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.

Steaks, martinis, supper club atmosphere at Smoky’s stand test of time

Disclaimer: Due to the generous martinis Smoky’s Supper Club serves, this rave review may be slightly clouded by the very strong martini I started drinking before dinner.

Whenever I talk with someone in Madison about the topic of steaks, inevitably Smoky’s on University Avenue is mentioned. I had heard two things about Smoky’s before visiting it with my mom for her birthday: the steaks are amazing and the martinis are strong. And both of those things turned out to be extremely accurate.

Smoky's
Smoky’s Supper Club

If you don’t know where Smoky’s is, it’s probably because you’ve driven by and it not noticed it. It is tucked in between newer buildings on University Avenue. And aside from it’s neon sign, it doesn’t look like an upscale supper club. There are multiple dining rooms. I saw four but there may have been more tucked around corners, and a huge oval bar that sticks out in the main room when you walk in. It’s pretty dark inside, which may be part of the ambience or a sneaky way to hide that the building could use some updates.

Smoky's Razzputini
Smoky’s Razzputini

We got to Smoky’s a little bit before our reservations so we were asked to wait at the bar. After paying our $20 bill for two martinis, we realized that the price tag and the rumors proved true and that neither of us had ever had such a strong drink. I got the Razzputini, which from what I can remember had raspberry vodka, some other type of liquor and then grapefruit juice. That grapefruit juice was my saving grace. Thanks to the juice my martini actually tasted good and wasn’t 100 percent alcohol. My mom got the pomegranate martini, which was made with three different types of alcohol, and again from what I remember, didn’t have any juice in it. That one didn’t taste as good as mine, and had a stronger kick. I’m not a big drinker, so I preferred the one with the juice in it, but others might prefer no juice! Either way, they were both extremely well-made drinks.

Smoky's
Smoky’s

My one complaint about Smoky’s is that about 20 minutes after our reservation time we went up to ask the host why we weren’t being seated (because there were open tables and everyone else had been seated). Basically he told us he forgot about us, which was kind of annoying but nothing too bad to overshadow the great food we eventually got.

Smoky's bread basket
Smoky’s bread basket
Smoky's relish crock
Smoky’s relish crock

For starters, we had a traditional supper club bread basket and relish tray on our table. Neither were spectacular or original, but there is something special about those traditions and I wish more places offered them with dinners. We decided to skip ordering an appetizer because we asked our waiter about the fried mushrooms and he said they were not homemade. Plus, dinners come with soup and a salad, so ordering an additional appetizer didn’t seem necessary.

Smoky's salad
Smoky’s salad

The salad was exactly what I was expecting. A small, perfectly fresh salad with cucumbers, red onions, croutons and multiple homemade dressing options. As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one dressing option when getting a salad at a supper club, and that’s French…but my grandparents would disagree with that and say blue cheese is the only option. I went with French, but I can only imagine their homemade blue cheese would have been just as good.

Smoky's clam chowder
Smoky’s clam chowder

There were two soup options the night we went. I got the clam chowder, which was a good choice. It was the perfect balance of creamy and savory while not being too heavy and thick. The vegetables in the soup were chunky, and both the vegetables and the clams were plentiful.

Smoky's ribeye
Smoky’s ribeye

We both went with the 12 0z ribeye, which did not disappoint. It came out on a sizzling platter with a great charred exterior and perfectly pink inside. It was also seasoned with the right amount of salt and pepper that added that simple, classic savory flavor to the charred exterior. It was definitely one of the best steaks I have ever had, and because of the size I got to take another serving home.

Smoky's hashbrowns
Smoky’s hash browns

The hash browns come on a separate plate and must have been cooked in a cast-iron pan because they were round, extremely hot and perfectly crispy. I loved that they weren’t greasy at all, but we did add some additional salt on top.

FOOD NOTES: The rumors about Smoky’s Supper Club are true. The steaks are amazing and the martinis will knock you on your ass. Everything about Smoky’s screams quality, expertly-executed, traditional supper club, and I love it. I also love the location. It’s kind of hidden, but perfectly accessible in the middle of Madison. The prices at Smoky’s are a bit steep at first glance, but the quality and quantity of the food proves it to be 100 percent worth it. I hope someone someday soon will put a little TLC into the building so Smoky’s and it’s great menu will be around for many more years.

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!

