The Skeptical Diner: Minor Opinions on Food


Singing the praises of Al’s Breakfast in Dinkytown is pretty much a redundant waste of breath around here, but I had a meal there this morning that was pretty close to platonically ideal.

A) The counterman had his “get me two rafts in boats with a half-black burro under the sunrise spiked with a toad on it” patter cranked up to 11.

B) Meanwhile, he took a break mid-cookery to get a back rub from the attractive college-age waitress.

C) There are famously 14 stools at Al’s counter, and there were 30+ customers waiting for them to open up. Thus, lots of the: “You three, move over one chair to the left” kind of re-organizations that would never fly at a less storied diner.

D) People kept leaving the restaurant after paying the bill and advising line-waiters what to get. Big shout-outs for the French toast, which was extremely soft, eggy, almond-y and excellent.

E) Me and my two cohorts sat down, ordered, ate and left so quickly that we received a standing ovation from the line. Granted, they had to be standing because that’s how the line works, but it still felt good.


The peanut butter and grape jelly iced milk beverage on Cafe Maude‘s No Alcohol drinks menu is worth ordering — once. It does an excellent job of simulating all the flavor of peanut butter and grape jelly, but it uncannily lacks any of the texture… it is, after all, basically a glass of flavored milk with ice in it. Incredibly high novelty value, but it wears off fast. The Caramel Apple (apple cider spiked with high-quality caramel) is a much better all-around non-alcoholic buy at Maude.

The alcoholic (and low-alcohol) drinks at Maude are fantastic, but the kickass no-alcohol menu is something I have an especially soft spot for, as it makes the pain of being the designated driver so much less acute.


If you’re ever in Madison, WI, you might consider trying Muramoto. It’s an excellent new downtown Japanese restaurant, and while I still don’t think sushi is the best thing to order while in south-central Wisconsin, the sake, soup, tempura and a host of other non raw-fish related entrees make it well worth a visit.

A new Muramoto just opened on the near West Side, in Hilldale mall’s sprawling new Yuppie-drome. The food was really good (a kickass hot-and-sour soup and some of the best shrimp tempura rolls I’ve ever had), but the service actually made me reconsider ever returning.

Inattentive, sloppy, low-energy, distracted, inefficient; all that, but what really got me were the greetings. A real Japanese place puts a high premium on greeting the customer as she enters, and saluting her as she departs. It’s about making the restaurant welcoming. It’s about camaraderie and fellowship. And Muramoto West dropped the ball on this. It damn near spoiled the meal.


Chino Latino’s happy hour is so good as to defy physics. I brought a big crowd of folks there last week to celebrate Flak Radio’s 50th Episode (ninety minutes of hilarity and one broken champagne flute, incidentally), and fed/drunked up the whole group for about $125. $3 beers, $2 house wine, $5 sushi rolls and $3 chorizo mini-sandwiches (WITH chips and guac!) go a long way. Also worth noting: not only does the happy hour run from 4pm until 7 (for all you legitimate working-type stiffs), it pops up again in a late-night incarnation. Holy bells.


When Amazing Thailand opened in Uptown, I raved about the place. It brought a fresh approach to authentic Thai food, good service, gorgeous decor, and an all-around competence that brought a smile to my face. Unfortunately, my last two trips have been typified by a modest but notable decline in food and service.

There is a theory — held basically by me, and not backed up by anything other than anecdotal evidence — that certain restaurants bring in off-the-books consulting master chefs when they open, thereby ensuring a super-high and non-maintainable level of performance during the critical 3-6 months when reviews are written and opinion leaders drop in to get the straight dope on the new place. Having established a beachhead, the restaurants dismiss the pricey help, and slump into relative mediocrity. I felt as though this happened to me several times when I was living in Boston; I’d visit a new (for whatever reason, usually pan-Asian or Thai) place, be really impressed, and then watch as the quality dropped in subsequent visits.

Amazing Thailand has at least 1-2 more visits coming to it before I turn on it (or forgive it) completely, but I’m bummed nonetheless about the slump.

8 Comments so far

  1. Erica M (unregistered) on November 12th, 2007 @ 1:35 pm

    I fucking love Al’s Breakfast. Seriously.

  2. Chris (unregistered) on November 12th, 2007 @ 3:06 pm

    I fucking love Muramoto. It’s even better when you go to

    Café Montmarté for a glass of wine, then

    pass out on a fiberglass cow near the Capitol building, then

    wake up and go to Marigold Kitchen for some awesome breakfast.

