Hidden atop downtown hotel, The Blind has many something specials

It takes something special for new restaurants in downtown Madison to last, and the new one on top of the Graduate Hotel has a couple something specials.

Reasons I love The Madison Blind:

  1. It’s on a roof where you can see State Street, Lake Mendota and the Capitol.
  2. No matter where you sit, inside near the wall of windows or outside on the patio, you have a great view!
  3. The drinks a great. They do the classics well and their specials are super tasty.
  4. The fries are extra crispy and served with great aioli.
  5. The beet salad is an A+.

Those are some pretty great reasons to check out the Blind, but I can’t say enough about the view, especially on the patio…I have repeatedly forgotten to take a picture of the view because I was too busy enjoying it in real time!

IMG_3316The food is also pretty great. I’ve tried most of their appetizers and none of them disappointed. The poutine is phenomenal. I’m usually not a fan of poutine because it usually tastes like a pile of mush, but the poutine at the Blind is cheesy, the fries are crispy and the gravy is super flavorful. The fish tacos are super fresh and light, but they are very tiny. The cheese curds are a great version of the Wisconsin classic.

IMG_3314Like I said, the beet salad with chicken is top notch. If you get the poutine and cheese curds to start, the beet salad is a great entree option. It’s tasty and hearty, but not heavy.

IMG_3318As for dessert, they serve the hand pies sold downstairs in the hotel’s cafe Portage Pi. I got the apple pie a ‘la mode. The turnover-like pie was hot and crispy, but the crust was a little dry and there could have been more filing and ice cream

Based on its location, the corner of Langdon and Francis, and it’s great drinks and food, it’s not a surprise the Blind is usually very busy. I’ve had to wait for a table every time I’ve been there, but the view and food are worth the wait. It is a small dining room, but based on my experience I think part of the wait time has to do with the service. Every time I’ve been there our waiter has either taken forever to come to the table the first time or disappeared halfway through. It also feels like there are no assigned tables because all three times I’ve gone I had a couple different servers.

FOOD NOTES: The Blind is one of my new favorite places in Madison. If the food and drinks don’t keep you coming back, the view should. The service could be faster and more organized, but there are too many other goods things at the Blind that will keep me going back. I’m a sucker for their beet salad so I’ve never tried their burgers, but they look and smell amazing!

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New brewery partners with tap haus for awesome Wisconsin favorites

IMG_3202In Wisconsin one of the best things someone who loves food can hear is that a brewing company is opening a restaurant. Inevitably the menu will feature some great Wisconsin favorites, lightly-fried beer-battered goodies, great sandwiches and a great beer cheese soup recipe. Wisconsin Brewing Co. Tap Haus fits that bill perfectly. The former Capital Tap Haus on State Street reopened in January as the Wisconsin Brewing Co. Tap Haus, with Wisconsin Brewing Company in Verona. I ate at Capital Tap Haus a couple times and didn’t think the food was particularly memorable, but my first meal at Wisconsin Brewing Co. Tap Haus definitely was.

WBC beer cheese soup

WBC beer cheese soup

The menu looked pretty standard for a tap haus, but the two things I tried were better than standard. I started with the beer cheese soup. Sometimes beer cheese soup can be way too cheesy and sometimes the beer can be way too strong. But the bowl I had at WBC Tap Haus was just right — it had a creamy, cheese flavor and texture, and the beer was just strong enough to cut the heavy cheesiness. The popcorn on top added a great salty crunch, but I would have liked a couple more kernels.

WBC fish fry

WBC fish fry

The fish fry, offered every day of the week BTW, was also good. The coleslaw wasn’t as creamy is traditional fish fry coleslaw is, but it was light and refreshing and crunchy. The fish, which is a pretty big serving for lunch, was hot and crispy and had a great beer-battered flavor, but I would have liked the batter to be a little lighter. And even though the fries weren’t as crispy as I’d like, the skins added a great flavor and they were perfectly salted.

