I don’t normally go for desserts, unless they’re included in the Restaurant Week menu. But the sweet and salty combos offered at Nostrano made for a pretty exciting dessert menu.
A friend and I went just for the desserts and split the gianduja chocolate panna cotta. When the dessert was delivered the first thing I noticed were chocolate crisps and small little chunks of glazed goodness. The glazed goodness ended up being toasted hazelnuts and toffee, which were amazing with the chocolate panna cotta. And the cherries were simmered with black pepper, which took down the sweetness factor and added a good savory element.
FOOD NOTES: Based on the yummy balance of sweet and salty, and creamy and crunchy Nostrano uses in their desserts, I hope to be blogging about their dinner menu sometime soon!
I love steakhouses, and expect them to serve up tasty dishes, big servings, classic options and above all, be able to cook a perfect medium rare steak. Rare Steakhouse is right on the Capitol Square and opened just a couple weeks before Madison Magazine’s summer Restaurant Week. Unfortunately, I don’t think those three weeks gave Rare enough time to perfect the art of cooking a medium rare steak.
Their appetizers for the Restaurant Week menu were definitely not classic steakhouse appetizers.We chose the smokey popcorn and the smoked salmon nachos. We decided not to get the oyster shooter (served bloody Mary style). The smokey popcorn was supposed to have smoked paprika on it, but it tasted like slightly salted buttered popcorn. It was good, but not what the menu promised. The smoked salmon nachos was a confusing dish. It had wontons, smoked salmon, confit tomatoes and wasabi cream sauce. The salmon was mushy and the wasabi cream sauce didn’t have any wasabi kick. The individual components of the dish were really not great separately, but when I finally got a bite of all four components together it was pretty good. The bad news is that there wasn’t enough salmon or tomatoes to get some in each bite.
For entrees there really is only one choice at a steakhouse – the top sirloin. During restaurant week they also offered gnocchi and beef sliders. My mom and I would have tried the gnocchi if it had said they were homemade on the menu, but we didn’t find that out until after we had ordered, so we both got the top sirloin with potatoes, asparagus and a demi sauce. We both ordered our steak medium rare and mine came out unevenly cooked. Part of it was medium and the other part was medium well…neither half of the steak was anywhere near medium rare. The steak had an interesting rub on it that had a little bit of a citrus flavor. I didn’t love it or hate it. I did hate that my steak was so tough I felt like I was chewing beef jerky. My mom’s steak was also unevenly cooked, but it was closer to medium rare than mine. The potatoes were tender and salted well, and the asparagus was al dente with a savory, not overwhelming sauce.
For dessert we got to choose between creme brulee, profiteroles and chocolate cake. I got the chocolate cake, which was super tiny. It was moist and not too sweet, but nothing better than a typical chocolate cake. My mom got the creme brulee, which ended up being the highlight of the meal. The flavor of the day was hibiscus with vanilla bean. The creme brulee custard was a vibrant purple color, and it had a great flavor that was sweet but also slightly tangy. It was the most uniquely flavored creme brulee I’ve ever had.
The one thing that Rare did really well was their atmosphere. The restaurant is broken into a couple different dining rooms – a bar area, an area with big leather booths and the library. The bar area features dark wood, shiny chandeliers and black tin ceilings. The library is an elegantly lit room with big comfy chairs. The one annoying thing about the atmosphere was the service. The servers are extremely attentive, almost to a detriment, and they make what seems like too much of an effort to have in-depth conversations with you.
FOOD NOTES: I thought the quality of the appetizers at Rare could have been better, and I was also extremely disappointed about their ability to correctly cook a medium rare steak. The most important part of being a steakhouse is to be able to correctly cook a steak to order…and Rare failed twice during my Restaurant Week visit. The sides were typical, and the chocolate cake was standard. The best part of the meal was the unexpected flavor and quality of the hibiscus creme brulee. Based on the high prices on their regular menu, I won’t be going back for a while. Hopefully their kitchen will learn how to properly cook a steak, and even if they do I’m not sure the meal and experience would be worth the money.
In my opinion breakfast food is the best type of food. I have never been and will never be the person who “just doesn’t eat breakfast.” On busy mornings I still make time for oatmeal and a banana, but I love all types of breakfast options – eggs, toast, bacon, pancakes! And because I love breakfast food so much I love brunch and breakfast for dinner! I know I’m not alone in my love for breakfast food, which is why I was always a little disappointed by the breakfast offerings downtown. Recently, the Bassett Street Brunch Club opened, but there aren’t other places that serve breakfast all day downtown. So when I heard that the Short Stack Eatery opened right in the middle of State Street and would be serving breakfast all day, every day I thought I’d love it. Well I love the theory, but the execution didn’t work for me.