Great atmosphere, overrated food at Buck and Honey’s

buck and honeys signI’ve been hearing about Buck and Honey’s in Sun Prairie for a couple years and the outside seating area lived up to the hype, but the food definitely did not. The large outdoor seating area features patio furniture, a fire pit, a grassy area with bean bag toss games and a small stage (the night I was there a spirited guy was singing and playing the mandolin). It would be nice if the outside patio faced something other than the back of a building and a parking lot, but it is still a nice feature and a great place to chat with a good friend!

Buck and Honey's fried cheese curds
Buck and Honey’s fried cheese curds

We got the fried cheese curds to start, and I was immediately disappointed when they got to our table. For $9 you get like eight cheese curds and two sub-par dipping sauces — ranch and pizza sauce. The curds had potential, especially with the shaved parmesan on top, but that’s as far as it went. They were lukewarm in the middle, the batter was a bit too heavy, and they kind of tasted a little funny — like the oil was old. The curds were definitely  not worth the price or the calories.

Buck and Honey's brisket dinner
Buck and Honey’s brisket dinner

Their regular menu didn’t have a lot of promising things on it, so I was happy when our server sat down a specials menu. I got the brisket dinner with sliced brisket, roasted potatoes and onions in a red wine reduction. The serving was massive, which was surprising considering the curd serving. The slices of brisket could have been more tender and  they didn’t have any of the smokey flavor I expect with brisket. The potatoes were edible, but could have been seasoned better, and the onions needed some more time in the pan to caramelize. The most disappointing part of the dish was the red wine reduction, which tasted and looked more like a sweet mixture of BBQ sauce and ketchup. The dish was good, but nowhere near the quality I expect when paying $18 for dinner.

FOOD NOTES: The public really likes restaurants that trick them into thinking their food is good just because the atmosphere is fancy and the prices are high. Buck and Honey’s in Sun Prairie perfectly fits that description. While the outside seating is very enjoyable, the cheese curds were disappointing, and the brisket dish was barely what is usually considered brisket and the sauce was amateur. I’m not sure I’d go back to even give other things on the menu a chance because none of the descriptions on the menu seem to warrant the prices.

There really isn’t anything better than an old-school steakhouse

Main Street entrance
Main Street entrance
Bar entrance on Main Street
Bar entrance on Main Street

Madison has a lot of food events to promote restaurants, like Taste of Madison and Restaurant Week, but one restaurant sticks out in my mind as never participating in any of it: Tornado Steakhouse. Tornado is this elusive restaurant on the south side of the outer-capitol square (which is kind of the opposite side of where all of the other foodie restaurants are). Not a lot of people talk about Tornado, but a lot of people do go there so I could never figure out why it was never part of the foodie buzz in Madison. Well, I think I figured it out. Madison foodies are very into new, experimental, modern things, and the Tornado is none of those things. It is 100 percent a traditional steakhouse done exceptionally well.

Hamilton Street entrance
Hamilton Street entrance
Hamilton Street sign
Hamilton Street sign

It is technically located on South Hamilton Street, but there’s also an entrance on West Main Street. The Main Street entrance brings you through a cramped bar featuring a couple round leather booths straight out of the 50s. The Hamilton Entrance takes you up a couple steps, past the secret entrance to their late-night bar the Corral Room (I hear it is straight out of Mad Men) and into the main dining room area. I’m not sure exactly how many dining rooms there are throughout the steakhouse, but I saw at least three on the way to the one we were seated in. All of them were bordered in dark wood paneling, and were sparsely lit by old-school sconces.

bread plate
bread plate
tornado relish
relish “tray”

As if the portions we were soon to order wouldn’t be enough, we were given a bread basket and a relish tray. The bread basket had a biscuit, a crunchy long breadstick and a small loaf of bread. The biscuit was buttery, fluffy, moist and very good. The breadstick had a good flavor, but was kind of hard. We saved the loaf for last because we had high hopes for a small warm loaf of yummy bread, but it was super hard, not very good and kind of disappointing. The relish tray was not actually served on a tray. It came in an iced beer mug and had a pickle, some celery and carrots and a skewer with a radish, cucumber slice, cherry tomato and olives. It was a traditional relish tray, but I love the simplicity of a relish tray!

Caesar salad
Caesar salad
spinach salad
spinach salad

Every entree comes with a salad to start with. It sounds like you’re going to get a side salad, but it is a massive serving. Both the Caesar and spinach salads we ordered were double the size we were expecting. My Caesar salad had fresh romaine and a nice portion of parmesan cheese on top. The dressing wasn’t too overwhelming, but I did not eat the whole anchovy filet that was on top of my greens. The spinach salad my mom ordered came with a vinaigrette that was very tangy and yummy.

