Classic steak, seafood best enjoyed on patio at Mariner’s Inn

There are a handful of places in Madison that make you feel like you’re not in the middle of a city of a quarter of a million people — picnic point, the UW Arboretum, Wingra Park and the docks on the north side of Lake Mendota. Luckily for us, the Von Rutenberg family put a very nice Wisconsin supper club right on the north shore so we could enjoy some good food with that great view.

Lake Mendota
Lake Mendota

The Mariner’s Inn really is a classic steak and seafood restaurant, but what makes it special is the outdoor patio and the view. I went on a beautiful Sunday night with a friend for Restaurant Week in July. The patio was the perfect spot to enjoy our three-course meal.

Mariner's Inn clam chowder
Mariner’s Inn clam chowder

Their clam chowder was the perfect starter. It was creamy and peppery, and had big chunks of potatoes and clams. I’ve had clam chowder that tastes fishy, but this one had the right amount of saltiness without being fishy.

Mariner's Inn tenderloin of romance
Mariner’s Inn tenderloin of romance
Mariner's Inn hashbrowns
Mariner’s Inn hashbrowns

For entrees they had surf and turf, shrimp, salmon and a tenderloin dish. The tenderloin of romance, as they called it, was a tenderloin, three scallops and crab meat served with a béarnaise sauce and asparagus. The tenderloin was perfectly cooked and it paired really well with the sauce. I thought the crab meat might be too much with the bearnaise sauce, but it was pretty good. The asparagus was also really good with the crab meat and sauce. I’m not a huge fan of scallops, but these were perfectly cooked, which means they were buttery and delicious. We also got an order of hasbrowns, which were hot and crispy, but a little salty.

Mariner's Inn key lime pie
Mariner’s Inn key lime pie
Mariner’s cheesecake with Door County cherry sauce
Mariner’s cheesecake with Door County cherry sauce

For dessert we got the cheesecake and the key lime pie. The key lime pie was fantastic. It was sweet and tart, but not too tart and the crust was buttery and crumbly. The cheesecake was also very good. I don’t like cherry desserts, but the sauce was the perfect combo of sweet and tart.

FOOD NOTES: The food at the Mariner’s Inn is classic supper club food. It’s good, but the view from the patio is what makes the experience at the Mariner’s Inn special. The clam chowder was the best I’ve ever had, and the rest of the meal followed suit, but I would highly suggest all Mariner’s Inn dining experiences be out on the patio.

Cheese on sushi? We must be in Wisconsin!

I’ve been on and off the sushi train a couple times — In college I ate sushi weekly with a group of friends, but I hadn’t had sushi in a couple years because of some unfortunate food poisoning. Luckily, my lunch at Takara 88 in Middleton with Michelle was the perfect transition back onto the sushi train.

Takara house salad
Takara house salad

We started with the traditional sushi restaurant house salad with ginger dressing. I forgot how much I loved ginger dressing. Each sushi restaurant has it’s own version of the orange dressing, and Takara 88’s was just as good as all of the other versions I’ve had.

Shrimp and veggie tempura
Shrimp and veggie tempura

After the salad we tried their tempura with shrimp and bigs chunks of vegetables. The shrimp and the vegetables were perfectly cooked and the tempura was light and crispy. Sometimes tempura can be heavy and greasy, but Takara 88’s wasn’t.

Now on to the sushi. We got to try two of their special rolls and both of them were good, but I preferred the BMW roll.

BMW roll
BMW roll

BMW roll

BMW roll

The BMW roll comes with tempura shrimp and avocado and is topped with seared salmon, cheese, caviar and a special sauce. This was the perfect roll to ease back onto the sushi train. The cooked shrimp and avocado went great with the seared salmon. The BMW roll was my first introduction to sushi caviar. I could barely tell it was on the roll, but it did add a good salty flavor. The cheese is what made this roll a lot more interesting. I’ve never seen cheese on a sushi roll before, and I don’t think Michelle had either. The ingredients in the BMW roll sounded like everything and the kitchen sink, but they ended up working really well together.

"V" roll
“V” roll
"V" roll
“V” roll presentation
"V" roll
“V” roll
"V" roll presentation
“V” roll martini glass

The second roll we tried was the “V” roll, which is spicy tuna and crab, lettuce, avocado and asparagus wrapped in rice paper and topped with a spicy sauce. The presentation of the “V” roll was crazy pretty and used a martini glass. The “V” roll was good and the lettuce added a much-needed crunch.