IMG_3203FOOD NOTES: The change over from one brewery to another at the tap haus at the top of State Street was pretty seamless. I didn’t even know the brewery had changed, but the menu definitely tipped me off. There’s a good variety of dishes, but I’d stick with the Wisconsin favorites because nothing goes better with Wisconsin food than beer!

Estrellon tapas are surprisingly filling for the price

I heard two things about Estrellon when it first opened:

  1. The food (both the paella and the tapas) is amazing
  2. The prices are a bit high

But a girls night out at a bar downtown seemed like the perfect time to try tapas for dinner at Estrellon. We got one of the last tiny tables on the tapas side of the restaurant and after waiting a little too long for a waiter, we ordered a half dozen tapas to start with. But those ended up being surprisingly filling and a perfect mix of fun food for dinner.

Here’s what we got:

deviled eggs

Estrellon deviled eggs

The deviled eggs were too mustardy for me…I like my deviled eggs traditionally chocked full of mayo.

Estrellon cheese curds

Estrellon cheese curds

This was the worst thing we got. I’m not sure what I was expecting because the menu didn’t say fried cheese curds, but fresh cheese curds (that weren’t even squeaky so they couldn’t have been that fresh) with some dressing and sesame seeds on top was a very underwhelming dish. Definitely not worth ordering.

Toast pieces with different toppings

Toast pieces with different toppings

The toast pieces come with a bunch of different topping options. I got the summer sausage with raw milk cheddar and pickles; the charred beets with manchego cheese and pine nuts; and the jamon iberico with tomato jam and relish. My friend got the sweet pears with candied walnut butter and feta cheese; brie with artichoke, tomato and caviar; and the smoked sockeye salmon with greek yogurt, caviar and truffle honey. They were a lot smaller than I expected, but they were extremely tasty. My favorite was the summer sausage one with the housemade pickle!

Estrellon croquetas

Estrellon fried mushrooms

These were the best thing we ordered. They were fried mushrooms, but what made them special was that they were stuffed with cheese and came with a great aioli sauce drizzled on top. They were hot, crispy and had a great flavor. And since the cheese and sauce were so rich, the serving size was just enough.

Estrellon papas fritas

Estrellon papas fritas

These were pretty much what I expected — crunchy, salty frites with yummy aioli. I always go for papas fritas because they’re easy to do well. Always a good standby.

FOOD NOTES: Once we got everything we ordered, we decided we wouldn’t need another round of food, which was good. Our bill (split two ways) ended up being about the same as if we had gone to another pricier restaurant downtown, which was pleasantly surprising. After we listed off our entire order, I thought it was going to be about double what it ended up being. Estrellon is definitely a fun place to go, and if you drink wine they have a happy hour deal where you buy a glass of house wine and get a free tapa…which would be a great way to check out Estrellon.

Portage Pi is hidden gem between State and Langdon

IMG_1810

Canoes hang from the ceiling of the Graduate Hotel’s lobby

Portage Pi dining room

Portage Pi dining room

Portage Pi communal table

Portage Pi communal table

The amount of food and beverage options downtown keeps growing, but there are always some standouts. Over the summer about a dozen new places opened downtown, but one place’s atmosphere, location and food should be noticed. Portage Pi is in the lobby of the new Graduate Hotel on the corner of Francis and Langdon streets. It’s the perfect location for students needing sustenance either walking to or from classes, but students shouldn’t be the only people enjoying this new gem. When I visited with my friend Michelle Li, they said they’d be opening a cafe and walk-up counter for quick ordering. But if you walk up, you don’t get to experience the great decor and atmosphere inside.

Lamp base

Lamp base

IMG_1804IMG_1808 IMG_1807 IMG_1806I’m not really sure how to explain the decor, other than saying there’s probably something for everyone. It’s cute, eclectic, cozy and has some local flair. The menu has hand pies, salads, sandwiches, coffee, smoothies and juice.