New York strip steak with hashbrowns
New York strip steak with hashbrowns

Now on to the entrees. They offer seafood, chicken and other random protein options (venison, rabbit, lamb), but both of us were obviously going to order steak in a steakhouse like this. I got the 16 oz. New York Strip Steak, and for a person watching portion sizes a 16 0z. steak is just a little more than four servings of steak. I ordered it medium rare. This steak was the most perfectly cooked, perfectly charred and perfectly flavored steak I have ever had. They really know what they’re doing at Tornado! The 16 oz. sirloin my mom ordered was exactly the same.

sirloin steak with steak fries
sirloin steak with steak fries

All of the steaks come with a single onion ring on top. The batter was very heavy, and lacked some necessary salt to balance it out. I got hash browns with my steak. They were crispy, hot and well seasoned, but compared to the steak they were nothing special. I thought for the caliber of steakhouse Tornado is, they would serve them with sauteed mushrooms and onions or something like that. My mom got the steak fries with her steak. They were not greasy and tasted baked rather than fried, but again they were overshadowed by her steak.

FOOD NOTES: Despite the disappointing loaf of mini bread and the not-so-special potatoes served alongside our steaks, Tornado served up the best steak I have ever had. A lot of restaurants my parents and grandparents took me to as a kid had relish trays, and I really like when restaurants offer them…it is just so simple! The service was good throughout our meal, but there were multiple people doing multiple things throughout the dining room, not sure one dedicated server. The menu definitely gave us sticker shock when we first decided to go, but based on the fact that we each brought home another two servings of steak and one extra serving of potatoes as leftovers…the price doesn’t seem as astronomical. The prices are high, but not nearly as outrageous once you see the portions (especially if you exercise portion control and save some for another meal). Basically, my meal was $35, which sounds really high but I had another full meal of steak and hash browns, plus another meal of steak…so in my mind that breaks down to $2o for the initial Tornado meal (with the relish tray, bread and salad), $10 for the second at-home leftover meal and $5 for the third portion of steak. Doesn’t sound as bad does it!

Alchemy makes up for Friday nights without sweet potato fries with mind-blowing sandwich

Alchemy
Alchemy

I have been trying to eat at the Alchemy at the north end of Atwood Avenue for a couple years now, but because they don’t take reservations the wait time was always 30 minutes or more, and during previous visits that didn’t work with our plans or our stomachs. This time, I decided I had waited long enough to try their lauded sweet potato fries so we waited the 30 minutes or so for a table. The restaurant itself is smaller than I think it should be, considering how long their wait times usually are, and it is extremely crowded with nowhere to wait for a table except directly in front of the door, in the main walkway for servers, basically on top of a full table or right next to the ATM. Oh yeah…they have an ATM in the restaurant because they only take cash. While I understand that credit card machines and fees are expensive, I think that in 2014 all businesses should take plastic, especially with so many options to take them via a smartphone or tablet. Usually a restaurant looses my business if they don’t take plastic, but we awkwardly waited by the ATM for our table anyways — luckily I had cash with me!

I already knew I wanted to order the house-made sweet potato fries so when our menu didn’t have them listed I was super confused. When I asked the waitress she explained (in an annoyed tone) that they don’t serve the sweet potato fries after 5 p.m. on Fridays. What!?? How does that make any sense!? I’m assuming it’s because they use their sweet potato fryer to make their fish fry, but that little tidbit of information is not posted online anywhere, and it really doesn’t make any sense at all. Why can’t the sweet potato fries be fried in the same frier as normal fries, which we were able to readily get at 6:30 on a Friday night. Needless to say, I was very disappointed.

Alchemy brisket sandwich, fries
Alchemy brisket sandwich, fries

The only thing that could make up for my extreme disappointment in Alchemy’s odd business decision regarding their sweet potato fries would be a great meal. Well, they delivered. I ordered the brisket sandwich and the picture I have doesn’t do it justice. The description of ingredients is what got me. It says the beer braised brisket from Black Earth Meets comes with mustard BBQ sauce, a house made pickled egg, swiss cheese, mixed greens and red onion. I love every single one of those ingredients and especially love pickled eggs. I know, they sound absolutely disgusting but they are actually really great. They are very popular at bars in Wisconsin, yet I have never seen one on a sandwich anywhere. The sandwich came with a couple of side options, but of course I went for the Alchemy fries in hopes that they might resemble the sweet potato fries. The Alchemy fries were large chunks of potato cooked to a perfectly fluffy consistency, and were seasoned perfectly. I’m not sure if they were baked or fried, but if they were fried they weren’t greasy at all. The sandwich itself was a huge success. The soft, toasted bun could barely contain the serving of perfectly smokey and flavorful brisket on the sandwich. The mustard BBQ sauce helped cut through the heaviness of the brisket, but the real show-stopper of the sandwich was the sliced up pickled egg. That tangy, rich flavor really added a great contrasting flavor. The fresh greens and red onions added a much-needed freshness to the massive sandwich. I loved it. My one suggestion would be to add a bit more of the mustard BBQ sauce.

