Forequarter’s focus on mixing simple with spectacular lives up to hype

When my mom asked me what I wanted for my birthday this year, I only asked for one thing — a dinner at Forequarter. When I was in college a friend and I got a chance to eat at Underground Kitchen, and when it had to close because of a fire in the apartments above it I was very sad. I loved their dishes full of fresh, unique ingredients cooked and served in a very simple way. When Underground Food Collective decided to open another restaurant under a different name I knew I would love it. Unfortunately, because of its location, prices, size and the fact that it doesn’t take reservations, it took me a while to get to Forequarter. (NOTE: sorry about the bad pictures…it was very dark in the dining room)

Forequarter
Forequarter

I know other people don’t like the no-reservation policy because when we got out of our vehicle a 4:58 pm groups of people from two other vehicles followed suit. We were all seated promptly at 5 pm and the tiny dining room that seats less than 20 filled up within the hour. The menu changes regularly, but based on what we got I can only assume I’d love anything they’d offer. Their menu seems to be broken into three categories — appetizers, small plates and entrees.

Forequarter braunschweiger sandwich
Forequarter braunschweiger sandwich


We decided to go all out and get an appetizer, a small plate, two entrees and a dessert. For our appetizer we had to get the braunschweiger sandwich because both of us genuinely like braunschweiger. The open-faced sandwich comes on toast with caramelized onion jam, mustard and radish. Braunschweiger can be fatty, greasy and sometimes the flavor can be a little sour or oddly seasoned, but Underground Meats clearly knows what it’s doing. Their braunschweiger was creamy, and was seasoned perfectly (not too salty and just enough garlic). The radish added a nice crunch and the peppery flavor worked well with the extremely rich braunschweiger. The onion jam and mustard took the sandwich to another level. The onion jam was that perfect combination of sweet and savory, and the seedy stout mustard was perfection. I loved how truly Wisconsin the sandwich was.

Forequarter warm potato salad
Forequarter warm potato salad

For our small plate we got a warm potato salad with a fried egg vinaigrette, pea shoots and pickled mushrooms. The super simple fried potatoes were elevated by the toppings. The vinaigrette was rich, creamy and tangy. I’d love to learn how to make the dressing so I could have it on my salads at home. The pea shoots’ crunchiness and freshness went great with the warm potatoes and rich dressing. The last (but definitely not least) components of the dish were the tiny pickled mushrooms. The pickled, savory beech mushrooms helped to balance the warm potatoes and rich dressing to keep the salad lighter. It was the tastiest and most unique potato salad I’ve ever had.

Forequarter steelhead trout
Forequarter steelhead trout

The first entree we decided to try was the Steelhead trout with black lentils, radish, burnt orange and herb butter. This dish was still very good, but less successful than the first two. The trout was perfectly cooked and seasoned, and the skin was crispy…which is the best way to eat fish! The black lentils were perfectly seasoned, but may have been slightly overcooked. The roasted radishes were an interesting touch and added a great pepper flavor to the rich dish, but the burnt orange and herb butter did not impress me. The butter was not only an unappealing color (black), but it tasted like rotten citrus and dirt…we avoided it. The random pieces of mandarin orange were also oddly out of place.

Forequarter hanger steak
Forequarter hanger steak

Our second entree was the hanger steak with parsnip puree, smoked carrots, soubise and beef tendon. This dish was pretty special. To start, the hanger steak was perfectly cooked and seasoned, and was very tender. Sometimes parsnips are prepared sweet, but this puree was perfectly savory. I’m not sure what the flavors were (nothing stood out to me), but it went very well with the steak. The other three components are what took this dish up 10 notches. The smoked carrots were an extremely unique flavor and I loved them. The soubise was fantastic – I had to look up what soubise was and it is described as an onion bechamel sauce. I’m not sure why an onion sauce was so good, but I wanted more of it to eat with the steak. And then the beef tendon — it was basically a pork rind. I don’t love pork rinds, but this crispy fried pork tendon was a surprising and decadent addition to the dish.

