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Opa! Dec. 31st, 2009 @ 10:35 am
What: Opa!
When: 12/30/2009
Where: 558 State St. (where The Saz used to be)
Cuisine: fusion with a mediterranean flair
Prices: Appetizers $7-10, Entrees $15, Wine mark-up 100% store price, not sure on lunch prices.

The atmosphere was the same long tunnel of prior locales, but redone with slate flooring, black&white granite tabletops, and red leather chairs. The lighting was good - not too bright, but not reliant on the obscuring safety of candlelight. The high ceilings cause a little bit of an echo, but it is acoustically much better than many places we've been (that said, note to self: when the jazz group is playing, it's okay to speak up).

At the moment, they have jazz on Mondays and Wednesdays, beginning at 9 p.m., so about when we were done eating and could enjoy it. Their music was a nice mix of standards, like "So What?" and their own inventions. But enough about them.

We ordered a bottle of the Castle Rock 2008 Pinot Noir, which proved to be a relatively light pinot, that opened well into woody spicy notes. It took about 10 minutes in the glass to come into its own, but we will definitely be buying it again.

The service was impeccable. Granted, we were the only people there for most of our meal, but rather than hide in the back, our waitress was attentive without being intrusive. She brought extra napkins without asking, anticipating our need, and refilled our wineglasses astutely. If all of their staff is like her, the experience is definitely a good one.

Now to the meat of the matter. We put aside some of our preferred food politics for a night of sampling.

Appetizers were the curried carrot soup and the sweet and sour pork ribs. This was not, for my palate, a good combination, but both were incredibly good once I decided to eat them separately rather than switching back and forth. The ribs had been previously slow-cooked, then broiled or fried later, giving them a room-temperature inside and a crispy warm outside. I don't know if that was intended, but we liked it that way. The sauce was incredible - it had a smoky sweetness with a tang that was more berry or marmalade than the usual vinegar tang of ketchup. Just enough kick to give it flair, but no one overwhelming flavor. The curried carrot soup was delicate, and thus at first I wasn't sure I liked it. As it turned out, my mouth was still full of the rib sauce's flavor. The carrots were lightly sweet, with sauteed onions not quite fully pureed in. It was served with a dollop of sour cream and a few grindings of black pepper - just enough to give each bite a little peppery sharpness. It is not, I will say, the absolute best carrot soup I've ever had, but it was very good, and I would get it again.

We split a greek salad, that was the standard mixed greens, cucumber, feta, tomatoes, and balsamic dressing. However, it was a well-done standard. My companion liked the dressing, and I thought it was normal but good.

As for entrees, the options included some very appetizing-looking items: a gyro platter for the less adventurous (though I was tempted simply because it'd been a long time since I had one), an orange-glazed salmon filet on barley-mushroom pilaf, the ever-present spanakopita, another vegetarian dish and something with pork both of which I'm blanking on at the moment but looked quite good, and what we ordered: the moussaka and a lamb shank over a medley of yukon gold potatoes, apples, sauerkraut, and a "cherry gastrique."

The moussaka was a) huge, and b) delicious. I took half home, and probably could've taken 2/3 home and still been full. It was, in layers from the bottom up: potatoes, ground beef with onions, bechamel, eggplant slices, arrabiata sauce. The ground beef was perfectly spiced with cinnamon and other things that I couldn't quite pick out, giving it that comfort-food-mediterranean-style richness. The bechamel was rich but not overpowering, the eggplant slices were dark and intense, and the stripe of arrabiata sauce across the top offered a piquant note to round out the mouthfeel. It came in its own 9-inch long oval ramekin with a side of flat-bread (good enough to appear homemade, certainly home seasoned). It would be a perfect dish to share with someone, or - given the nature of Wisconsin appetites - a hearty meal for one (but you will definitely be full).