Alchemy menu
Alchemy menu

FOOD NOTES: Despite being very crowded and not taking reservations or credit cards, I loved my food at Alchemy. Their odd cessation of making sweet potato fries after 5 p.m. on Fridays really angered me, but the brisket sandwich made up for it very quickly. I’m going to say something bold: I haven’t had every sandwich in Madison, but the Alchemy’s brisket sandwich is the best one I’ve had so far and it is going to take a masterpiece to dethrone this sandwich. I will 100 percent be back for that sandwich, and one of these days I will get to try their sweet potato fries! What do you think the best sandwich in Madison is?

#restaurantweek 2014 ends at disappointing steakhouse

Restaurant week is always a great opportunity to eat some good food for a reasonable price. This year’s winter restaurant week was not disappointing as a whole, but it ended with a slightly disappointing meal. I had zero complaints about my first three restaurant week meals, but the last and most expensive one ruined the perfect streak that was Winter Restaurant Week 2014. I went to Johnny Delmonico’s with two friends and was pretty excited because I’ve heard it’s a very good steakhouse, but my experience was a little less than exciting.

Johnny Delmonico's New England clam chowder
Johnny Delmonico’s New England clam chowder

The restaurant week menu appetizers Johnny Delmonico’s offered included a house Caesar salad, fried calamari and New England clam chowder. I always get Caesar salads so I opted to try something new. I didn’t think I’d be a fan of fried calamari, and I’ve never tried New England clam chowder so I got that. The chowder was a great decision! It was creamy, savory and perfectly salty. The bacon and potatoes were a great compliment to the slightly fishy flavor of the clams. I absolutely loved it!

Johnny Delmonico's fried calamari
Johnny Delmonico’s fried calamari

Both of the friends I went with got the fried calamari. They mostly enjoyed the appetizer, but one of them (including me) was a little freaked out by the pieces with tentacles! The spicy chili sauce that came with the fried calamari was pretty good and the batter wasn’t too heavy. I’m not a fan of calamari, but if you like it you’d probably like their version.

Johnny Delmonico's calamari
Johnny Delmonico’s calamari

For entrees they offered a NY strip steak, swordfish and gnocchi. Because Johnny Delmonico’s is a steakhouse I had to get the NY strip. The steak was pepper crusted and came with mashed potatoes, crispy onion strips and a gorgonzola bechamel sauce. The steak was perfectly cooked, the potatoes were flavorful, the onions added a good crispiness to the dish, and the sauce was rich and creamy. The dish as a whole was good, but I was pretty disappointed in the portion. For being a steakhouse with a pretty hefty price tag even during restaurant week, I was expecting a bigger portion, especially of the steak itself.

Johnny Delmonico's creme brulee
Johnny Delmonico’s creme brulee

For dessert they offered creme brulee, fruit sorbet and German chocolate cake. I never think fruit sorbet is worth being a dessert on its own and German chocolate cake has coconut in it. So I got creme brulee, which I am usually a really big fan. The creme brulee was the biggest disappointment of the meal. The custard itself was fine, but it wasn’t caramelized enough on the top and was way way way too small. The teeny tiny ramekin was about 1/4 the size it should have been.

Johnny Delmonico's German chocolate cake
Johnny Delmonico’s German chocolate cake

One of my friends got the German chocolate cake, which was a much larger portion than the creme brulee…damn the coconut!

FOOD NOTES: The atmosphere of Johnny Delmonico’s is classy with an upscale twist on a traditional steakhouse. The prices (regular and restaurant week) are way too high for the portion sizes. The quality of the food is great, but the quantity really ruined my experience. When I go to a steakhouse I expect classic flavors and big portions…half of that was missing at Johnny Delmonico’s. All in all…definitely not my favorite Food Fight restaurant.

