Rare Steakhouse’s #restaurantweek was not ‘well done’

Rare Steakhouse

Rare Steakhouse

I love steakhouses, and expect them to serve up tasty dishes, big servings, classic options and above all, be able to cook a perfect medium rare steak. Rare Steakhouse is right on the Capitol Square and opened just a couple weeks before Madison Magazine’s summer Restaurant Week. Unfortunately, I don’t think those three weeks gave Rare enough time to perfect the art of cooking a medium rare steak.

Rare smokey popcorn

Rare smokey popcorn

Rare smoked salmon nachos

Rare smoked salmon nachos

Their appetizers for the Restaurant Week menu were definitely not classic steakhouse appetizers.We chose the smokey popcorn and the smoked salmon nachos. We decided not to get the oyster shooter (served bloody Mary style). The smokey popcorn was supposed to have smoked paprika on it, but it tasted like slightly salted buttered popcorn. It was good, but not what the menu promised. The smoked salmon nachos was a confusing dish. It had wontons, smoked salmon, confit tomatoes and wasabi cream sauce. The salmon was mushy and the wasabi cream sauce didn’t have any wasabi kick. The individual components of the dish were really not great separately, but when I finally got a bite of all four components together it was pretty good. The bad news is that there wasn’t enough salmon or tomatoes to get some in each bite.

Rare sirloin (I was so excited to try the steak at this new steakhouse, this was all that was left when I remembered to take a picture)

Rare sirloin (I was so excited to try the steak at this new steakhouse, this was all that was left when I remembered to take a picture)

For entrees there really is only one choice at a steakhouse – the top sirloin. During restaurant week they also offered gnocchi and beef sliders. My mom and I would have tried the gnocchi if it had said they were homemade on the menu, but we didn’t find that out until after we had ordered, so we both got the top sirloin with potatoes, asparagus and a demi sauce. We both ordered our steak medium rare and mine came out unevenly cooked. Part of it was medium and the other part was medium well…neither half of the steak was anywhere near medium rare. The steak had an interesting rub on it that had a little bit of a citrus flavor. I didn’t love it or hate it. I did hate that my steak was so tough I felt like I was chewing beef jerky. My mom’s steak was also unevenly cooked, but it was closer to medium rare than mine. The potatoes were tender and salted well, and the asparagus was al dente with a savory, not overwhelming sauce.

Rare chocolate cake

Rare chocolate cake

Rare creme brulee

Rare creme brulee

For dessert we got to choose between creme brulee, profiteroles and chocolate cake. I got the chocolate cake, which was super tiny. It was moist and not too sweet, but nothing better than a typical chocolate cake. My mom got the creme brulee, which ended up being the highlight of the meal. The flavor of the day was hibiscus with vanilla bean. The creme brulee custard was a vibrant purple color, and it had a great flavor that was sweet but also slightly tangy. It was the most uniquely flavored creme brulee I’ve ever had.

Rare dining room

Rare dining room

Rare bar

Rare bar

The one thing that Rare did really well was their atmosphere. The restaurant is broken into a couple different dining rooms – a bar area, an area with big leather booths and the library. The bar area features dark wood, shiny chandeliers and black tin ceilings. The library is an elegantly lit room with big comfy chairs. The one annoying thing about the atmosphere was the service. The servers are extremely attentive, almost to a detriment, and they make what seems like too much of an effort to have in-depth conversations with you.

FOOD NOTES: I thought the quality of the appetizers at Rare could have been better, and I was also extremely disappointed about their ability to correctly cook a medium rare steak. The most important part of being a steakhouse is to be able to correctly cook a steak to order…and Rare failed twice during my Restaurant Week visit. The sides were typical, and the chocolate cake was standard. The best part of the meal was the unexpected flavor and quality of the hibiscus creme brulee. Based on the high prices on their regular menu, I won’t be going back for a while. Hopefully their kitchen will learn how to properly cook a steak, and even if they do I’m not sure the meal and experience would be worth the money.

Nau-Ti-Gal’s carefree atmosphere adds to #restaurantweek meal

Nau-Ti-Gal

Nau-Ti-Gal

Nau-Ti-Gal outside seating

Nau-Ti-Gal outside seating

There are dozens of restaurants in Madison that offer quaint and relaxing atmospheres, but in my experience none offer a place that makes you forget you’re in Wisconsin’s capital city of 240,000 people quite like Nau-Ti-Gal (pronounced like “naughty gal” TEEHEE!). The best part of Nau-Ti-Gal is its outside eating areas. There’s the area on the covered back deck and then tables in the back yard, both face a small inlet waterway on the north end of Lake Mendota. The casual seating on the back deck features colorful plastic chairs and nautical-like ropes as the railings. Even though it was warm that night, the shade of the back deck and the breeze off the water kept us comfortable.

