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.

ZuZu Cafe may not be best option during trip to Zoo

zuzu's signIn college I made it to the Henry Vilas Zoo a couple times a year and always wanted to try the cute cafe just across the street from the main entrance. During warm months the large amount of outdoor seating seemed to welcome neighbors, but the colorful building was also quaint and welcoming on cold fall afternoons. ZuZu Cafe and Market seems like a slightly misleading name because to me, a market sells food, goods, drinks…I usually associate a cafe and market with artisan cheeses, micro brews, baked goods and locally made products. This is definitely a cafe, but the market (as far as I could see) only sells beer. The dining room is open and bright, and is very child friendly (it has kid tables and chairs, and a play area). I feel like the entire cafe could use a little facelift (the displays could be updated, most of the signs are handwritten and posted with peeling tape, and everything seemed like it could use a new coat of paint or a good cleaning).

zuzu's panini
Jefferson panini

The menu options basically include sandwiches, soups, salads and a small selection of baked goods. They also have what appeared to be a full-service coffee bar. All of the sandwiches have local names like the Wingra, the Randall, the Henry and the Vilas. I got the Jefferson panini with marinated roast beef, italian relish and mozzarella cheese. I didn’t see a bread option listed anywhere so I was pleasantly surprised to have my panini arrive on sliced pita. The pita made for a sturdy but not heavy sandwich ingredient. My panini was obviously fresh because it was very crispy and steaming hot. The marinated beef in the sandwich was tangy and slightly spicy! It was tender, juicy and had a very good flavor. Ironically, I’ve made this type of marinated beef in my crockpot and it is super simple. The sandwiches come with a side of chips, which is fine but I would prefer a choice of a small salad instead of the chips.

zuzu's peanut butter cookies
peanut butter cookie

Off to the side of the main counter there is a display of baked goods. I’m not sure how fresh they are because they were all covered in plastic wrap, but I decided I wanted a peanut butter cookie. The cookie was good but nothing special. It was soft, chewy and had a good peanut butter flavor.

FOODNOTES:¬†One of the things that threw me off about the entire place is that the prices are equivalent to any other Madison cafe but everything about the place seemed a little cheap. The food was fine, nothing special, but it was all served in plastic carnival-food baskets. You know the ones – they are bright red basket-weaved plastic oval bowl things. Even my cookie was served in one, which didn’t work out too well because the cookie kept tipping the basket over. The walls, displays, seating and signs could all use a good cleaning and/or be updated. I was also disappointed in the “market” aspect they advertise on their sign. I didn’t have coffee so I can’t vouch for or against it.¬†

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)!

Potato dumplings perfect at Paul’s Pel’meni

When looking for Paul’s Pel’meni on Gorham you have to be careful not to walk by. It’s tucked in a side entrance between State and Henry streets. The trickiest part is that the main door has an art supply store sign over it. Again, make sure you pay attention because you don’t want to miss this place,

pauls

The tiny dining room with a half dozen tables and a counter by the front window has an industrial feel with modern colors. The simplistic feeling is accentuated by the simple menu and the simple preparation area. The menu has basically one option with a couple different variations that are prepared ahead of time, frozen and dropped into one of four pots of boiling water. They offer full or half orders of dumplings that can come stuffed with meat, potatoes or both. Then they offer “the works” as a topping. The works includes butter sauce, curry powder, chili sauce (which I was told is Sriracha and rice vinegar), cilantro and sour cream.

Paul's Pel'meni with the works on top
Paul’s Pel’meni with the works on top

I went to Paul’s for lunch with a friend and the full size was enough for the both of us plus leftovers. We got a combo with the works and I thought they were great considering they are so simple. Both the meat and potato fillings were good but the potato one really shined. The meat one tasted like a standard pot sticker, but the potato filling was buttery and creamy, and a really good vehicle for the spicy topping. The thing that makes Paul’s Pel’meni stand out from other dumplings is the topping combo they offer. I’m not a fan of cilantro so I plan to get the works without cilantro next time, but the rest of the toppings worked really well together. The butter sauce gave it a hearty flavor while the curry powder and chili sauce gave the dumplings an intense but flavorful heat. The sour cream was a nice compliment to the spicy toppings.

The price was a tad high for the amount and simplicity of the food but it won’t keep me from coming back. ALERT: They only take cash so make sure to hit an ATM on the way.

FOODNOTES: This hidden gem on Gorham has a great feel and dishes up amazing food. The simplistic menu means they were able to perfect the options they do have. Both meat and potato fillings are good but the potato one shines. Next time I go I will probably just get the potato filling. As for toppings, if you like spicy food I would suggest getting the works. I know it sounds like an odd set of flavor combinations but they all work really well together (of course I won’t be getting the cilantro). I would say Paul’s Pel’meni is a great lunch place and will definitely be back, but I think the limited menu would not make for a good dinner stop. And remember: they only take cash!