Some of the state’s most stunning topography surrounds these western Wisconsin hotspots, but that’s just a side dish to the entrée of seasonal, farm-focused cuisine.
A SOUL OF FARM TO TABLE
Nine years ago, this unassuming much-more-than-a-café in downtown Viroqua opened its doors with an ambitious mission: to showcase the farms in surrounding Vernon County, an area known for organic agriculture but not for a booming restaurant scene. Driftless Café quickly became the darling of Wisco cuisine.
Owners Luke and Ruthie Zahm moved to rural Wisconsin from Madison, where Luke was a chef, because here he had access to the best, freshest ingredients. He also hoped to help the farmers and food artisans thrive. “We use ingredients from our neighbors and friends. Farmers eat at our restaurant. We live it every day,” she says. Because of the demands of Luke’s other job – host of the PBS show “Wisconsin Foodie” – the kitchen is overseen now by executive chef Mary Kastman and sous chef Trevor Davis.
I’ve had Driftless on my list of gotta-get-to’s for such a long time. And I found it to be charming and sincere, a place where they let the food do the talking. The dinner menu is printed fresh each day, its selections dependent on what farmers are bringing to their door. As such, you will see a very different menu in August. Chef Kastman gives her cooking a Mediterranean flair, seen on lunch menu items like the crisp-tender Istanbul fried walleye sandwich with pickled red onions, mint salad and sumac vinaigrette. For dinner, there was a knockout beef and pork kofta shish kebab with Nanking cherry and mulberry sauce and canoe-harvest wild rice pilaf. Another star was the duck breast, pan-roasted and served with potato succotash and currant gastrique.
Ruthie’s favorite time of year was a few months ago, when the first clean, crisp shoots of asparagus emerged. But apple season is almost here, and the restaurant will weave them into dishes of all types – sandwiches to sauces. Dining at Driftless brings both the thrill of the unexpected and a feeling that, even as a diner, you’re part of something bigger.
Entrées $26-$38. 118 W. Court St., Viroqua, 608-637-7778
Beyond the Café:
3 more worthy stops in Viroqua
This spot – transformed from a 1940s gas station – is known as much for its design aesthetic (modern, airy, intimate) as its brew. With a farm-supporting focus, the motto is “Sourcing Coffee for the Collective Good.” Speaking of good, the Italian/French dark roast, Big Dipper, is rich and velvety smooth. Stop in for a pour-over and a slice of cinnamon-streusel coffeecake or salted chocolate chunk cookie.
302 S. Main St., 608-638-7701
The diner with a soul – and a cute name – is a great breakfast joint. Supporting locally grown food is part of the ethos here, too, so look for seasonal produce in the veggie hash, braised greens and squash in the creamy grits bowl and a breakfast sandwich topped with dressed greens, pickled vegetables and salsa verde.
117 N. Main St.
Christened just as I was visiting, S&T is a friendly, comfortable bar/deli to grab a drink and a nosh. It wasn’t serving its farm-driven food menu (which ranges from smorrebrod open-face sandwiches to grilled hanger steak) when I visited but offered some well-made cocktails like the sidecar, French 75 and, of course, old fashioned.
219 S. Main St.
THE EMBRACE OF ELEGANT DINING
With its velvet curtains, plush upholstered seating and gentle lighting, this 6-year-old in the historic La Crosse downtown represents amour on various levels – the love the owners have for each other, for the industry they’ve worked in for decades and, simply, for food.
La Crosse native Joan Ferris and partner Jay Sparks – known for their long tenure at the prominent D’Amico restaurant empire in the Twin Cities – opened an elegant but unaffected space, serving dishes they’d want to eat at home, Ferris says. We’re talking apple, Manchego and chive salad; pappardelle in gorgonzola cream; and butter-poached halibut with sweet pea relish. Nothing is overly fussy, but every dish has an unexpected touch, like the finely chopped hard-boiled egg sprinkled over the ricotta ravioli.
