Filling up on duck-fat fries isn't the only affordable strategy at this Willy Street spot.
Madison has wonderful fine-dining restaurants, but they mostly come with hefty price tags. In this column Tone Madison will explore ways to get you into the better restaurants and get you out without breaking your bank. Of course, even when eating light, remember to tip heavy.
"Damn," one thinks, walking for the hundredth time past A Pig In A Fur Coat. "Those people look so happy in their little gated community of seared pork flesh and fine booze. How much plasma do I need to sell to get a meal there?" That's never a good idea, but if you can scrape together $40 to $50 and make a few careful selections, a rewarding meal for two is within reach. And indeed, the small menu has several gems that fall within modest price considerations.
In 2013, Pig chef Daniel Bonanno received a James Beard nomination for Rising Star Chef as part of a wave of national recognition that elevated Madison to one of the nation's premiere dining destinations (don't laugh—Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York are still on top, but Madison and fellow Midwestern cities like Cleveland and Sioux Falls increasingly receive national acclaim). This Willy Street spot, opened in 2012, perches comfortably between a hangout for twenty-somethings and high-end restaurant.
To start the evening off, perhaps a glass of 2016 Domaine du Tariquet Classic ($6), a mellow blend of blanc Columbard and Sauvignon Blanc which pairs well with the small plate menu, delivering a nose of wild honey and a floral, light taste. We split a glass which worked just fine. There is no better way to set frugality on fire than getting too deep into the wine list.
Cagey diners can fill up on hot and salty fries, cooked in duck fat and dusted with Parmigiano-Reggiano. Served in a paper cone, this is a huge portion served with a generous ramekin of buttery garlic aioli, by any measure a tremendous deal at $6. It's the perfect anchor to fullness in a (relatively) frugal meal.
Protein and fat make for a little stick-to-the-ribs density: three meatballs ($8) arrive simmering in a bone marrow and onion sauce. Dip these in the broth. They're perplexingly salty, yet addictive.
Pork bellies snap with flavor on the tongue, with crisped fat slightly melting away in the mouth. This dish is pricier at $13, but that's still cheap considering its knockout presentation: the plate is spiked with sunflower shoots, almond slivers, sweet potato mash, hickory syrup, and thinly julienned apple producing a riot of explosive taste contrasts.
Our tab: One glass of Tariquet Classic, one order duck fat fries, three meatballs, and one order of pork belly—$34.82 before tip.
Planning notes: Think about going early in the week, when it's more relaxing than their intense weekend nights (this is a very popular restaurant). We picked a Tuesday with snow falling lightly outside, and entry into the the cozy and welcoming space felt like a win in and of itself. The ambience is chill; it's a kick-back, music not-too-loud scene, with mostly younger people amidst a backdrop of unusual paintings, chandeliers, candles, and potted plants along the window looking out on Willy Street. The service is excellent, kindly tolerating perusal of less expensive items on the menu—the true mark of an elegant eating establishment.
Also within reach: There are even cheaper small plates for those still feeling peckish. Olives lightly painted with essence of orange and fennel ($5), dates with chorizo and piquillo pepper ($7) tweak a classic tapa from northern Spain, and pork rillettes (similar to pâté) with cherries and pistachio are just $10.
Stretch goals: More expensive and equally impressive dishes abound, best explored when someone else is picking up the check. Wagyu ribeye steak with oxtail, lentils, trumpet mushrooms, bone marrow and tripe ($45) exceeds the cost of our entire meal for two; pork tripe with egg, navy beans, and bread crumbs ($22) will give you something to talk about if you've never eaten this dish, made from the stomach of a pig.