Distil, Merchant mixing craft, classic cocktails

While you’re nursing that Bloody Mary, mimosa or screwdriver during Sunday brunch, I’m discovering Milk Punch, the Ramos Gin Fizz and Corpse Reviver No. 2. The three cocktails are a study in history, and you’ll find them on the brunch menu at Merchant, a new place to dine and imbibe in downtown Madison. At the(…)

Midwest to Middle East: best meals of 2010

An unusual setting helps deepen the dining experience. These six memorable meals are from my travels during 2010. — Traders Point Creamery – Evidence of rural life appears abruptly, just northwest of Indianapolis. It’s a quick switch from suburbia and interstates to cornfields and a one-lane bridge. This is where children, and others, learn that(…)

Georgio’s: Perfecting the recipe for pizza

USA Today readers know by now that Georgio’s in Milton, a Rock County community of 5,100, is my Wisconsin recommendation in a nationwide roundup of great pizza places. The owners of this cozy, little Italian restaurant – George Rakidzich and Cheryl Ryan – have Serbian and Irish roots. They discarded corporate careers 13 years ago(…)

Inside Madison’s Underground Kitchen

When I met Jonny and Ben Hunter three years ago, they were rebel caterers keen on cooking adventurously with locally grown food, but without the trappings of tradition. Their work was fine art, but customers wouldn’t know the exact menu until the day of delivery. That’s how serious the brothers were about using in-season ingredients.(…)

Reedsburg thinks food, Fermentation Fest

Everybody has a story, including the guy who shows up at Donna Neuwirth’s place with an odd contraption just before closing time. The device looks like a thick and makeshift set of wooden tongs that sits atop sturdy arcs of attached metal. “Bet you don’t know what this is,” the unannounced visitor teases. The antique(…)

Alex Young and Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor

He’s up at 6 a.m., tending to the tomato crop by 6:30, coaching a work crew about fences for new livestock at 7, beginning the eight-mile drive to his restaurant an hour later. No day is typical for chef Alex Young, but this is his life when we meet on a late-summer Saturday morning. He(…)

North House Folk School in Grand Marais

Forty miles southwest of the border with Canada, a Minnesota village of 1,400 overlooks a shore of near-paradise, its foundation hardy in character and nostalgic in spirit. “We’re a long way from everywhere, for the average person,” observes community leader Greg Wright, and most people who stay for more than a vacation “don’t come here(…)

German heritage strong in New Ulm, Minn.

Forces of nature brought me to New Ulm, Minn., for an overnight that I didn’t expect to be pretty. Tornado-level winds and blinding rain had uprooted trees, flooded and closed streets upon my arrival around 8 p.m. I had no lodging reservation and no clue about the tidy image or pride of German heritage that(…)

Cornucopia, Bayfield County, buffing it up?

Thanks to a “road closed” sign, my route into town changes abruptly. First it’s farmland, then woods, while navigating from roads of concrete to dirt and gravel, sometimes under tree canopies dense enough to cast a solid blanket of shade during 15 puzzling miles. I am barely north of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, passing an(…)

Fairfield, Iowa: Full of influences from India

I dunk a wedge of focaccia into the day’s soup – Bogota Potato, spiced with a mild curry – at Revelations Cafe and Bookstore, while assessing the pulse of this unusual community, sandwiched within the many cornfields of southeast Iowa. People behind me are talking about energy fields. Another table debates academic freedom vs. accreditation.(…)

Iowa State Fair: good contests and cookin’

We’re deep into fair weather, throughout the Midwest, but only one state fair nationwide makes the cut in the 2003 bestseller “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” by Patricia Schultz. The Iowa State Fair since 1854 (when in Fairfield) has epitomized Midwest sensibilities, character and cuisine. Cornfed, considerate, country-proud and kitchen-savvy: That’s the message(…)

Stone Barn, Nelson: pizza on the farm

“Build it, and they will come,” I think, while climbing the hilly roads that dance with the creeks and curves of northwest Buffalo County. They come from neighboring farms and as far away as China, but are most likely to head here from Eau Claire, La Crosse and various Minnesota cities – Wabasha, Rochester, Minneapolis(…)

