Monday, August 10, 2009

Cottage Cafe

Variety is the spice of life. It's an old cliché but a good one. As I was packing boxes in Fond Du Lac for my move to Madison, that little cliché served as motivation. Madison = Food Town. Ethnic grocery stores, exotic restaurants, new and interesting taste spectrum to explore and appreciate. Upon arrival, I don't think I ate at a single repeat restaurant for the first six months. I filled up on pho, curry, sushi, barbecue, gelato and pelmeni; everything I couldn't get or was not readily available before.

Two-plus years later, I am still exploring, but my desperation to immerse myself in new cuisine has slowed from “frothing cauldron of doom” to a steady boil.

As such, there are certain times and certain places where one does not feel... experimental.

Cracking the top off a new restaurant is always a little daring. We all have that moment of hesitation before entering the dining room. Will the swivel-factor be overwhelming? Will I finally encounter that mythical beast - a restaurant or bar so insular, so full of lockstep locals, that they rise up as one to reject the intrusion of this audacious newcomer who dares insinuate himself into their sanctum sanctorum.

We should all laugh at this. We should all know that it is beyond reason and that no commercial establishment has ever been anything but delighted to see a new customer walk through the door, but... restaurants... local haunts especially, can be very personal. Once one becomes a “regular,” one feels a bit of ownership and thus becomes protective in a matronly type way. I've always tried to rigidly control that particular fear and not let it stop me from venturing into uncharted waters. I have, however, often noticed my dinner and drinking companions taking ruthless advantage of my determination and bravado by casually slipping into my wake as I open a door and stride boldly forward. I guess the thought is that if they do throw bricks, they can hide behind me.

I am proud of my daring. But daring, like any emotional force, requires energy. As much as I would like to lay claim to superhuman abilities, there are days - after a long work week especially - that I simply cannot whip up such energy. My bravado fails me, my daring slips away and I long for something simple, something familiar and something comforting.

Yes. I have become one of those men who has “a breakfast place”.

My father has a breakfast place. Now retired and in his 70's, he goes up there to join the crowd of other old men, sipping coffee, telling dirty jokes and discussing the latest Packer game. It constitutes the entirety of his social interaction.

My desire for a stable, regular Breakfast Place is not actually a recent development. A few years ago and still bold enough to dream of Laksa in the morning, I stumbled upon what I hold as the greatest breakfast joint of all time.

You may have caught me at some point going off about Schreiner's Restaurant in Fond Du Lac. Schreiner's, that temple of scratch cooking. That marvelous, reliable, comforting and sweet epiphany of clam chowder for breakfast, perfectly cooked bacon, sweet and friendly wait staff and corned beef. I never went looking for a breakfast place, but I found in Schrieiner's a solution to a problem I didn't know I had. Many a Saturday morning, after a long hard week, when I found myself unwilling to rise, shine and make my own breakfast, I became inexorably drawn to the sweet spiritual pablum of a little commercially-produced TLC.

Yes, let me rise, dress, slip quietly out the door and down a very short road to the warm embrace of your slightly geriatric dining room. Let your polite and immaculately uniformed wait staff ply me with cup after cup of diner coffee, slowly reviving my downtrodden senses. Let my belly be filled with perfect over-easy eggs and crispy bacon. Let there be rye toast and orange juice. Let me stroll out, refreshed and content, ready to face the day anew.

The comfort of a Breakfast Place is the sturdy, constant sameness of the experience. I want for nothing new. I want the same experience on morning two thousand one hundred and eighty four that I had on day one. Let my mind spin in neutral. Let my guard drop, my thoughts turn inward and let a few precious moments be spent chatting casually with my beloved Bride.

I wasn't looking for a Breakfast Place, but it's sturdy comfort charmed me into being a regular.

Once we moved to Madison, my Bride and I spent over a year in pursuit of a new breakfast place. We sampled coffee shops, some famous local spots and some less than scrumptious options, but the search eventually petered out.