The lamb shank was nicely braised and serve on the bone, so again, a large portion. The real stunner of that dish, however, were the medley of flavors in the potatoes, apples, and etc.... The potatoes and apples (green) were in equal-sized dice, perfectly roasted with just enough crispiness and sweet softness in the middle. The sauerkraut was mixed in, and not a large amount, but just enough to complement the sweetness of the apples. I'm not sure we ever really discovered the "cherry gastrique" though it may have been the drizzle of a reduction sauce around the plate that was delicious, but was relatively indistinguishable from a balsamic reduction. My companion said that the lamb, when taken with a bite of potatoes was exquisite, though it was "just a lamb shank" on its own. This also got taken home as leftovers.

We did opt for dessert, despite the fact that they don't have decaf coffee (which I usually like to have to cut the sweet). Because of the lack of coffee (I could've gotten regular, I suppose), I didn't order the baklava, and we split the chocolate mousse instead. I was less impressed than my companion, who felt that it was a perfect blend of milk chocolate and dark chocolate flavors and liked "the chewiness" of it. I enjoyed the texture, but felt the chocolate flavor was a bit too milky for me, with a hint of cocoa powder. It was, however, a good dessert, and good to split with someone (see a trend here?).

Overall, we will definitely be going back. I worry that this place will not last. While State St. has acquired numerous restaurants with entrees in this price range, it's not as high end as the dishes suggest, and I don't quite see how Opa can continue to serve such opulent portions at those prices and make it work. Maybe they can, and maybe I'm out of touch. Or maybe this is not the owner's only venture and she/he doesn't need to make a huge profit on the food, or can really make up the difference in alcohol. At any rate, while I'm cynical about its long-term chances, it's not because of the quality of the food.

Catching Up Dec. 31st, 2009 @ 09:58 am
I have been deeply remiss in posting, but as this is really for the two of us to know where we like going, I suppose I shouldn't feel too bad. That said, things have changed, and need to be noted.

On the new, generally approved places list:

Shish Cafe
Magnus (the neo-scandinavian version)
Oysters and/or brunch at Sardine
Costa Rica Cafe
Going out with Dr. M to Villa Dolce
Coffee with friends at The Sow's Ear
Opa (review to follow)

I'll try to keep up..... but we know how well that's going to work in the next three years.

Inka Heritage May. 25th, 2007 @ 09:53 am
When: 5/24/07
Where: 602 S. Park St.
Cuisine: Peruvian
Price: Appetizers: $5-12, Entrees $12-20

Inka's a relatively new restaurant on the Madison scene, and as always, eating at a new restaurant makes one think about the high rate of turnover in the local dining scene, wondering if the latest place will make it.

Located in the old Rising Sons Deli (which is now seemingly happy on State St, unless I'm out-of-date), Inka has cheerful orange walls, large picture windows with lots of little wooden tables, and the pan-pipe music we've all learned to associate with Peru through late-night infomercials playing in the background. It's a bit on the noisy side, but I think if they hung some cloth/tapestries across the ceiling (or even on the walls) this would help.

The service is.... trying. Our waiter was very sweet, but clearly new to the waitering business, and a little on the slow side. One of the more experienced waitstaff really needs to take him aside and give him some coaching. He had two strikes against him, fairly large ones at that. First, he didn't offer us water. I'm fine with not automatically getting water - it's often a waste - but it needs to be offered, just in case. Second, he didn't tell us the specials. In fact, I didn't know there were specials until the dessert course, when I overheard a different waiter listing them for a couple nearby. Our waiter's doe-eyed smiling face was so enthusiastic and innocent-appearing, that it was hard to feel too digruntled, however (I bet he gets away with everything).

The menu was extensive, with a separate sheet for appetizers and beverages. The descriptions need a little tweaking, but some of the phrases were comically fun. There's nothing quite like seeing two seafood-rice dishes labeled as "aphrodisiac" to make one smile. The menu is meat-heavy, but there is an entire "Vegetarian" section. Unfortunately, the entrees listed there aren't described, and the titles are similar to that on the meat/seafood side of the menu. What is vegetarian ceviche? I should've asked......

