Monk’s doesn’t joke about portion sizes

monks menu
Monk’s menu

For a burger place that originated in the tourist-driven Wisconsin Dells I wasn’t expecting much in the way of quality at Monk’s Bar in Grill. The local chain has four locations – two in the Dells, one in Baraboo and the newest one in Middleton. The fact that the parking lot was almost completely empty on a Friday night in the fall made me nervous, but the waitress told me Middleton High School was playing in some high school football playoff game that night so they had been very slow all night. The menu wasn’t a surprise – mostly burgers and fried appetizers with a couple wraps and salads.

monks pickles
Monk’s fried pickles

I’m a big fan of fried pickles and tend to judge a restaurant on the quality of their fried pickles if they have them on the menu. So when I saw Monk’s had them on the menu I had to get them. There must be some food distributor in Wisconsin that sells frozen fried pickles to restaurants because I’ve had them at a couple different places. Unfortunately, that’s what Monk’s pickles are. They are the same thin spears with the dill batter that any restaurant with hot fryer oil can perfect. They were good (they always taste the same) but disappointing at a local chain. The surprising thing is the order came with a lot more than normal. An order of pickles (if they’re spears) usually comes with five or six; at monk’s you get 10!

monks burger
Monk’s jalapeno bacon burger

For main-meal options, I figured I had to get a burger since that’s what they’re known for and there were a lot of options to choose from. I like spicy food so I got the jalapeno bacon burger, which is an original Monk’s burger (a fancy name for a generic burger) topped with jalapeno bacon, cheddar cheese, grilled jalapenos and spicy ranch dressing. When the burger came out the first thing I noticed was how big it was. The spicy ranch was a good compliment to the grilled jalapenos. The bacon was perfectly cooked and the burger itself was cooked nicely. The burger was so big I took half home and ate it the next day for lunch.

monk's monkey fries
Monk’s monkey fries

The best part of the Monk’s menu is that you can upgrade your side to a premium side of cheese curds, onion rings or monkey fries. The monkey fries appetizer description says they are premium beer battered fries loaded with gooey melted Wisconsin cheddar cheese and crispy chopped bacon, served with a side of ranch – “enough to share.” So when I upgraded my side I was expecting a smaller version of that and hoping the cheese was “gooey” as the description promised. Well…I was wrong about one thing – the size. The plate that came out full of fries was enough to feed three, and the cheese was perfectly melty and gooey like I had hoped. The fries were crispy and the topping was actual melted cheese (not something synthetic and tasteless) with bacon. Other than being overwhelmed by the portion size I was super happy with the upgrade!

FOODNOTES: Don’t go to Monk’s if you want something healthy. If you’re looking for a decent burger and a lot of food – head to Monk’s. This would be a great place for a family to come and split a couple appetizers and upgraded sides for cheap…that’s how big these portions are. I was too full for dessert so I’m not sure if they’re worth it, but based on the frozen, pre-prepared fried pickles, the desserts probably come in the same way. The service at the Middleton location was good but we were one of three tables at the time. I probably won’t be back because nothing was super impressive, but it would be a good spot to watch a game and munch of some monkey fries!

Weary Traveler’s food outshines other hipster pubs

weary traveler menuThere are a bunch of restaurants on Willy Street that have been on my “places to visit” list for a long time. It takes time for me to get to these restaurants because I live so far away and there’s a population of “regulars” that clog up those restaurants everyday. I don’t mind fighting for a table, that’s usually a sign of a good restaurant, but sometimes it feels weird being the only one in the restaurant that isn’t on a first name basis with the bartender. A couple weeks ago a friend and I were planning on grabbing an earlier dinner and I thought that would be a good time to try and grab a table at a Willy Street restaurant. After considering all the options, my vegetarian friend and I decided to go to the Weary Traveler. They are known for their Bob’s Bad Breath Burger with garlic in every component, but they are also known for having a decent amount of vegetarian options.

