A journey by plates

My husband tightens his back the moment we step inside Pig in a Fur Coat.

The name of this Madison, Wisconsin, restaurant had raised some worry for him before we arrived. Who names a restaurant Pig in a Fur Coat? And what exactly does that mean? Now, seeing a long, high-top communal table in the middle of the dining room, his uneasiness turns to worry for two reasons.

The first: My days of sitting at high-top tables are just about over, thanks to my primary progressive MS and the lack of feeling in my legs. And the second, communal tables mean dining with strangers. My nervous, introverted husband sees no reasonable explanation for such behavior.

Not me.

And not Mike and Linnea Pitts of Kenosha, high school sweethearts-turned-grandparents who are here celebrating Linnea’s 62nd birthday at the regular-height table next to us along the wall. They are already elbow-deep into a shared plates menu full of foie gras, lamb carpaccio, pork belly, rabbit and scallops.

“Would you like me to take your picture?” Mike asks, surprised to hear that, as a travel writer, I’m more interested in photos of the food than of Mark and me. And that innocent question transforms our evening from a quiet-for-two meal into an energetic culinary journey with new friends eager to share their plates with us — and vice versa. And I can’t help but think of MS connections — the belief that this horrible disease is easier to bear the more positive connections we make with family, friends and friendly strangers. Sometimes they show up in the most unexpected places.

Chef Daniel Bonanno and co-owner Bonnie Arent planned this 40-seat restaurant to do just that. Dan, a James Beard Award nominee, learned to cook in Italy, then worked as sous chef at Chicago’s famed Spiaggia before moving to Madison. He takes seasonal, simple ingredients and dresses them up. (Like in a fur coat.) Our huge, juicy turkey leg arrives bathed in a Wisconsin cherry sauce, served over whipped potatoes, Brussels sprouts and pancetta.

  

It would be easy for me to indulge in a dish like that and feel a twinge of sadness. I’m no chef, but I’m a good home cook. At least, I was, before chopping strawberries for 30 minutes meant resting for an hour afterward. In the past 18 months, I’ve gone from zealous new-recipe-experimenter to someone who heats dinner in the crockpot, steams a bag of veggies to go with it, and calls it good. But the exquisite quality of the food, and the banter with our new companions, turns a simple dinner out into a memory that prompts a smile whenever I recall it.

Evenings like this don’t only happen in Madison. They happen anytime you let your guard down and try a chef-owned restaurant outside your comfort zone — funny name or not.
 

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Kendra L.

Kendra L. Williams

Kendra L. Williams is a longtime writer and editor and the founder of MStravels.org, a blog about the ups and downs of handicapped accessible travel. She lives in West Des Moines, Iowa.