2006: Excellent restaurant experiences

No one will ever mistake me for a serious restaurant critic, but I know a special and unusual dining opportunity when I see it. Here are some of the best places where I accumulated calories in 2006:

Sabor Brazilian Churrascaria, 777 N. Water St., Milwaukee – To call this new downtown restaurant a Brazilian steakhouse is gross oversimplification. Up to one dozen cuts of meat are paraded around the dining room – multiple portions are stacked onto huge skewers – and smiling gauchos carefully wield hefty knives to deliver the goods.

The choices include lamb chops and chicken, baby back ribs and linguica sausages. All are slow roasted and lusciously seasoned before reaching diners. The tableside service continues until you say “stop” by flipping a coaster from its green to orange side.

Grilled vegetables and unusual but good salad combos make up the first course, a serve-yourself buffet that is extensive enough to satisfy vegetarians. With the meats come side dishes, warm cheese bread to “fired bananas.”

It’s a great atmosphere for group dining. Cost: $42.50 for all, at dinner, or $32.50 for just the first course. Lunch is $28.50 and $14.50. For more: www.saborbrazil.net, 414-431-3106.

Biro Culinary School, 1019 Erie Ave., Sheboygan – You have to work for your meal here, but it’s worth it. The teacher will be a chef trained in Old World European cooking methods — likely school founder Marcel Biro, who was former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s personal chef.

Students can enroll in half-day to weeklong, small-group and hands-on classes. There also is an 18-month apprenticeship program, patterned after European chef training. Upcoming topics include Bistro Cuisine, Winter Soups and Stocks, Fowl Play and Italian Cuisine in 30 Minutes or Less.

Kitchen novices to veterans can feel comfortable here. It is a place to break bad habits in basic kitchen skills. More than one recipe is prepared during a single session.

Class fees: $35 to $500. For more: www.birointernationale.com, 920-451-6940.

L’Etoile Restaurant, 25 N. Pinckney St., Madison – Executive chef Tory Miller accepted an invitation to cook Thanksgiving dinner at Manhattan’s famed James Beard House this year. This is one indication of the quality and reputation that the Capitol Square business has attained.

Gourmet Magazine this fall announced L’Etoile was one of America’s 50 best restaurants. Some of the attention comes because founder Odessa Piper, who opened L’Etoile in 1976, earned a nationwide reputation.

“Cooking with the seasons” is the popular buzz from chefs these days, but L’Etoile has long made it a priority. Menus are lengthy, not because there is an extreme number of choices, but because of the credit given to farms that provide key ingredients.

Dinner entrée range: $29 to $33. Cooking classes and specialty dinners also are scheduled. For more: www.letoile-restaurant.com, 608-251-0500.

Castaldi’s Market and Grill, 230 Prospect Ave., Cleveland – Want a little Puccini with your fettucini? Singing waiters who know how to belt out show tunes as well as opera make this place hard to beat. They perform at tableside for their customers on Thursday through Saturday nights, downtown at Tower City Center.

On the menu are many of the Italian classics, and the restaurant is family owned. More casual dining occurs at Castaldi’s Market Place, adjacent to the restaurant; that is where deli platters, minestrone, salads and pizza by the slice are sold.

Dinner entrée range: $12 to $21. Five-course, family-style dining is available to parties of four or larger. For more: www.castaldis, 216-241-2232.

Park Grill on the Plaza, Millennium Park, Chicago – The city’s biggest outdoor dining spot is an ice rink, for now, but it’s great for people watching during summer.

A sandwich and salad menu help soak up the cold beer while you soak up the sunshine. If you come for the food instead of the atmosphere, head indoors, to the 375-seat Park Grill restaurant at 11 N. Michigan Ave., which serves full-course dinners. Walls of windows make it possible to follow some of the park traffic.

Dinner entrée range: $16 to $26, ala carte. For more: www.parkgrillchicago.com, 312-521-7275.

Galatoire’s Restaurant, 209 Bourbon St., New Orleans – During the dullness of late winter, with ghosts of Katrina unshakeable elsewhere, this 101-year-old French Quarter restaurant remained vibrant. It is a fourth-generation family business that specializes in French Creole cooking.

Shrimp Remoulade is a specialty and the restaurant’s most popular dish. Men must wear a jacket at dinner, and anytime on Sundays. The Banana Bread Pudding comes drenched in a praline liquor sauce. The after-dinner drink of choice is Café Brulot, coffee with orange and lemon peel, cloves and liquor – set aflame before it is set in front of you.

Even celebrities can expect to stand in line. If there is no wait for an upstairs table, don’t take it. The choice seating is on ground level.

Dinner entree range: $20 to $30, ala carte. For more: www.galatoires.com, 504-525-2021.

Markt, 401 W. 14 th St., New York – This Belgian bistro is a friendly and solid anchor in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, an area of increased gentrification in the city.

Oak booths, etched glass, a marble/zinc bar and open air dining in summer are a magnet. So is the friendly and accommodating staff. Belgian beers/liquor is used in the food prep. Menu emphasis is on seafood. Frites (fries) come with mayo, for dipping.

Mussels steamed in beer is one specialty. The lobster salad is another. Dessert choices include a trio of mousse, made with Belgian white, dark and milk chocolate.

Dinner entrée range: $14 to $36, ala carte. For more: www.mrktrestaurant.com, 212-727-3314.

The Mansion on Turtle Creek, 2821 Turtle Creek Blvd., Dallas – The dining room, described as the city’s “most renowned destination,” was between executive chefs when we visited in spring. Dean Fearing – after 21 years at the burners – had just left to open his own place, a part of the Ritz-Carlton. John Tesar of Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas had yet to be hired.

The lobster tacos, tortilla soup and crème brulee – three longtime signature items – remain on the menu. The rest has gone “contemporary New American,” to replace the previous Southwestern flair.

Dining takes place in the living room, library and veranda of a 10,000-square-foot mansion that housed a cotton and oil magnate in 1925. Men need a jacket and tie for dinner.

Prices? Don’t expect to see them on the menu. For more: www.mansiononturtlecreek.com, 214-559-2100.

Observations are the result of independent travel, conferences of travel writers and press trips. Recommendations include, but are not limited to, subsidized and complimentary meals.