When we got there we had a hard time getting in to the actual building. The first two doors we tried were locked, and we stood outside slightly confused for a couple seconds before a “local” walking past told us the door was around the corner. Once we finally got inside, we had no idea what to do. It wasn’t clear if we were supposed to wait to be seated or grab a table, so I held our spot at the entrance and my friend went to investigate. While she was gone the bartender randomly yelled that I should take a small table in the middle of the room. From what I could tell, there were two dining rooms divided by a wall covered in eclectic stuff (I have to use that word for lack of a better one, there were pictures, books, globes, metal signs, musical instruments, etc. all over the walls). The bar runs the entire width of the building, and the entire restaurant was a bit too dark for me (I felt like it was almost at the point where I would have to use my cellphone light to read the menu). The dining room we were in was extremely cramped. Multiple times servers had to swing dishes over our heads to get them to their destinations, and when our waiter was talking to us he inevitably ended up in the way of another server. They also didn’t mention they had specials. We figured that out by looking around at all the stuff on the wall and realized that one of them was an actual specials board.

weary traveler coppioni
Cioppino

My intent from the beginning was to get the Bob’s Bad Breath Burger for two reasons: 1. it’s what they are known for, and 2. I love garlic in any and every capacity. But for some reason that night I was not in the mood for a burger. So I asked about the Cioppino listed on the specials board. A Google search before the waiter came back told me a Cioppino is a seafood stew that can be cream or tomato based. Now seafood and cream sounds like an extremely disgusting combination to me so I was really hoping theirs was tomato based. The waiter told me it was indeed tomato based, came with mussels and salmon, and had a great flavor (he said he had the Cioppino instead of his normal choice for dinner). So I got the Cioppino with a heavy heart knowing that I had always wanted to try the Bad Breath Burger. But once the stew was set down in front of me I didn’t think about the burger anymore. It was steaming hot and a surprisingly large serving. The broth had a great earthy tomato and seafood flavor; something very hearty and homey. There were large, perfectly cooked chunks of salmon in it alongside corn, onions, and peppers. I was also very excited to find there were three mussels hanging out at the bottom of the bowl. Fish stew is not an appealing description but this was one of the best specials at a hipster pub I have ever had.

weary traveler vegan chili
Vegetarian chili

My friend couldn’t decide between two of the vegetarian options so she got a cup of the vegetarian chili and the grilled cheese. She enjoyed both, but my favorite of the two was the vegetarian chili. Vegetarian chili tends to be pretty flavorless (based on most of my experiences with veggie chili), but this one was pretty great. I’m not sure what was in it but the couple spoonfuls I had were great. The grilled cheese had cheddar and mozzarella on it, which were perfectly melty and stringy. The sandwich was a bit too heavy for my liking though because the bread tasted like two thick pieces of garlic bread made into a sandwich. Some people might really like that heaviness, but it was too greasy and heavy for me.

weary traveler grilled cheese
Grilled cheese

FOODNOTES: Don’t worry if you can’t figure out how to get in or how to get a table…they will even still serve you if they don’t know your name. To avoid the super hipster crowd try being there before 7pm. Make sure you look around for the specials board and consider what they have…mine turned out super well. The prices are on par with what you would expect for a hipster pub on Willy St. in Madison, but the food is a ton better than a generic pub. None of their desserts sounded worth it (they had ice cream and two random cakes listed), but I will definitely be back to try the Bad Breath Burger sometime!

Heritage is more than a tavern

Madison is definitely a food-lovers paradise but most restaurants don’t get featured in two local publications (Madison Magazine, Isthmus) before it even opens. I don’t remember why Dan Fox’s new restaurant Heritage Tavern got so much pre-opening attention, but I was definitely excited about going when some friends suggested it as our dinner stop for the night!¬†Another reason I was excited about going to Heritage Tavern was because of the location. I went to Underground Kitchen before the apartment building above it caught fire and loved it. The atmosphere was awesome. The food was great. Needless to say, I was sad when Underground Kitchen decided not to reopen somewhere else (and yes, Forequarter, their new restaurant, is on my list!). So, I was also excited about getting to see how another restaurant would use the space.

heritage tuna app
tuna and escolar poke

The Heritage Tavern space is broken up into two dining rooms, mainly because of the large brick wall separating the two sides. I love that there are steps down into the dining room closest to the kitchen. I thought the bare brick wall, tile floors and wooden chairs with a fox cutout were perfectly industrial and homey at the same time. I also loved the little appetizer plates with the pink pigs on them!