IMG_1817 IMG_1815 We got to try two of their hand pies — the banana s’mores pie and the short rib pie. Both hand pies were super good, but I liked the savory one better. They would be great to take to class and secretly eat in the back row of a lecture hall! The crust was flaky and didn’t overwhelm the filling. The inside was flavorful and filled with quality ingredients.

Banana s'mores hand pie

Banana s’mores hand pie

IMG_1813The banana s’mores pie was also good, but unless you’re a huge dessert fan, I wouldn’t pass up the savory pies for the dessert pies. They are a bit too sweet for my taste.

housemade juices

housemade juices

I also got to try one of their housemade juices — the Thornton Melon with honeydew, mint, lemon, ginger and cucumber.  It was super refreshing and even though it was technically juice, didn’t feel sugary…it tasted like infused water.

FOOD NOTES: I lived three blocks from this place when I was in college and it would have been a regular stop on my way back from class. A place where I can get good coffee, a quick lunch and a juice or snack for later would have been at the top of my list of regular stops…right up there with Med Cafe, Amy’s and Chipotle. I wouldn’t recommend getting the juices every day, but it would have been a good treat on some of those hot days at the beginning of the school year.

Revamped menu at The Wise features upscale ingredients

I’ve been to The Wise twice — once for lunch during restaurant week and once for brunch on Game Day. Both times I enjoyed my meal, but the third time I went was after the new chef released a revamped menu and it was even better than the first two visits. The revamped menu also came along with a revamped dining room — they made it bigger and homier.

tapas

tapas

We started with a tray of snacks on a stick. We got the date stuffed with chorizo wrapped in bacon; jamon iberico de bellota with tempura ramp; and prosciutto, Carr Valley cocoa cardona, strawberry and mint. The bacon-wrapped date was good. I liked that it was stuffed with chorizo instead of cheese, but the other two out-shined the date. The prosciutto and cheese was sweet, salty and refreshing. It was one perfectly balanced bite. The star of the tray was the ham with a tempura fried ramp. The garlicy ramp wrapped in fancy, imported ham was something spectacular! I loved it.

asparagus salad

asparagus salad

We also got the asparagus salad with arugula, poached egg yolk, croutons and crispy bacon. The salad also has a light vinaigrette on it. This one was good, but a little disappointing based on the ingredients. I thought with bacon, egg yolk and arugula it would be a very flavorful salad…but it was just missing that something special. Maybe the egg yolk was too poached…maybe the bacon was too crispy…I’m not sure, but I wasn’t blown away.

smoked half chicken

smoked half chicken

The last thing we got to try was the smoked half chicken. This dish was pretty special. It comes with a BBQ jus, cheddar spiked polenta (hiding under the chicken) and honey glazed carrots. The polenta was creamy and had the perfect amount of cheesy flavor. And the carrots were great — spring carrots are super sweet and there was just enough glaze to work well with the smokiness of the chicken. The chicken was juicy and the smoky flavor was great — not overwhelming, but just enough to make the chicken super flavorful. The one downfall is that it’s a little hard to eat…you literally get half a chicken and a knife…so your plate looks a little like a massacre when you’re done.

FOOD NOTES: I’m glad I got to eat at The Wise before the revamp because it gave me a good base for comparison. The revamped menu definitely offers higher-quality dishes with special ingredients and flavor combinations. Tapas, salads and chicken are pretty common menu options, but these were elevated with fancy ingredients and unexpected flavor combinations. When you go to The Wise, go with an open mind and don’t be surprised if  you come across something that sounds weird on the menu but that actually tastes great!

Cento stands out with great starters, fresh pasta

Cento

Cento

My experience with Italian food growing up included pasta from a box and sauce from a can, the famous blue-box mac and cheese, and something called “Italian ice” that probably isn’t actually Italian. I’ve tried to expand my exposure to real Italian food, but my options have been limited. That is…until Cento opened in downtown Madison. I had heard mixed reviews before my first trip at the end of April, but my pre-concert dinner with a friend was fantastic!