Food (in order):

As appetizers, we ordered the "Avocado Salad" and "Yuca a la Huancaina." The former is exactly how it sounds: a bed of greens with cucumber and tomato slices and half an avocado sliced on top. I think I was expecting something a little less literal, but as I like green salads, it was fine. The avocado was ripe, the tomatoes less so, but the greens were perfectly tender. The dressing was a mixture of a deliciously fruity olive oil and salt. Well, there was some lime juice thrown in, but the overall effect was that they took the little plate you dip your bread in at an Italian restaurant and dumped it on the salad. Surprisingly, despite the salt overload, it was pretty good. The fruitiness of the olive oil really made a world of difference, saving the dish.

The Yuca a la Huancaina was a tower of deep-fried yucca root, with a side dish of a thin, silky cheese sauce. I love deep-fried yucca because it's got so much more texture than a potato, and I appreciated that the sauce came on the side (the menu made it sound like we'd get the peruvian version of cheese-fries, a.k.a. drowning in sauce, so this was a pleasant surprise). The cheese sauce, while clearly gourmet kitchen-made stuff, was somewhat reminiscent of the salty tang of processed cheese sauces, which was a bit disconcerting. That said, I liked the dish overall, but I'd rather have a different sauce (surely there's something also-peruvian that's not cheese sauce?)

For entrees, Kelly ordered the "Picante Camarones," and I ordered the "Pescado a la Chorrillana."

The Picante Camarones was a shrimp dish in a hollandaise-like sauce with peas and carrots, served with steamed long-grain rice. I should say here that I really liked the rice - it was steamed with salted water, and had a nice chewy texture. The shrimp were excellently cooked, which can be hard to do in a cream sauce, so the chef gets good marks for that. The sauce itself was smooth and rich, with a good butter flavor. The peas and carrots were unremarkable (a word that enters more and more into my vocabulary as med school progresses), but okay. Overall, it was a good dish.

The Pescado a la Chorrillana was a battered and fried filet of sea bass served over rice with sauteed onions and red bell peppers in a tomato-based marinara-like sauce (though the spices were more reminiscent of Mexican cooking). Again, the fish was well-prepared, making up for the chewiness that sometimes comes from a previously frozen and defrosted piece of fish. The sauce was salty, but had a warm tomato flavor that went well with the chill stormy weather. The onions were great, and I wanted more. Overall, I would've preferred a little less fish and a little more vegetable, and I think that holds true for the shrimp dish as well. But both were good.

Had I known about the dessert special (a jellyroll like concoction with Peruvian fruit and dulce de leche), I would've ordered it. Since I didn't, I ordered the "Alfajor," which was two thin powdered-sugar-dusted shortbread sandwiches with a filling of dulce de leche. They were very good, but this was when we really could've used a glass of water. Eventually, Kelly asked for one, but the timing of the service was such that there was no good way to get the waiter's attention prior to finishing the dessert. In the end, the dessert was good, but not amazing, and didn't really feel like a "finish" to the meal. Others around us had ordered the custard, which looked like it might be a better choice if we return.

My favorite part of the whole evening was my beverage. I ordered the "Chicha Morada," described on the menu as a "delicious purple corn refreshment." Really, when the phrase "delicious purple corn refreshment" is bandied about, how can one not order such a drink? It was, in fact, exactly as advertized. It was delicious - a blend of a corn-based juice, pineapple juice, apple water, cinnamon and lime; it was fruity and warmly spicy without being cloying or overwhelming. It was definitely purple, like dark grape juice. The corn flavor was present, but again, not overwhelming. And it was definitely refreshing. So all in all, that was more than worth the $2 price tag. (Kelly's sangria was good too, but paled in comparison to the chicha morada).

