Bakery’s lunch just as impressive as sweet treats

Rolling Pin Bake Shop, Fitchburg

Rolling Pin Bake Shop, Fitchburg

Bakeries are great, but bakeries that also serve food are even better. I’ve never eaten lunch at my favorite bakery, Scott’s, so I don’t have much to compare it to, but Rolling Pin Bake Shop‘s lunch impressed me. Based on my first visit with a friend and her daughter, I would totally recommend this place for a casual lunch or some fun baked goodies.

cake and cupcake case

cake and cupcake case

decorated cookie case

decorated cookie case

cookie case

cookie case

The day we went they had three full bakery cases plus a rack of bread and a spinning case full of treats. They had four different types of quiche on special, plus a homemade soup on top of their regular menu. One case was full of different types of cookies, another one had cakes and cupcakes, and a third had decorated sugar cookies. The spinning case was filled with chocolate-dipped treats and other specialty items.

apple puff

apple pastry

It took me about 15 minutes to settle on the apple pastry and a molasses cookie. The apple pastry smelled so good I definitely didn’t wait until after my sandwich was even delivered to devour it. The flaky pastry crust was super buttery, and the filling was your basic apple pie filling. I liked that the filling wasn’t too sweet and had a good cinnamon flavor. Since I ate the pastry there, I would have liked it warmed up but I forgot to ask before I finished it off. The molasses cookie (sorry…I ate it before remembering to take a picture) was perfect, but only if you like your molasses cookies soft. Some people like them crispy, but I like them chewy in the middle and just slightly crispy on the edges. Rolling Pin’s version was just that, plus it was topped with granulated sugar that helped cut the slight bitterness of the molasses. It was definitely one of the best (still not better than grandma’s though!) molasses cookies I’ve had.

turkey club

turkey club

For lunch I went with what I thought was going to be a simple turkey club sandwich, but the sourdough bread, applewood smoked bacon and other fresh ingredients elevated the sandwich above what I was expecting. The sandwich was also surprisingly large for the price ($8).

FOOD NOTES: Don’t let the strip mall or facade of a bakery fool you — the lunch at Rolling Pin Bake Shop is super good. Don’t get me wrong — they’re baked goods were great (I will totally be back for a molasses cookie), but their lunch is what stood out as surprisingly tasty for a great price. Everyone working and eating there (including a pair of cops on their lunch break — I love it when you can tell they’re regulars!) were super nice. There aren’t a ton of good restaurant options in Fitchburg (there are a decent amount of chains, but not a lot of local places)…so if you’re in Fitchburg and in need a good lunch spot, I recommend Rolling Pin.

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Nostrano’s dessert has classic flavors, grand design

Nostrano

Nostrano

I don’t normally go for desserts, unless they’re included in the Restaurant Week menu. But the sweet and salty combos offered at Nostrano made for a pretty exciting dessert menu.

Nostrano panna cotta

Nostrano panna cotta

A friend and I went just for the desserts and split the gianduja chocolate panna cotta. When the dessert was delivered the first thing I noticed were chocolate crisps and small little chunks of glazed goodness. The glazed goodness ended up being toasted hazelnuts and toffee, which were amazing with the chocolate panna cotta. And the cherries were simmered with black pepper, which took down the sweetness factor and added a good savory element.

Nostrano pann cotta

Nostrano pann cotta

FOOD NOTES: Based on the yummy balance of sweet and salty, and creamy and crunchy Nostrano uses in their desserts, I hope to be blogging about their dinner menu sometime soon!

Capitol Chophouse tops #restaurantweek meals

Capitol Chophouse

Capitol Chophouse

I’ve been trying restaurants during Madison Magazine’s Restaurant Weeks for four years, but my last stop during this summer’s Restaurant Week was by far the best meal I’ve gotten off of a Restaurant Week menu so far. Capitol Chophouse is a slightly hidden restaurant that is attached to the Hilton Hotel right off the square near Monona Terrace. The dining room features big leather booths and dark wood walls, with clean white linens and classic dishes. It feels like a high-class supper club, even though it’s attached to a hotel.

Market tomato salad

Market tomato salad

Smoked salmon fritters

Smoked salmon fritters

French onion gratin

French onion gratin

For restaurant week the appetizer choices were a market tomato salad, smoked salmon fritters and French onion gratin. My friends got the smoked salmon fritters and the market tomato salad. Both were happy with their choices. I got the French onion gratin. I’m not sure what I was expecting when the menu said the appetizer was a “gratin” but it was basically baked French onion soup. Admittedly, it was the best French onion soup I’ve ever had. The onions and the broth were so flavorful with the perfect balance of onion flavor and savory broth. The chunks of bread inside the soup were not too mushy, which means it was probably made-to-order. And the swiss cheese melted on top was thick, creamy and didn’t have too much of a strong swiss flavor. It was a perfect first course for my final summer 2014 Restaurant Week meal.

