New Bonefish Grill among subpar chains near West Towne

Bonefish Grill
Bonefish Grill

Restaurants near West Towne Mall have been popping up left and right, including a Chick-fil-A, Jason’s Deli, Freshii and now Bonefish Grill. I tried Bonefish Grill out with my mom after a day of shopping and hanging out. Even though it was only the middle of April we decided to sit on the patio. The dining room was very nice, but the sunny weather and patio heaters were enough to get us outside. The disappointing thing was that the impressive dining room and nice patio were the highlights of our lunch.

Bonefish caesar salad with salmon
Bonefish caesar salad with salmon

I got the caesar salad with salmon, which was pretty marginal. The lettuce was probably a day past its prime, the dressing was generic and the croutons were flavorless. The salmon had a good grill char on it, but it was super small and was not seasoned at all.

Bonefish arctic char seasonal special
Bonefish arctic char seasonal special

My mom got the arctic char seasonal special, which came with pasta and spring veggies. It looked like a decent dish, but it wasn’t worth the higher price tag.

Bonefish key lime pie
Bonefish key lime pie
Bonefish creme brulee
Bonefish creme brulee

For some reason we both decided to get dessert, which was regrettable considering both the key lime pie and creme brulee were huge and not great. My creme brulee tasted like cold vanilla pudding with a crunchy topping. Creme brulee should be a little lighter than gooey pudding, but this one straight up tasted like pudding. The one thing to note about the desserts it that they are huge. My creme brulee could easily have served three people.

Bonefish Grill
Bonefish Grill

FOOD NOTES: Bonefish Grill is a typical chain restaurant. Our lunch was edible, but not great. The quality was a little disappointing considering the $10-$15 price range. The service was terrible…it took almost 20 minutes for our desserts to come out (key lime pie and cold creme brulee should not take 20 minutes!). I probably won’t be going back, but I do know quite a few people who love the bang bang shrimp.

Crema Cafe is gem hidden away in Monona strip mall

Crema Cafe
Crema Cafe

I don’t get over to the Monona area very often, but every time I do I make an effort to try a new restaurant. So when my mom and I wanted to check out a new consignment shop on Monona Drive I figured it was the perfect time to try out Crema Cafe. Crema is definitely a hidden gem. It’s super colorful inside and has mismatched tables and chairs, but it’s hidden behind the boring facade of a strip mall.

Crema Cafe Bluebird sandwich
Crema Cafe Bluebird sandwich

When you walk in it may have the feel of a coffee shop, but trust me — you’ll want to try their food. My mom got the Bluebird sandwich, which is chicken salad made with dried blueberries and walnuts, and comes with white cheddar and greens on a baguette. I did not try it, but my mom loved it.

Crema Cafe hot chick sandwich
Crema Cafe hot chick sandwich

I got the Hot Chick sandwich (awesome name right!!!) that had grilled chicken, bacon, roasted tomatoes, chipotle mayo and aged cheddar on multigrain bread. When it came out I was sad because it didn’t look very big, but then I realized it had been panini-ed, which made it so much better! The chicken was moist and the chipotle mayo was just smokey and spicy enough…and you can never go wrong with bacon! It was a little messy to eat, but it was totally worth it! The sandwiches also came with what tasted like homemade Doritos…yum!

We both also got iced coffees, which were perfect. Sometimes iced coffee can be bitter, but theirs was smooth. I also like that they don’t sweeten their iced coffee.

FOOD NOTES: The only thing that could make Crema Cafe better is an outside seating area…because it has a decent view of Lake Monona across the street. The inside is super cheery and eclectic, and their menu has a decent amount of options…but who needs more options when the 10 or so options are so great already!? Next up…I’ll be back to try their breakfast options!

Ramen outshines baked goods at Asian Sweet Bakery

Asian Sweet Bakery on Park Street
Asian Sweet Bakery on Park Street

When I first heard about Asian Sweet Bakery on Park Street I wasn’t quite sure what to think…all of the reviews on Yelp were super positive, but most of the individual baked goods sounded either too sweet or a little odd for my taste. But I’m always going to give a new place at least one chance, so I went for lunch with my friend Nicole.