When Sparks, the architect of this menu, isn’t cooking, he’s reading about cooking, Ferris says. “That’s all he does. But I guess that’s a good thing for this business,” she reflects. Items like the roasted chicken thighs with serrano peppers and toasted focaccia croutons, and the spaghetti with shrimp and arugula are staples. But they fill other spots on the menu with Sparks’ seasonal creations. My excellent meal here featured grilled lamb spiedini with harissa, yogurt and cilantro-scallion sauce; chicken liver pâté with fig compote and toast; and braised lamb shank with scallion risotto.
Between the specialty/seasonal menu touches and chef Sparks’ endless curiosity, Lovechild would be a great restaurant in any Wisconsin city. But it seems particularly special here in La Crosse, where there just isn’t anything else like it.
Pastas $20-$27; entrées $27-$43. 300 S. Third St., La Crosse, 608-433-2234
How to Nightcap in La Crosse:
Dip into a ‘Cave’
In the nether regions of a stately 19th-century chateau – a half-block from a Kwik Trip, no less – is La Cave, a speakeasy meets wine cellar meets Euro-esque hideaway. The building is known as the historic Mons Anderson House, and among the things it houses is a restaurant (Le Chateau) and this subterranean bar, accessible by a narrow, winding staircase on the ground level. This stone-walled, windowless room feels very much like a grotto, only it’s bright and warm and people are chatting over high-end cocktails and desserts that involve a torch (think crème brûlée). I can narrow down the list of 10 specialty drinks to two you must try – the Fumé Old Fashioned and the Zeus. Both are served in a smoke-rinsed glass – a process you watch happen right there at the bar. The exceptional Zeus was my favorite, the smoke delicately accenting the bourbon’s caramel notes and the hint of bitter apérol. La Cave offers a happy hour Tuesdays-Thursdays (3-6 p.m.) featuring discounts on cocktails, beers and by-the-glass wines.
410 Cass St., 608-782-6498
Watch a Mississippi Sunset
La Crosse’s western edge gracefully touches the Mississippi River, and while I spent some time driving near this mighty waterway, I didn’t get the view I wanted until I came to 4 Sisters Wine & Tapas. Its western side is all windows, though the biggest bang for your vista buck is the patio. Beyond a small area of parkland and promenade is the dark, glassy surface of Big Muddy and, if you time it right, the sun’s descent, painting swaths of color along the horizon. 4 Sisters is the kind of place for a froufrou martini, a gimlet or old fashioned. Relax, sip and watch a river barge or two slowly drift by.
100 Harborview Plaza, 608-782-8213
Take advantage of little Viroqua’s proximity to a vast community of organic farmers. Over 50 vendors – all from within a 100-mile radius – sell their products weekly at this downtown market. You’ll not only find fresh organic produce, but also meats (beef, pork, lamb and bison), fresh flowers, maple syrup and honey, baked goods and more. Saturdays (8 a.m.-12:30 p.m.) through Oct. 29.
Located in the Western Technical College parking lot right on Main Street downtown. 608-637-2575
My food-cation in our state capital inspired an unofficial tagline: “Have cooler, will travel.” At the end of this marathon eating excursion, you’ll feel the satisfaction (and full belly) from a day well spent.
In all my visits to Madison over the years, I’d never been to the all-kosher Greenbush. Experiencing it for the first time was transcendent. Or maybe I was just starving? Either way, the 26-year-old shop’s signature old-fashioned sour cream doughnuts are just divine, their craggy edges created by the lower frying temperature. Texture-wise, they’re like a lighter cake doughnut, and you’ll want one in every flavor – plain, blueberry, cherry, chocolate and apple-cinnamon. Get there early for the colossal, yeast-raised fritters.
1402 Regent St., 608-257-1151; 5225 High Crossing Blvd., 608-416-5544
I like to take my time perusing this foodie gift-topia. The cheese counter is the focal point, with Wisconsin selections in the majority. Don’t be shy about asking for a sample, though they’ll probably offer before you open your mouth to speak. If it’s hard to choose, the tray of cheese “orphans” is full of little treasures. From that, you can put together a fun little at-home tasting board.