Short Stack Eatery is in a corner building so it has a ton of windows and is super bright and cheery. The brightly colored teal walls also add to the cheeriness. Table numbers are made with old license plates and tables are littered with old letters, maps and clippings, which is a cute way to bring in some nostalgia and Wisconsin pride. There’s a big counter in the middle that serves as a place for staff to huddle and diners to sit around. The huge chandelier made of whisks was my favorite!
We went on a busy Saturday morning after the farmer’s market and actually got a table right away, but only after we ordered at the counter. That was strike number one – I don’t like having to order and pay at a counter and then fight for a table while waiting for my food. Ordering at a counter also means we had to brave the busy drink station to get our own waters, silverware and even build a bloody Mary. I realize this makes me sound lazy, but the space Short Stack Eatery is in is way too small to make diners conglomerate around a small table for their drinks and utensils.
Their menu has all of the usual breakfast suspects: eggs, pancakes, french toast, etc. But then it has two unconventional options. A Pick Three option, which is exactly what it sounds like – they have a list of options and you get to pick three. The other one is a blind special, which again is exactly what it sounds like…but if you want to know what’s in it you get charged $12.95 and if you order it in blind faith it only costs $6.95, which in theory sounds good but you really have to be open for anything. The next strike against the Short Stack Eatery was the prices. A glass of orange juice is $4.25 – it is fresh-squeezed, but holy crap that is an expensive glass of orange juice. My meal was $8.95, which isn’t bad for breakfast, but the portions were just so freaking small it wasn’t a good deal.
So my $8.95 meal was the Pick Three option on the menu. I chose bacon, scrambled eggs and pancakes from a list that also had breakfast potatoes, toast and a couple other things. I was shocked when my order came out. The two eggs barely seemed like one large egg, the two small pieces of bacon were laughable and the three pancakes were about the size of a coffee mug. Everything was good – the bacon was cooked just right, the eggs were fine and the pancakes were actually pretty good, but almost $10 for a couple bites of egg, two pieces of bacon and three small pancakes? I was very disappointed in the price for what I ended up getting. And even though their orange juice was fancy and fresh squeeze, nothing on my plate warranted the price tag.
FOOD NOTES: I really wanted to be excited about a fun new breakfast place downtown, but unless Short Stack Eatery drops their prices or increases their portion sizes I won’t be back. I was shocked with the small amount of food I got, but the food I did actually get served was decent. Unfortunately, because people who live downtown like trendy places like Short Stack Eatery they probably won’t be changing their prices or portion sizes anytime soon, and will probably be pretty successful. The decor was cute, but I really don’t like having to order at a counter and fight for a glass of water and a napkin at a drink station.
Some places rely on their amazing food, while some places serve up good food in an amazing atmosphere. AJ Bombers definitely falls into that second category. The food my mom and I got had some high points, but the great atmosphere and staff is what made our experience at AJ Bombers awesome; not to mention the fact that the Badgers beat Arizona in the NCAA tournament to make it to the Final Four. We went down to State Street to find a place to watch the game and ended up at AJ Bombers. Originally the hostess told us we might have to wait through part of the game for someone to leave (which we were completely fine with), but some idiot came in and threw a fit that a back room he had sat in before wasn’t open. So the super nice manager opened the back room so that guy’s party and we could get a seat for the game. The manager was extremely nice and even though they didn’t have the staffing for that extra room he made sure we had a great time during the game. SIDE NOTE: Sorry about the lack of pictures, the Badgers game was so exciting I forgot to take pictures of the cool peanut dispensers, the awesome dining room decor (you get to write on the walls!), and the sign.
While waiting for our table and for our food we got to munch on peanuts and throw the shells onto the floor. When I first started tossing the shells on the floor I felt bad, but the floor throughout the entire place was covered in shells so I got over that. There are peanut troughs and dispensers throughout, and it was a great option while we were originally waiting for a table. The peanuts are a great gimmick and pretty unique. It’s such a simple thing to offer, but I have never seen it before.
We started with the AJ’s frickles because how can you pass up fried pickles during a basketball game?! The long oval pickle chips were heavily coated in batter and fried. They came out hot and crispy. They weren’t the most amazing fried pickles I’ve had, but they were pretty good and were a great accompaniment to the start of the game.
You have to order sides separately from burgers and sandwiches so we decided to split an order of sweet potato chips. The homemade chips were crispy, perfectly salted and not at all greasy. They were the perfect compliment to the pretty heavy burger I ordered.