Alaskan halibut

Alaskan halibut

Roast Berkshire pork

Roast Berkshire pork

New York strip steak

New York strip steak

For entrees they were offering a New York strip steak, roast Berkshire pork and Alaskan halibut. The two extremely generous slices of roast pork came on top of coffee mole sauce that tasted odd on its own, but paired very well with the perfectly cooked pork. The two equally generous pieces of halibut came in a white wine butter sauce with capers on top. The fish was also cooked perfectly, and the sauce was pleasantly light despite its name. Since we were in a chophouse I opted for the New York strip steak. Unlike my previous steakhouse experience that week, the people running Capitol Chophouse’s kitchen definitely knew how to cook a medium rare steak. The chimichurri vinaigrette that was drizzled on top added a good tang. The amount of the sauce was perfect. There was just enough to taste it, but I was still able to taste the perfectly charred and seasoned steak.

Capitol Chophouse mashed potatoes

Capitol Chophouse mashed potatoes

In addition to this being the best Restaurant Week meal I’ve ever had, it was also the most expensive. Because the menu at Capitol Chophouse is served a la carte, we had to order our sides separately. With some guidance from one of the servers, we ordered two sides to split between the three of us. I’m glad we decided to split the sides because what was delivered can only be described as a serving bowl of family-style sides…definitely not an individual serving. I was also excited to try more than one side. The mashed potatoes were just the way I like them – made with red potatoes with the skins, a little garlicky and a little lumpy. For our second side we got the lobster mac and cheese (forgot to take a picture…sad), which was super decadent. It is al dente elbow macaroni smothered in a rich cheese sauce with chunks of lobster sprinkled generously throughout. I could have made a meal out of just the sides, but I’m glad I didn’t!

Chocolate terrine

Chocolate terrine

Peach cobbler

Peach cobbler

For desserts we could choose between a chocolate terrine, a Wisconsin cheese plate or peach cobbler. One of my friends got the chocolate terrine, which was this thick chocolate fudge-like substance topped with another white custardy substance. Both were extremely good. There were also little fluffs of toasted meringue on the side. Two of us got the peach cobbler. The cobbler had to have been baked to order, because it was so hot, when we broke into the crust steam started pouring out. The vanilla bean ice cream was melting so fast mine started dripping dow the side of my ramekin. I’m not the biggest fan of peach, but this dessert made me forget that. The peaches were in a light sauce that wasn’t too sweet or syrupy, and the crumbles on top were crunchy and tasted vanilla-y and hardy. The combination of the hot cobbler with the vanilla bean ice cream was a home run.

FOOD NOTES: There were so many high points to this meal, I’m not really sure where to even start. The atmosphere was great. The service was good, but not overbearing. My appetizer, entree, sides and dessert were phenomenal. I was extremely happy with everything, and I wasn’t even upset with the price of the meal, because I did take leftovers home. I’m more of a savory person over sweets, but to this day I think about that peach cobbler and ice cream dessert.

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.

Villa Dolce: Fantastic food highlighted by truly amazing pizza

 

Villa Dolce

Villa Dolce

 

Villa Dolce

Villa Dolce

I’ve been driving past a house turned into a restaurant for three years and never stopped in because the menu never made an impression on me, and online reviews didn’t thrill me. Well that was probably one of the biggest food mistakes I’ve made in awhile. The chic pizza bar and Italian restaurant Villa Dolce is a hidden gem in downtown Middleton that serves up great Italian-inspired dishes and amazing pizza.

Villa Dolce seating

Villa Dolce seating

Villa Dolce seating

Villa Dolce seating

The building that houses Villa Dolce used to be a house before it was turned into a restaurant, and the owners really used that to their advantage. They use every inch of that building and have great nooks and crannies with different table setups. I loved the warm, inviting decor and the modern lighting elements. The inside of Villa Dolce was definitely surprising after looking at the outside for so long. For lunch, they do counter service and bring your order to your table. For dinner they do normal restaurant service. The menu is huge but my friend Michelle Li and I got to try some really amazing options.

sausage sliders

sausage sliders

First we tried their artisan sausages, which are their specially-made beef and lamb sausages, grilled and served on a small crostini with feta cheese, a piece of cucumber and cherry tomatoes on top. It also comes with a garlic aioli for dipping. The sausage was a great balance of the beef and lamb, but the fresh ingredients on top really made the dish. The feta added a great tanginess to the heavy sausage, and the cucumber and tomato balanced the whole dish out. I usually love garlic aioli, but these sausages were so good I never even tried their aioli; they didn’t need it!

antipasto platter

antipasto platter

The antipasto platter that was delivered to our table was almost too pretty to eat. ALMOST! There was a ton of different ingredients on the beautifully laid out tray. It came with roasted red peppers, fresh mozzarella, olives, marinated artichoke hearts, prosciutto, soprosata, marinated onions, pesto and fontina cheese. Everything went very well together. My favorites were the soprosata with the fontina cheese, because the meat had a good spice that was perfectly complemented by the creamy cheese. 