12 S. Carroll St., 608-255-2430
Co-owned by cocktail book author/Reedsburg native Brian Bartels (who co-created the “Little Wisco” enclave of bars in NYC’s West Village), this place right off Capitol Square oozes with friendly-casual hospitality. Sure, they expect you to drink here, but I’m telling you to eat. The grill next to the bar specializes in not-fancy bar food. First and foremost, try the cornmeal-breaded cheese puppies (curds) with house ranch dressing. Follow up with a tasty double-smashburger topped with butterkase cheese, fried onions and house pickle.
$12-$19. 117 S. Pinckney St., 608-442-6335
The owners of nearby restaurant (the also terrific) A Pig in a Fur Coat stock their modern Italian specialty foods store with fresh house-made pastas, charcuterie and cheese, Italian spirits and more. Sandwiches are made to order from the succulent selection of meats – capicola to soppressata. I picked up a porchetta with goat cheese, apple, fennel and arugula on hoagie bread to eat later. (I told you to bring a cooler.) Oh, and that sandwich was a delight.
$11-$15. 306 S. Brearly St., 608-665-3650
This under-the-radar little Asian-inspired restaurant has a side hustle with its soft-serve machine. You can order creations like a twist or – if you’ve been to Disney, you’ll recognize this – pineapple Dole Whip (a nondairy frozen dessert) in a cup or cone. Ahan, located inside the music venue The Bur Oak, would be an ace lunch or dinner spot, so keep that in your back pocket. I’ve enjoyed chef/co-owner Jamie Hoang’s summer rolls served with sweet, pungent Vietnamese dipping sauce; drunken noodle (made with thick, glutinous flat noodles and ground pork); and Lao beef salad, including both tripe and sliced, top-round beef. Everything’s fresh, with beautiful textures and vibrant flavors.
$14-$24. 2262 Winnebago St., 608-867-4001
The funky/art deco-ish cocktail bar/small plates haven is an excellent pre-dinner drink spot. I’ve commandeered a seat at the bar, where the ’tenders shake up rhubarb tonics and Pink Magnolias (vermouth and brandy). My pour is tamer – the NA sangrita, made with passion fruit juice, ginger, lime, chile and orange. I like how the ginger cuts through the fruit, leaving a delicate throat burn. A lovely prelude to dinner.
Cocktails $7-$11. 1929 Winnebago St., 608-285-5096
Enter the lair of wood-paneled walls, tin ceiling and minimalistically set tables. It feels so understated that you don’t expect to see such elegance on the plate. Owners Itaru Nagano and Andy Kroeger were brought together during their shared time at Madison culinary landmark L’Etoile. Nagano has worked for star chefs José Andrés and Tom Colicchio, while Kroeger was under the tutelage of Thomas Keller of The French Laundry fame. The service is as understated as the décor – unobtrusive, attentive, experienced. Those servers deliver some of the best food I’ve had in the last year – deviled eggs with smooth, mustard/paprika-laced filling, seared octopus with smoked mussel tartare; immaculate grilled pork loin with daubs of polenta, golden turnips and flecks of diced rhubarb; and roasted skin-on red snapper with sumptuous, multi-layered potato pavé. A treat from start to finish.
Entrées $35-$38; dinner for two $140. 2611 Monroe St., 608-819-6361
There are farmers markets, and then there’s the Dane County Farmers Market, which is in a class by itself. If you visit the city on a Saturday, do stop – and the earlier, the better since parking can be tricky. I like to get a coffee and pastry and meander, shopping for farm eggs, fresh bread, cheese and seasonal produce.
Saturdays through Nov. 12. 6:15 a.m.-1:45 p.m. Capitol Square
The culinary scene an hour north of Milwaukee reflects many traditional, informal foods popularized generations ago (fish fries, sausages). But there’s also a deep appreciation for more refined fare that still feels very Wisconsin.
AN ITALIAN MEAL FOR THE MEMORY BOOK
My very first visit to Trattoria Stefano was the mid-1990s, before co-owner/self-taught chef Stefano Viglietti added the pizzeria (Il Ritrovo) and Field to Fork Café across the street, making this part of downtown’s mini Little Italy. You could sit at the bar nursing a negroni and dream you were somewhere inside the wall mural of the Amalfi Coast. It was one of the first places I ordered osso buco – and I couldn’t stop thinking about it on the drive back home.