I got the Milwaukee burger that comes with Wisconsin colby cheese, Berkshire bacon and Schlitz onions. The Wisconsin ingredients are what drew me to the burger and they delivered. The onions sauteed in Schlitz beer added a great flavor that, just like the peanuts, were so simple and unique. The bacon was thick and cooked perfectly, and all of the ingredients were on a super moist potato bun. The one suggestion I have for the burger would be some type of sauce, a garlic aioli or garlic ranch sauce would be pretty good with the ingredients.
To end the meal and the game we got a root beer float with Sprecher’s root beer. The glass came probably 75 percent filled with ice cream and almost a whole bottle of root beer to keep adding to it. It was the prefect sweet, but not overly sugary end to an awesome meal during an awesome basketball game.
FOOD NOTES: AJ Bombers has a great atmosphere and has some super simple touches and ingredients that really add some unique experiences and flavors to what feels like a chain restaurant. AJ’s originated in Milwaukee and there are only a handful of locations so it’s not a chain, but I was expecting chain food. They definitely surpassed my expectations. The things that impressed me the most, like the peanuts, Schlitz onions and potato bun, are so simple but actually added a lot to the meal. I will definitely be going back even if the Badgers aren’t playing (but if they are that would be a bonus!!!).
Madison has a lot of food events to promote restaurants, like Taste of Madison and Restaurant Week, but one restaurant sticks out in my mind as never participating in any of it: Tornado Steakhouse. Tornado is this elusive restaurant on the south side of the outer-capitol square (which is kind of the opposite side of where all of the other foodie restaurants are). Not a lot of people talk about Tornado, but a lot of people do go there so I could never figure out why it was never part of the foodie buzz in Madison. Well, I think I figured it out. Madison foodies are very into new, experimental, modern things, and the Tornado is none of those things. It is 100 percent a traditional steakhouse done exceptionally well.
It is technically located on South Hamilton Street, but there’s also an entrance on West Main Street. The Main Street entrance brings you through a cramped bar featuring a couple round leather booths straight out of the 50s. The Hamilton Entrance takes you up a couple steps, past the secret entrance to their late-night bar the Corral Room (I hear it is straight out of Mad Men) and into the main dining room area. I’m not sure exactly how many dining rooms there are throughout the steakhouse, but I saw at least three on the way to the one we were seated in. All of them were bordered in dark wood paneling, and were sparsely lit by old-school sconces.
As if the portions we were soon to order wouldn’t be enough, we were given a bread basket and a relish tray. The bread basket had a biscuit, a crunchy long breadstick and a small loaf of bread. The biscuit was buttery, fluffy, moist and very good. The breadstick had a good flavor, but was kind of hard. We saved the loaf for last because we had high hopes for a small warm loaf of yummy bread, but it was super hard, not very good and kind of disappointing. The relish tray was not actually served on a tray. It came in an iced beer mug and had a pickle, some celery and carrots and a skewer with a radish, cucumber slice, cherry tomato and olives. It was a traditional relish tray, but I love the simplicity of a relish tray!
Every entree comes with a salad to start with. It sounds like you’re going to get a side salad, but it is a massive serving. Both the Caesar and spinach salads we ordered were double the size we were expecting. My Caesar salad had fresh romaine and a nice portion of parmesan cheese on top. The dressing wasn’t too overwhelming, but I did not eat the whole anchovy filet that was on top of my greens. The spinach salad my mom ordered came with a vinaigrette that was very tangy and yummy.
Now on to the entrees. They offer seafood, chicken and other random protein options (venison, rabbit, lamb), but both of us were obviously going to order steak in a steakhouse like this. I got the 16 oz. New York Strip Steak, and for a person watching portion sizes a 16 0z. steak is just a little more than four servings of steak. I ordered it medium rare. This steak was the most perfectly cooked, perfectly charred and perfectly flavored steak I have ever had. They really know what they’re doing at Tornado! The 16 oz. sirloin my mom ordered was exactly the same.
All of the steaks come with a single onion ring on top. The batter was very heavy, and lacked some necessary salt to balance it out. I got hash browns with my steak. They were crispy, hot and well seasoned, but compared to the steak they were nothing special. I thought for the caliber of steakhouse Tornado is, they would serve them with sauteed mushrooms and onions or something like that. My mom got the steak fries with her steak. They were not greasy and tasted baked rather than fried, but again they were overshadowed by her steak.
