Coppertop off Beltline is hidden ‘breakfast-all-day’ gem

Even though I love going to great places like Forequarter, Tornado Room and Heritage Tavern, some of my favorite places are those hole-in-the-wall, secret neighborhood places. There’s something I love about diner coffee, dining rooms that haven’t been redecorated since the early 90s and the regulars chatting in the corner. It’s an added bonus when the food is as good as it is a Coppertop Family Restaurant.

coppertopCoppertop fits all of the qualifications of a quirky neighborhood spot – the regulars were chatting in the corner booth, the coffee was hot and fresh, and the dining room looks like a funeral parlor from the 90s (think floral patterns, mauve paint, a lot of vinyl, mirrors on the ceilings…). They serve standard breakfast options; sandwiches, salads and soups at lunch and they also have dinner entrees. Big bonus: they serve breakfast all day!

Wisconsin skillet at Coppertop Family Restaurant
Wisconsin skillet at Coppertop Family Restaurant

Thanks to a suggestion from a friend familiar with Coppertop, I got the Wisconsin skillet, which has ham, green peppers, cheese, onions and mushrooms. It comes with two eggs done however you want, American fries (read: breakfast potatoes) and toast or pancakes. In my breakfast-eating experience, the ingredients in scrambles or skillets can come out one of two ways — mushy and only slightly cooked or crispy — and the latter is definitely preferable. Coppertop’s skillet definitely fit into that second category. The ham, mushrooms and peppers were all crispy…not to mention the super crispy breakfast potatoes. I also loved the sprinkle of cheese on top. The surprising part of my breakfast was that it was barely greasy — grease is usually a staple on the plates of most neighborhood diners.

coppertop coffee
Coffee (and that super awesome booth!)

FOOD NOTES: I was very happy with my breakfast for lunch, and with any place that serves breakfast all day…I will probably never try any of their lunch or dinner options. I love breakfast too much to pass it up if it’s an option! Some people might let the decor stop them from going back, but I think it’s endearing…it gives the place a towny, “we don’t take ourselves too seriously” feel. The view of the Beltline from the front windows is also pretty great!

Indulgent mac and cheese totally worth it at Mac’s

When I go off my gluten-free, high-protein, low-calorie meal plan (it’s not a diet!) I like to go all out. I don’t like to diverge from my healthy eating plan for bad fast food or something I don’t love, but I will do it for fantastic food and I will definitely do it regularly for mac and cheese…especially the mac and cheese at Mac’s! Mac’s has two locations — one in the Dells and a second location in Sun Prairie.

Mac's in Sun Prairie
Mac’s in Sun Prairie

The one in Sun Prairie is in the super new development off Highway 51 by the new Woodman’s, Costco and Cabela’s. The small dining room probably has about a dozen tables, which gives it a cozy, welcoming feeling. The menu is pretty simple. They have a dozen different types of mac and cheese (served in cast iron skillets), 6 different types of grilled cheeses and a couple salads.

Mac's loaded baked potato mac and cheese
Mac’s loaded baked potato mac and cheese

All of the mac and cheeses come with bread crumbs on top and some pieces of toasted bread. The bread crumbs were super tasty, but I would skip the toasted bread next time. They seemed very unnecessary. As for the mac and cheese…I got the loaded baked potato, which comes with cheddar cheese, mozzarella cheese, slices of baked potato, bacon, sour cream and chives on top. There are two pretty great facets of the mac and cheese. The actual mac and cheese itself is the best I’ve ever had. It’s creamy and cheesy with a rich, homestyle flavor, but it’s not too heavy. The noodle to cheese sauce ratio is also perfect. Sometimes you get too much or not enough sauce…but not at Mac’s! Every noodle was perfectly coated with the sauce, but there wasn’t an excess at the bottom. As for the toppings…I could definitely see going just for the plain mac and cheese, but I did enjoy my toppings. They added a different level to the dish — other than just eating noodles for lunch. However, most of the other topping combinations (BBQ pulled pork, jalapeno poppers, chicken bacon ranch, taco) seem like a bit too much for me, so I will probably stick to the plain mac and cheese or go with the loaded baked potato one again. I also can’t forget to mention the crispy edges of cheese…the entire dish was rimmed with that perfectly crispy, slightly burnt cheese that you have to crack into to start eating — that, to me, is a telltale sign that my mac and cheese was fresh and made to order!

FOOD NOTES: Mac’s makes the best mac and cheese I’ve ever had, and has a topping option that would probably please everyone! The prices aren’t too bad…mine only came in the bigger size for $10, but I could only eat half and the other half heated up really well for lunch the next day! Now all I need is for Mac’s to open a location in Middleton!

43 North’s tiny portions, bland dishes disappoint during Restaurant Week

My third Restaurant Week stop in January was at 43 North on King Street. Based on their normal menu, the tiny “modern bistro” features classic appetizers, salads and entrees with modern twists (different sauces, interesting ingredient combinations). But I’ve learned that anything with the word “bistro” in the description usually means the portions are small and 43 North was no exception. Usually the point of small dishes is that the flavor makes up for the size, but that was not the case with the dishes I tried at 43 North.

**NOTE: sorry about the bad pictures…it was super dark in there!

43 North roasted dates
43 North roasted dates
43 North sweet potato soup
43 North sweet potato soup

For appetizers they were offering a radish salad, roasted dates with goat cheese and a sweet potato soup, which is what I got. The soup was smooth, but not creamy and didn’t have any complex flavors. It just tasted like savory sweet potato puree. To be honest, it almost tasted like it had curry in it, but that was not in the description. It was not memorable.