In the end, I liked it. I'm not sure I'd go back for the food at those prices, but I might. I think if the service picks up and a few tweaks are made to the menu, I would really love it. I keep coming back to the high turnover rate of Madison restaurants, however. I don't know if Inka has what it takes to last. It would be nice to have the same kind of diversity of South American cuisine as Madison does for Southeast Asian cuisine, but I don't know if the restaurant, the cuisine, or the audience will be enough. I find myself tentatively rooting for Inka, if only because I want more yucca root and "delicious purple corn refreshment."

for Susan May. 23rd, 2007 @ 10:49 am
This is easier than posting at your blog :)

While you're in Madison, here's a list of restaurants, complete with blurbs that you and Gary might enjoy. I assume you're staying near the conference, so my reference point is there. The prices are all about similar at $7-20 a person (all total, depending on what meal it is), and if there're any exceptions, I'll note them.


Every Saturday morning, the huge Dane County Farmer's Market takes over the entire capitol square from 6 to 1. I'm usually there at about 7:30 if you want to meet up.

On the square are two of my favorite breakfast places, first Cafe Soleil, next to the YWCA, which is a french patisserie with some of the best croissants I've had outside of France, and good-yet-rich breakfast sandwiches. They're big supporters of local/organic agriculture. Second is Marigold just off the southeast corner of the square, which has lovely and filling gourmet breakfasts.


For large sandwiches/salads/burgers, I suggest The Old-Fashioned (be warned - huge portions), near Cafe Soleil.

For sushi, I suggest Wasabi on State Street (the pedestrian only street just southwest of the Concourse).

Most restaurants on State Street have decent lunches. There's a little Russian dumpling joint called Pelmeni further down State Street, as well as an incredible Afghani restaurant called Kabul (there's two Afghani restaurants, but Kabul is the better one), and a great East African place called Buraka ust next door to it.

Dinner: All of the lunch places are good. If you feel like going exploring there's some great food to be had within a few miles of the conference.

Bon Appetit on Williamson Street (aka Willy St.) does a rotating selection of ethnic eats for good prices. I don't think they're open Mondays, but I do know they have Sunday brunch. (Sunday brunch is a big deal in Madison - it's almost as important as the Friday Night Fish Fry).

Further down Willy St., you get to one of my all-time favorite restaurants: Lao Laan-Xaang (there's two in Madison, and this one is the original and the best). If you go, I highly recommend the Nam Sod "B" (laotian spring rolls).

Further down from there, you get to the Weary Traveler Free House and Pub, which is a hippie-homey neighborhood pub with lots of local beers on tap and incredibly good chili. After that is Jamerica (careful, website has music), which has great food, though the service is on the slow side.

Closer to the Concourse, there's a local microbrewery called The Great Dane that makes decent beer (not the best in town, but good) and serves decent pub food.

For Italian, try Tutto Pasta on King St. (there's one on State Street, but it's more crowded and generally busier) for cheap good Italian food (the rigatoni alla norma is one of my favorites).

There's a gazillion other great restaurants in town, so if you have something you're craving, let me know and I can give you a name (i.e. good chinese or mexican).

At the other end of the spectrum, if you want a fancy-schmancy meal, two of best expensive restaurants in town are L'Etoile (the parent of Cafe Soleil) and Harvest both serving French nouvelle, local/sustainable/organic foods, with $18-30 entrees (when Kelly and I go, we usually drop $200 with wine, dessert, etc).....

Last, but not least, Madison's full of good bars (on/near the square, I recommend Kimia (alas, closed as of February - I'm so behind), Opus (music on website), Genna's, or The Local) but if you want a truly different experience, I suggest going to Cocoliquot (more website noise) for wine and handmade chocolates. I wouldn't eat there - the food is overpriced and over-gourmet'd, but the chocolates can be ordered sushi-menu-style, and the wine-by-the-glass list is extensive. It's a lot of fun, especially if you want to feel pampered and romantic.

Hope that helps! Again, if you have any questions, etc, please feel free to contact me. And I hope you have a good time while you're here!


Vin Santo, Take 2 Feb. 6th, 2007 @ 08:41 am
When: 1/5/07

Notes to add to experience:

This time around, the wine was fine, but the food quality was less exciting than our previous experience. Kelly's dish was literally drowning in oil/butter (it leaked out of the to go container of our leftovers. The caesar salad was equally over-dressed - we could barely find the lettuce. Holly's dish was too salty, and mine almost was, which is a bit scary for me.