FOOD NOTES: Despite the disappointing loaf of mini bread and the not-so-special potatoes served alongside our steaks, Tornado served up the best steak I have ever had. A lot of restaurants my parents and grandparents took me to as a kid had relish trays, and I really like when restaurants offer them…it is just so simple! The service was good throughout our meal, but there were multiple people doing multiple things throughout the dining room, not sure one dedicated server. The menu definitely gave us sticker shock when we first decided to go, but based on the fact that we each brought home another two servings of steak and one extra serving of potatoes as leftovers…the price doesn’t seem as astronomical. The prices are high, but not nearly as outrageous once you see the portions (especially if you exercise portion control and save some for another meal). Basically, my meal was $35, which sounds really high but I had another full meal of steak and hash browns, plus another meal of steak…so in my mind that breaks down to $2o for the initial Tornado meal (with the relish tray, bread and salad), $10 for the second at-home leftover meal and $5 for the third portion of steak. Doesn’t sound as bad does it!
A couple months ago I finally made it a priority to visit Graze on the Square for dinner, and I loved it. So recently when a friend and I were downtown looking for a good lunch I suggested the landmark Madison restaurant. The atmosphere and view is only slightly less impressive in the daylight, but that is overshadowed by the fact that there were actually open tables!
Michelle is sort of new to the area and hadn’t been to Graze yet so we had to get the fried pickles. Nothing has changed since my first tasting, and once again the thoroughly enjoyed them!
For my entree I wanted to try something new, so I got the Noodle Bowl. It was a huge bowl filled with a perfectly salty broth, braised pork shoulder, pork belly, bok choy, radish, noodles and a soft poached egg. I am 100 percent glad I tried it, but will probably never get it again. I enjoyed the flavors and the different components of the bowl, but it just wasn’t something I loved. The serving was way too big for lunch (I took over half of it home), and some of the pork pieces could have been a little crispier for my taste.
Michelle got the beet and walnut burger with cheese curds instead of fries…I vote good choice on getting the cheese curds!!
FOOD NOTES: I will always love Graze and the amazing view of my city they offer. I definitely recommend partaking in the view at night, but it is pretty awesome during the day too. The fried pickles and cheese curds are just as awesome during lunch. I’m very glad I got the noodle bowl and enjoyed the different ingredients, but it was a bit heavy for lunch. I really wish they offered the beet salad on their dinner menu for lunch…I loved that salad, and it would be perfect for lunch!
I am always interested in trying new flavors and new types of cuisine, so when the opportunity presented itself to try Persian food I jumped on it. I prefer authentic Mexican food to Tex-Mex, I love Indian food and Mediterranean food and Laotian food and Japanese food. I’m pretty sure I would love Thai food if I could eat coconut and can’t wait to try traditional Korean food. There are a ton of options in Madison for ethnic food, but only one Persian food option – Layla’s.
Layla’s has taken over the old basement location of Cafe Costa Rice off the Square, but has spruced it up and given it a colorful flare. There are only four tables and one employee – Laila (yep, she’s the namesake but she changed the spelling to make sure it was pronounced correctly). Laila makes traditional Persian food, which hails from Iran. Layla’s menu offers two standing dishes and two rotating seasonal options. When I went we got to try the two standing dishes – Fesenjoon and Ghormeh Sabzi, both are served with rice.
The Fesenjoon is made with organic chicken cooked in a walnut pomegranate sauce. The chicken was beautifully cooked, but the sweet walnut pomegranate sauce was a little odd. I’ve never been a fan of sweet flavors mixed with savory dishes. On top of the odd flavor the pureed walnut added an equally odd consistency to the sauce. I really wasn’t a fan.
The Ghormeh sabzi is made with grass-fed beef, kidney beans and Persian limone slaw. I liked this one more than the Fesenjoon, but it was not impressive. The beef was cooked very well, but the sauce was mostly flavorless. I had high hopes for something with lemon flavor in it, but the sauce was almost nonexistent.
FOOD NOTES: Laila did a good job sprucing up the basement space, but her food was not my cup of tea. I love that she uses organic and grass-fed meat. The first dish was too sweet for my taste, and the second one didn’t have enough flavor. I left thoroughly unimpressed and will not be returning.
I have been cautiously trying different Chinese food restaurants in Madison for a while now in search of the best place to go for my Chinese food fix. There are some places I will never go back to and some places that I wouldn’t mind making my go-to place. But I continue to solicit suggestions from friends in search of that perfect place. Thanks to Adam Schrager, I was directed to Orient House on Park Street. He said it is a family favorite and I can see why.
A friend and I decided to order Chinese food during the Capitol One Bowl to root on our beloved Badgers, so I suggested Orient House. Their menu is pretty common with a good lunch deal where you get an entree, rice, 2 crab rangoons and you can get an egg roll for $1 extra. My go-to entree is chicken lo mein. Our order took almost an hour to be delivered but I’m sure New Year’s Day is a busier day than normal.