    I still say the Twin Cities doesn’t compare to Madison when it comes to “uniqueness” of their restaurants. Sure we got the big-city fancy places, but … Weary Traveler? Jolly Bobs? Bluphies? Great Dane? Eldorado Grill? There are no restaurants in the Twin Cities which are close to those places in quality/style. Even the ones that are similar (Uptown Cafe and Monty’s Diner), the quality isn’t nearly as good.

    Now I’m depressed; time for a drink at Maude I guess.

  3. Erica M (unregistered) on November 12th, 2007 @ 3:33 pm

    Is there a place in the TC that does champagne drinks? Because I do enjoy the Opus Lounge.

  4. James Norton (unregistered) on November 12th, 2007 @ 6:17 pm

    I dunno re: “unique” restaurants… Madtown represent and everything, but I think Minneapolis does pretty well. Nye’s? Al’s Breakfast? Chicken-n-Waffles? Bryant Lake Bowl? Matt’s? La Hacienda? Isles Bun? And I’m crazy about Barbette, Blackbird and Cafe Maude, and the closest thing Madison has (Sardine) doesn’t cut the mustard.

    Also, I’ve been underwhelmed time and time again by Bluphies (no soul man, no soul!) and while Eldorado Grill is totally OK, I’ll take the real Mexican food over at Mercado Central any day of the week. Or, La Hacienda on Park Street in Madison. That place is sketchy as hell — who else needs an on-duty police officer to work the front podium on a Saturday night — but the chicken fajitas are RIGHT. And while they cost $9, they feed two people. Also, try the strawberry liquado.

  5. Leif Pettersen (unregistered) on November 12th, 2007 @ 7:28 pm

    I haven’t been to Al’s in over a decade, it’s about time I got back there apparently. Meanwhile, I’ve been on a Maria’s binge for going on a month. Just today I had the huevos pericos (which I can still taste seven hours later – a good thing) and a strawberry pancake. Wow.

  6. Chris (unregistered) on November 12th, 2007 @ 8:50 pm

    Sorry for turning this into MetBlogs Madison, but…

    I meant that if you take a Madison restaurant and try to find the Twin Cities equivalent, it’ll always be worse. Like, always. Gastof’s? Essen Haus. Al’s? Mickey’s Dairy Bar. Spill the Wine? Café Montmarté. Chino Latino? Pick from whole ton of them. Town Hall? Great Dane. Uptown Diner? Monty’s. Isles Bun? Baker’s Too. Matt’s? The Plaza. (just kidding)

    Yeah, the Cities is a ton bigger, so it’s got many more types of restaurants … so there’s no comparisons to places like Nyes or whathaveyou (or, a decent sushi place).

    But where there is a comparison, Madison dominates on the quality of the food and mostly, on style. Each place has a definite “look.” (Mabye Bluphies blinds you to the bad food with its awesome design)

    Anyway, now that I’ve read the last part of your thing James, I really, really want some police-protected La Hacienda fajitas haha …

  7. James Norton (unregistered) on November 12th, 2007 @ 10:10 pm

    I’m afraid I’ve got to come back and disagree. Al’s has twice the character (and quality of food) of Mickey’s Dairy Bar, and I say this as a guy who married a former Mickey’s waitress. Also, I’ll go with Isles over Baker’s in a heartbeat, and would say there’s nothing quite like Town Talk in Madison. Town Talk schools Monty’s.

    Overall, though, I suspect we can find common ground — for a city its size, Madison has a HELL of a lot of good places — it had most restaurants per capita at one point, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it’s still #1 for that. And Minneapolis/St. Paul does pretty well, too, although the metro area is nine times (or whatever) Madison, so it isn’t quite at the same bang-for-buck.

  8. cobra (unregistered) on November 18th, 2007 @ 6:19 am

    Town Talk would be fine except for the lousy food and deafening atmosphere. A bland $10.25 pulled pork sandwich choked down while screaming to be heard–across two feet of table, for God’s sake–does not inspire a return visit. Did I mention the porkwich was cool? Say all you want about how it needs to be considered BBQ and thus by convention served tepid. I counter they were too packed to get the food out timely, but we all know when you send something back to a harried chef, you get snot when it returns, so the re-heat option was out.

    I’m of the mind you get ONE chance in the restaurant biz. With a new spot popping up as often as B.B. King’s latest bastard child, there’s really no reason to give a place a second shot. Many of us don’t have the bucks to waste on a place while it coalesces. Get your shit together out of the gate, then bring it every day. Many budding restaranteurs don’t realize there is no cruise control.

    Town Talk has a nice scam going, but when people wake up to it, it’ll go the way of Pizza Nea Uptown.

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