I think the menu goes in two distinct directions: classic/savory and interesting/Asian. Those two flavor profiles also cross quite a bit on the menu. On my first visit my friends and I got the Tuna & Escolar Poke. I don’t usually do too well with raw fish but this was amazing. The tuna and escolar were not fishy at all, and they were a perfect marinated flakey texture. The marinade was not too salty but still had a great flavor. I was pleasantly surprised at how delicate the dish was considering the “tavern” in the name and my expectation of the restaurant to focus on meat, pork specifically. Along with our appetizer came a plate of bread, honey butter and house pickled vegetables. The bread and honey butter were not exceptional, but the house picked vegetables were fantastic! The pickle flavor was perfectly tart and had another level of flavor usually lacking in pickled things. I loved the pickle plate!

heritage white fish
great lakes whitefish

For my entree choice I decided to go with fish and got the Great Lakes Whitefish. The fish was cooked perfectly with crispy edges and a flakey center. The clams on top and creamy grits on the bottom added a richness that was perfectly cut by the vinaigrette. The spinach and haricots verts were good but nothing exceedingly special. I was very happy with my choice and felt everything on the plate complimented the entire dish very well.

heritage beet salad
roasted beet salad

One of my friends got the Sake Poached Mackerel. I didn’t try too much of it because it came with cilantro on it, but he loved it. My other friend got the Roasted Cauliflower Beer Cheese Soup (served, of course, with popcorn) and the Roasted Beet Salad. The soup was good but the standout, in my opinion, was the beet salad. It came with beets, pears, goat cheese, figs and dark chocolate. I was impressed by the size of this salad and how many of the premium toppings (beets, pears, figs) it had on top. I’m not usually a fan of sweet salads but this one was exceptional.

heritage choc dessert
chocolate tart

Time for dessert! They had three different options and of course the best one was the chocolate tart. It came with caramel sauce, a homemade chocolate nib and chocolate espresso ice cream. The amazingly buttery and flakey crust was filled with a fantastically smooth chocolate. The chocolate espresso ice cream had a fantastic flavor and actual ground espresso in it, which I loved! The little homemade cocoa nib was a great decorative addition but also stood out on its own with the unexpectedly crispy texture. I loved the dessert all together but the caramel sauce wouldn’t be missed if they took it off.

FOODNOTES: The prices are what you would expect from a restaurant that got the hype it did before it even opened its doors. I don’t think it will become one of my regular stops because of the prices, but I will definitely be back again! I love the Asian flare throughout the traditional high-end Wisconsin tavern food. I loved the Tuna and Escolar Poke, and was exceedingly impressed that they were able to keep it so delicate with all of that flavor. I have never had such a perfectly cooked piece of fish as the one in my entree, and loved that my dish was balanced with both heavy savory flavors and light fresh flavors. I’m not usually a sweets fan but that chocolate tart and chocolate espresso ice cream could convert me! I’m pretty sure I can speak for all three of us at the table and say we would all go back again (and probably will)!

Look past bad service to find amazing food at Pasta Nuovo

pasta nuovo menuPasta Nuovo took over the old Tutto Pasta spot in Middleton a couple months ago. I was kind of disappointed that my neighborhood was getting another Italian restaurant instead of a good Mexican restaurant or casual deli, but figured I should give it a chance. The inside was cozy and open, but it was a beautiful night so we sat outside on the patio. A restaurant definitely gets extra points with me when they have outdoor seating.

pasta nuovo bruschetta
Pasta Nuovo bruschetta

I want to start with the one reason I won’t be going back to Pasta Nuovo for a bit. The service here was awful. Our waiter was inattentive, arrogant and a little inappropriate. The other waiter serving on the patio filled our water glasses more than our waiter. Our appetizer and entrees were brought out by two different people other than our waiter. Our waiter spilled an entire bottle of beer on the woman behind us. He disappeared the entire time we were eating our entrees. He also told us about the two times he lost his credit card and had his identity stolen and how dumb he felt when that happened the second time. The cherry on the top of being a terrible waiter was when he condescendingly told me he would take care of my coupon after he didn’t take care of it the first two times I asked. The woman who brought out our appetizer and the other guy serving on the patio seemed like very nice and competent servers…maybe we just got the cream of the crop!