Asian Sweet Bakery baked goods
Asian Sweet Bakery baked goods

The tiny corner bakery has a decent-sized bakery case filled with baked goods even around lunch time. There’s also a small dining room with about four tables. The woman behind the counter was super helpful in describing what everything in the bakery case was and answering questions about the menu.

Asian Sweet Bakery ramen with shrimp dumplings
Asian Sweet Bakery ramen with shrimp dumplings

We decided to try the rice noodle ramen with shrimp wontons. I’ve had bad ramen and it’s like eating noodles in warm water. But this ramen was great. The noodles were perfectly cooked and the broth had a great savory flavor…it wasn’t too salty, but it definitely had some depth. There was just enough cabbage and it still had a good amount of crunch to it. The shrimp wontons were not what I was expecting, but they were super good. The soft noodle wrapper was al dente and the shrimp filling was flavorful…I think it had some green onions mixed in! The other thing to note was the size of the bowl…it was more than enough for the two of us.

Asian Sweet Bakery pot stickers
Asian Sweet Bakery pot stickers

The pot stickers were also pretty good. The pork filling had a good, sausagey flavor, but they weren’t too greasy. And they were crispy, which is way better than mushy pot stickers.

Now onto the sweets

Asian Sweet Bakery black bean bun, kids bun, Chinese fried donut
Asian Sweet Bakery black bean bun, kids bun, Chinese fried donut

I got a red bean bun, which looks like a cinnamon roll without frosting, but instead of cinnamon and sugar the sweet stuff is a sweet red bean paste. I’ve enjoyed similar desserts at other restaurants and this one was also pretty good. The bread and the paste were both moist, and I felt like there was a good amount of the paste…I was worried there might be more dough than the yummy filling.

Nicole and I decided to split one of the super long Chinese fried donuts, but it was kind of disappointing. The batter tasted like plain fried dough…the dough was not sweet and there was nothing sweet sprinkled on top. It was definitely not what we were expecting, and not great.

Nicole also got a fun hotdog and corn bun for her daughter. It was a simple flat pastry with slices of hotdog and corn kernels in it. It went over pretty well with Avery, but I think she liked the red bean bun better…we kept saying it was chocolate!

FOOD NOTES: Although I liked most of the sweets (except the fried donut) that we got…I think the hidden gem of this super simple place on Park Street is their ramen and wonton soup. The broth is super flavorful, the ingredients are fresh and plentiful, and the price is great for the amount of food you get. The red bean bun was pretty great…but I’m not sure if I’m adventurous enough to go back try some of the other interesting baked goods in the case.

Atmosphere, prices worth trip to Village Bar

Village Bar
Village Bar

I think I’ve said this before, but I’m going to say it again — I’m all about the townie bar. I’ve found that you can usually find the best atmospheres, prices, food and people at townie bars. There’s a reason people keep going back to these places and the owners usually don’t make changes very often. The Village Bar, right where Mineral Point Road veers and changes into Speedway Road, is one of those places.

Village Bar - we're sitting in the front corner so this is about it!
Village Bar – we’re sitting in the front corner so this is about it!

When you walk in you’ll notice there are only about a dozen tables and the same number of bar stools. The other thing you’ll notice is that even though they have a food menu there’s no kitchen — they have a small cook top and fryer at the front end of the bar that handles everything. Their menu is pretty simple – hamburgers, cheeseburgers, a sausage and cheese plate (which is about as basic as it can be), fries and chips. The menu also listed steak, pork chops, brats and hotdogs, but I didn’t see anyone get any of those items. Oh yeah, one more thing — everything is served on styrofoam plates.

village bar burger
Village Bar pepper jack cheeseburger
Village Bar french fries
Village Bar french fries

I got the cheeseburger with pepper jack cheese and an order of fries. The burger itself was decent — a good size, had a good char — but the bun was pathetic. They steam the bun on the cook top, but I would prefer it to be grilled or toasted or left alone, because what was left was a soggy hunk of bread that was too small and too mushy to do any good. The cheese was a completely different story. I’m not sure how many slices they use, but the cheese was almost as thick as the burger. I really enjoyed the cheese in the beginning – it was melty and thick – but by the end it had congealed a little and the amount seemed unnecessary. But that also could have been caused by the fact that I was chatting too much and not eating fast enough! The fries were decent, but nothing special.

