A couple of Tuesdays ago, the Lovely and Talented Judith and I popped into Hong Kong Cafe, one of our favorite restaurants in Madison. Frankly, we needed the trip: my day was going lousy, and I just had to get out of the house.

The restaurant’s been high on our list ever since it first opened, I gave it a solid review when I was a food writer (among other hats worn) at the Wisconsin State Journal.
Since then, Hong Kong Cafe’s only gotten better, and has opened a couple of sister restaurants around the city, the latest being in Sun Prairie.

Terry Leung and his family have really created something quite special, and I’ve always been happy to see their success. Moreso, as a semi-regular to the restaurant, chef Phillip Leung will frequently offer up terrific little surprises he’s been playing around with: one day it may be a great bowl of Pho (a complex yet soul-affirming Vietnamese beef noodle soup), while the next it will be shrimp with sweet mayonnaise, as good as any I’ve had in the China Towns of San Francisco or Chicago. I’m also of the opinion that their weekend Dim Sum is a monthly must-visit.

The Leung family has built the restaurant’s success on such Chinese-American staples as Moo-Shu Chicken, Sesame Shrimp, Sweet and Sour Pork, and Hot and Sour Soup. Though the Hong Kong Cafe’s regular menu is solid, from top to bottom, it’s their house specials and off-menu marvels that keep me going back. On Fridays, a stir-fried halibut with black bean sauce is my idea of a Fish Fry, and their Pepper Shrimp, lightly breaded, with onions, mushrooms and carrots in a spicy brown sauce, is one of my favorite dishes in the city.

So, this particular Tuesday, we pop in, and Terry brings over a container of giant, raw fresh shrimp to our table. Phillip had just bought them, and they’d apparently come from the Gulf of Mexico that very day. Each seemed to be at least four inches long – borderline prawns, frankly – and he asked me if I’d like Philip to make something with them.

Now, whenever a restaurant owner is so proud of his ingredients that he has to show them to you firsthand, my general philosophy is to go along for the ride.

The resulting dish, “Shrimp Two Flavors,” was spectacular. One half was what most people know as salt and pepper treatment: lightly breaded, stir-fried shrimp with no sauce, but some very piquant peppers. The simplicity of the dish and the freshness of the (oxymoron alert! oxymoron alert!) giant shrimp combined for a memorable, toothsome treatment.

The other half of the dish was more akin to the Hong Kong Cafe’s house special, pepper shrimp, with a spicy, savory brown sauce that didn’t overpower the seafood, which itself was stir-fried to succulent tenderness. The addition of fresh peppers again meant that the flavors popped from the dish, but the freshness of the shrimp was once more what made this an outstanding dish. These crustaceans did not die in vain.

Even though Judith had her own meal, she simply had to help with mine, as the portion was a large one indeed, and this was one dish that deserved to be finished on the spot. To doggy-bag this meal would have been borderline insulting.

Is there a lesson in any of this? Or is this just more mindless foodie-ism on my part?

Well, I suppose that it’s the transformative power of good cooking, in a sense. I was down, down, DOWN upon entering the restaurant, but left feeling alive and hearty. This was a very special meal at a restaurant that was already a reliable favorite

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Or perhaps it’s that truly fresh ingredients and incalculably important to any dish, whether it’s something you just throw together at home, or that you save for weeks for, to afford at at the finest French restaurant.

But I guess the real lesson is, if you love a restaurant, take the time to get to know the owners, cooks and staff. Because sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name…and knows to offer you the latest experiments the cook’s been fiddling with…

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My “Top 3″ Chinese restaurants in town, by the way, include Wah-Kee Noodles and the remarkably authentic China Palace. Good lord, China Palace’s Szechuan menu is almost ridiculously bona fide, and the Dried Beef and Chung King chicken is not for the feint of heart: there is serious pepper action going on here, and both dishes will bring tears to your eyes, in equal parts from heat and from joy. Wah-Kee, on the other hand, does the best hot and sour noodle soup I can remember. For $5, it’s a giant portion of simmering, steaming goodness.

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One of the creators of Cineplexity, JonMichael Rasmus, and his lovely wife Nichole, embarked on an ambitious project a couple of years ago: to eat in every Madison restaurant, in alphabetical order.

Here, in their own words, is their Plan of Attack:

They say Madison has the most restaurants per capita of any city in the U.S. JM likes lists and Nichole likes to eat, so we decided to eat at every restaurant in Madison in alphabetical order.

Well, maybe not every restaurant.

Here’s our modus operandi: from Isthmus’ (a local free weekly) “Eats” database, we print a list of restaurants beginning with each letter, and go to each place in order. When we finish a letter, we check the online listing for new places in letters we’ve already covered. We do go to chain restaurants, but only visit one location.

We try to hit one restaurant per week. To keep within our normal budget, there’s no minimum order or cost. There are about 600 restaurants on the Eats list. Our goal is to complete the list before JM gets his driver’s license renewed (or the world ends) in 2012.

When we’ve been to a restaurant, we take notes, give each a letter grade (A, B, C, D, or F), and post a little write-up in this here blog.

An A means it’s a favorite that we’ll add to our regular restaurant repertiore and recommend wholeheartedly.
A B means it was pretty good, and we’d return if our dining companions wanted to go.
A C means it was pretty average, and we wouldn’t go back unless someone else REALLY wanted to.
A D means we won’t go back and we’d warn others about it.
An F means something was poor enough to complain about, we got sick, or there was a kitchen fire or some other calamity that made for a terrible experience.

Not that we’re expert reviewers, mind you. This site is less a tool for searching for restaurants and more a snapshot of the meals we’ve eaten.

Judith and I have just been invited to participate with them, now that they’ve reached the “G’s,” and I must say, I’m looking forward to this. I’m not sure we’ll be able to make EVERY “G” on the list, but it would be fun to try. (Hmmmm. Just noticed they’ve already started on the “G’s.” Perhaps we can make every “H” with them.)

If we do this, I’ll post my own reports here. It’s an ambitious project on their part, but it sounds like a ton of fun. AND JM and Nichole just picked up second place in the Isthmus’s Favorites poll (the number one spot going to the Isthmus’ own “Daily Page.”)

Allez cuisine, indeed!

John

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