pasta nuovo bolognese
Pasta Nuovo pappardelle bolognese

I found a coupon for $10 off the purchase of an appetizer and two entrees so we started with the bruschetta. It came out on a large chunk of pizza dough, which was different than I have ever seen. The menu said it was topped with an heirloom tomato basil salad. The description was a little misleading because the stuff on top of our pizza crust was halved cherry tomatoes, a couple slices of basil and a ton of arugula. Everything was really fresh but the dish was definitely lacking in flavor. The flavorless pizza dough with cooked tomatoes and peppery arugula would really benefit from some balsamic vinegar and either mozzarella or Parmesan cheese. Also, the tomatoes were in such big pieces only one out of every two or three bites actually had tomato in it. Chopping the tomatoes up into smaller pieces would make it better.

pasta nuovo summer pasta
Pasta Nuovo tomato basil angel hair

They have a couple of non-pasta options for entrees but since they make the pasta in house I don’t think there was any questions that we wouldn’t get pasta. I got the pappardelle bolognese and was extremely happy that I did. The pasta was so fresh and was cooked to a perfect al dente. The bolognese sauce was, in one word, amazing. It was creamy and hearty but not too heavy. I think what made the sauce special was that it had a little bit of cream in it. Most bolognese sauces are strictly meat based and this one stood out from the crowd with the creaminess combined with the traditional hearty flavors of a bolognese. My mom got the tomato basil angel hair pasta. The pasta was also just as amazing as the pappardelle and the accompaniments were very fresh. The tomatoes were perfectly cooked and plentiful, and the sauce a perfectly sparse buttery drizzle with basil on top. It was very different from the pappardelle bolognese but an extremely flavorful version of buttered noodles. Both were a great choice.

FOODNOTES: The location is a plus for me and I loved the outdoor seating. The portion sizes were plentiful for the prices. Our server was terrible so I will be giving them some time to weed out the bad servers and assemble a good serving staff. Unless there are changes made to the bruschetta I probably won’t be getting it again. As amazing as the bolognese was there’s another dish on the menu I want to try. Next time I go I will be getting the roasted beet pasta. It is fresh beet and spinach fettuccine with roasted beets, goat cheese and pine nuts drizzled with olive oil. I don’t like the flavor of goat cheese but they said they would substitute Parmesan and I think that would be a great substitute. I would suggest getting the bolognese during your first trip and I will definitely update you on the roasted beet fettuccine dish. I also plan to check our their dessert options next time.

Liliana’s serves up flavorful Cajun dishes

lilianas

The only things I know about Cajun food is that it originates from Louisiana, uses seafood and should be spicy. I’ve never had anything near authentic Cajun food before so I’m not going to claim I know what’s good Cajun food. But, I do know what good food is in general, and can say without a doubt that the food at Liliana’s was fantastic! I looked at the menu a couple times the day before and still hadn’t decided what to get when I got there. The menu is an interesting mix of Cajun recipes, traditional restaurant offerings and a couple Wisconsin favorites. I knew I wanted to go the Cajun route but couldn’t decide what dish I wanted to try more. After rereading the menu multiple times I decided on the Jambalaya…probably the most Cajun dish I can think of!

lilianas corn bread
Liliana’s cornbread

While we were still deciding on what to get the waitress brought over a plate of cornbread. I don’t eat cornbread very often because it’s not readily available but I absolutely love it! We ate two plates of it with the super good whipped jalapeno butter. The jalapenos were at the bottom so you could get regular butter or spicy butter based on what your preference is. The cornbread was perfectly moist and sweet, a perfect compliment to the rich, spicy Cajun food.

My friend got the red beans which came in the same large serving and had vegan sausage in it. It was pretty good but the sweetness of the dish was a little unexpected. I think both of us were expecting a hearty, spicy flavor. The consistency was also interesting. The beans were cooked down to mush so there wasn’t much texture.

lilianas jambalaya
Liliana’s jambalaya

My large bowl of jambalaya came out smelling like wonderful spices and smokiness. I’m not the biggest fan of rice so I was pretty happy with the limited amount of it in the bowl. The four large shrimp were perfectly cooked, and the rest of the dish was a prefect combination of tomatoes, peppers, onions, ham, bacon strips and sausage. I loved that the sauce wasn’t too heavy and didn’t overpower any of the other ingredients. It wasn’t too spicy but had a super good flavor with a ton of depth!