Village Bar cheeseburger
Village Bar cheeseburger

FOOD NOTES: Honestly, I loved the atmosphere at the Village Bar. It was super chill and very Badgers sports focused (I was there to watch my Badgers men’s basketball team squash Coastal Carolina in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, so that was a plus!). Everything on the menu (including beer from what I remember) is under $5, so that’s also something to note. The next time I head to the Village Bar I will probably skip the cheese on my burger and I will definitely get a super old school cheese and sausage plate to enjoy during the game.

Brewery surprises with unique, upscale menu

I haven’t had good luck when trying to eat at breweries. The food is usually sub-par and the only reason people keep going back is for the beer. I’m not a beer drinker, so it’s usually not as great of a visit for me as for others. But Karben4 off Stoughton Road by MATC is definitely different than other breweries I’ve been to. Their dining room is literally inches from their brewing and bottling space. And based on my super scientific calculations, their kitchen is about 1/4 the size of their brewing facilities, but it sure does churn out some fantastic dishes.

 

karben4Here’s how I would describe the options on the menu: take normal brewery or bar food — jack the flavor up on steroids, use local ingredients and toss some beer into most dishes for good measure.

Karben4 pretzels and horseradish cheddar sauce
Karben4 pretzels and horseradish cheddar sauce

When I went with Michelle we got to try a couple different options, but we started with the housemade pretzels and cheddar horseradish sauce. The pretzels were perfect — crusty, salty crust, and a fluffy, butter center. The cheese sauce was so good I wanted to lick the container clean.

Karben4 portabella mushroom sandwich
Karben4 portabella mushroom sandwich

karben4 portabella 2The portabella sandwich is one of the vegetarian options on the menu. It has a balsamic roasted portabella mushroom with mozzarella, basil aioli, spinach, tomato and onion between two pieces of panini-ed bread. The veggie option was good (and I would recommend it to my veggie friends), but I would not choose it over the other sandwich we got to try.

Karben4 ruben
Karben4 reuben

karben4 reubenThe summer sausage reuben just sounds ridiculous. I’ve never heard of anyone making a reuben with summer sausage, but Karben4 does it and they do it well. The sandwich comes out on a housemade pretzel roll (come on!! the sandwich is already winning with that) and has summer sausage, kraut made with their Lady Luck beer, housemade Russian dressing and aged whited cheddar cheese. I’m not quite sure how to explain this sandwich except to use these words: sinful, fantastic, decadent, unique, scrumptious and one more — perfect. The pretzel roll was super soft and moist. The kraut had a great earthy flavor without being too tart. The Russian dressing was smooth and tangy. The cheddar added a great Wisconsin feeling to the sandwich and the summer sausage was not nearly as intrusive or heavy as I was expecting it to be. I’m not sure what more I could ask for in the perfect sandwich.

Karben 4 chocolate tart
Karben 4 chocolate tart

We also go to try their chocolate tart made with one of their beers — I ate it so fast I didn’t get a chance to note which beer it was, but I don’t have to know which beer the tart is made with to know that it was tasty. It wasn’t too sweet and the crust was buttery and crumbly. The drizzle of raspberry was basically useless because I couldn’t taste it over the other strong flavors in the dessert.

FOOD NOTES: If you’re going to Karben4 for the beer, DO NOT skip ordering food. If you’re not a beer drinker…trust me, their menu has enough great things on it to satisfy. Another unique thing about Karven4 is that they don’t serve french fries…all of their sandwiches come with a small side salad, which made me feel better about eating a ruben made with summer sausage!

 

Top-notch brunch features quality ingredients, great flavors

oliver's signMy favorite meal is breakfast. I love breakfast in the morning and breakfast for lunch and nothing beats breakfast for dinner. Then there’s brunch — brunch is basically an excuse to eat breakfast anytime before dinner on the weekends! There are a lot of places that do brunch well in Madison, but a newcomer on the near west side hit it out of the park. Oliver’s Public House opened on Old University Avenue a couple months ago and a friend and I decided to try out their brunch first.

Oliver’s Public House is in the ground-level commercial space of a newer apartment complex right at the start of Old University Avenue by the hospital. The space is a mix of rustic and industrial materials with dark wood and metal details, but the big windows keep it bright and sunny inside. The other notable thing was that there was a smokiness that kept wafting out of the kitchen every time someone went in or out, so it felt super homey inside.

