chips at Old Duffer’s (a hop, skip and jump from Madison out Highway 18/151)

16) Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Avocado at Lazy Jane’s

17) Plantains at Cafe Costa Rica

18) Big Country Bread from Cress Springs Bakery at Dane Co. Farmer’s Market (tastes even better if you take it home and eat it while listening to ‘In a Big Country’ by Big Country)

19) Warm Beet Salad at Graze

20) Frites at Jacs

21) Margarita at Pasqual’s

22) Asian Slaw at Restaurant Muramoto

23) Pineapple Curry with Tofu at Lao-Laan Xang (Atwood location)

24) Rejected Truffles (any flavor) at Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier (free samples!)

25) Macaroni and Cheese at The Old Fashioned

26) Sardine Caesar* at Sardine (*has anchovies, which technically could be considered meat… I guess I like to live on the edge)

27) Bottomless Cup of Tanzanian Peaberry Coffee (and a game of cribbage or Scrabble) at EVP

28) Wedge Salad at Tornado Club

29) The Ramblin’ Vegan’s Chili at Weary Traveler

30) Sake Bomb at Karaoke Kid (where I once witnessed a rousing rendition of aforementioned ‘In a Big Country’ in the VIP lounge)

31) Bella Burger at Alchemy

32) Steamed Tofu Dumplings at Ha Long Bay

33) Dark & Stormy at Cafe Costa Rica

34) Aloo Chana at Taste of India

35) Onion Bagel  at Bagels Forever

36) Sexy Fries at Mickey’s Tavern

37) The Smell at Fraboni’s (just walk in and inhale.. you’re welcome)

38) Frozen Cheese Pizza at Crystal Corner

39) Kale, Lemon, Green Apple and Ginger Juice at Willy Street Co-op Juice Bar

40) 2% Latte at Bradbury’s* (*only attempt if you have the moxie to attempt the maze of hipsterdom)

41) Maize Salad at Alchemy

42) Egg Sandwich (hold the bacon) at Crema Cafe (so good I had to eat it twice this weekend)

43) McLovin Irish Red Ale at Vintage Brewing Co. (go on a Wednesday and check out the Madison Blues Co-op blues jam!)

44) Vegetarian Antipasta Platter at Greenbush Bar

45) Whole Wheat and Cheddar Scone from Cress Springs Bakery at Dane Co. Farmer’s Market

46) Mediterranean Plate at Jacs

47) Red Beans and Rice at New Orleans Take-Out

48) Veggie Empanada at Victory

49) Cucumber Salad at Sa-Bai Thong

50) Gruyere-Filled Roll at Batch Bakehouse

51) Rathskeller Ale and Bag of Popcorn at Memorial Union (watch the ice thaw)

Did I forget anything? Please add any favorites in the comments!

Meatless in Wisconsin

My parents recently sent me a link to an article in the New York Times about a vegetarian moving to Kansas City. They thought I could relate. Eating out in my homeland definitely got a little trickier when I decided to quit meat. It isn’t a problem in Madison where you can get your (vegan) chili from Weary Traveler minus the beef or macaroni and cheese from Mickey’s Tavern (hold the kielbasa). Things get a little dicier when you head all-points north, south, east and west. And I spend a lot of time traveling around this state with my guitar and harmonica-playing mate. While I may feel better these days (I’m still quite happy with my choice to go meat-free a couple of years ago, even if I didn’t actually mean to do it at the time), I probably used to be more fun. Raw fries with (beef) gravy at Phil Rohrer’s Lunch? Sure! Frozen pepperoni pizza from that tavern in the middle of nowhere? Bring it on! Now I spend a lot more time looking at menus and saying no. But I’ve learned from my mistakes as I’ve spent some very grumpy weekends with low blood sugar, looking for a place to simply serve me some peanut butter on something resembling bread that doesn’t look like it just took a bleach bath. I now travel to Two Rivers with my emergency paper sack snack stash of (vegan) muffins, nuts, apples and Cedarburg cheese from the Willy Street Co-op. I can wake up and grab my breakfast out of the van (even more convenient when we sleep in the van). Ready for lunch? A little place I like to call the paper sack in the van. Dinner time? Beer (or the veggie pizza at Port Sandy Bay if we’re in Two Rivers and it’s acceptable to not eat meat because it’s Friday). Or, there’s always the van. Everyone wins.

When I am headed out of town on a Friday evening for a show with Dan, I usually ask with a hint of desperation in my voice: “What about dinner?” If we don’t know the answer, we make a quick stop at the Co-op before hitting the highway. A couple of weeks ago we were headed to La Crosse, so Dan made a quick call to our friend Pat, who spent several years there. Pat told Dan to take me to a place called the Root Note. Pat must know me well. Conveniently located across the street from the venue where Dan was playing, we parked the car, dropped off the guitars, and ran across the street to the cafe.

I immediately started drooling over the crepes listed on the chalkboard and then my eyes moved to the black bean chili. Dan asked the question I dread asking. “Is your soup vegetarian?” “Our whole menu is vegetarian,” replied the lovely man behind the counter. I wanted to kiss him. I ordered a bowl of the chili with onions and cheese and a bottle of my favorite beer (the brown ale) from the local brewery, Pearl Street, and told him that we would be back for breakfast. The music that night at La Bodega by Gregg “Cheech” Hall and Dan made me tap my foot a little longer and sing along a little louder.

And we went back to the Root Note for breakfast.

Oh, did we go back for breakfast. There was a coconut latte with organic milk.

A crepe with Nutella and bananas.

Another with spinach and an egg.

It was pretty perfect.

There are some fantastic places around the state serving quality vegetarian meals, we just have to seek them out and shout them from the rooftops. Tag. You’re it.

the Root Note on Urbanspoon