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


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?

Sophia’s serves mediocre food in a cramped space

I put a lot of stock in restaurant reviews on Yelp. I feel that the masses will reflect the actual quality of a restaurant. Usually I read the first five reviews and then a couple of the really bad ones to have a good expectation of what I’m walking in to. The first time Yelp reviews have really led me in the wrong direction was for Sophia’s on Johnson Street. The reviews said Sophia’s has the best breakfast in town, and I couldn’t disagree more.

The first strike against Sophia’s happened when I picked a friend up for breakfast on a Friday and Sophia’s was closed. Apparently, Sophia’s is only open on Saturdays and Sundays. That does not seem like a good business plan to me.

A month later that same friend and I drove back over to Sophia’s on a Saturday for breakfast. Sophia’s is in a small building on Johnson Street that is so nondescript I have driven by it dozens of times and have never noticed it. When you walk in the first thing you will notice is that there are only five tables and a small counter by the front window. I’m not against small restaurants but this takes “small” to an extreme. To get to the only open table in the place (which I didn’t think there was going to be one for us when we first walked in) we had to awkwardly climb over two people sitting at the table in front of the empty table. You order at a counter and they bring your food out to you. But the weird part about Sophia’s is that once you’ve waited in line to order, then you have to wait in line again when you’re done eating to pay, because you pay after you’re done eating. Usually if you order at a counter you do the whole ordering and paying thing in one transaction. Having to wait in line once we were done eating just to pay was super inconvenient.

Sophia's cinnamon roll
Sophia’s cinnamon roll

I could be persuaded to forgive the cramped space and the odd payment system if the food had been great. But unfortunately it was not. The cinnamon roll we got was more like a cinnamony morning bun with an odd lemon glaze on top. I’m sorry but when I want a cinnamon roll I want it to be frosted or glazed with vanilla or cream cheese goodness…not an oddly tart lemon concoction.

Sophia's omelet
Sophia’s omelet

Their menu, not posted online anywhere, is written on a chalkboard, which I’m assuming means it changes. When we were there they were offering a couple different omelets and breakfast sandwiches, as well as pancakes. I’m a savory breakfast person so I got an omelet. It had cheese, ham and peppers in it. The peppers were tasteless and seemed like they may have come out of a can. The omelet itself was kind of watery and the cheese was sparse. I was thoroughly unimpressed, especially because the guy sitting behind me at a different table kept rocking his chair into mine the entire time. The omelet also came with breakfast potatoes that weren’t crunchy enough for my taste and were very bland.

Sophia's apple pancakes
Sophia’s apple pancakes

My friend got apple pancakes, which were the special that day (but she said the last time she was there the special was the same so my guess is it doesn’t change very often).

FOOD NOTES: My favorite restaurant in my hometown only has about a dozen tables, and I’m able to overlook the small space because the food is so good. The one thing that place does well is that even though they have 12 tables, there’s a reasonable amount of space between them so you don’t have to climb over people to get to a table. The food at Sophia’s is nowhere near good enough to make up for their annoying dining area. The lemon flavor on their cinnamon roll was not appreciated, and their omelets and breakfast potatoes were subpar. Their prices were also a bit high for the extremely cramped and rundown dining area we had to endure.

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.

Coffeehouse serves up exceptional espresso, granola

jph sign 2There’s something novel about a coffee shop that brews each cup of coffee to order and serves fantastic homemade food. Johnson Public House does just that. Even the best coffee shops in Madison can’t compete with the neighborhood feel of this near east side coffeehouse. The welcoming and homey space is accented by a large coffee bar, mismatched furniture and local art hanging on the wall. Both times I went to JPH there were half a dozen people visiting and hanging out on their computers. My favorite part of JPH was, what else, their focus on quality coffee!

I have been a coffee drinker since high school. I love most types of brewed coffee, but generally don’t like espresso because in my experience, espresso usually has a bitter flavor. JPH baristas told me they specialize in a cortado – two shots of espresso with a little bit of warm milk added in. I was extremely skeptical about trying one but now I crave them. The cortados at JPH are extremely creamy and have a perfect roasted coffee flavor – no bitterness in sight. I had two the first time I went and wished I had time to get a second one on my second visit! The JPH cortado definitely changed my mind about drinking quality espresso.

jph roast beef breakfast sandwich
roast beef breakfast sandwich

On top of that amazing espresso drink their pour-over coffee is fantastic. I tried a couple different types of coffee they had that day, and all of them exceeded any brewed coffee I’ve ever had. I’m not sure I’d ever pass over a cortado for their brewed coffee but it was very good.

jph breakfast sandwich
JPH breakfast sandwich

They have a small menu of breakfast and lunch sandwich options. I was with a friend and we decided to try their original breakfast sandwich and their roast beef breakfast sandwich. The original breakfast sandwich has a hardboiled egg, local ham, mozzarella, tomato and pesto on wheat bread. I love that the sandwich has hardboiled eggs on it – it makes it very portable and hearty. But the real winning sandwich was the roast beef breakfast sandwich with a hardboiled egg, provolone cheese, local roast beef, sriracha mayo and caramelized onions on wheat bread. The hardboiled egg and roast beef pair perfectly  with the spicy and creamy sriracha mayo and crunchy onions. Sandwiches come with either potato chips or greens. The chips were a good salty addition to the hearty sandwiches but I would recommend getting the greens. The actual greens are a nice, fresh spring mix but the dressing is what makes the side fantastic. I’m not sure what is all in it, but it was a light vinaigrette with small tidbits of salt and pepper throughout. The dressing made those  greens ridiculously good!

jph granola
JPH granola

To top off the great coffee and unique sandwiches, we got a small cup of the yogurt and granola. The locally-made yogurt was extremely creamy and paired very well with the fresh berries. But the shining star of the bowl was the homemade granola. The crispy oats and cashews had a fantastically sweet flavor. I loved the granola so much I asked if they would sell it to go (apparently they are working on it!). On my second visit I even passed up the roast beef breakfast sandwich for a large bowl of the yogurt, granola and fruit – of course I also got a cortado. I can’t really describe why such a simple dish was so good, but the homemade granola and the drizzle of honey on top is probably part of it!

jph sign 1FOODNOTES: If I lived closer to Johnson Public House I would be a very regular customer. If not for the cortados, I would stop in for a sandwich or a huge bowl of the granola. The cortado changed my opinion of quality espresso drinks. It will definitely be difficult to drive through that neighborhood without stopping for my new favorite coffee drink! Their breakfast sandwiches are great, especially the one with roast beef and sriracha mayo. Their homemade granola makes a traditionally simple and unexciting dish exceptional! My recommendation – a cortado and a bowl of granola!

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

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!