FOOD NOTES: Sushi will probably never be my first choice, but Takara 88 in Middleton has some great special sushi rolls. The tempura is a great substitute for sushi, but if you’re OK with raw fish, the BMW roll is the way to go.

Local sub shop shines on near east side

Everyone loves a good sub sandwich, but sometimes chain restaurants like Subway, Milio’s or Jimmy Johns just don’t cut it. Recently I checked out a small deli/sub shop on the near east side called Crostini.

Crostini Sandwiches
Crostini Sandwiches

Crostini is located in this randomly placed commercial strip mall on the corner of Johnson and North streets in the middle of a very quaint neighborhood. The day I decided to try out Crostini it was the perfect sunny summer day so their front door was propped open and the crew behind the counter was jamming out to music. The small dining room probably had seats for a about a dozen people, but they also had some outdoor seating. The menu features sub sandwiches, paninis, wraps and pasta.

IMG_1720I got the Crostini club with ham, turkey, bacon, veggies, mayo and their signature dressing. The $7 sandwich came with a decent amount of ingredients…it even had some fresh green peppers in it, which wasn’t on the menu. The menu said it was a cold sandwich, but I was pleasantly surprised that the meat was either toasted or warmed up. The tangy dressing worked well with the mayo, but there might have been a bit too much of it because my sub roll was pretty soggy. The other logistical issue was that when they wrapped it up to go, it got very squished, which made it a little tricky to eat.

IMG_1721We also got some of their freshly baked chocolate chip cookies for dessert. They were definitely freshly baked because they were will warm when they handed them to me!

FOOD NOTES: If I lived closer to Crostini it would definitely make it into my regular lunch rotation. So if you live on the near east side or are heading that direction, you should really check it out. Their prices are reasonable…especially because of the quality ingredients that were in my sub. I’ve read some pretty terrible reviews on Yelp about their customer service…most of them pertaining to delivery, so I would avoid delivery and just go get the food.

Shocker: Cafe inside gym serves up tasty, healthy food

Going out to eat for me is usually a time to go all out — something I wouldn’t normally eat, something a little more extravagant or something less healthy than my regular routine. But every once in a while I like trying out healthy options that I just don’t know how to make on my own. And that’s exactly what I got to do when I went to Fit Fresh Cuisine with a friend last month.

IMG_1689Fit Fresh is basically inside Hybrid Athletics in Fitchburg. They offer cleanses, meal plans and a regular menu. Their menu has juices, smoothies, acai bowls, breakfast sandwiches and scrambles, sandwich and salads.

IMG_1691
palisade acai bowl

I’ve heard about acai bowls but never knew what they really were, so I jumped in with both feet and got the first one on the list. The palisade bowl comes with acai, strawberry, Sugar River vanilla yogurt, whey protein and wheat germ topped with tahini (I know…what?!), chia seeds, pepita and homemade granola. I was expecting to get a bowl of yogurt with acai berries and a bunch of other stuff on top, but I can only describe what I got as breakfast soup. It was good, but it wasn’t what I was expecting!

IMG_1690The yogurt-like mixture is slightly thinner than regular yogurt, but just as tasty. I was worried about the tahini on top, but it added just the right amount of savory flavor to cut the bitterness of the acai. The chia seeds, pepita and granola were the perfect crunchy additions. My bowl also had slices of banana in the yogurt. Even though it was not what I was expecting, I really enjoyed it. My friend got a sandwich and enjoyed it too.

FOOD NOTES: Fit Fresh Cuisine is not very conveniently located, but if you’re in the Fitchburg area looking for a healthy lunch option you should check this place out. My acai bowl was not what I was expecting, but it was pretty tasty. I loved that it was tasty, fresh and filling. Most of the time you get one or two of those…not all three! I’ve had friends try their meal plans and cleanses, and they’ve given it some pretty positive reviews.

Basement bar is hidden gem of old Greenbush Neighborhood

Greenbush Bar
Greenbush Bar

There aren’t a lot of original businesses left in the Greenbush Neighborhood just south of the UW-Madison campus, but one of the last remnants of the ethnic neighborhood is a hidden gem. Greenbush Bar is in the basement of what looks like an abandoned building…but it’s actually the old Italian Workman’s Club building on Regent Street.