Oliver's steak and eggs
Oliver’s steak and eggs

I got the steak and eggs that came with onions, mushrooms, two eggs, hollandaise sauce and rosti potatoes. There were a lot of good things about this dish so I’m going to post a list:

  • Perfect serving of steak (at least 4 oz)
  • Steak was crispy on the outside and medium rare on the inside
  • The rosti potatoes were crispy, salty and the perfect base for the eggs
  • The onions and mushrooms were crispy
  • The hollandaise sauce was rich and creamy, but not too heavy…it had a light citrusy flavor to it
Oliver's Willi's omelet
Oliver’s Willi’s omelet

My friend got the Willi’s omelet with caramelized shallots, bacon, spinach, apple, cheddar cheese and hollandaise sauce. The omelet also came with breakfast potatoes and a salad. She said the omelet was the best omelet she’s ever had. I tried the salad, which had a light, citrusy vinaigrette on it.

oliver'sFOOD NOTES: I was extremely happy with my breakfast at Oliver’s Public House. I was pleasantly surprised by the serving size, the quality of ingredients and the flavors in my simple steak and eggs dish. My steak was great, the rosti potatoes were fantastic and the hollandaise was perfect. I can’t wait to go back and try stuff on their promising dinner menu!

Bakery’s lunch just as impressive as sweet treats

Rolling Pin Bake Shop, Fitchburg
Rolling Pin Bake Shop, Fitchburg

Bakeries are great, but bakeries that also serve food are even better. I’ve never eaten lunch at my favorite bakery, Scott’s, so I don’t have much to compare it to, but Rolling Pin Bake Shop‘s lunch impressed me. Based on my first visit with a friend and her daughter, I would totally recommend this place for a casual lunch or some fun baked goodies.

cake and cupcake case
cake and cupcake case
decorated cookie case
decorated cookie case
cookie case
cookie case

The day we went they had three full bakery cases plus a rack of bread and a spinning case full of treats. They had four different types of quiche on special, plus a homemade soup on top of their regular menu. One case was full of different types of cookies, another one had cakes and cupcakes, and a third had decorated sugar cookies. The spinning case was filled with chocolate-dipped treats and other specialty items.

apple puff
apple pastry

It took me about 15 minutes to settle on the apple pastry and a molasses cookie. The apple pastry smelled so good I definitely didn’t wait until after my sandwich was even delivered to devour it. The flaky pastry crust was super buttery, and the filling was your basic apple pie filling. I liked that the filling wasn’t too sweet and had a good cinnamon flavor. Since I ate the pastry there, I would have liked it warmed up but I forgot to ask before I finished it off. The molasses cookie (sorry…I ate it before remembering to take a picture) was perfect, but only if you like your molasses cookies soft. Some people like them crispy, but I like them chewy in the middle and just slightly crispy on the edges. Rolling Pin’s version was just that, plus it was topped with granulated sugar that helped cut the slight bitterness of the molasses. It was definitely one of the best (still not better than grandma’s though!) molasses cookies I’ve had.

turkey club
turkey club

For lunch I went with what I thought was going to be a simple turkey club sandwich, but the sourdough bread, applewood smoked bacon and other fresh ingredients elevated the sandwich above what I was expecting. The sandwich was also surprisingly large for the price ($8).

FOOD NOTES: Don’t let the strip mall or facade of a bakery fool you — the lunch at Rolling Pin Bake Shop is super good. Don’t get me wrong — they’re baked goods were great (I will totally be back for a molasses cookie), but their lunch is what stood out as surprisingly tasty for a great price. Everyone working and eating there (including a pair of cops on their lunch break — I love it when you can tell they’re regulars!) were super nice. There aren’t a ton of good restaurant options in Fitchburg (there are a decent amount of chains, but not a lot of local places)…so if you’re in Fitchburg and in need a good lunch spot, I recommend Rolling Pin.