The dessert menu had a couple regular restaurant options, bourbon pecan chocolate pie tarte, and then beignets. Beignets are a traditional Cajun dessert so we decided there was no other option. The beignets at Liliana’s are made with house-made brioche, fried and topped with powdered sugar. The beignets I’ve seen on TV are about the size of donut holes…these were basically the size of half a piece of bread. The order of three came with about an inch of powdered sugar on top. The powdered sugar made them kind of difficult to eat but totally worth it. They were super light and airy, and very flavorful! I’m definitely a fan of the beignet!

lilianas beignets
Liliana’s beignets

The atmosphere was not what I was expecting. The bar was dark and intimate. The dining room was smaller than expected and decorated very simplistically. I was expecting a more elaborate dining room with big booths for some reason! There was a jazz ensemble playing the night we were there that really added to the atmosphere. Their website says they have music most nights of the week so make sure to plan your visit on a night with music! The oddest thing was a water fountain in the middle of the dining room that wasn’t running and seemed out of place.The outdoor patios look really nice and I love eating outside so I really want to go back when they are open.

FOODNOTES: I know absolutely nothing about the authenticity of Cajun food but my jambalaya was very good. The flavor was amazing and the ingredients were very plentiful. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the red beans but the amount of vegetarian options was good to see. The corn bread and the beignets were the highlight of the meal! Both were exceptional and will probably bring me back to try other Cajun dishes!

Mazo Old Feed Mill #restaurantweek

I have been going to Madison Magazine’s Restaurant Week for four years now and love the concept! It makes eating at nice restaurants a set price (usually cheaper) and some of the restaurants even make special menus for Restaurant Week. I’ve gone to a dozen or so restaurants during Restaurant Week that I regularly wouldn’t have been able to afford. Last year I squeezed in five dinners and had a blast! This year I’m doing two dinners and a lunch. Yesterday was the first day of Restaurant Week, and I went to the Old Feed Mill in Mazomanie.

The Mazo Old Feel Mill is actually in an old feed mill with beautiful wood floors, huge barn doors and massive antiques! I didn’t actually get to see the dining room because we sat outside on the patio under a huge metal-roof-covered patio! It was pouring rain and probably the best seat in the house. They made it seem like they were too busy to seat us outside but then let us sit out there anyways. I’m not sure if it actually was busy, the parking lot wasn’t full and less than a dozen tables walked in or out while we were eating, but the service was terrible. We barely saw our waitress, she had the bartender bring most of our food, and we had to ask multiple times to get water refills, a to-go box and even our desserts. Then after some awful service she felt the need to fight me on our bill and the manager had to come over to apologize.

Old Feed Mill pot roast

Everything on their Restaurant Week menu is also on their regular menu, which is good because it doesn’t disappear after Restaurant Week! There were two appetizers, stuffed mushrooms and fried artichoke hearts with dill dip. We got one of each and they were both very good. The mushrooms were a good size, and were stuffed with a lot of cheese and something spicy. It was the perfect amount of spice, and good ratio of mushroom to cheese. The artichoke hearts were lightly battered and the dill dip was a good accompaniment. We were both very happy with the appetizers.

For entrees they were offering a chicken, pork or beef dish. I got the pot roast that came with mashed potatoes and veggies. The mashed potatoes and veggies were nothing spectacular but the pot roast was flavorful and very tender. My mom got the cashew-crusted pork that came with veggies and mashed sweet potatoes. I don’t like cashews but the pork itself and the mashed sweet potatoes were good. My mom liked it all!

Old Feed Mill cashew-crusted pork

For dessert I got the bread pudding and my mom got the berry cobbler (turned out to be blueberry). I’m allergic to coconut so was pretty sad to see coconut on my bread pudding when it arrived. So basically my mom got two desserts and thought they were fine. The tiny bit of the cobber I ate was alright.

FOODNOTES: If the service had been better I would definitely say I’d go back but the service will probably deter me from going back. Especially since the quality of the food wasn’t extraordinary to make me forget the bad service. The appetizers were the best of the meal and then it slowly went downhill from there. I would only suggest going there if you are looking for a nice place in the Mazo area. If I ever go back to Mazomanie I will probably go to the old drive-in diner on the main road. It looks fun and a lot cheaper than the Old Feed Mill.