Samba: Sizzling service, endless options

samba signI love Madison Magazine’s Restaurant Week. I take advantage of reasonably priced menus at great Madison restaurants during both the summer and winter events every year. This year during the winter week I was lucky enough to enjoy four restaurant week menus. Restaurant week starts on a Sunday, so I always take full advantage of my Sunday nights off and invite my mom. This year we went to Samba for our Sunday-night dinner!

Samba has been on my list for quite awhile, but because of the high prices (it normally costs $50+ per person to eat at Samba) I never put it at the top of the list. With almost 50% off during Restaurant Week it seemed like a good time to go! I had heard two things about Samba before going: the salad bar is amazing, and the servers (gauchos) bring skewers of meat around to the tables. Both of those things are true.

Samba salad bar
Samba salad bar

The large four-sided, three-tiered salad bar features traditional salad fixings, prepared salads, cheeses, nuts, pickled items and other great sides. I’m a huge fan of salads and love it when I can put a ton of interesting stuff on top! I mainly avoided the prepared salads in an effort to save room for the meat delivered by the gauchos. But I loaded up my plate with fresh lettuce, vegetables, pickled beets, croutons, candied nuts, cheese, olives and a great caesar dressing on both of my trips to the salad bar. Samba also offers a couple of hot options near the salad bar. The night I was there they had soup, mashed potatoes, rice and some beef roast. I didn’t go for these options, again, in an effort to save room for the skewered meat.

Samba meat pillar
Samba meat pillar

The meat pillar is a very powerful tool at Samba. It is a small wood pillar with green paint on one side and red paint on the other. It’s simple. When the green side is up, the gauchos will stop at your table. When the red side is up, the gauchos will not stop at your table. Mom and I decided to try everything once, but we only asked for seconds of certain skewers. The pork, chicken, lamb and sausage skewers were all fine, but not great (warning: we are not lamb people!). Because it was restaurant week, the usual eight skewers circulating the dining room was dropped down to six, they cut out two of the beef options. Usually they offer top sirloin, beef tenderloin, seasoned flank steak and beef strip loin. For Restaurant Week we got to sample the flank steak and tenderloin. The tenderloin sprinkled with sea salt was fine, but the seasoned flank steak was spectacular. It was encrusted with a great flavor and was perfectly juicy. Needless to say, we got the flank steak a couple of times and even made friends with that gaucho! At the end, it became a game to get only the gauchos with the food we wanted to stop by flipping our pillar over to green when they were close!

The hardest gaucho to flag down that night was the guy serving up the grilled pineapple. Our server was helpful in tracking down the pineapple gaucho, but he was so much in demand that both times he stopped we asked for two servings! The pineapple is super simple, but super good! It is grilled with cinnamon and sugar, and comes out juicy and warm and super tasty!

Samba menu
Samba menu

FOOD NOTES: Samba is definitely an experience. It is a huge ballroom-type dining room with a second level and low lighting. Scoping out gauchos with the stuff you want is exciting and makes the dinner fun. The salad bar is huge and impressive, but my advice it to stay away from unnecessary fillers like bread, generic pre-made salads and salad-bar hot food. I suggest saving room for the main attraction, especially if you’re paying full price. The mango chicken and parmesan encrusted pork were forgettable. The flank steak was exceptional. The grilled pineapple was simple but stellar. If I could go to Samba and get just the salad bar and grilled pineapple it would become one of my regular stops. But since that’s not an option, and the price is quite a bit higher than my normal dinner out, I probably won’t be back for a while.

Dobhan is a definite don’t

A friend offered to take me out for my birthday about a month ago and said I could pick the place. I originally wanted to go to Bunky’s but they had a 2-hour wait and we were both too hungry for that. Then we were going to go to one of the two new breweries on Atwood Avenue but there was absolutely no parking anywhere near either of them. So when we were driving down Atwood Avenue we saw Dobhan, a Nepalese restaurant owned by the same person that owned Chautara. I loved Chautara and was sad when it closed. The owner said he couldn’t run both so he decided to keep Dobhan open and close Chautara, so I figured it would be a good choice.

dobhan samosa
Dobhan samosa

We walked in to a half-empty dining room that was very bright and had an eclectic mix of decorations. It took a bit before we were seated because I’m pretty sure the only waitress was also the hostess and was clearing tables. The menu is an odd mix of food that claimed to be Nepalese. Both of us liked Chautara so we had high hopes for Dobhan. We both decided to start with a samosa. They came relatively fast but were a complete disappointment. The pastry was dry. The filling was tasteless and also dry. There wasn’t even enough of the filling to fill the samosa. Bottom line: I’ve had frozen samosas that are better.