Nau-Ti-Gal clam chowder

Nau-Ti-Gal clam chowder

For restaurant week we got to choose an appetizer, entree and dessert. For entrees we could choose between clam chowder, firecracker shrimp or a summer strawberry salad. I got the clam chowder, which was served in a big Nau-Ti-Gal mug and topped with crunchy croutons. The chowder itself was creamy, but not too heavy and had oversized, perfectly cooked chunks of potatoes and celery. Compared to other clam chowders I’ve had, Nau-Ti-Gal’s had more clams in it and a perfectly salty flavor that cut through the creaminess of the soup. My mom got the summer strawberry salad, and loved the fresh ingredients and that the kitchen was willing to substitute feta cheese for the blue cheese that was supposed to come on top.

Nau-Ti-Gal surf and turf

Nau-Ti-Gal surf and turf

For entrees we could choose between shrimp and grits, salmon, or a surf and turf. Both of us got the surf and turf, which also came with a side. We chose the garlic mashed potatoes, which were definitely mass produced but still featured red potato skins, a savory garlic flavor and had unassuming lumps – which I loved. The lobster was good, but not as good as everyone always makes lobster sound. This was my first lobster tail (I’ve had lobster in dishes, but never a full lobster tail), and I’m assuming because it was served in south central Wisconsin, it wasn’t as fresh and good as you would get on the coast. The steak was perfectly cooked, was seasoned well but not too salty, and was big enough to take half of it home for lunch the next day.

Nau-Ti-Gal rocky road brownie sundae

Nau-Ti-Gal rocky road brownie sundae

Nau-Ti-Gal key lime pie

Nau-Ti-Gal key lime pie

For dessert we could choose between key lime pie, strawberry shortcake or a rocky road brownie sundae. I got the rocky road brownie sundae, which came out in a massive serving. It was extremely simple, but that made it even better. It was an extremely well-done classic dessert with vanilla bean ice cream on top of a brownie, topped with chocolate chips, peanuts, chocolate sauce and marshmallow cream. It was an awesome end to a great meal. My mom got the key lime pie, and said it was refreshing and tasty.

Nau-Ti-Gal

Nau-Ti-Gal

FOOD NOTES: Other than being slightly disappointed with lobster in general, the meal I got at Nau-Ti-Gal was great. I loved the presentation of the clam chowder, and the soup itself was made with quality ingredients, and was perfectly creamy and salty. The surf and turf entree was a good choice. The steak was seasoned and cooked well, and the mashed potatoes were quality even though they seemed like they were made ahead of time. The rocky road brownie sundae was surprisingly simple, but extremely good. The seating was odd because you had to go inside to check in, but then also check in with someone outside to be seated, but the servers were extremely nice and helpful. I also loved the carefree, relaxing atmosphere and the casual outdoor seating. My first meal of Madison Magazine’s Summer 2014 Restaurant Week at Nau-Ti-Gal was a success!

Go with baked goods over lunch at Hazelnut Cafe

Hazelnut Cafe

Hazelnut Cafe

There are dozens of cafes with great food littered around Madison, and I’ve been to and love many of them. But sometimes these little cafes think they are one-of-a-kind and better than all of the other neighborhood, organic, local, or artisan (or any other one-word description that particular cafe wants to use) cafes. Some of these little cafes are unique, but most of them are exactly the same. That doesn’t mean their food isn’t quality, but it does mean I probably won’t be back. One of these not-so-one-of-a-kind cafes I recently tried is way out in Blue Mounds. It’s the Hazelnut Cafe where the croissant is supposedly as good as ones from France, and they claim they can’t make enough molasses cookies and are pioneers in using sourdough crusts on their pizzas (hmmm…those are some lofty statements).

Hazelnut Cafe counter

Hazelnut Cafe counter

I don’t know much about Blue Mounds, but from what I saw on my visit there’s not much out there. The Hazelnut Cafe seems to be right in their “downtown,” and is just a tiny little building with a half dozen tables. They use a wood-burning oven to bake all of their bread and pastries, and to make pizzas, which smells great when you walk in.