It's hard to brain on a Saturday morning when you are half-asleep and grumpy. After a few disappointments, we didn't have the energy to beard the lion in his own den, so to speak. We settled for making our own breakfast for a long time, grabbing the occasional bag-o-bagels from Gotham or Panera.

I finally stumbled upon a keeper in my various backstreet meanderings and at first, didn't believe what I had found.

On a side street, off Cottage Grove Road in the Elvehjem neighborhood, wedged between a daycare center and a laundromat is Cottage Café. An unassuming little storefront with a big stock block lettering sign. No logo, no website... yeah, it's that kind of place.

My first thought when I saw it? Honestly? Dive. Greasy Spoon. It's too cute to be true. It would be so cool if that little place had a friendly wait staff and great breakfast but there is NO WAY I am that lucky.

A few months later, realizing finally how stupid that particular thought was in a classic “book-by-its-cover” kinda way, I talked my Bride into going for Breakfast and we've been in love ever since.

The dual dining rooms are small and open. Classically appointed with the usually metal diner chairs, laminated tables, salt, pepper, tray of sweetener packs and small menus. The burble of morning conversation, old men laughing, clinking of cutlery and clatter of dishes is part of the experience. Signs of life and industry. The big bay windows looking out onto the parking lot make the room bright and airy on a sunny day. The decor is pseudo-northwoods-cabin chic with plenty of hand carved wooden black bears and faux woodsy feel. It should be chintzy, it's not. It's like your Mom's house.

What does one expect from a diner breakfast? What is a diner breakfast? My definition is usually a big, hearty, meal for those who rarely suffer from a thick wallet. The usual breakfast fare includes eggs, bacon, pancakes and the ubiquitous, poor quality, thin, bitter, burnt, luke-warm but-still-somehow-desirable diner coffee (I still think it's about the sugar and cream... or masochism). Regional variations include the frequent presence of dark rye toast, potato pancakes and cheddar cheese.

This is not so very different from the breakfasts served at chain restaurants. If anything, there is less variety. There is nothing rooty, tooty, fresh or fruity. The menu of some of my favorite little greasy spoon breakfast joints have a stark severity about them. Eggs: Any Style. Bread: white, wheat, toasted or untoasted or in French toast. Jams are offered. Butter is often pre-spread. Pancakes. Bacon. Sausage. Coffee. OJ. This is all that is actually required.

So what is the appeal? What keeps us coming back time and again? What is so desirable about the same thing time and again?

This is a hard one to explain. It's a cultural thing. Eggs, Toast, Bacon = Breakfast. It's farm breakfast. It's a leftover from our agrarian roots where fresh eggs, wheat and fat pork were in abundance. It's quick. Mama can have you a plate full of eggs and bacon in minutes and with only one pan dirty. It's flat iron food. Diners do not require ovens, broilers, fryers or even refrigerators or burners. Eggs, French toast, pancakes, bacon, sausage... all you need is a flat top griddle. I knew a place that used to keep it's coffee in a percolator on the corner of the griddle, making a standard diner coffeemaker unnecessary. You have to admire the efficiency.

You can get a very good idea of the quality and popularity of a diner by catching a gander at that griddle. Carbon black from years of use? Good restaurant. Popular.

Cottage Café meets these requirements and exceeds them in entertaining ways. The presence of Spam and Cheddarwurst on the menu struck me first. Two delightfully non-premium meats that are nevertheless extremely desirable when one is A. Hungover or B. About to attempt something Manly. The best part about the Spam is not just that it is there, but that it arrives at your table with a slice of American (pasteurized process) cheese (food) melted over the top. My first time there, commenting in surprise at this “too much of a... thing” addition, our waitress looked at me quizzically and asked “Isn't that the way your Mom made it?” No, no it isn't. Mom hates Spam, but I suddenly felt like the only kid in the neighborhood whose Mom didn't put cheese on his Spam.