Duluth: Solglimt, smokehaus, Park Point, pie

People who vacation in Duluth find their way to Canal Park, an area where a fine mesh of lodging, restaurants and boutiques complement the gleaming Lake Superior waterfront downtown. The Duluth Lakewalk extends 4.2 miles, along shoreline and through parks, and Duluth’s iconic Aerial Lift Bridge looms near the southern end, at St. Louis River.(…)

Twin Cities: new ballpark, Red Stag dining

Fans of Target Field, which opened in April as home to the Minnesota Twins – seem to talk up three things more than anything else online: Fresh air. The new baseball stadium’s open-air design replaces the stuffy Metrodome, the enclosed, musty and annoying echo chamber where the Twins played 28 years. The view. The city(…)

Farmstead ice cream shop near Fond du Lac

Karen Kelley has long wanted to open a home-based business on the family farm, and three years ago she got serious about pursuing that dream. “I love to cook, bake and create,” she explains, so she studied value-added agriculture. Should she spin wool? Learn how to make cheese? The farm wife chose a sweeter path(…)

Braise on the Go: truly field-to-fork cooking

The thrill of the hunt, at this time of year, refers to careful walks through forests, in search of rotting wood, dead elms in particular. The winner’s trophy carries great bragging rights and value, weighing in at $3 – or more – per ounce. The hunter’s weapon of choice is a sharp pocketknife, accompanied by(…)

Milwaukee: Lakefront Brewery makes history

Russ Klisch decided to ferment beer after brother Jim gave home brewing a try. “It wasn’t the worst thing I ever had,” Russ deadpans, but he figured he could do it better. That was 1982, and Russ (schooled as a chemist) today operates an unconventional laboratory in a former Cream City brick power plant. His(…)

Chicago hospitality: outstanding to ugly sides

Use Google when in search of the “lost art of customer service,” and 10,000 references pop up within two seconds. Balance this against economic predictions that excellent customer assistance will make a big-time comeback this year. Customer service – be it mindful or mindless – has the power to enhance, rescue or destroy a getaway.(…)

Sap on tap: More of us running for the gold

Time for a tap, and we’re not talking about Spotted Cow or Sprecher Amber. Even though the Olympics have ended, Wisconsin has begun another run for the gold. The annual transformation of maple sap to syrup has started statewide, and Gretchen Grape of Holcombe (Chippewa County) cautiously predicts a strong tapping season. She is executive(…)

Full steam ahead for Wisconsin tea lovers

When Katrina Isaacson says “you’ll never see me bring a latte in here,” you sense a level of determination that belies her gentle smile. Johanna May’s Fine Teas, near Wausau, is named after her mother, a much-loved coffee drinker who died at age 46. The proprietor is the mother of four boys, “so this is(…)

L’Etoile, Madison, expands ‘go local’ mission

Chef Tory Miller buys not steaks and chops but whole cows and pigs from local farms, using as much of the animals as possible in his fine dining menus. Such practices are not uncommon for a well-trained chef who truly wants to lessen unnecessary waste while supporting the work of local farmers. Tory is among(…)

Vegetarian dining: Dells, Manty, Brookfield

I am a lifelong meat eater who for years has dined out once a month with vegetarian friends who routinely share their entrees. So I respect and appreciate a no-meat diet. We have many veggie-friendly menus in Madison, including the newly opened Green Owl, 1970 Atwood Ave., which is a 100 percent vegetarian café that(…)

Top dining-lodging picks: distillery, parador

One last round of accolades before I get on with the new year: These businesses provided stimulating dining and lodging during 2009, which means they were excellent getaway destinations all on their own. — What could be finer than an escape with longtime but seldom-seen friends, and what a shame to let the layout of(…)

2009 dining: Wilton, Botin, Novodabo

Excellent food, unusual settings and/or one-of-a-kind characters earn these five places a spot on my list of exceptional dining spots of 2009. Consider it a way to acknowledge interesting businesses that weren’t the topic of previous “Roads Traveled” columns. — Some people take the five-mile detour off of Interstate 80, between Iowa City and Davenport,(…)