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Famed Madison chefs Tory and Kristine Miller have opened Miller Family Meat & 3 out of the bar at their downtown restaurant, Estrellon. The restaurant pop-up offers diners one meat and three sides for $22.

MADISON

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken much away, and the list of restaurants that haven’t survived a full year of reduced capacity is longer than a Senate filibuster and more than enough to break any serious food-lover’s heart.

But it has also given us some unexpected surprises. Pivots and pop-ups that are very much of the moment—and very much worth your time.

One of the absolute best is Miller Family Meat & 3, a Southern comfort food pop-up headed by Madison’s most recognizable chef, the James Beard award-winning Tory Miller (Graze, L’Etolie, Estrellon) and his pastry chef spouse, Kristine Miller. It’s run out of the bar at Estrellon, Miller’s upscale Spanish tapas restaurant in downtown Madison.

Since fine dining is one of the genres hardest hit by COVID-19 capacity limits, Meat & 3 is the Millers’ attempt to bridge the gap.

The formula really couldn’t be simpler, and it’s right there in the name: You pick a meat from a semi-rotating list of four options that changes daily, select three sides from an extensive list, and you’re good to go. That ensemble sets you back $22, with additional portions of main dishes available for $10 and additional sides available for $5.

But you’ve gotta move fast. You can only pick up your food between 4 and 7 p.m. each day, and at least a handful of the options—and, sometimes, all of them—might very well run out before that window closes. And believe us, there’s nothing worse than seeing Kristine Miller’s flaky 7-Up biscuits with honey grayed out on the online ToastTab menu.

Dude, talk about curbside heartbreak.

The blackened catfish is far and away the best of the four main options, and if recent weeks are any indication, the one least likely to rotate out. It’s a tender piece of fish that is perfectly spiced—nowhere near so hot that you’ll need to lunge for the mayonnaise-based remoulade that accompanies it.

Your next best bet is the bulgogi brisket, which features fatty pieces of barbecued beef seasoned in Korean spices and served on a piece of bread. Recent weeks have seen the menu rounded out with dishes such as fried chicken and a pulled-pork sandwich on a Hawaiian roll.

Some of the sides that fill out the rest of your to-go box could frankly stand as their own entrees.

Take the Frito Pie, for instance. Mixing beef brisket chili with creamy guacamole and Hook’s 1-year cheddar might sound like the kind of thing you’d order from a stadium concession, but it’s hearty, crispy and eye-popping.

The chicken pot pie punts the crust, but it’s one of the best you’ll ever taste with its thick, creamy chicken gravy coating sizable veggies.

There are also plenty of dessert options among your side choices, and they’re also extremely delicious.

A banana pudding was creamy and packed with sliced banana coins. We missed out on the cherry cobbler, but the word is it’s a can’t-miss.

The mashed potatoes are downright heavenly, as a creamy bed of spuds is made amazing by a thick beef gravy that almost seems to have a butterscotch undertone to it. Pro tip: a single serving will not be enough.

Barbecue-baked beans are also excellent. The beans are oversized and thick, swimming in a sauce that hits the spot between spicy and sweet.

The only disappointment—and this is somewhat surprising because Tory Miller rocks this dish hard at Graze, his flagship Madison restaurant—was the mac ‘n’ cheese. Even with no less than three premium cheeses in the mix (think Emmi Roth and Hook’s) our serving was dry and unremarkable. Can’t win ’em all, apparently.

It’s unclear at this point how long Meat & 3 will stick around as spring and summer arrive and capacity at Estrellon hopefully ramps up again. But it’s logical to think this culinary experiment is likely to fade into the woodwork or evaporate entirely. But given how incredible the food is here, a strong argument can be made for finding a way to fold it in somewhere.

If Meat & 3 does prove to be a flash in a pandemic pan, you owe it to yourself to enjoy it while it’s still here.

Aaron R. Conklin is a freelance writer based in Madison. He has written about food, theater and pop culture for publications such as Isthmus, the Wisconsin State Journal and Madison Magazine.

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