Michelle Li at Villa Dolce

Michelle Li at Villa Dolce

antipasto platter, summer salad

antipasto platter, summer salad

Their summer salad is a super creative way to serve up a fresh, healthy, flavorful salad. It is salmon, beets, walnuts, farro, strawberries and quinoa served on a bed of shredded kale. It comes with a perfectly tangy balsamic dressing. I don’t think I could pass up some other super amazing options on the menu for this salad, but if you’re looking for a very flavorful, healthy option, this salad is it.

arugula and prosciutto pizza

arugula and prosciutto pizza

The best part of our meal was 100 percent the prosciutto and arugula pizza. I’m not the biggest fan of pizza and usually opt for something healthier and lighter when I go out to eat, but this pizza is something special. It comes with a three cheese blend and prosciutto topped with arugula, oven dried tomatoes and an aged balsamic glaze. First, it’s a beautiful pizza. It is super simple and the ingredients are super fresh. The light, crispy crust was the perfect base for the rich prosciutto, peppery arugula and tangy tomatoes. The cheese and balsamic glaze took the pizza over the top and makes it my favorite pizza to date. There’s no tomato sauce, there’s no heavy crust, and there’s no grease. This pizza is what I imagine pizza to be like in Italy, and is the type of pizza I actually enjoy!

gelatini

gelatini

Villa Dolce also has some pretty spectacular desserts on their menu including homemade tiramisu, creme brulee, Nutella crepes and gelato, but we got to sample a gelatini. Gelatinis are beautiful dessert martinis made with gelato. I took a sip and trust me, they taste stronger than they look!

gelato case

gelato case

dessert case

dessert case

FOOD NOTES: The worst part about going to Villa Dolce was that I realized that I had been missing out on some amazing food less than a block from my apartment for almost three years! The antipasto platter was amazing and would be a great starter for a small group to chat over while waiting for the rest of the amazing food to come. Their new summer salad was super creative and had great flavors for being so healthy, but nowhere near good enough to pass up the prosciutto and arugula pizza for. There’s a reason I usually don’t like pizza. It’s because most pizza isn’t good. Villa Dolce’s pizza was the first truly good pizza I’ve ever had. I can’t say enough good things about that amazing pizza. Word to the wise: be smarter than I was and save room for dessert!

Good food, atmosphere on Merchant lunch menu

Merchant

Merchant

One of my all-time best meals was the dinner I had with some friends at Merchant during the 2013 Restaurant Week. I think it stands out to me because it was the first time I had mussels and now I love mussels! I also love the atmosphere of the restaurant, which doesn’t lose it’s appeal in broad daylight. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been back since my first visit until the I went to Merchant during the 2014 Restaurant Week for lunch. Merchant serves up classic foodie food for dinner, but for lunch they mostly serve salads and sandwiches.

Merchant buttermilk salad

Merchant buttermilk salad

For restaurant week they offered a soup and three salads for appetizers. I ordered the buttermilk salad that came with golden beets, radish, buttermilk dressing and blue cheese. I’m not a fan of blue cheese so I ordered it with feta instead. The salad was plentiful and fresh. My friend Michelle ordered the Caesar salad, but it was too anchovy-y for her, so we switched. The Caesar salad was pretty simple (romaine hearts, creamy anchovy Caesar dressing and parmesan cheese), but what made it memorable was the flavor of the dressing. What Michelle didn’t like about the salad ended up being my favorite part. The tangy, salty flavor was interesting and something I had never tasted before. It was very good.

Merchant fried chicken sandwich

Merchant fried chicken sandwich

For entrees Merchant was offering about a half dozen sandwiches, but it was a no brainer that we order the fried chicken sandwich. A couple weeks before our visit a local website did a poll for best sandwich in Madison and this sandwich was near the top. There were two options: classic or buffalo-style. Michelle and I decided to order one of each and split the sandwiches to see which one we liked better. The classic fried chicken sandwich came on a brioche bun with coleslaw. It was fresh, tasty and surprisingly not too heavy for a fried chicken sandwich. The batter on the chicken was flavorful, crispy and not greasy. The coleslaw was perfectly creamy and crunchy. But the one thing the classic sandwich was missing was the extra ingredient on the buffalo-style sandwich: buffalo sauce. That little bit of spice and vinegar added a great contrast to the creamy coleslaw and the savory fried chicken. If I were to order the sandwich again I would definitely go with the buffalo-style. The french fries weren’t the best I’ve ever had, but they were good.

Merchant brownie sundae

Merchant brownie sundae

Merchant coffee

Merchant coffee

For dessert they were offering sorbet, gelato or a brownie sundae. Of course, I chose the brownie sundae with chocolate sauce, pecans and whipped cream. The brownie was not overly sweet — it tasted almost like dark chocolate. The entire sundae was a fancier version of a classic brownie sundae. It was super good! I also got a cup of coffee, which was surprisingly flavorful and smooth.

FOOD NOTES: Both meals I’ve had at Merchant exceeded expectations. Merchant will always be one of my top picks for places to visit during restaurant week because their food is so good and the price is so right. The Caesar salad was very unique and had a great flavor. The fried chicken sandwich lives up to the hype — especially the buffalo-style version, and the brownie sundae was a great upgraded version of a classic. The only complaint I have is that we had to sit at an awkward table attached to a pillar on high stools — kind of uncomfortable and kind of in the way.