Stefano is still, on its own, worth the trek up to Sheboygan. The essence of the place hasn’t changed too much since the early days – still that warm, unpretentious “hang with the locals” feel. And thoughtful, enthusiastic, unaffected service. When dining here recently, my server August’s savant-like familiarity with each dish made sense when he mentioned he’d been working at the trattoria for 23 years. Yet he still managed to make the experience feel fresh and personal. In a follow-up call with Viglietti, I asked him how he’s kept this place on a pedestal for 28 years. “I don’t know,” he said. “But the title of my book is going to be I Forgot to Feed Myself. You pour yourself in and more so than anything else. I think it’s all about curiosity and fostering education and constant growth. Now I have young cooks teaching me.”
Over the years, Stefano has only gotten better. The time spent honing the craft and training new talent, plus all those staff trips to Italy, have tightened the ship. On a visit here, forget about carbs and calories. Indulge. The crusty, chewy house-made bread you dip in olive oil at the beginning of a meal is also the basis for Stefano’s wood-roasted bruschetta ($8). It’s rubbed with garlic, olive oil and sweet cherry tomato, and in that very hot oven, the tomato gets blistered and jammy and the fresh mozzarella becomes a melty puddle. I want to eat that again and again. Specials are usually, well, special. One night I ordered a smoked artichoke-shrimp risotto ($25) that was both al dente and creamy – the latter courtesy of egg yolks. I also revisited the osso buco ($42), perhaps even better than I remembered it. The braised veal shank was so tender that, along with the rich pan sauce and pond of saffron risotto, you could eat it with a spoon. Dessert needs to be the tiramisu – rich, smooth mascarpone, spongy coffee-soaked ladyfingers and that sharp dusting of cocoa ($8). Like me, you may be strategizing your next visit on the drive home.
Pasta $16-$24; main courses $28-$55. 522 S. Eighth St., 920-452-8455
Slo Your Roll
A specialty shop from restaurateurs Stefano and Whitney Viglietti, Stefano’s Slo Food Market has encapsulated the upscale grocery shopping experience. It’s definitely foodie eye candy, offering aged meats to European pastries, frozen Stefano meals to hot deli sandwiches. If you want to fly first-class, go for the market-price pan-seared-to-order fish (king salmon, lake trout) with grain and vegetable of the day, then find an outdoor spot near the lake and savor a slow meal.
Sandwiches $9-$17; salads/grain bowls $13-$18. 731 Pennsylvania Ave., 920-287-7128
4 Ways to Eat Like a Sheboyganite:
Feast on a Fish Fry
Our whole state is the promised land of fish fries, of course, but Sheboygan isn’t just an itsy-bitsy speck in fish frydom, either. Historically, the city earned fry street cred for its access to fresh lake perch and its heavily Germanic population. Bring the two together, add some beer and you’ve got a winning combo. Although the perch doesn’t come from local waters anymore, you can still get some great Friday fries here. Head over to Rupp’s Downtown for perch, walleye and cod served with the essentials – (choice of) potato, coleslaw, rye bread and tartar sauce.
925 N. Eighth St., 920-459-8155
Sidle Up to Some Succulent Broasted Chicken
In the 1950s, Beloit’s Broaster Co. invented a cooking contraption called the Broaster. It combines a fryer and pressure cooker, which gives you one crispy and juicy bird. Tender, fluffy Broasted potatoes and creamy coleslaw are traditional accompaniments. Sheboyganites love their Broasted chicken, and one of the classic sources is nostalgia-laced Al & Al’s Stein Haus, which offers it on their dinner menu. They do Broasted buckets to-go, too.
1502 S. 12th St., 920-452-5530
Bust into a Bratwurst Sandwich
The uninitiated might be wondering how this is different from a link folded inside a bun. But I’m talking a brat patty. You get all the juiciness and caraway-coriander kick and none of the teeth-struggling-through-casing. Go get a single or double brat patty at the classic tiny diner counter at Schulz’s.
