Unique flavors, dishes still focus of Kabul at new location

Kabul on State Street

Kabul on State Street

kabul doorKabul has been a staple on State Street for years, serving up mediterranean and Aghani food with unique flavors and one- of-a-kind dishes. They had to move out of their old location last year because of a massive construction project, and their loyal following was a little nervous about whether or not they would reopen. Several months after their original location (which I thought was always a little loud, crowded and had too much stuff on the walls) was torn down, they opened up less than a block away in a second-floor space that used to be part of Gino’s.

Front dining room facing State Street

Front dining room facing State Street

Bar area

Bar area

The menu stayed mostly the same with some updates, but the dining room is much different. Kabul’s new second-floor location features a bar and great overlooking State Street. I know it’s harder to run a business on the second floor, but I have always loved them (think Sunroom Cafe and Wasabi!). They feel calmer and are great for people watching. Kabul’s new location is just that…calmer, less cluttered and has great people-watching windows.

Mashawa soup

Mashawa soup

Mashawa soup

Mashawa soup

Michelle Li and I got to try a bunch of different dishes featured on both their lunch and dinner menus. We started with the mashawa soup that has lamb, chicken, beans and dill in it. The tomato-based soup was hearty, flavorful and had just a tiny kick of spice. The flavors were rich and balanced — it tasted like a professional version of the lentil and bean soup I try to make at home!

House salad with sauteed carrots and raisins

House salad with sauteed carrots and raisins

The house salad was pretty typical, but the housemade cucumber, mint, apple yogurt dressing made it phenomenal. I’m not usually a yogurt dressing fan, but this one was light, refreshing and had a little sweetness. It was also really great with their Afghan bread. I don’t think I would have ever gotten that dressing if I had a choice, but I’m glad we got to try it because it was so tasty and unique. Ours came with some sauteed raisins and carrots on top. The dinning room manager told us the carrots and raisins are usually served on top of rice, but they wanted us to try them. They were perfectly cooked, but I don’t love raisins so I didn’t love them on top of my salad.

Chutneys (from left: cilantro and jalapeno, cucumber/mint/apple yogurt dressing, tomato and pimento)

Chutneys (from left: cilantro and jalapeno, cucumber/mint/apple yogurt dressing, tomato and pimento)

Along with the bread we got to try two chutneys. The cilantro, jalapeno one was not my favorite (the soap thing again), but if you like cilantro it would probably be a good choice. The tomato, pimento one tasted less tomatoey than I was expecting. It had a unique, tangy flavor that I enjoyed, but I preferred dipping the bread in the cucumber, yogurt dressing!

Ashak

Ashak

Our first dish, which is actually listed as an appetizer on the dinner menu, was ashak. It is a steamed dumpling filled with scallions and topped with a meat or veggie sauce and yogurt. We got a meat and veggie combo. I’m not sure what made this dish so special, but it was by far my favorite. The dumplings were flatter than what I was expecting and had an egg-noodle quality to them. They were the perfect base for the flavorful veggie and meat sauces. The dish isn’t initially spicy, but a great flavorful spice hits once you’ve had a couple bites. The yogurt on top adds a fresh, cool taste and texture to the dish. Ashak has the consistency of chili with noodles, but the flavors are so much more developed and savory…it felt like an Afghani comfort food!

Lamb special

Lamb special

We also got to try the owner’s lamb special. I don’t have much info on what was in the lamb special (you know…it’s secret!), but it was very tasty. I don’t love lamb, but this lamb was perfectly cooked and was smothered in this really flavorful sauce that I’m guessing was tomato based. There were a ton of spices in the sauce that blended well, but it wasn’t hot spicey.

Stuffed chicken with cream sauce

Stuffed chicken with cream sauce

We also got to try the two types of stuffed chicken they serve at Kabul. The first one was the stuffed chicken with cream sauce. The basil cream sauce with pepper and mushrooms had an unexpected, but extremely appreciated tang to it. Michelle and I could have licked the plate of this one clean. The sauce was just so unexpectedly light and flavorful for a mushroom cream sauce. The chicken was stuffed with spinach, feta cheese and mushrooms and was a perfect vessel for the amazing sauce.