My lunch special was definitely enough for two meals with a large portion of the lo mein and a good amount of fried rice all for under $10 including delivery tip! The fried rice was pretty standard, the egg roll was a little greasy but was very good, and the crab rangoons were crispy with very creamy filling (I’ve had dry crab rangoon filling…not sure how it happens but it’s gross!). Most lo mein tastes the same so I look for things that are bad: not enough chicken, undercooked veggies, greasiness. The lo mein from Orient House definitely passed my test! It had a good amount of chicken, perfectly cooked veggies and wasn’t too greasy. I thoroughly enjoyed my lunch special lo mein the first day and on the leftover day!
FOODNOTES: They deliver but only to the downtown and near west side so if I want Orient House I’ll have to drive downtown. Because of that it probably won’t be my normal place, but I wish it could be! The prices (especially lunch prices) are very reasonable. Their menu and portions sizes are pretty standard. I very much enjoyed my lo mein. It had good flavor without extra greasiness. Adam’s recommendation is a win in my mind!
I’m a huge Beatles fan so when I heard a Beatles-themed restaurant opened downtown I had to put it on the list. The Rigby opened over a year ago, but since I hadn’t heard any good reviews on the place I didn’t put it at the top of the list. A friend and I finally decided to go for a late lunch one day and had mixed opinions. I looked at the menu and knew all of the dishes were associated with Beatles songs, so I assumed the restaurant itself would be Beatles-themed, but I was wrong. The restaurant is three levels. The first level is the bar area and it had some records and posters on the wall (not enough in my opinion but it was a good effort). The second level was very odd – it had a lot of non-Beatles decor and a mural that was supposed to represent Beatles songs, but it kind of missed the mark. The basement had a sign above the steps that labeled is ‘The Cavern Club,’ so that went with the theme but I didn’t go down there. The entire building has exposed brick and wood floors that would lend itself very well to Beatles decor and memorabilia, but I was very disappointed. The odd glass light fixtures on the second floor shaped like umbrellas were absolutely awful, and the tacky banquet tables and chairs didn’t suit the feel of the restaurant I was expecting. Moving beyond the atmosphere and decor of the restaurant, the menu was expansive and we ordered a lot of food.
As everyone knows, I’m a fried pickle fanatic so when I saw them on the menu I knew I had to order them. The menu is pretty confusing – they have a list of appetizers and then what they call ‘Righteous Additions.’ They are basically the same in concept so I have no idea why they are listed on different parts of the menu. After clarifying that the Please Pickle Me Righteous Additions basket and the And Your Curd Can Sign appetizer would be the same size, we decided to get both. The fried pickle chips were perfectly hot, crunchy, salty and not overwhelmingly battered. I like it when I can see pickle through the batter. The creamy horseradish sauce was unusual (normally fried pickles come with ranch dressing), but very good. The best thing about the pickles was the huge portion that you get – enough to take home leftovers!
The fried cheese curds were also hand battered and fried fresh. They use fresh cheese curds from Wisconsin, which definitely makes a difference. They were hot and cheesy with the same perfectly fried batter. The creamy buffalo sauce was mostly flavorless and didn’t go well with the cheese curds at all. We used the creamy horseradish sauce that came with the fried pickles for the cheese curds too. The curds also came in the same large portion as the fried pickles – more leftovers!
For entrees they offer Beatles-themed burgers, sandwiches, wraps and salads. Most of them don’t look too exciting and if they’re as over-the-top as the Eleanor Rigby Burger I got, they probably aren’t worth ordering. The Eleanor Rigby burger comes with Wisconsin cheddar cheese, fried onion straws, a signature sauce, lettuce and tomato on top. The burger patty and bun were absolutely nothing special, and the amount of fried onion straws on top were way to overwhelming. I was really not impressed with my burger. The homemade pub chips that came with the burger were fine.
FOODNOTES: The only thing more disappointing than the burger was the lack of Beatles decor in the building and lack of Beatles music overhead (we were there about an hour and we only heard one Beatles song played the entire time). The burger I got had way too many fried onions on top and the rest of it was uninspiring. The best part of Rigby’s is their fried appetizers/righteous additions. The fried cheese curds and pickles were top notch. I would suggest avoiding the creamy buffalo sauce and trade it in for the creamy horseradish sauce when getting the fried cheese curds. The prices are a bit high but if you get just appetizers (the thing I liked the best), it wouldn’t be too bad. I wouldn’t suggest going to the Rigby for a meal, but drinks and appetizers would be a good option.
In 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).
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.
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.