43 North game hen
43 North game hen
43 North curried cauliflower
43 North curried cauliflower

The entree options seemed to have more components. The two friends I went with got game hen with lentils, thyme vinaigrette, bacon and butternut squash, and curried cauliflower with polenta, kale and eggplant. The curried cauliflower had a very light (almost nonexistent and less than the sweet potato soup) curry flavor.

43 North salmon
43 North salmon

I got the salmon with red potato, spinach and mushroom ragout. I will use two words to describe the dish: small and boring. My salmon was cooked well and was crispy on the outside, but it was the absolute smallest piece of fish I have ever been served at a restaurant. The spinach was unremarkable and the mushroom ragout was lacking the savory flavor I expect from mushroom sauces. The red potatoes were mixed in with the mushroom ragout, so I can’t imagine they had any great flavor on their own.

43 North pavlova
43 North pavlova

The dessert options actually sounded the most exciting. They offered a Wisconsin cheese platter with jam and mustard (but the cheese options were a blue cheese and goat cheese — why not offer a cheddar?) and a very interesting dessert called a Pavlova. After some research we learned it is a meringue-based cake with a crisp crust and usually topped with fruit and whipped cream. The Pavlova at 43 North came with coconut cream, blackberries and passion fruit coulis. It looked very interesting, but because of the coconut I didn’t try it.

43 North almond panna cotta
43 North almond panna cotta

I got the almond panna cotta with balsamic macerated strawberries and hazelnut shortbread. The panna cotta was light in texture, but had a dense vanilla-y, almond flavor. The panna cotta by itself was the single best part of my meal. The toppings were a little odd. The balsamic macerated strawberries just tasted like cooked strawberries…I was missing the sweet tang I was expecting from the balsamic vinegar. The hazelnut shortbread was hard to identify. I was expecting it to be a cookie or larger chunks, but it was basically crumbles on top that I kept trying to scoop up. I’m not sure what the hazelnut shortbread tasted like because I could never get enough in one bite to get a good sense of its flavor.

FOOD NOTES: All in all, I was pretty disappointed with my meal at 43 North. The soup was lacking in flavor. The salmon dish featured a perfectly cooked piece of fish, but everything else on the plate was bland. The dessert was the best part, but only the panna cotta. The toppings followed suit with the rest of the meal — boring flavors and small amounts (why does a hazelnut shortbread have to be mashed into minuscule pieces instead of served in larger, edible chunks?). I’m glad I finally got to try 43 North (especially during Restaurant Week when I didn’t shell out a ton of money), because now I know it belongs on my “do not visit” list.

Steenbock’s difficult location overshadows tasty lunch dishes

steenbock'sSteenbock’s on Orchard has been a mystery to me since it opened. It’s a Food Fight restaurant located inside the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery research building right in the middle of campus. The building is beautiful and open and feels very academic with a ton of UW pride dotted throughout the main floor. The website describes the menu as “designed to highlight local and seasonal ingredients at their best.” They serve “local meats, cheeses and vegetables while making our own jams and curing our own meats in our preservation kitchen.” The mix between academic research labs and this restaurant has always seemed odd, but intriguing.

Steenbock's dining room
Steenbock’s dining room

I’m torn about the location. The building was beautiful and I love being on campus, but getting there was painful. All three lots somewhat near the WID building were full and we were extremely lucky to get a parking spot on the street by the business school. If I’m ever back on campus regularly or for a special occasion I would totally go to Steenbock’s, but I won’t go back just for the food…it’s just too hard to get to!

Steenbock's spinach salad with warm bacon dressing
Steenbock’s spinach salad with warm bacon dressing

My restaurant week meal started with a spinach salad that came with warm bacon dressing. The hearty spinach was the perfect base for the bacon dressing and the roasted tomatoes added a much-needed tangy flavor. I didn’t love the blue cheese on top, but I’m not a fan of blue cheese to begin with.

Steenbock's Korean ribs
Steenbock’s Korean ribs

My friend Nicole got the Korean BBQ ribs with french fries for her entree. The ribs were a little tough, but the sauce was tangy and had a good spice. I didn’t necessarily think it tasted like Korean BBQ, but they were good. The french fries were my favorite part of her dish! They were crispy, hot and perfectly salted.

Steenbock's chicken with brussel sprouts and bacon
Steenbock’s chicken with brussel sprouts and bacon

I decided to go with the chicken, which is odd because I usually don’t get chicken at restaurants because I make it so much at home. The best part of the chicken dish I got was the plentiful amount of bacon that came with it. The brussel sprouts and potatoes came in a light olive oil sauce with crispy pancetta…I usually like brussel sprouts, but adding pancetta makes them so much better! The chicken was moist and the skin was crispy, but the bacon crumbles between the meat and the skin was what made it special. I’m not sure what was in the crumble other than bacon, but it was super savory and good enough to make me want to order the chicken dish again. Bacon makes everything better!

Steenbock's croissant bread pudding
Steenbock’s croissant bread pudding

They only had one dessert option, but it was so good I wasn’t upset with the lack of choices. The marble croissant bread pudding was something so unique I’m not sure how to start explaining it, but I’ll try — it was bread pudding made with flaky, buttery chunks of plain and chocolate croissants. There was some sort of sweet sauce on top, some powdered sugar and two raspberries. The bread pudding itself was so good, it didn’t need the toppings. The plain croissant was sweet and buttery, while the chocolate croissant was rich and slightly bitter — the combination made for a substantial, but not too sweet dessert!

FOOD NOTES: The difficulty level of getting to Steenbock’s if you’re not already on campus really overshadows the tasty food. My Restaurant Week appetizer was an unimpressive salad, but my chicken entree was stellar and my dessert was probably one of the top 3 Restaurant Week desserts I’ve had over the last 6 years. If you’re on campus and looking for a great lunch…check out Steenbock’s, if you’re not already on campus look somewhere else.