Dobhan dal
Dobhan dal

Each entree comes with either a salad or dal. I went with the dal because in my mind dal is a good way to determine the quality of an Indian/Nepalese restaurant. And I was right again. This dal was luke warm, flavorless and had more broth than ingredients. I think dal should be the consistency of pea soup, be filled with vegetables and have strong flavors. I was not impressed with their dal and it was a hint of what our entrees would be.

Dobhan beef dish
Dobhan beef dish

I got some beef dish (it was so bad I didn’t even write the name down). It was a couple chunks of beef in a flavorless sauce with some limp veggies. The dish also came with some dry and partially stale wheat pita bread. The beef overcooked and very dry, and there was absolutely no flavor to the sauce.

FOODNOTES: My hope when deciding to go to Dobhan was that I would like it as much as I liked the owner’s other restaurant Chautara. I was badly misguided in that hope. Everything I ate at Dobhan was flavorless and pretty forgettable. Chautara’s menu used to have a salmon dish that came with perfectly cooked garlicky vegetables and a mango salsa on top. I loved that dish and am sad to say there was nothing even close to it on the Dobhan menu. I would highly recommend not visiting Dobhan.

Graze epitomizes Madison’s food scene

I’ve lived in Madison for more than six years and have been trying to hit all of the best restaurants, but for some reason I hadn’t been to Graze on the square yet. It had been on my list since moving here but it never worked out to go – there were always other options that worked better. So when my mom came in to town this fall I decided a Friday night dinner at Graze was in order. They don’t take reservations so we got there around 5 to make sure we got a table! It was already humming then and the best tables near the front windows were taken. We got a small table in the middle of the room pushed up against other tables for two, but the view is mostly the same from the entire dining room.

graze deviled eggs
Graze deviled eggs

There are a lot of things on the menu that Graze is known for, so going into the meal I had an idea what we’d be ordering. We ordered the deviled eggs and fried pickles for appetizers. I was hoping the deviled eggs would be something special or a spin on the traditional Wisconsin deviled eggs. The Graze deviled eggs were good but nothing special. The thing that would make them worth ordering again was the mustard sauce they were sitting on. It added a great flavor to the rich deviled eggs.

graze pickles
Graze fried pickles

Though the deviled eggs were less than spectacular, the fried pickles lived up to their hype and then some. The pickle chips were perfectly fried and came in a large serving. The batter was not too light or too heavy – it was perfectly salty and crispy. The dill ranch dressing was the perfect dipping sauce for the perfectly-greasy fried pickle chips! I love fried pickles and these are ones to keep going back for!

graze beet salad
Graze roasted beet salad

My mom and I like dessert a little less than the average person so we decided to split the roasted beet salad before our main meal instead of getting a dessert. The salad was a perfect choice! It comes with roasted pistachios, Sartori MontAmore cheese, roasted beets and mixed greens topped with a light vinaigrette. We both love beets so this salad was perfect. I was surprised at the large amount of the premium toppings – the beets, pistachios and Sartori cheese! I can’t say enough about this amazing salad – the pistachios added the perfect crunch to the soft roasted beets and the crunchy greens. The Sartori cheese was perfectly sharp and paired well with the light vinaigrette! I will probably be making return trips just for this salad!

graze mussels
Graze moules frites

I got the moules frites f0r my main course. The mussels were perfectly cooked with a great fennel and white wine sauce. The light sauce paired perfectly with the super salty and amazingly crispy fries. The fries were served with a garlic aioli and I absolutely loved them! It is a very simple dish but it was prepared perfectly!

graze sausages
Graze sausage, eggs, veggies

My mom got a dish with house-made sausage, sauteed kale, sweet potatoes and cauliflower, and a sunny-side up egg. The dish also came with hot mustard for the sausages. Everything was cooked perfectly and it got my mom to like sunny-side up eggs for the first. It wasn’t anything too special but it was very good.

FOODNOTES: The view alone sells Graze as the place to go when spotlighting Madison as a food-loving town, but some of our choices added to the great night. The deviled eggs and both of our entrees weren’t anything too spectacular but our fried pickles and roasted beet salad were top notch. The fried pickles top my list of best fried pickles I’ve ever tried and will definitely be ordered again! But what will bring me back, other than the view and tempting other dishes to order, is the roasted beet salad! It was simple but spectacular! Prices are what you’d expect for a funky bistro across the street from the Capitol. I would suggest getting there early unless you don’t mind waiting 40 minutes for a table.