From our sources, this seems to happen on a haphazard basis, so the overwhelming theme is that Vin Santo is good, but can be hit-or-miss. Things to keep in mind.
Other entries
» Blue Marlin
When: 2/2/07 - Madison Magazine's Restaurant Week
Where: Capital Square
Cuisine: Seafood - Haute
Price: $25 fixed-price 3-course tasting menu, $10 wine flight (1 tasting glass with each course)

Normal prices: $18-30 entrees (seafood)

In the future, I will avoid going out with groups larger than 6. There were 11 of us, which made for lots of noise, stressed-out waitstaff, and not enough time or conversational ability to truly enjoy the food. The eclectic nature of the group meant that two people were present who made it very clear they'd have preferred fast food cheeseburgers (which made me wonder why they'd even come), which didn't add to the fun in the least.

But none of that is the restaurant's fault. We crowded into a small space on a Friday night, and they accommodated us with prompt service, regular refillings of water and bread, and general polite friendliness. I cannot fault their service in the least. If they pushed us through a bit fast, well, I would put that down to the size of the group and the fact that we were getting the tasting menu, which at $25 a person, is less than some of their entrees.

The three appetizer choices were Shrimp Cocktail (which I'm told was wonderful), Snow Crab Cakes, and Tuna Tartare. The crab cakes proved to be rich, thick towers of almost-pure crabmeat, served with a chipotle mayonnaise. They were, to my picky tastes, as good as snow crab cakes can get. The tartare was well-presented, and had a good taste, with a sweet and spicy sauce assortment and sesame crackers. If some of the pieces were a bit on the large side, the flavor made up for the interruption in silkiness.

The entree choices were a Jumbo Scallop with Crab Risotto, Black Cod with duck confit and potatoes, and Barramundi with julienned asian veggies. The scallops were perfectly fresh and perfectly seared - they fell apart in your mouth like a silky burst of seaspray, no hint of fishiness. The crab risotto, while good, was a bit too creamy, and didn't highlight the crab as much as it provided a filling base for the scallops. The black cod was perfectly seared then poached, flaky and tender, though it had a touch of "cod flavor" that was disconcerting against the accompanying succulent and rich sides. The barramundi was a surprisingly delicious whitefish - large moist flakes that tasted of butter and a hint of smoke, over a light and yet sensuous bed of shiitake and assorted greens. It was the best of the three, and really worth having again, at full price.

The dessert choices were a Mixed-berry Napoleon made with shortbread, a Key Lime Pie, and a Chocolate-Toffee Bread Pudding. Only one of the group got the bread pudding, but her food snobbery rivals mine, so I trust her judgement. She said it wasn't the dense, rich comfort of bread pudding, but was instead spongy and airy, which completely defeated the purpose of ordering it, in her mind. The napoleon was good - the pastry cream and berries were well-rationed and both light and rich at the same time. The shortbread was good, but it made the dish hard to eat. The key lime pie was the star of this course - the filling was silky, smooth, and delicately tangy. The crust (graham cracker) had a hint of cardamom that was the last burst of palate-cleansing in your mouth after the smoothness of the pie.

The wines were rather poorly matched, sadly, though they were good. A Rodney Strong Chardonnay with the first course was the best of the lot in terms of matching. An unremarkable dry Italian white with the main course seemed a bit light for the richness of the dishes. And a dry-yet-full-bodied red was served with dessert which stood completely at odds with the sweet desserts. The second white should've been switched with the red, and actually, a sweeter white should've been served with dessert. Ah well.

That said, the meal was well worth it, and the Blue Marlin is definitely a place I want to go to again for a full-price meal.
» Eno Vino, long overdue
Where: West Side, Madison
When: Novemberish, 2006
Price: tapas $8-11, wine $8/glass or so.

Reservations are absoluately necessary here, as the entire West side of town seems to think this place is the bee's knees. The atmosphere is prairie-mafia style, with walls in earthy reds and yellows, black leather booths and pendulous track lighting. The bar is long and heavy wood, and as I said, the place was packed. In truth, I thought it was a rather fun feel.