Stuffed chicken with raspberry sauce

Stuffed chicken with raspberry sauce

The second one was stuffed with the same ingredients, but came with a raspberry burgundy reduction sauce on top. I don’t love sweet fruit sauces with my savory entrees, so this one was definitely not my favorite. But if you like sweeter sauces, you would probably love this lighter version of the stuffed chicken.

kabul signFOOD NOTES: Don’t forget about Kabul in it’s new second-floor location. The new location boasts a full bar, a simple, welcoming atmosphere, and great windows for people watching! The traditional soup, bread and chutneys are great ways to start the meal, but make sure your Kabul experience includes the extremely unique and hearty ashak dish. Ashak could be an appetizer split by the table or an entire entree for one person. The stuffed chicken topped with the best and most uniquely flavored cream sauce I’ve ever had is also a must.

Tiny tavern boasts big cider menu, unique dishes

Cooper's Tavern

Coopers Tavern

One Madison restaurant that I took way too long to try out is Coopers Tavern. It’s near the top of State Street on the Capitol Square and has a super tiny dining room with a long bar on one side. It was busy the Friday night I went with a friend, and we had to wait basically inches from people already eating. Once we were seated the cramped dining room issues continued…I had to hook my purse on my knees and I was awkwardly bumped by two people who were hovering around the bar waiting for a table. Despite the super tight quarters the atmosphere at Coopers Tavern is rustic and welcoming.

Crispin blackberry, pear cider

Crispin blackberry, pear cider

I’m not a big drinker, but I do love a good gluten-free cider and Coopers Tavern has the largest selection of ciders I’ve seen. The Crispin blackberry and pear cider was light and refreshing. I could really taste the pear flavor, and even though the blackberry flavor was pretty much non-existent I still really liked it.

Cooper's Tavern Sconnie egg

Coopers Tavern Sconnie egg

We started with Coopers Tavern’s version of a scotch egg, the Sconnie egg. The Sconnie egg is a hard boiled egg wrapped in a Knoche’s market brat patty and fried. It is served with pickled vegetables and stout mustard. The Sconnie egg looks a little odd, but it tastes great. The hard boiled egg and the brat taste like breakfast and then they fry it…frying makes everything better! It’s a pretty heavy flavor profile, so the spicy, seedy mustard really adds a much-needed tang. I was really excited about the pickled vegetables, but they ended up not being good. They were pickled with anise and other warm spices, and I really didn’t like those flavors.

Cooper's Tavern steak and frites

Coopers Tavern steak and frites

I got the steak and frites as my entree. The marinated flank steak came served with blue cheese bone marrow butter, a homemade bourbon steak sauce, green beans and Belgian frites. The steak was crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, but it was a pretty small portion for the price ($16.95). The bourbon steak sauce tasted pretty much like pre-packaged barbecue sauce, and even though it was good I was expecting it to be better. The fancy bone marrow butter didn’t taste as special as the description made it sound. The simple steamed green beans would have been better with some seasoning. The frites were classic frites — they were salted perfectly and fried to a crisp.

Cooper's Tavern pork belly mac

Coopers Tavern pork belly mac

My friend got the pork belly mac. The dubliner cheddar mac and cheese comes topped with Madison Sourdough bread crumbs and Guinness stout glazed berkshire pork belly. The sauce isn’t like traditional cheese sauce. It tasted like a fancier version of alfredo sauce. The glaze on the pork belly was sweet and tasted like it had brown sugar in it.

FOOD NOTES: Coopers Tavern has an extremely small dinning room that definitely makes waiting for your table that much more annoying. The gluten-free cider menu is a nice alternative to beer, and I loved the Sconnie egg. My steak and frites were good, but a little on the pricey side. The green beans were generic and the sauce on the steak had a pre-packaged quality to it, but the frites were perfectly crispy and salty. The pork belly mac was a little different than traditional mac and cheese, but it was good. The cider options and Sconnie egg will bring me back, but I will probably get a different entree.