The search for perfect chinese food

I’ve lived in Madison for six years now and still haven’t found the perfect place for Chinese food. In college I ate Asian Kitchen because it was cheap, tasted decent and they delivered for free! But now that I live in Middleton and have a car, I don’t eat Asian Kitchen anymore. I’ve tried Tom’s Red Pepper in Middleton, which was fine but seemed a little too expensive.

Where is your go-to place for Chinese food in Madison?

I had been hearing a lot about HyVee’s Chinese food so before my shopping trip I decided to try it out. I got the two-entree meal that comes with rice or noodles, an egg roll or crab rangoon, and a fortune cookie. First off, I was excited that I could substitute lo mein for rice because I never eat the rice. The lo mein was probably the best part of the meal. It was flavorful and not too greasy. I also really liked the large chunks of cabbage in it. The egg roll was nice and crispy but the filling was a little lacking, which led me to dip it in spicy mustard. That was a good combo but I would prefer the egg roll to stand on its own.

For my two entrees I got garlic chicken and Mongolian beef. I usually love mushrooms so the garlic chicken dish that was half mushrooms looked like a good choice. But I actually didn’t like the dish. The chicken was too mushy. The mushrooms had an odd, slightly canned flavor to them. And the sauce wad basically flavorless. The Mongolian beef, on the other hand, was very good. The beef was perfectly cooked with huge chunks of onion and green beans. The sauce was just a tad spicy and had a pretty good, hearty flavor.

For $8 I got a huge portion and had to take half of the lo mein home, which is pretty comparable to Asian Kitchen’s prices. The biggest difference between Asian Kitchen and HyVee was that Asian Kitchen’s fortune cookies tasted like cardboard and HyVee’s had a vanilla-y flavor!

FOODNOTES: Since The Mogolian beef and lo mein will definitely be on my plate again but I will probably opt for something else over the garlic chicken. HyVee is decently close to my job I will probably go back on dinner breaks when I’m craving Chinese food. It’s a very good alternative to ordering food for eight just to get three different dishes and having to eat it for a week.

What is your perfect Chipotle burrito?

My first Chipotle burrito was in college. I had no idea what to get so I got what my friend got. A chicken burrito with black beans, white rice, hot salsa, cheese and lettuce. It was good but I’ve fine-tuned my perfect burrito over the years (and now it’s not even a burrito! It’s a burrito bowl!).

The best additions to my perfect Chipotle burrito was fajita and their new brown rice! I also put chicken, pico, corn salsa, cheese, sour cream, guacamole and lettuce in my burrito bowl! If I eat at Chipotle I put the green jalapeno Tabasco sauce on it for a kick!

What is your perfect Chipotle burrito?Image

Fitzgerald’s exceeds expectations of traditional Wisconsin supper club

ImageFitzgerald’s Supper club in Middleton has been on my list of restaurants to visit for a couple years now but something more exciting has always beaten it out. This past Friday when my Mom came to visit seemed like a great opportunity for a good steak and salad bar. The decor was underwhelming with splatter painted walls and a color scheme I can only describe as mauve-ish brown. We got a pretty prime table at the front of the dining room in an elevated cluster of tables. We went pretty early in the evening so it was quiet in the dinning room but when we left the parking lot was full and there were people waiting for our table. Our service throughout the entire night was above average and our food came out extremely fast.

ImageWe ordered the fried pickles as an appetizer and they came out hot and very crispy. The batter was clearly a homemade beer batter and the pickles with their homemade ranch dressing were some of the best ones I’ve ever had. The salad bar offered typical supper club ingredients including some really good pickled beets, a couple cold salad options, two different types of soup, and hot garlic bread. I love salad bars so I might be biased but it was a very good start to our meal!

They had a lot of different entree options but going to a supper club in my mind either means steak or fish fry so I got the ribeye and my mom got the fish fry. Mom’s fish had the same light and crispy beer batter on it and it came with some tasty homemade fries. My steak came with a couple options for a side but I went with the garlic mashed potatoes, which were an amazing combination of red potato skins, creamy garlic potatoes and scallions. My steak came out cooked perfectly and was seasoned extremely well. I was very impressed all together with Fitzgerald’s and was very happy to eat leftover steak and french fries from Mom’s fish fry for dinner last night.

FOODNOTES: Great option for steak or fish fry, prices about normal for a traditional supper club, could use some decoration updating, service was fantastic, will definitely go back.