When you walk in it looks a little rundown and the odd stairwell down to the basement is a little suspect, but the dark, quaint, simple dining room makes up for it. The eatery and bar is lit mostly with lights strung from the ceiling and the tight basement quarters makes it feel hidden and exclusive.

garlic cheese bread
garlic cheese bread
bread basket
bread basket

We started with garlic cheese bread and pizza sauce. They cover their homemade bread in garlic butter and top it with cheese. The pieces are just thick enough to manage the heavy cheese, but not too thick so the bread isn’t overwhelming. It was a good appetizer, but a little unnecessary because we also got a basket of their homemade bread. Their antipatso platters have some great traditional ingredients listed…I’d like to give those a try some time.

carbonara pasta
pasta carbonara

I knew pasta was the only option for an entree because I don’t love pizza, but I do love pasta. I decided to go traditional and got the pasta carbonara with pancetta, parmesan and romano cheeses, and cream and egg over spaghetti. I don’t think the pasta was homemade, but it was perfectly cooked — aldente, not mushy. The sauce was rich and cooked into the pasta the way it’s supposed to be. I wanted a little more of the saltiness from the pancetta to cut through the heavy sauce, but it was still very good.

cannoli
cannoli

For dessert I had to try one of their homemade cannolis. The cannoli was an interesting twist on what I expect a cannoli to taste like. It looked exactly like a traditional cannoli, but the filling had a strong flavor of cinnamon that was unexpected, and not in a good way. The cinnamon was so overpowering that I could barely taste the sweetness of the marscapone.

FOOD NOTES: There are still hidden gems from the old Greenbush Neighborhood thriving amongst the students and new businesses on Regent Street. Greenbush Bar may look like it’s in an abandoned building, but the atmosphere in the basement is lively and welcoming. The menu features classic Italian appetizers, pastas and pizzas. The antipasto platters look promising, but avoid the cannoli if you don’t love the flavor of cinnamon.

Mac’s is so good it deserves a second post

MACSI reviewed Mac’s in Sun Prairie in March and I loved it. But I’ve been back several times since then and I feel like I need to reiterate how great their mac and cheese is.

MACS mac daddyThe first time I went I got the loaded baked potato mac and cheese…it is rich, creamy and super indulgent. The potatoes, sour cream and bacon added a great layer to the mac and cheese.

MACs trio

Loaded baked potato mac and cheese
Loaded baked potato mac and cheese
Chicken bacon ranch mac and cheese
Chicken bacon ranch mac and cheese

The second time I went I got to try the buffalo chicken mac and cheese and the chicken bacon ranch mac and cheese. I also got a second crack at the loaded baked potato mac and cheese. The loaded baked potato mac and cheese was just as great as the first time, but it was upstaged by the chicken bacon ranch mac. There’s just something this Wisconsin girl loves about ranch dressing drizzled on top of mac and cheese. It was a genius move to put chicken and bacon on fantastic mac and cheese and then drizzle it with ranch dressing.

Buffalo chicken mac and cheese
Buffalo chicken mac and cheese

I also got to try the buffalo chicken mac and cheese, which I didn’t think I’d like but it was surprisingly good. The buffalo chicken wasn’t too spicy, and the tanginess of the sauce cut the heaviness of the mac and cheese perfectly. And the blue cheese (which I normally don’t like) didn’t over power anything. It also comes garnished with celery, which makes it seem healthier…haha!

The third time I went, I got the chicken bacon ranch mac again but made my mom get the Memphis mac (sorry…I forgot to take pics!), which comes topped with pulled pork, BBQ sauce and fried slices of onion. I’ve heard shredded BBQ pork is great with mac and cheese and boy were those people not kidding. The pork was perfectly tender and the sauce was tangy with just the right amount of kick. I loved my chicken bacon ranch mac…but I did go back for seconds, thirds and maybe fourths of my mom’s Memphis mac.

FOOD NOTES: I’ve decided that you could top mac and cheese with pretty much anything and I would eat it. And Mac’s knows what they’re doing. I’ve officially tried four of their versions and would suggest any of them. My favorite has to be the chicken bacon ranch, followed by a two-way tie for second — Memphis mac and loaded baked potato mac. Mac’s is, in my opinion, the best spot to indulge in some great mac and cheese with fantastic toppings. I want to try other flavors, but don’t think I could pass up my favorites…anyone want to go with me so I can try the type you get?!?!