Expect quality food, pricier menu at Jacs on Monroe

Jacs

Jacs

There are countless options for a unique dining experience at upscale pub-style restaurants in downtown Madison, but there’s not very many similar options outside the isthmus. Jacs on Monroe Street is a newish addition to the near west side that is similar to what you would expect from upscale pubs on the Capitol Square. Jacs offers its own unique menu options along with dishes very similar to Brasserie V, like mussels or steak with frites.

Jacs

Jacs

The small brick building is sandwiched in between Michael’s Frozen Custard and a strip mall with a coffee stop, cat supply store and Indian restaurant. The best feature of the restaurant is its huge pair of front windows that bring in light to the dark dining room and allow for ample people watching. We showed up a bit before the dinner rush and got one of the coveted window seats. By 5:15 the entire place was packed with groups of people, couples and families.

Jac's ploughman's platter

Jacs ploughman’s platter

We started with the ploughman’s platter, which is a cheese board with interesting pairings. The platter comes with two types of cheese (I’m assuming they change because they were written on a chalk board). We got an aged cheddar and a truffled goat cheese. The aged cheddar was bold and nutty and perfect for a cheese board. I usually don’t like goat cheese, but this one was actually pretty good (although it did come out with some mold on it…we weren’t sure if that was a cheese thing or not so we just cut off the really moldy parts). The platter also came with some Bavaria sausage, honey, bread, housemade jam, grapes, sliced apple and pear, walnuts and mini tomatoes. It was beautifully presented and most of the ingredients were top-notch (I am still hung up on the mold that was on our goat cheese). Even though it was a great starter to our meal it was a bit on the expensive side for the price. I’m not sure I would want the platter to be any bigger, but I think the price should be less.

Jacs gnocchi

Jacs gnocchi

Jacs beet gnocchi

Jacs beet gnocchi

My mom got the special, which was housemade beet gnocchi with kale, hen of the woods mushrooms and pork belly. The gnocchi was denser and larger than the average gnocchi, but because it wasn’t in a heavy sauce they worked. The mushrooms and kale went really well with the earthiness of the beet flavor, and the pork belly added a much-needed saltiness to the simpler ingredients. There was a light sauce, probably mostly olive oil, that kept the dish from becoming too heavy. If there had been a creamy sauce on top it would have overwhelmed the great flavors of the simple ingredients.

Jacs steak

Jacs steak

I got the steak and frites because again, I always judge the quality of a restaurant by their steak and french fries. My steak was perfectly cooked with a great sear on the outside. It was seasoned very well, and had a little something extra that tasted like more than just salt and pepper. I love a traditional steak browned with just salt and pepper as seasoning, but this had a little additional kick of flavor that I couldn’t ID — but it was great! The sauteed spinach and kale under the steak was way too salty and tasted like it was a forgotten side. Greens can be really great when paid a little bit of attention, but these were overcooked and so salty that they were inedible alone (I took them home and sauteed them up with some egg whites for breakfast the next day…the extra salt worked well when balanced with the bland egg whites).

Jacs frites

Jacs frites

I was expecting a small plate of frites to come with my steak, but the massive cone of frites our table neighbors got as an appetizer also arrived with my entree. The cone of frites is definitely enough for two people. They were salted perfectly and had a great crunch. I’ve said for a while that my favorite fries in Madison were at Brasserie V, but the frites at Jacs were equally as crave-worthy. But the aioli at Jacs was more unique than Brasserie V. It was zesty…almost as if it was a citrus garlic aioli or another similar flavor combination. It took me by surprise at first, but the flavor combo balanced the greasiness of the frites well.

FOOD NOTES: Jacs can definitely give its Monroe Street competition, Brasserie V, a run for its money. Both seem to focus on European flavors and dishes, and both do it very well. The cheese platter we got was very well done (aside from the questionable mold), and had some interesting pairings I hadn’t seen on a cheese platter before. The housemade beet gnocchi was something special on its own, and was elevated by the other simple, ut perfectly done ingredients. My steak and frites were basically as good as steak and frites could get, but I expected more from Jacs on the sauteed greens. The biggest negative that sticks out to me is Jacs’ prices. Even though Jacs’ food is very close to the quality of restaurants around the Capitol Square, the restaurant isn’t around the Square so the prices need to be a little lower.