Further entertaining menu options include Walleye and Eggs (it seems like such a natural Wisconsin marriage, I'm surprised I don't see it on more breakfast menus), Pork Chop and Eggs (now there is a farm breakfast), Potatoes O'Brien and Eggs Benedict. Now, hollandaise sauce might be a little risky but I don't care - it tastes good. I love that not only do they offer it on the Benedict, but as its own side. I recommend it as a topping for the walleye... SRSLY. It also illustrates another mark of a great diner. The menu offers simple fare with a remarkably thoughtful list of options. Want a side of sausage gravy? Maybe you want to put it over your hash browns or dip your fries in it? Who cares? You ask nice, they will probably do it for you. The menu is just a suggestion. A crutch for those with decision making disorder. If you can describe it to the waitress, they will probably do it for you. You could probably take this basic menu and create dishes never before seen by the eyes of man.

These are all entertaining additions to the menu but they are ultimately just window-dressing. Tasty diversion from those two things that are key to Cottage Café's Greatness.

As diners and consumers in this country, we often underestimate the importance of skill in production of a good product. It's our industrial love-affair perhaps that has us pursuing “more” when what we really want is “better”.

A fry cook may not be able to make you Liquid Ravioli or a plate of Mousse de la Boue dans une Panier de la Pâte de Chaussures (or maybe they can, you never know these days, but probably not), but a good fry cook can make you a perfectly cooked egg, every time. Over easy, over medium, over hard, sunny side up, scrambled but not overcooked... maybe a master chef in a three star restaurant making you a perfectly cooked Sole Meunière might be worthy of slightly higher admiration than a perfectly cooked egg. But then again, skill is skill. Maybe the repertoire isn't quite as broad, but perfectly cooked is still perfectly cooked. Michelin is unlikely to be knocking anytime soon, but at the same time, maybe we're taking such skills a little for granted.

Cottage Café nails it. 10 out of 10 on the breakfast scale and I am not speaking from a single visit/one-day perspective. We've been breaking our fast at Cottage Café for a few months now and can offer a few dozen visits as our data set. I've yet to have a bad breakfast. Eggs are always perfectly cooked to order, bacon always done right, not a burnt piece of toast to be seen. The menu is simple but the skill is anything but. Someone back there knows what an over-medium egg looks like and cranks it out like a machine. I wish this wasn't as rare as it is but in most breakfast joints and chains these days, if you order over easy, you are taking your gastrointestinal health into your own hands far more than with the hollandaise.

Like a Double Ristretto Venti Half-Soy Nonfat Decaf Organic Chocolate Brownie Iced Vanilla Double-Shot Gingerbread Cappuccino Extra Hot With Foam Whipped Cream Upside Down Double Blended, One Sweet'N Low, One Nutrasweet, and Ice, breakfast eggs are one of those things we highly personalize. Everyone has “their” breakfast order, and even though diners are completely unrelated or unincorporated establishments, they share a common breakfast language. We all speak breakfast. If you walk into a diner in Oregon and order two eggs over easy with wheat and bacon, you will get the same thing (if the person behind the grill knows what they are doing) as if you place the same order in Maine. We're particular about it. Some people fear runny yolks, some runny whites. Some people like their bacon floppy and some burned to a crisp. Breakfast is a very personal thing and the diner that can get your particular breakfast creation right is the only easy access we're likely to have to such personal service in our adult lives. They can make your breakfast the way your Mom made your breakfast.

Speaking of Personal Service, this leads into Cottage's second strength.

Our waitress's name is Penny. Penny is our waitress. After our second visit, we knew Penny's name. We always sit in Penny's section. I'm not sure if Penny remembers our names yet but she knows our faces and she's clever enough to fake like she remembers ;-).

Penny is friendly. Penny is attentive. Penny keeps our coffee filled, is non-plussed by any special order, knows the menu by heart and has been working there for years.

Penny is always good for a joke. Penny laughs readily and manages to be “happy” without being “cheerful” in the morning (which, as any pre-coffee coffee junkie can tell you, is grounds for murder in the most horrific manner). Upbeat and funny but still maintaining an appropriate level of world-weary, slightly cynical attitude that is perfect commiseration for hungry, work-weary, groggy patrons. Such an attitude takes YEARS to perfect.