Our waiter was..... a flake. I'm not sure why they thought he would be a good person to have serving on a weekend evening, but there he was, flaking away. He hadn't had any of the wines. We ordered a red flight and a white flight. The third glass in the red flight was completely corked, so (as per the previous Vin Santo experience) we sent it back. He returned with a new glass and said "The bartender tried it and said you guys were right - it was completely corked." While it was nice to have the reassurance, I snarkily thought this was a bit condescending - as if we, the customers, could be wrong (after all, the customer is always right, right?), or somehow he'd doubted our wine expertise (which is fine, but he shouldn't tell us he doubted it). The wines were good but unmemorable, and the wine-tasting notes accompanying the bottles were neither tasting notes nor grammatically correct. I cringed on a regular basis as mistakes that any decent word processing program would catch appeared before my eyes. The descriptions of the wines were clearly aimed at an audience who'd never had a Shiraz before, explaining the grape, provenance, and some flowery words describing basic flavors common to all. I actually think this is a good thing, as I want people who know nothing about what they're drinking to have a working knowledge. At the same time, it would've been nice to have a few more specific descriptors for the particular wine in the flight, if even a "it's representative of its type."

The tapas were mostly good, with some hit or miss notes. The slow-roasted chicken with mirepoix veggies was exquisitely done. I'd go back for that. The crab cakes left much to be desired, but there are few places out here that serve them to my exacting food snob standards. The cheese platter was good, but was left wanting through poor service more than anything else. Our waiter didn't announce which cheeses were which, and when asked (after, admittedly, we'd had a few bites), he confessed he didn't know, especially as we'd all had a bite, but he'd go find out (we hadn't moved the remaining cheese, so it shouldn't have been a big deal). There wasn't enough bread, and when we asked for more, he brought a mix of baguette slices, some of which had been toasted, some of which were cold - refrigerator cold.

All in all, we decided that, for our money, this was not the best of deals. Perhaps it deserves another try on a less-busy night. We'll see.
» Wine to remember
2002 Clos LaChance Central Coast Merlot

A very drinkable merlot, with a touch of cab. sauv. and cab. franc blended in, which clearly mellows and enhances the drinkability of the bottle. A slight smoky overtone brings out the rich notes of stewed red fruits with some bright red currant notes. It didn't linger overlong, nor did it have oaky or buttery flavors the way some west coast merlots do. It was refreshing and rich without being overpowering.

That said, it's definitely something that should be paired with grilled, roasted, or pan-seared foods that have their own rich flavor. It would completely overshadow a light vegetable or pasta dish. We had it with roasted lamb, mashed potatoes and brussells sprouts, and it was perfect. I would suspect it of being a great wine for lasagna, salmon, cassoulet, or braised beef cuts. I wouldn't put it with a red pasta sauce, however, as I think it's not dry enough for it.

All in all a realy good bottle, going for about $13 at the Taste of California website.
» Vin Santo
When: 10/27/06
Where: Middleton, WI
Costs: Appetizers $7-9, Entrees $11-20, Wine $29-75/bottle

Not the first time we've been there, but this time included a wine adventure. Across the board, for the record, we've always loved Vin Santo, especially their incredible and huge tiramisu as well as their tendency to have very fresh seafood. The only thing I've not liked there is the Italian seafood stew, but so far, I've never found a tomato-based seafood soup that I do like, so whatever.

This time we ordered: Babera d'Asti 2001 In Pectore Tenutta Grenatto, priced at $27, and it normally retails for about $16 online...... "Insalate Caesare," Pesto Linguine, and one of the evening specials: shrimp over a thin fresh linguine with a lightly cream-touched arrabiata sauce. Dessert was chocolate cheesecake with a drizzle of a vanilla cree anglais-style sauce.