Hazelnut Cafe sesame loaf

Hazelnut Cafe sesame loaf

sesame loaf, tomato marmalade

sesame loaf, tomato marmalade

Hazelnut Cafe bread, tomato marmalade

Hazelnut Cafe bread, tomato marmalade

We got to try a loaf of the sesame bread with some housemade tomato marmalade. The bread was super fresh with a good, not too hard, not too soft crust and a fluffy center. The tomato marmalade was not my cup of tea. It was chunks of tomato in a sweet jelly that had some sort of warm spice, like cinnamon or nutmeg, in it. I was not a fan of the odd combination of the savory tomatoes and the sweet jelly with a little bit of that spice.

Hazelnut Cafe Bianca pizza

Hazelnut Cafe Bianca pizza

They serve sandwiches and salads, but they said their specialty is their pizzas made with sourdough crusts. We opted for the Bianca pizza that comes with mozzarella, parmesan, garlic and grape see oil on one of their sourdough crusts and cooked in their wood-burning oven. It was super simple, and had the potential to be extremely good, but had some problems. I thought it was, I can’t believe I’m saying this, too garlicky. I love garlic, but the huge slices weren’t spread out enough so I’d get one big bit of garlic and then three bites without any garlic. It would benefit the pizza a great deal if they minced the garlic and spread it around the pizza. I also thought it was a bit dry. With that type of pizza not being served with any sauce, it could have used a little more of the grape seed oil to cut through the cheese and crust. And I really couldn’t tell that the crust was sourdough, so that’s not a selling point for me.

Hazelnut Cafe molasses cookie

Hazelnut Cafe molasses cookie

We also got to try one of their molasses cookies, which they said sell almost as fast as they can make them. Molasses cookies are my favorite, so I might be biased but that cookie was the best part of our meal at Hazelnut. It was the perfect combination of crusty and soft, and had the right amount of sweetness combined with a strong molasses flavor. And it was big enough to share or to munch on for a couple hours. I absolutely loved it.

Hazelnut Cafe pastries

Hazelnut Cafe pastries

Throughout our lunchtime visit, their pastries had been in view the entire time so as we were leaving I had to buy one of their almond croissants. I love almond croissants. They are usually crusty, sweet and nutty with powdered sugar on top, and this one did not disappoint. It was not too sweet and was baked to a perfect crusty crunch. My most common complaint about croissants is that they are too dry, but this one was extra buttery and seemed to have more of the sweet almond filling than others I’ve had.

Hazelnut Cafe almond croissant

Hazelnut Cafe almond croissant

FOOD NOTES: We got a tour of the kitchen to see the wood-burning oven and look at the fresh baked bread and cookies. So I have a different perspective than other diners, but my biggest concern about the Hazelnut Cafe is the cleanliness of the prep and cooking area. When we were there, flies were landing on loaves of bread left and right, and there didn’t seem to be proper methods for food storage, hand washing or prep surface cleaning. Now despite knowing all of this, I would go back for a cookie or croissant. I wouldn’t bother with the bread, because it wasn’t anything unique and the pizza needs some adjustments. Also, after looking at their sandwich and salad options I would say they probably aren’t worth the trek out to Blue Mounds or the price.

Flavors shine through rough special menu at UW Club

The University Club

The University Club

During the amazing four years I spent at the University of Wisconsin I walked past the University Club weekly, and probably closer to daily the year I lived off State Street. But I never ate there because I thought you had to be a member. Once I graduated I looked into the club rules and found that non club members can eat there for breakfast and lunch. I had heard their breakfasts were pretty good, so when I saw a posting for a locavore lunch I asked a friend to go. Their locavore lunch is kind of like restaurant week, where you get to choose an appetizer, entree and dessert from a special menu, but during locavore week they focus on ingredients from local farms and vendors.

University Club salad

University Club salad

I  was surprised by the quality of the food, but disappointed by the continuity between the menu and what I was served. The salad I ordered was supposed to be a roasted sweet corn salad with shallot vinaigrette, micro greens, rabbit confit and radish. What I got was extremely good, but was not a sweet corn salad. In fact, there wasn’t a single piece of corn in the salad. It was a pretty good serving of arugula with a creamy vinaigrette of sorts, a small amount of rabbit confit, and and some slivers of radish. The salad itself was fantastic (especially the rich rabbit confit with the crisp radish and peppery arugula), but based on what I was expecting I was a bit annoyed.