1644 Calumet Dr., 920-452-1880
Swoon Over a True Neapolitan Pizza
Only four restaurants in Wisconsin are certified, legit makers of pizza Napoletana – prepared according to the strict dictates of an international organization that holds sacred the pizzas of Naples, Italy. The rules specify the style of oven used, what kind of mozzarella and how it’s sliced and much, much more. Two of those restaurants are located in Sheboygan, and both make outstanding pies. At Harry’s Prohibition Bistro (668 S. Pier Dr., 920-451-9100), it’s the salty, peppery combo of prosciutto di parma, house-made mozz, basil and arugula. When I go to Il Ritrovo (515 S. Eighth St., 920-803-7516) – part of the Stefano Viglietti restaurant empire – I have to have the Lombardia, with three kinds of cheese, roasted mushrooms, sliced onion, speck (cured, smoked ham) and fresh arugula.
Three for the Show:
A trio of spots for a casual lunch.
This is a no-frills locals’ joint – a bar and adjacent dining areas with paneled walls, vinyl seats and a roll of paper towels on each table. Sandwiches come wrapped in paper and served with a “generous” portion of butter, the juices oozing from the sides of the Sheboygan hard roll. The butter burger requires loads of those paper towels (order light or no butter, if you wish) or pop for the crisp, fried lake perch sandwich slathered with tartar sauce. You can’t leave without experiencing a fluffy, layered square of their trademark homemade tortes in flavors like poppyseed, lemon dream and brownie delight.
Sandwiches $5-$7 (market price for perch), cash only. 1909 Union Ave., 920-457-8696
This bike shop-cum-cafe is the “it” spot for coffee in the historic downtown. They’ve also got a roster of fresh vegetarian sandwiches and burritos, with quiche available on the weekends. The sweet potato burrito is tasty and very satisfying. Order an iced maple latte (the roaster here is MKE’s Colectivo) and relax at an indoor or outdoor table. Look for fresh cinnamon rolls on Saturdays and doughnuts on Sundays.
$5-$14. 1202 N. Eighth St., 920-457-5277
Leave it to Wisconsin to turn a bloody mary into a meal. We’ve seen it time and again in Milwaukee. But the “Pitmaster’s Bloody” at this bar-pizza-BBQ joint eclipses anything that’s come before my eyes. This 25-ounce beast is garnished with two smoked chicken wings, a whole andouille sausage, a pulled pork slider and a half rack of ribs. At $25, the meal-making creation is not a cheap date, so share it with a friend.
705 Riverfront Dr., 920-453-0299
The Kohler Chocolates shop and cafe is elegance personified, a place where you can watch signature confections like terrapins (turtles) and Rare Facets (many-sided, ganache-filled chocolates) being made and relax in a comfy café seat with a cappuccino – or glass of wine – and a Kohler made chocolate croissant or slice of five-layer cake.
725D Woodlake Rd., Kohler; 800-778-5591, Tues-Sun 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
No mere college town, this central Wisconsin city is making waves with captains of culinary industry and a host of artisan food and beverage producers.
SMALL PLATES, BIG FLAVORS
Father Fats – the one-time nickname of chef/co-owner Christian Czerwonka – is where small plates come to shine. After long stints working for star chef Emeril Lagasse, Christian and his wife, Leah, started a family and headed back to live in her hometown. The small and shareable plate trend was nowhere to be found here. “This [concept] keeps us excited and we get to play with new stuff,” Leah says.
Chef Czerwonka and his cooks keep the menu fresh, seasonal and local, mixing up the staples (firecracker shrimp, nachos, a bruschetta, soup, mini grilled cheese) with things like truffle-parmesan baked oysters, seafood andouille jambalaya, steak stroganoff, and buttermilk fried chicken and waffle. There was not one weak link in my order, from those silver-dollar-size truffle grilled cheese sandwiches (the bomb), to El Jefe smoked pork nachos (a winning combo of sweet, piquant and smoky). Of the shifting dishes, both the squid ink pasta carbonara with seared scallops and stroganoff in mushroom-white wine cream sauce were creamy, decadent comfort.
