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!

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Graze offers same great food, atmosphere for lunch

Graze lunch menu

Graze lunch menu

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!

 

Graze pickles review from 12/31/13

Graze pickles review from 12/31/13

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!

Graze noodle bowl

Graze noodle bowl

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.

Graze beet walnut burger

Graze beet walnut burger

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!

The search for Madison’s best Chinese food – Orient House

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.

Orient House chicken lo mein lunch special

Orient House chicken lo mein lunch special

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!

This place put a sandwich on Stella’s Spicy Cheese Bread!!!

brasserie menu

Brasserie V

I thought the novelty of Brasserie V (pronounced “V,” not five) on Monroe Street would be lost on me because they’re known for their beer selection, specifically Belgian beer. But when I went there for lunch with a friend before the holidays I was pleasantly surprised by the menu options. The restaurant specializes in mussels, french fries, steak and duck. A couple years ago I was very reluctant to try mussels at a Restaurant Week dinner I was at, but ever since jumping in with both feet I usually get mussels when I see them on the menu. Their menu also has sandwiches, burgers, salads and pub-style appetizers.

brasserie moules et frites

moules et frites

My friend got the Moules et Frites (mussels and french fries). The mussels came out in a huge crock covered in steaming garlic and wine sauce. Mussels aren’t really special unless the sauce they are cooked in is special. This light, garlicky broth was good but nothing I haven’t had before. The frites were super good. They were crispy, fried to perfection and were perfectly salted. I have a weak spot for french fries and probably always will, so they were my favorite part of the meal. The aioli was a good combination of creaminess and garlic flavor. All in all, the Moules et Frites were good and for $11 at lunch, not a bad deal either.

brasserie roast beef

roast beef sandwich on Stella’s spicy cheese bread

I’m glad my friend got the Moules et Frites for two reasons – one: because I really wanted to try them, and two: because I had my eye on something else. I’ve lived in Madison for a little over six years now and definitely consider myself a Madisonian, so the list of ingredients on the roast beef sandwich got my attention. The sandwich is made with Stalzy’s roast beef (I’ve given them rave reviews multiple times), house-made giardiniera (I love spicy, pickled peppers and veggies!) and dill sour cream on STELLA’S SPICY CHEESE BREAD. I mean, come on! Any sandwich would be 100% better on spicy cheese bread! Without all of those amazing ingredients the sandwich probably wouldn’t have been as good. The roast beef was perfectly seasoned and lean. The giardiniera had  good pickle, but could have been spicier and there could have been more of it on the sandwich. Same thing with the dill sauce – it was good but there could have been more of it. And then there’s the Stella’s spicy cheese bread. That’s definitely what takes this sandwich over the top! Any other bread just wouldn’t do. With the amazing ingredients this sandwich could be my favorite in Madison – they just need to put more giardiniera and dill sauce on it, otherwise it is a bit dry. The price for the sandwich ($12) was a little high considering all of the ingredients on my sandwich came from Madison and the $11 mussels had to be flown here. The couscous salad I got as a side (probably should have gotten the pub chips or salad) was forgettable.

brasserie bar

bar in 2nd room

I can’t speak for the beer selection because I don’t drink beer, but the atmosphere of the place was nice. There are two rooms. The first one is a smaller room with a small bar, about a dozen tables and is cozier. The second one (a recent addition according to the owner) is bigger, with a large bar, more space for mingling and additional tables.

FOODNOTES: If you’r craving mussels and wonderfully prepared french fries, Brasserie V would be a good choice. It’s in a good location (usually easier to get to than downtown restaurants that offer moules et frites). The roast beef sandwich could be a crave-able sandwich with two small tweaks – but the Madison ingredients really make the sandwich special. Whoever thought about putting a generic roast beef sandwich on Stella’s Spicy Cheese Bread deserves an award! The prices are a bit high, especially the lunch prices. I got a gift card for Brasserie V from my Secret Santa this year, so I will return – probably to try their steak and frites this time.

ZuZu Cafe may not be best option during trip to Zoo

zuzu's signIn 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).

zuzu's panini

Jefferson panini

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.

zuzu's peanut butter cookies

peanut butter cookie

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. 

Potato dumplings perfect at Paul’s Pel’meni

When looking for Paul’s Pel’meni on Gorham you have to be careful not to walk by. It’s tucked in a side entrance between State and Henry streets. The trickiest part is that the main door has an art supply store sign over it. Again, make sure you pay attention because you don’t want to miss this place,

pauls

The tiny dining room with a half dozen tables and a counter by the front window has an industrial feel with modern colors. The simplistic feeling is accentuated by the simple menu and the simple preparation area. The menu has basically one option with a couple different variations that are prepared ahead of time, frozen and dropped into one of four pots of boiling water. They offer full or half orders of dumplings that can come stuffed with meat, potatoes or both. Then they offer “the works” as a topping. The works includes butter sauce, curry powder, chili sauce (which I was told is Sriracha and rice vinegar), cilantro and sour cream.

