Tiny tavern boasts big cider menu, unique dishes

Cooper's Tavern
Coopers Tavern

One Madison restaurant that I took way too long to try out is Coopers Tavern. It’s near the top of State Street on the Capitol Square and has a super tiny dining room with a long bar on one side. It was busy the Friday night I went with a friend, and we had to wait basically inches from people already eating. Once we were seated the cramped dining room issues continued…I had to hook my purse on my knees and I was awkwardly bumped by two people who were hovering around the bar waiting for a table. Despite the super tight quarters the atmosphere at Coopers Tavern is rustic and welcoming.

Crispin blackberry, pear cider
Crispin blackberry, pear cider

I’m not a big drinker, but I do love a good gluten-free cider and Coopers Tavern has the largest selection of ciders I’ve seen. The Crispin blackberry and pear cider was light and refreshing. I could really taste the pear flavor, and even though the blackberry flavor was pretty much non-existent I still really liked it.

Cooper's Tavern Sconnie egg
Coopers Tavern Sconnie egg

We started with Coopers Tavern’s version of a scotch egg, the Sconnie egg. The Sconnie egg is a hard boiled egg wrapped in a Knoche’s market brat patty and fried. It is served with pickled vegetables and stout mustard. The Sconnie egg looks a little odd, but it tastes great. The hard boiled egg and the brat taste like breakfast and then they fry it…frying makes everything better! It’s a pretty heavy flavor profile, so the spicy, seedy mustard really adds a much-needed tang. I was really excited about the pickled vegetables, but they ended up not being good. They were pickled with anise and other warm spices, and I really didn’t like those flavors.

Cooper's Tavern steak and frites
Coopers Tavern steak and frites

I got the steak and frites as my entree. The marinated flank steak came served with blue cheese bone marrow butter, a homemade bourbon steak sauce, green beans and Belgian frites. The steak was crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, but it was a pretty small portion for the price ($16.95). The bourbon steak sauce tasted pretty much like pre-packaged barbecue sauce, and even though it was good I was expecting it to be better. The fancy bone marrow butter didn’t taste as special as the description made it sound. The simple steamed green beans would have been better with some seasoning. The frites were classic frites — they were salted perfectly and fried to a crisp.

Cooper's Tavern pork belly mac
Coopers Tavern pork belly mac

My friend got the pork belly mac. The dubliner cheddar mac and cheese comes topped with Madison Sourdough bread crumbs and Guinness stout glazed berkshire pork belly. The sauce isn’t like traditional cheese sauce. It tasted like a fancier version of alfredo sauce. The glaze on the pork belly was sweet and tasted like it had brown sugar in it.

FOOD NOTES: Coopers Tavern has an extremely small dinning room that definitely makes waiting for your table that much more annoying. The gluten-free cider menu is a nice alternative to beer, and I loved the Sconnie egg. My steak and frites were good, but a little on the pricey side. The green beans were generic and the sauce on the steak had a pre-packaged quality to it, but the frites were perfectly crispy and salty. The pork belly mac was a little different than traditional mac and cheese, but it was good. The cider options and Sconnie egg will bring me back, but I will probably get a different entree.

Initiating a new Italian tradition

Recently I decided to try eating gluten free most of the time. I eat 98 percent gluten free at home and try to mostly avoid it when eating out (although I do love food and won’t give up a great meal because it has gluten in it). So when I decided to make lasagna last week I faced the task of making my favorite Italian dish gluten-free and tasty. There are quite a few gluten-free noodle options out there but I wanted to try a healthier option. So I did some research and bought three medium-sized zucchini.

veggie lasagnaThe recipes I read online said the zucchini should be sliced 1/8 of an inch thin and grilled before starting to layer the lasagna. I don’t have a mandolin so my zucchini was a little thicker than they should be. I also don’t have access to a grill so my zucchini slices went in raw. But zucchini has a lot of water in it so I laid all of my slices out on paper towels and sprinkled salt on them to draw the water out. I let them sit for 10 minutes or so and dabbed off the extra water that pooled on top.

I mixed up the regular cheese mixture of ricotta and mozzarella cheese and an egg. For the sauce mixture I used ground beef, a jar of Market Pantry pasta sauce, some fresh sliced Serano peppers (I think I sliced up 3), some italian spices, garlic powder, mushrooms and a little less than a cup of brown rice. I originally planned on using lentils, but I didn’t have any so I used up a random bag of brown rice in my cupboard (to save time – and dishes – I cooked the rice in the microwave). With all of my ingredients I was able to get two full layers and then a random layer of what I had left – I probably should have bought four zucchini and a mandolin so my slices would be thinner.

FOODNOTES: The best part of my zucchini was how good it was for me…my recipe made 12 portions, and each slice had 436 calories and 36 grams of protein! I plan on getting a mandolin in the near future to make my zucchini slices the perfect thickness. I also want to try using lentils like my original plan, but I will definitely be making this flavorful, healthy dish again! Do you have any dishes you change up to make healthier and tastier? What do you think are the best ingredients to use to cut out calories and add in protein?

Holy Manna that was good!

manna bakery
Manna’s bakery case with GF options on top

Manna Cafe on Madison’s north side is one of the best-kept secrets in Madison. It is hidden in the corner of a disheveled strip mall amidst an aging shoe-repair shop, travel agent and butcher shop. If I wasn’t expecting to pull into an old strip mall to find Manna I would have driven past it. But any sense of that strip mall disappears when you walk into Manna and are greeted by a beautiful pastry case, cheery yellow walls and a great menu. When we were there on a week-day morning both of the decent-sized dining rooms were full, and we were lucky to get a table!

manna GF pumpkin date bar
Gluten free pumpkin bar

Even though I wanted to try most of the items in the bakery case I opted for one of the gluten free options since I’m trying to go mostly gluten free now. I got a pumpkin date bar with cream cheese frosting to take home. It was the perfect breakfast the next day. Gluten free desserts tend pretty dry because they have to use weird ingredients to avoid gluten, but this bar was great. It was moist and had a great pumpkin flavor. And the frosting was great! I loved that it wasn’t too sweet (which tends to be problem for regular pumpkin bars).

For breakfast I got the A Walk-in-the Woods scramble with asparagus, mushrooms, cheddar cheese and frizzled onions on top. It was a good size with the perfect ratio of eggs to fillings. The frizzled onions on top added a great flavor and crunch. The scrambles come with some of the best breakfast potatoes I’ve had yet. They were seasoned really well and were amazingly crunchy on the outside, yet perfectly fluffy on the inside. Loved them! The scrambles also come with bread and I was pretty excited that they have homemade gluten free bread as an option! I was very happy with my breakfast. I was a little concerned about the coffee because it is served out of gas-station like serve-yourself carafes but it was hot, steamy, fresh and flavorful! The unlimited cup is definitely your best choice. My friend got the Sticky Bun French Toast and loved it, although it was a little rich with the chocolate maple syrup.

FOODNOTES: I was extremely impressed with the quality and quantity of food I got at Manna Cafe. The scramble was above the standard of most scrambles I’ve had, and the potatoes were memorable enough to bring me back for breakfast again. I loved my take-home gluten-free pumpkin bar, and can’t wait to try other seasonal gluten-free bakery options they will have. I really want to go back to try their oatmeal pancakes, the Okeefe benedict on the weekends looks super good, and a couple of the lunch options look really promising! Their lunch menu is very extensive making it a very good option for groups of people. The prices were comparable to other cafes in Madison. And don’t let the unassuming location fool you, Manna Cafe is great!