Penny IS Cottage Café for us as much as the food.

Most of the waitresses at the Café are Penny's type. I hate to invoke the word “Flo” here but you know what I mean. Restaurant floor lifers. These are not the giggling, crystal-bright, easily flustered teeny-bopper servers at your local Applebee's or Olive Garden. These gals would eat those skinny chicks for breakfast and pick their teeth with the bones. They can handle more tables, sling more chow and defuse more grumpy customers than anyone. They operate with a code of customer service that corporate chain restaurants would throw a rod over. Dirty jokes and swearing are allowed. You can tell a customer to shut up, to their face, and get away with it. Cause a disturbance in the dining room and they will not escort you politely to the door. They will kick you out and if you are not moving fast enough you may have to dodge flying crockery.

But once you become a regular, once they remember your name, you become part of the place. If you are what you eat and I stay in Madison, I'll probably be 1/21st part Cottage Café in a few years. I'm a little weirded out that I, like my father, now have “a breakfast place.” I know that this is a sign that I am growing older. But, if growing old tastes this good, maybe it isn't all that bad.

Maybe our second time there, my Bride noticed a Thank You card taped to the cash register. The card was from the family of an elderly patron who has “crossed the bar,” so to speak. Cottage Café took the time to send flowers to his funeral and the family, in return, sent them a card. Expressed in the card were thanks for flowers and the line, “we thank you for the big part you played in his life and we hope there is a Cottage Café in heaven”.

Name me another kind of restaurant where such a thing could happen?

Name me a better endorsement than a hope that the afterlife is as good as your breakfast place?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Benvenuto's and I have an interesting history. Despite what some Madisonians believe, their flagship store was in, of all places, my home town of little old Beaver Dam.

Their very first store opened as my first foray in the the foodie subculture bloomed. Before the word “foodie” had even been coined. I liked food, I liked to cook, my first cuisine of interest was Italian and in the desperately mediocre world of the Beaver Dam culinary scene, I literally could not believe my luck when Benvenuto's opened. Benvenuto's then was a very, very different creature than it is now. I still, looking back, cannot believe the sheer size of their mighty chrome testicles to offer such a menu in a town so small and so inexperienced. Even today it would not go over, even in Madison (and I'm obviously right, as we shall see).

In a very Big Night manner, they offered house-made italian sodas, cream pastas with shellfish (I do not think there was another shellfish dish anywhere else on any menu anywhere in BD), a communal jug of house wine to every table, regardless of whether you have asked for it, garlic olive oil and fresh foccacia for sopping and,this was my favorite, an honest-to-goodness antipasta plate with salami, pepperocini, marinated mushrooms, cheese and olives.

To this day, any Italian restaurant gets HUGE points in my estimation for offering an antipasta plate. For those who don't know, it's just a little snack plate of various nibblies offered in many restaurants because all the items were the rare surplus, well preserved and available year round. Salami is cured, pepperocini, mushrooms and olives are all brined or pickled and cheese is acidified and preserved by it's own process. It relates in a similar way to English “sideboard” offerings.

I like to nibble. I'm a cheese and sausage kinda guy. I credit my French heritage. I happily can and will make a meal out of snacks for breakfast lunch and dinner.

I can't tell you what percentage of my paychecks I spent at Bevenuto's those first few months but I'm certain I did my share to support their business. I hung out at the bar and drank some of my first cocktails. I knew the wait staff by name. I made a point of taking my friends there and I took great delight in introducing it to people who have never been.

I remember their food fondly. Gigantor Caesar Salads, the garlic mash-potatoes, the Foccacia, the baked alfredo pasta with Parmesan cheese.

The antipasta and the house wine were such authentic Italian touches that they couldn't last. I dined there long enough to see the antipasta plate slip off the menu. I was probably the only one that ever ordered it. It changed to a “antipasta salad” which I once ordered by mistake.