Wine adventure: for the first time ever, we got a bottle that was well and truly corked. To my vinegar-loving palate, it began alright - nothing special - but to Kelly, it was horrid from the first sip. As it bloomed with airing, it simply got worse. Finally, Kelly insisted we tell the waitress, so I called her over and informed her, breaking through my tendency to be afraid to complain at any point in a meal - a sort of "you ordered it, so you deal with it" mentality. She took the bottle back, and all the waitresses tasted it, and they all made faces. They brought us a new bottle explaining that the restaurant simply send the bottle back to the distributor and thus loses no money on the deal. This was a big relief and something I had never known, but will remember from now on (this is not the first time we've discussed the potential "corkiness" of our wines at a restaurant). A bit later, the owner came over to apologize, and we had a grand time talking to her about the whole thing.

As far as I'm concerned, this is an example of customer service done amazingly well, in the way we always assume it was done in the past (though I suspect it wasn't, necessarily, and that quality of service then as now depends on the depth of one's pockets in many places).

The wine itself was a fruity example of a good Piedmont red blend, with a fruity bright acidity, full-bodied with a hint of oak, but a dark and subtle rather than a toppy oak note. It went very well with the main entrees, but I think it might go even better with spiced meats (salamis, etc) or vodka sauces. It's a rather dry red, so I don't think I'd pair it with a heavy red sauce, but it might cut through a cream sauce very well. It's definitely made for Italian food.

As for the food - the salad was very good, though both of us prefer anchovy paste or diced anchovy that's chopped into the salad dressing rather than strips of anchovy on top of the salad. Both entrees were exceptional. The pesto was heavy on the basil but light on the oil, which made for a very light yet flavorful pesto that looked far more saucy than it actually was. The pine nuts were whole toasted nuts rather than mixed in, and provided a nice texture contrast. The basil was a little less finely chopped than many "professional" sauces, more like what happens when I make pesto, and that was also nice - it looked real. The shrimp was very fresh and perfectly cooked, which can be hard in a sauce/pasta dish, as the heat of the sauce/pasta can continue to cook the shrimp on occasion. The sauce was richer than the pesto, but not too creamy, with a nice subtle kick of arrabiata to it. The only thing I wasn't over-impressed with was the chocolate cheesecake - it was good but not impressive, and lacked the finesse of the entrees. And it paled in comparison to my prior experiences with the tiramisu.

Vin Santo remains, as ever, a great place for a special dinner.
» Cafe La Bellitalia
when: 10/12/06
where: 1026 N. Sherman Ave.

price: entrees $7-15

atmosphere: small, homey, like a neighborhood italian restaurant, with friendly pseudo-tuscan decor.

wine selection seems to be along the lines of "house wines": a house cabernet, which was quite good, a house chianti which was not particularly good, and so on.....

we ended up with a party of five, many of whom ordered pizza. Wendy got the equivalent of a white pizza (called something italian for olive oil, olio d'olive or whatnot) that she seemed very happy with. The garlic bread was the traditional american-italian-style crusty long loaf slathered with melted garlic butter. The side salads were good, but not exciting - mixed lettuces, mushrooms, tomatoes, red onions, dressing on the side. Bob and Michael split a pepperoni and onion pizza and raved about the sauce. I had the vegetarian-lover's pizza (small = 10 inches) which had green and black olives, red onions, mushrooms, and bell pepper on it. The crust was thin and crisp, the sauce was excellent - no sweetness, strong tomato flavor, nice garlic, basil, and oregano tones. Kelly ordered the "La Siciliana" which was a fettucine with shrimp, tomatoes and a garlic-wine sauce.

Overall, the cuisine wasn't "official Sicily," but it was very very good americanized Italian food. It's not the place you go if you want "Little Italy" in the U.S., but it is and will be a great place to order a pizza from, as well as take people on a night that doesn't require the "food snob" hat (like parents, etc,), especially as the North side is so restaurant-sparse (though this is changing).... And the prices are good.

If you want more authentic, Tutto Pasta Trattoria (touch and go, but generally good - the King St. location is best), Lombardino's (pricey but good), andd Vin Santo (pricey but exquisite) win top honors.
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