The Czerwonkas also operate the pop-up Chef’s Kitchen inside the Father Fats space, hosting short-run themes such as ramen, brick-oven pizza and crawfish boil. The popups, on hiatus this summer, are set to return in fall. Look for dates on chefskitchensp.com.
$4-$18. 945 Clark St., 715-544-4054
A REASON TO LOAF AROUND
Warm, perfumy sourdough air envelops the parking lot outside this bakeshop. But plenty of bakeries populate the state – what makes Main Grain special? For starters, the loaves. Spend four days with one in your car, ripping off crusty tufts as you drive, and you too will be smitten.
And for seconds, self-taught baker extraordinaire Sarah Jo More, who elevated a cottage sourdough and sweets enterprise run out of a Stevens Point apartment into the flourishing full-service bakery and sandwich shop it is today. More makes it all look seamless, not the wee-hours slog that bakeries demand of their proprietors.
When you come in, to your left is the new sandwich shop showcasing MG breads. The bakery’s walk-up window, behind which the day’s beauties are lined up, is to the right. More packs her sandwiches with ingredients “as fresh as we can get,” she says. One highlight from that fluid menu is the grilled cheese with tomato bisque, the bread slathered with sweet corn butter and topped with finishing salt. Get a loaf of the cheesy asiago-thyme bread and some treats for the road – be sure there’s an oatmeal cream pie in the bag.
1009 First St., 715-630-1486
This bean shop, named after founder Jared Linzmeier’s grandmother, was new to me, but I’d read great things – lauded by both GQ and Food & Wine magazines. If coffee is your raison d’être, you need to stop at the friendly downtown cafe and pick up a pound of beans – sourced from small family farms in Africa and South America – to take home. This place also sticks to its Wisco roots with an unexpectedly robust food menu including a smashburger composed of local everything.
$4-$14. 1410 Third St., 715-544-6139
This central Wisconsin city is a hotbed for makers of specialty and niche foods and bevs. Three to tap into:
The old-timey, booze-free drink – made from apple cider vinegar, fruit juice and sugar – is the focus of this women-owned company. Siren sources local ingredients and makes them interesting, tasty (in flavors like tart cherry and basil) and adaptable – as mocktail mixers, in salad vinaigrettes and even in pizza sauce.
The family-run company taps trees in sustainably managed forests in northern Wisco, making high-end syrups infused with cinnamon, espresso, hibiscus, garlic and so on. They also make a syrup aged in whiskey barrels. Besides the obvious pancakes, use them in sauce and marinades, cocktails and baked goods.
There’s a cluster of good craft breweries around here – O’so in Plover, District 1 in Stevens Point and the 165-year-old dean, Stevens Point Brewery – but Amherst’s Central Waters (351 Allen St., Amherst) is the must-stop. The lagers and hoppy beers are good, but you’re going for the big, dark, boozy elixirs like Black Gold. If this nearly 14% ABV stout aged in bourbon barrels for three years is available, don’t hesitate.
Three Things to Do at Feltz’s Dairy Store:
A when-in-Rome-type stop, Feltz’s is part dairy farm, part State Fair Wisconsin Products Pavilion. Here are three discoveries to make at this dairy mecca:
Fried cheese curds made with milk from their own cows. Crisp, fresh and holy-cow good.
The robotic milking barn, which is exactly as it sounds – robots milking cows. The moo juice is used to make cheese and soap for sale. Walking tours, Saturdays at noon.
Exclusive Cow Pie-flavored ice cream (vanilla with fudge, caramel and pecans), available by the scoop. It is made by Stevens Point’s award-winning King Cone.
5796 Porter Dr., 715-344-1293
Soft serve, that silky-smooth frozen dessert that’s churned out of a machine, is a trendy nostalgic food. But in Stevens Point, it’s classic. No trip would be complete without getting a Belts’ “Large Cone.” Imagine a wafer cone filled with a foot-high tower of soft-serve. Will the cone collapse? Miraculously it does not. Will you finish it? That is the eternal question. But you must try.
2140 Division St., 715-344-0049