Paul's Pel'meni with the works on top

Paul’s Pel’meni with the works on top

I went to Paul’s for lunch with a friend and the full size was enough for the both of us plus leftovers. We got a combo with the works and I thought they were great considering they are so simple. Both the meat and potato fillings were good but the potato one really shined. The meat one tasted like a standard pot sticker, but the potato filling was buttery and creamy, and a really good vehicle for the spicy topping. The thing that makes Paul’s Pel’meni stand out from other dumplings is the topping combo they offer. I’m not a fan of cilantro so I plan to get the works without cilantro next time, but the rest of the toppings worked really well together. The butter sauce gave it a hearty flavor while the curry powder and chili sauce gave the dumplings an intense but flavorful heat. The sour cream was a nice compliment to the spicy toppings.

The price was a tad high for the amount and simplicity of the food but it won’t keep me from coming back. ALERT: They only take cash so make sure to hit an ATM on the way.

FOODNOTES: This hidden gem on Gorham has a great feel and dishes up amazing food. The simplistic menu means they were able to perfect the options they do have. Both meat and potato fillings are good but the potato one shines. Next time I go I will probably just get the potato filling. As for toppings, if you like spicy food I would suggest getting the works. I know it sounds like an odd set of flavor combinations but they all work really well together (of course I won’t be getting the cilantro). I would say Paul’s Pel’meni is a great lunch place and will definitely be back, but I think the limited menu would not make for a good dinner stop. And remember: they only take cash!

Dessert pizza shines at Novanta

My favorite go-to place for lunch is Chipotle and the one I go to is in a small strip mall. The strip mall has a couple other places to eat but nothing great (a random Chinese place, Cousin subs and a coffee shop). There used to be a creepy seafood store/restaurant but it recently closed down and a pizza place opened up in it’s place. I’ve been waiting for another option in this strip mall and have been really excited to try Novanta, which dubs itself a Neapolitan pizza and mozzarella bar. The menu looked super promising and I read they bake the pizzas in big wood-burning oven!

novanta caserta pizza

Caserta pizza

I finally got to go this week for lunch with a friend! I’ve heard the salads are really good but after looking at the menu I didn’t think they were worth it or could be better than any of the pizzas on the menu. I got the Caserta pizza with tomato sauce (they offer pizzas with an olive oil sauce as well), roasted peppers, roasted onions and salame. The pizzas come in one size, which is a little bigger than a personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut but the crust is thinner and a ton better. I loved the combo of toppings and the salame had a great flavor. I wish the roasted peppers and onions would have been chopped up into smaller pieces to make it easier to eat. I may be messier than the average diner but the huge pieces of peppers and onions kept falling off my pizza. The crust on the side of my pizza was perfectly charred and crunchy. The bottom crust was a little soggy. If it had been crunchier the large pieces of pepper and onions might not have fallen off the whole time!

They do have a mozzarella bar with a house-made mozzarella and two options imported from Italy. They also offer add-ons like prosciutto, vinegar, olive oil, tomatoes, salame and ham. We didn’t try the mozzarella bar but definitely wanted to!

novanta dessert

Nutella pizza

We decided to split the one thing on the dessert menu I’ve never seen before; a Nutella pizza. The menu says it is a pizza stuffed with Nutella, which is a completely accurate description. It is two thin pieces of pizza dough with gobs of Nutella in the middle. I had zero complaints about the pizza and will definitely be going back specifically for that. The pizza dough was great and balanced out the extremely sweet Nutella perfectly! We did have two small suggestions: offer whipped cream and raspberries or strawberries as toppings!

The atmosphere feels like a college pizzeria with soda in cans, self-serve water in Coca-Cola cups and an industrial feel. It is super laid back and the staff was really nice! It did take a little while to get our pizzas but they are so fresh it was totally worth it. Just take note of that if you’re on a time limit at lunch.

FOODNOTES: The pizza was fantastic but the crust could have been a little crunchier. I really want to go back for the mozzarella bar and include as many add-on options as possible! I will definitely be going back for the Nutella pizza and can see that becoming my go-to place for a great dessert! The prices were pretty decent for what we got but diners should take note the fresh pizzas take a little bit to be made (but it is totally worth it!).