Coppertop off Beltline is hidden ‘breakfast-all-day’ gem

Even though I love going to great places like Forequarter, Tornado Room and Heritage Tavern, some of my favorite places are those hole-in-the-wall, secret neighborhood places. There’s something I love about diner coffee, dining rooms that haven’t been redecorated since the early 90s and the regulars chatting in the corner. It’s an added bonus when the food is as good as it is a Coppertop Family Restaurant.

coppertopCoppertop fits all of the qualifications of a quirky neighborhood spot – the regulars were chatting in the corner booth, the coffee was hot and fresh, and the dining room looks like a funeral parlor from the 90s (think floral patterns, mauve paint, a lot of vinyl, mirrors on the ceilings…). They serve standard breakfast options; sandwiches, salads and soups at lunch and they also have dinner entrees. Big bonus: they serve breakfast all day!

Wisconsin skillet at Coppertop Family Restaurant
Wisconsin skillet at Coppertop Family Restaurant

Thanks to a suggestion from a friend familiar with Coppertop, I got the Wisconsin skillet, which has ham, green peppers, cheese, onions and mushrooms. It comes with two eggs done however you want, American fries (read: breakfast potatoes) and toast or pancakes. In my breakfast-eating experience, the ingredients in scrambles or skillets can come out one of two ways — mushy and only slightly cooked or crispy — and the latter is definitely preferable. Coppertop’s skillet definitely fit into that second category. The ham, mushrooms and peppers were all crispy…not to mention the super crispy breakfast potatoes. I also loved the sprinkle of cheese on top. The surprising part of my breakfast was that it was barely greasy — grease is usually a staple on the plates of most neighborhood diners.

coppertop coffee
Coffee (and that super awesome booth!)

FOOD NOTES: I was very happy with my breakfast for lunch, and with any place that serves breakfast all day…I will probably never try any of their lunch or dinner options. I love breakfast too much to pass it up if it’s an option! Some people might let the decor stop them from going back, but I think it’s endearing…it gives the place a towny, “we don’t take ourselves too seriously” feel. The view of the Beltline from the front windows is also pretty great!

Indulgent mac and cheese totally worth it at Mac’s

When I go off my gluten-free, high-protein, low-calorie meal plan (it’s not a diet!) I like to go all out. I don’t like to diverge from my healthy eating plan for bad fast food or something I don’t love, but I will do it for fantastic food and I will definitely do it regularly for mac and cheese…especially the mac and cheese at Mac’s! Mac’s has two locations — one in the Dells and a second location in Sun Prairie.

Mac's in Sun Prairie
Mac’s in Sun Prairie

The one in Sun Prairie is in the super new development off Highway 51 by the new Woodman’s, Costco and Cabela’s. The small dining room probably has about a dozen tables, which gives it a cozy, welcoming feeling. The menu is pretty simple. They have a dozen different types of mac and cheese (served in cast iron skillets), 6 different types of grilled cheeses and a couple salads.

Mac's loaded baked potato mac and cheese
Mac’s loaded baked potato mac and cheese

All of the mac and cheeses come with bread crumbs on top and some pieces of toasted bread. The bread crumbs were super tasty, but I would skip the toasted bread next time. They seemed very unnecessary. As for the mac and cheese…I got the loaded baked potato, which comes with cheddar cheese, mozzarella cheese, slices of baked potato, bacon, sour cream and chives on top. There are two pretty great facets of the mac and cheese. The actual mac and cheese itself is the best I’ve ever had. It’s creamy and cheesy with a rich, homestyle flavor, but it’s not too heavy. The noodle to cheese sauce ratio is also perfect. Sometimes you get too much or not enough sauce…but not at Mac’s! Every noodle was perfectly coated with the sauce, but there wasn’t an excess at the bottom. As for the toppings…I could definitely see going just for the plain mac and cheese, but I did enjoy my toppings. They added a different level to the dish — other than just eating noodles for lunch. However, most of the other topping combinations (BBQ pulled pork, jalapeno poppers, chicken bacon ranch, taco) seem like a bit too much for me, so I will probably stick to the plain mac and cheese or go with the loaded baked potato one again. I also can’t forget to mention the crispy edges of cheese…the entire dish was rimmed with that perfectly crispy, slightly burnt cheese that you have to crack into to start eating — that, to me, is a telltale sign that my mac and cheese was fresh and made to order!

FOOD NOTES: Mac’s makes the best mac and cheese I’ve ever had, and has a topping option that would probably please everyone! The prices aren’t too bad…mine only came in the bigger size for $10, but I could only eat half and the other half heated up really well for lunch the next day! Now all I need is for Mac’s to open a location in Middleton!

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.