Forequarter cookie plate
Forequarter cookie plate

For dessert we had to get the cookie plate (seriously…everyone I had talked to about Forequarter said we needed to get the cookie plate). We got four items on our cookie plate. Two of them were cookies – a salted pecan macaroon and a ginger molasses cookie. Two of them were candies – pepita toffee and chocolate covered bourbon caramel. The salted pecan macaroon was as good as macaroons can get. The cookie had a crunchy shell but a soft inside and the filling was the perfect balance of salty and sweet. The ginger molasses cookie was pretty special — it tasted exactly like my grandma’s gingersnap cookies, which means it had her special ingredient in it: bacon grease. There’s nothing better than a gingersnap cookie, except a gingersnap cookie with bacon grease. I don’t usually like candies, ironically I don’t actually like toffee or caramels, but these two were fantastic. The pepita toffee was crunchy, salty and buttery. I’ve never had toffee I liked, but I loved this one. The chocolate covered bourbon caramel was the same. Caramels usually just taste like sugary, chewy messes to me, but this one was not too sweet and the chocolate and caramel had a melty consistency. I loved all four of them.

FOOD NOTES: I had extremely high hopes for Forequarter and they were all justified. The braunschweiger sandwich and warm potato salad were impeccable. The trout was perfectly cooked, but some of the components of the dish were not great. The hanger steak was great and the extra components were spectacular. The cookie plate lived up to all the hype. The prices are a tad higher than the average restaurant, but not out of the question for the quality of the food and the creativity of the dishes. I offer two suggestions when visiting Forequarter — go hungry and order small plates and appetizers over entrees.

The Spot Restaurant is well-kept neighborhood secret

The Spot
The Spot

Driving down Johnson Street always involves a mixture of emotions for me: I really want to go to Forequarter, I really don’t like how close together the lanes are, is this what all of the construction was for over the summer, I wish I lived closer to this neighborhood to visit the Johnson Public House, etc. But I never noticed The Spot Restaurant on the south side of the road smooshed in between a couple other odds-n-ends stores. After getting to take a look around and try two entrees, I have to say: It’s small name and unimpressive curb appeal definitely hides a neighborhood treasure.

The Spot dining room
The Spot dining room

the spot boothWalking into The Spot I didn’t expect much because the exterior of the building looked a little rough and the entryway wasn’t much better. But once inside the main door I was blown away. The entire front dining room consists of seven beautiful wood booths. The two front booths offer great corner seats with a full view of the dining room and an elevated view of Johnson Street — perfect for people watching. There’s a little bar in the back of the building, but the front seats are definitely the primo spots. The deep red walls, black and white photography on the walls, and the beautiful two-toned wood floors all made the tiny space feel upscale, but still warm and welcoming.

Now on to the food: Head Chef David Post Jr. describes the food as mediterranean and eclectic with some gluten free and vegan options sprinkled throughout the menu. We got to try two dishes, a vegetarian option from the menu and a great special he’s been trying out.

The Spot pulled pork
The Spot pulled pork

We started with a pulled pork sandwich with bacon braised cabbage and tomatoes on top. The sandwich was pretty close to perfect. The barbecue sauce was tangy and had a great spicy kick to it. The tomatoes added a freshness to the sandwich, and the bread was sturdy enough for the ingredients, but not overly crusty. The one thing that I noticed was the pork could have been shredded a bit more, but the big pieces were so tender it didn’t really matter that much. The braised cabbage was good on it’s own, but it was lost in the sandwich under the spicy barbecue sauce. The sandwich came with some sauteed kale, which was a bit too salty. I would actually have preferred the bacon braised cabbage as a side instead of the kale.

The Spot risotto
The Spot risotto

The butternut squash risotto, which is on the menu and can be made vegan, was a surprising dish. I usually don’t order butternut squash dishes from restaurants because they tend to be made with sweet flavors and spices, and I’m not a fan of sweet vegetables. But this dish was as hearty and savory as you can get without adding meat. The barley and brown rice were cooked perfectly (almost to a creamy consistency), the spinach was hidden well by other flavors (just the way I like spinach in savory dishes…there for the nutrients but you can’t really taste it!), and there were hearty chunks of butternut squash throughout the dish. I can’t really explain the flavor, other than to say that it was creamy (but not heavy), rustic, hearty, perfectly seasoned and probably one of my favorite new dishes I’ve tried in a while.

FOOD NOTES: I learned something today during my visit to the Spot Restaurant: The saying “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” also applies to restaurants. The Spot is an extremely well-kept secret in the Johnson Street neighborhood that I wish I knew about sooner. The butternut squash risotto is a fantastic dish, but next time I go I want to try the paella…unless I go for brunch in which case I want to try the Rumchata French Toast and the PB&E…who wants to go with me?!

Sophia’s serves mediocre food in a cramped space

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

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

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

Sophia's cinnamon roll
Sophia’s cinnamon roll

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

Sophia's omelet
Sophia’s omelet

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

Sophia's apple pancakes
Sophia’s apple pancakes

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

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