We've always had an issue with Wine in this country. Either starting revolutions over it, or ignoring it completely. The stigma attached to wine still sends out conflicted signals. Isn't wine fancy? Aren't wine drinkers snobs? Isn't wine expensive? Isn't good wine expensive? The image of the cork sniffing, pinky raised, pooh-poohing wine “connoisseur” still haunts us. Wine has it's own strange language that is far deeper and thicker than any other adult beverage including cocktails and single-malt scotches. A lot of people buy into, despite their denials otherwise, the notion that drinking wine makes you look sophisticated. From the outside looking in, the language seems impenetrable, the investment steep and the company seems less than desirable.

The irony here is that, for the vast majority of the non-American wine-drinking world, the wine consumed is NOT fancy. Wine is an every day thing. Not everyone who drinks wine in France and Italy cracks open an expensive bottle at every meal, but they do drink wine. It is understood that there is a difference between “house” or “table” wine, what the French call vin ordinaire and the stuff you whip out on special occasions or when company comes over. Table wine is not consumed out of 200 dollar Riedel glassware, it's probably coming out of the same glasses you drink everything from. Tell that to an American wine snob and the aneurysms popping sounds like gunfire.

We would be better thinking of wine like we think of beer. It'd be nice to drink Heineken or Samuel Adams' Utopias on a daily basis, chances are you can't afford it and a lot of beer drinkers would look at you like a freak if you insisted that if you couldn't... it's not worth drinking. On a day to day basis, there is probably a 12 pack of Bud, or Miller, or Pabst chilling in your fridge and if it comes down to “less than optimal” beer or no beer at all... fuck that, gimme a beer. As I have always said, my favorite kind of beer is the kind I don't have to pay for.

The American consumers inability to see the joys of table wine is really doing a number on their collective pocket books. I believe the average price of a bottle of wine in a restaurant is about 3 times retail price at this point, putting it well beyond my budgie and well into the selfish realms of “conspicuous consumption”. Bugger that. Give me my jug of Carlo Rossi Burgundy at my table and let me actually have a few glasses. It's not BAD wine. It's not great. It wouldn't want to drink toasts at a wedding with it, but it's fine for dinner. Do you really want to drink a delicate, refined and nuanced bottle of wine while you're forking down cream pasta with bacon? You wouldn't know the difference between Chateau Montelena and Chateau Mad Dog.

My love affair with Benvenuto's ended suddenly and violently. I became privy to some disturbing information regarding a very, very poor customer service choice made by an erstwhile manager. The nature of this information was so foul that I made the choice not to give them my custom again. I have since encouraged others to do the same.

I believe quite strongly in the power of the almighty greenback and that, if you disapprove of someones business practices, your best way discouraging it is by not giving them your money. People can protest Wal-Mart until they are blue in the face, but people still shop there and that is what matters.

It has been well over a decade since I have actually gone to a Bevenuto's store and I have missed it. I decided that 10 years is long enough to hold a grudge and so, when my Bride suggested it for lunch amidst our errand running this weekend, I agreed.

Despite the many years, I looked forward to the Benvenuto's of old. I looked forward to all my old favorites. Most importantly, I looked forward to a good Italian meal. I think that is what disappointed me the most.

Given our proximity amidst our errands, we took ourselves to the north-side location.

Big tease right off the bat, one of their faux Italian theme-park storefronts was for salumeria and the very fact that someone knew enough to paint that on the wall gave me a little thrill... which lasted just long enough for me to open the menu.

Bevenuto's has become safe. When it came down to a choice between unique and familiar, they chose the latter. Looking at their lunch menu, my first thought, vocalized in a less than charitable tone to my undeserving bride, was that this was barely an “Italian” restaurant anymore. Nothing says Italy like deep fried fish, chicken and shrimp. I twitched every time I saw things like Jack Daniels BBQ sauce, southwest chicken salad, the satanic Chicken Caesar, Greek salad, Cobb salad, Asian Chicken salad and, oh gawd, this one bout killed me... Cajun Grilled Pasta? This is chain food. The menu is designed to please the palate of the lunching office worker.

