Forget Michelin stars, degustation menus and haute dining. Pop-up restaurants and locavore love-ins - usually involving communal tables set up on organic farms, bushels of freshly foraged produce and a few boys in porkpie hats - have become the truest culinary status symbols, and for good reason. If your measure of a perfect meal is the time it takes for dinner to get from farm to table, then you might as well plant yourself on the farm itself.
So the Summer Alfresco Fling dinner jointly held by the Scandinavian-accented Restaurant Magnus and the Italian-flavored Osteria Papavero last Sunday was a sign, probably, of more flings to come, especially judging from the sold-out event and the very happy crowd of dedicated foodies. Granted the event was more urban than rural. In fact, the white linen tables (communal, of course) spilling along East Wilson Street in front of Magnus, across its front terrace and deep into its driveway made for a summer-in-the-city kind of tableau. And diners were serenaded by the zealously cosmopolitan Trio du Monde, three musicians playing a very soulful, perfectly elegiac midsummer evening medley on Spanish guitar, accordion and mandolin.
But what the guests plowed through was a proudly heartland harvest of just-plucked root vegetables and the equally fashionable fall-out of manly, pedigreed meaty meats that all evoke earthy eating.
And lots of it (which made the $55-per-person tab, beverages and tax included, ultimately a good buy). Partly what distinguished the event was the two restaurants' own duet of Italy meets Norway, Oslo goes Orvieto (or vice versa) flavors. More of a synergy than a cook-off, the epic feast, served family-style in big bowls, really flaunted the sheer range of two of downtown Madison's best restaurants.
On Magnus' side, that meant a dish of whole roasted, very silky, citrus-flavored salmon, served ungarnished so it became a study in Nordic purity. It might have benefited a little, though, from the aquavit-dill butter melting into the shellfish pot au feu. A grilled romaine dotted with goat cheese and a mound of herb-roasted fingerling potatoes were all understated simplicity as well, though the best of the veg on Magnus' side was a seductive plate of cucumber, fennel and orange slices. Among the many meats, the Dr Pepper-braised pork shoulder was a standout.
Papavero countered with a tender slow-roasted pork, a roasted leg of lamb with salsa verde and very spicy Cornish hens that bordered on too fiery, if only because the sweet flavor of the birds got washed out. The real victory here, though, and one of the best dishes of the night, was a Sicilian "teste di turco" bread - a long brioche loaf - stuffed with black olives, sausage and ragusano cheese. The sweet brioche, a pillowy but rich frame, sandwiched the dusky sausage and the mild cheese perfectly. I could have eaten a whole loaf.
Dessert was a hodgepodge of lemon bars, homemade rocky road ice cream sandwiches and fudgesicles (the ice cream sandwiches were the clear winner), though by that point the busy servers could have dished up anything. The communal tables were joined in a swooning kind of epicurean fugue state, everyone was high on limoncello, and the rainy skies had made way for a purple sunset.
But there was more to the dinner than just good times. For Chris Berge, co-owner (along with Finn Berge and Laura Jones) of Magnus, and for his James Beard-nominated chef Nicholas Johnson, there was something to prove. "I'm sick of the lutefisk curse," Chris announced, as he served up dessert, and his frustration was justified. Although Scandinavian food is recognized everywhere else - and has been for more than a decade - as the template of seasonal, clean, freshly sourced contemporary dining, too many Wisconsinites still associate the urbane tradition with bad church dinners.
And that has been a hard curse for Magnus to shake off. Maybe it will just take a few more summer flings, and some fall and spring ones too. Certainly anyone sampling the kitchen's velvety salmon, sweet shrimp and that aquavit-dill butter will exorcise any traumatic childhood memories involving lutefisk, or too much herring gone wrong.