University Club beef kabobs, grilled corn, cilantro-lime rice

University Club beef kabobs, grilled corn, cilantro-lime rice

The beef kabob was inconsistently cooked, but had a good flavor. The cumin grilled sweet corn (maybe this was the corn that was supposed to be in my salad!) was perfectly grilled and had an amazing char. The corn was billed as cumin grilled sweet corn, but even though I loved the flavor I didn’t taste any cumin. The kabob was supposed to come with a lemon-garlic rice pilaf, but it ended up being cilantro lime rice. As you may know based on previous reviews, I really hate cilantro. If I had known the dish came with cilantro-lime rice I probably would have gotten something else.

University Club baklava, ice cream

University Club baklava, ice cream

For dessert I got the baklava with Babcock ice cream. The ice cream was amazing (obviously because it was Babcock) and the baklava was great. It wasn’t too sticky or overly sweet, and it actually had a bit more cinnamon than normal, which was unexpectedly good. The serving size was also larger than the other two courses, which was unexpected, and given the quality of the dessert I was happy it was bigger than anticipated!

FOOD NOTES: I am very torn about my experience at the University Club. My salad was fantastic, but it was not at all what I ordered. The beef kabobs were fine and the sweet corn was good, but the cilantro lime rice was an unwelcome surprise. The baklava was good, and the ice cream was fantastic. I had high hopes for this iconic place on my campus, and I left mildly disappointed. The service was slow, and based on what I saw other people were ordering from the regular menu and what I got, I was not impressed. I do have a strong desire to like the University Club because of my UW pride, but I’m not sure I’ll be back for lunch. I might give breakfast a try though.

Near east side’s Harmony not my idea of great neighborhood bar

There is definitely something to be said about good bar food, but it is rare and hard to find. And once again a Madison bar’s bar food has disappointed me. I put a decent amount of stock into public polls like the Isthmus’ Madison Favorites and Madison Magazine’s Best of Madison list, but those voters led to astray this time. The Harmony Bar on Atwood Avenue has been recognized for best neighborhood bar and a couple other things over the years, but I definitely don’t agree. As far as dive bars go, this one is pretty high on the totem pole of dives I’ve been to lately. The building itself needs some updating and TLC to be anywhere near what I would consider a charming dive bar. The paint was peeling, the floors were dirty and I don’t even want to go into detail the disaster that was the bathroom.

As for the food, they list “specialty pizzas” as a feature on their website. The picture on the website depicts a thin crust pizza with generous toppings and cheese. The pizzas we were served had super doughy and chewy crust, almost non-existent toppings, a sauce with zero flavor, and more grease than pizzas that are served out of cardboard box and cost $5. I barely ate the two small pieces I grabbed.

Harmony cheese curds

Harmony cheese curds

Because the pizzas were so disappointing we decided to order some food off the regular menu. I am a Wisconsinite through and through so for me to leave cheese curds on the table when I leave, they have to be pretty bad. Not only did I not like the Harmony’s cheese curds, more than half of our order was left behind when we got up. The batter was super heavy, the curds were solid when they should be soft and stringy, and I can pretty much guarantee you they came out of a box from the freezer. The curds were extremely disappointing.

Harmony pub chips

Harmony pub chips

Their pub chips and blue cheese were probably the best thing we had that night. The chips were the perfect thickness with a good crunch, and tasted house made. The blue cheese dressing was so mild it could have passed as ranch, but it was still a good pairing with the salty, crispy potato chips.

Harmony cheeseburger

Harmony cheeseburger

The burger was certainly nothing special. It was nowhere near as awful as the cheese curds, but I wished it was better. The cheese looked like it had been melted in a microwave, but the lettuce, tomato and onions on top were fresh. The one note I have about the burger is that it was huge. The actual patty was much larger than I was expecting. It didn’t have a ton of flavor or good char, but it wasn’t a terrible burger.

FOOD NOTES: The Harmony has so much potential, but the building needs some TLC, and the kitchen and menu need to be revamped. The pub chips are the exception. They are perfectly thick and crisp, and aren’t too greasy. The cheese curds were laughable for a Wisconsin bar, but the burger was edible. I wouldn’t even bother with the horrible “specialty pizzas.” They do have live music some nights, so that might be a draw but I would suggest eating somewhere else before heading to the show.