Monona Drive has better lunch options than Rosie’s Cafe

Rosie's Coffee Bar and Bakery
Rosie’s Coffee Bar and Bakery

Small cafes that serve up homemade pastries, quality coffee and great sandwiches are some of my favorite places, but sometimes they can be hard to find. A couple months ago I had a great lunch at Crema Cafe on Monona Drive and I was hoping to find another great place in Monona, but Rosie’s Coffee Bar and Bakery was a let down.

bakery case
bakery case
doughnut
doughnut
cinnamon roll
cinnamon roll

I went there with my friend Nicole and her daughter. The coffee was decent, but their bakery items weren’t great. My cinnamon roll was thick and crusty, not flaky and sweet like I expect from cinnamon rolls. And it was frosted with a thick, sugary glaze instead of a cream cheese frosting. It was one of the only times I’ve ever not finished a cinnamon roll.

tuna salad sandwich
tuna salad sandwich
tuna salad sandwich
tuna salad sandwich

They serve breakfast and lunch, but I decided their tuna salad with sprouts and tomato on a wheat roll sounded good. The tuna salad was good — not too much mayo and just the right amount of chopped onion for a good crunch. The sprouts were a nice touch, but there weren’t enough of them to matter and the bread was a little too thick.

FOOD NOTES: I had a good lunch at Rosie’s, but the company was better than the food. I would skip their cinnamon rolls all together and if you’re looking for a sandwich, go another mile down Monona Drive to Crema. There’s nothing wrong with the food at Rosie’s, there’s just a better option nearby. I’m not sure how their breakfasts are (quiche, breakfast sandwich, oatmeal), but I’d give it a chance.

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.

Never judge a cafe by its strip mall

La Petit Croissant
La Petit Croissant

From what I’ve heard, the owners or bakers or cooks or someone involved in the new bakery where Midvale Boulevard, Verona Road and the Beltline collide came from La Baguette. La Petit Croissant is probably the best hidden secret I’ve ever found. I went with my friend Nicole and her daughter for lunch, and I got there a couple minutes early…which was good because I snagged the last table just before a bunch of people walked in. The small shop is in a rundown strip mall between a Tae Kwon Do school and a random Mexican restaurant with Dorn Hardware at the end. Based on La Petit Croissan’ts location I had no expectations, but that was a mistake.

La Petit Croissant bakery case
La Petit Croissant bakery case

As soon as I walked in and almost all the tables were full and saw a very promising cinnamon roll in the bakery case I knew I had found something special. The girl at the counter was super nice, and between her and another guy they kept the place running smoothly with smiles on their faces. Their bakery case and menu are small, but based on my first visit it’s because they focus on quality over quantity.

La Petit Croissant cinnamon roll
La Petit Croissant cinnamon roll

I’m a big fan of cinnamon rolls and this one did not disappoint. It was just big enough to share, and was obviously made that morning. The dough was light and flaky, and the cinnamon swirl was a good balance of cinnamon and sugar. The frosting was cream cheese, which is the ONLY appropriate topping for a cinnamon roll. The La Petit Croissant cinnamon roll definitely gives La Baguette’s a run for its money.

La Petit Croissant spicy turkey sandwich
La Petit Croissant spicy turkey sandwich

LPC spicy turkeyI got the spicy turkey sandwich. The sandwich came with a very fresh green salad with a light vinaigrette, and the sandwich itself was just as surprising as the cinnamon roll. The bread, jalapeno cheddar ciabatta, was crusty but not too thick. The turkey was lean and there was a lot of it. The rest of the toppings really made the sandwich — chipotle mayo, avocado, lettuce, onions and pepper jack cheese. The sandwich isn’t super fancy, but it was so good because of the quality ingredients.

La Petit Croissant molasses cookie
La Petit Croissant molasses cookie

I also got a molasses cookie for “later,” but “later” ended up only being a couple hours after lunch! Their molasses cookie had the two qualities that make a good molasses cookie — crispy edges and a soft middle, and the molasses is balanced out by a good sweetness. It also had that great sprinkle of sugar on top!

FOOD NOTES: I wasn’t sure I wanted to write about this place because I don’t want to give up my new secret spot, but I really want this place to succeed! The cinnamon roll was the best I’ve had in a while (cream cheese frosting really does make a difference!). The spicy turkey sandwich is extremely impressive – everything worked so well together. The turkey and bacon were amped up with avocado and chipotle mayo, and the bread was great. This place is a diamond in the rough.