The smaller-than-I-expected dining room was simple and classic with a bar toward the front, a small party room in the back and a mix of wooden booths and tables. The kitchen and prep areas are mostly open to the dining room, and our server was attentive but not annoying. (Side note: the bathrooms are super cute!)

Cento melon and prosciutto

Cento melon and prosciutto

The menu is broken into appetizers, small plates, soups/salads, pizza and pasta. The pasta comes in two sizes, which means you can get three appetizers or small plates and a small pasta — which is what my friend and I did! We started with melon and prosciutto which is something I’ve never had. It was thinly-sliced prosciutto and honeydew melon with sliced cucumber, balsamic glaze and parmesan cheese sprinkled on top. This is not a dish that sounds good when you read the description, but the combination of the sweet, light melon and the salty prosciutto really works well together. The balsamic adds a much-needed kick of acidity, and if I’m being honest — I don’t even remember tasting any parmesan cheese over the other strong flavors on the plate.

Cento bacon wrapped dates

Cento bacon wrapped dates

The second appetizer/small plate we got was bacon wrapped dates. I usually avoid these at restaurants because they’re usually stuffed with goat cheese and I don’t like goat cheese. But these were stuffed with spicy sausage…and let me tell you, spicy sausage in a sweet date wrapped in bacon…it really couldn’t get better than that! The combination of spicy, salty and sweet was super good. More restaurants should stuff their bacon wrapped dates with spicy sausage instead of goat cheese!

Cento arancini

Cento arancini

The third appetizer/small plate we got was my favorite — and it’s not just because I first heard about them on the “Sopranos.” Arancinis are rice balls stuffed with cheese that are coated with breadcrumbs and then fried. They sound super boring, but they are great! Cheesey fried rice balls in marinara sauce — yum!

Cento pappardelle

Cento pappardelle

When deciding on an entree I went for pasta because I’m not a huge fan of pizza and the pasta are made fresh. I went with the pappardelle that comes with a “northern ragu.” I’m not sure what “northern” means but it was very rich and flavorful and the noodles were excellent. There’s something special about fresh pasta…it’s hard to describe, but once you’ve had it you know the difference. As much as I loved our starters…I liked my pasta better!

Cento cheesecake

Cento cheesecake

We weren’t going to get dessert, but the cheesecake sounded so good we couldn’t resist. Everything about the cheesecake was perfect, except the marmalade and the lemon sorbet. The cheesecake was rich and creamy. The crust was sweet and crumbly. The cream on top was light. The slices of orange added a great freshness and the crispy sugar was fun. The other two components of the dessert were unnecessary and slightly unpleasant. We completely ignored the thick orange marmalade and we probably should have done the same with the sorbet. It was extremely bitter…to the point that it was unpleasant to try and eat. But once those were pushed off to the side or scraped off…the cheesecake dessert was great!

FOOD NOTES: Cento is a great addition to the Food Fight network and to the downtown restaurant scene! Not only did we have a great time figuring out what all the authentic Italian stuff on the menu was, but we also had a great meal. The arancini are a must when ordering a starter and the bacon wrapped dates should also be considered. After finishing off our three starters I was so full…but my pasta was so good I couldn’t stop eating it! Fresh pasta is really one of the best things an Italian restaurant can do to set itself apart. Next time I want to try their burrata, cheese board and their potato gnocchi.

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

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

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

43 North roasted dates

43 North roasted dates

43 North sweet potato soup

43 North sweet potato soup

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

43 North game hen

43 North game hen

43 North curried cauliflower

43 North curried cauliflower

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

43 North salmon

43 North salmon

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

43 North pavlova

43 North pavlova

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

43 North almond panna cotta

43 North almond panna cotta

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

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