Now don't get me wrong, the food at Bevenuto's is still good. I had a decent salad and a nice bowl of shrimp fettuccine in a garlic cream sauce. My Bride and I left full and satisfied with the service and the food. Benvenuto's makes good food. They are reliable. It's the kind of place you could go to a hundred times and never have a “bad” meal. They are a crowd pleaser. Someplace safe and familiar where even the fussiest of eaters can find a pleasing menu selection. There is a place for that in the restaurant world, but that place is getting a over crowded. There are so many others just like it.

Compared to the rest of Madison, it doesn't stand out. It's not unique, it's not putting forth any extra effort or obsessing over fresh ingredients, new ideas or new techniques. They are not trying to reproduce the feel and the taste of Italy in any way deeper than the thickness of paint.

My Bride and I had a rather heated debate about this. Somewhat offended at my immediate dismissal of the menu out-of-hand, she pressed me to define what, if anything, was wrong with what Benventuo's is? What is the basis for my disapproval?

Is there anything wrong with a broader, familiar, crowd pleasing menu even if wanders away from your ascribed to cuisine? Is it that my “highly refined palate” cannot be bothered by anything less that the finest cuisine available? It is not hard, I think, to come off like a snob here, pooh-poohing the business choices of a restaurant I have no financial risk in. I can sit here comfortably behind my keyboard and whing about how this restaurant is lame or that it doesn't have the exotic, expensive and obscure fare I desire or demand. It carries about as much weight as the overweight armchair quarterback cussing out his team and bragging how “he could do better”.

We have a long history in this country of scapegoating businesses, corporations and pretty much anything that can be defined as “The Man”. I try to keep this under wraps because it really isn't fair. A business employs people. It puts food in the mouths of the employees and their children. It is not a crime to make money. Isn't that what we all want anyway? Isn't the American dream to be rich and successful?

Foodies are often rather dismissive and insensitive to this, but the truth is that many, many, many delightful hole-in-the-wall restaurants doing exciting and daring new foods have floundered financially due to the uncompromising idealist vision of a chef who could not understand the balance sheet.

I'm sure that the Benvenuto's menu has morphed into it's current incarnation over time due to market pressures from it's clientèle.

In other words, it has become what is has become as a response to... us. The Consumer.

Because who we give our custom to decides what business stay and what business go. Every penny we spend on everything from cheap cheeseburgers to Wagu beef and Fois Gras dictates what kind of restaurants arise to supply our demand. Restaurateurs agonize over menus, decor, prices and location... trying hopelessly to divine the fickle, stingy and seemingly schizophrenic mind of the consumer. So many people have sunk their life savings into opening their own little restaurant, their own slice of the American dream, just to watch that dream die a slow and painful death because the drive was five minutes too long or the prices were 50 cents cheaper somewhere else.

Now, don't get me wrong, restaurants do share SOME of the blame for bad choices. As with the case of Cloud 9, where a restaurant chose to try to please absolutely everyone at once and sets itself up for failure. Some restaurants only offer safe, middle of the road, least-common-denominator fair out of fear that more exotic and experimental fare will fail to attract a crowd. Sometimes that is prudent fiscal strategy and sometimes it is just cowardice. The market is saturated with restaurants who play it safe. Despite this, however, the lion share of the blame lies firmly on our own shoulders.

This is a war of inches... or perhaps pennies. We each have to decide what is important to us. Is money the bottom line? Is quality? Is it something else? Do you care what is local? Do you care what is imported? A Foodie, a Vegetarian, a Vegan, a Chef, a Gourmet or suburban house wife can each talk your ears off for hours on considerations from mercury content to political ramifications of wheat production.

There are no wrong answers to these questions, but each one has an effect... a consequence. We should perhaps consider what consequences our choices have. What kind of restaurants exist, what kind of food is offered, is up to us.