Steenbock’s difficult location overshadows tasty lunch dishes

steenbock'sSteenbock’s on Orchard has been a mystery to me since it opened. It’s a Food Fight restaurant located inside the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery research building right in the middle of campus. The building is beautiful and open and feels very academic with a ton of UW pride dotted throughout the main floor. The website describes the menu as “designed to highlight local and seasonal ingredients at their best.” They serve “local meats, cheeses and vegetables while making our own jams and curing our own meats in our preservation kitchen.” The mix between academic research labs and this restaurant has always seemed odd, but intriguing.

Steenbock's dining room

Steenbock’s dining room

I’m torn about the location. The building was beautiful and I love being on campus, but getting there was painful. All three lots somewhat near the WID building were full and we were extremely lucky to get a parking spot on the street by the business school. If I’m ever back on campus regularly or for a special occasion I would totally go to Steenbock’s, but I won’t go back just for the food…it’s just too hard to get to!

Steenbock's spinach salad with warm bacon dressing

Steenbock’s spinach salad with warm bacon dressing

My restaurant week meal started with a spinach salad that came with warm bacon dressing. The hearty spinach was the perfect base for the bacon dressing and the roasted tomatoes added a much-needed tangy flavor. I didn’t love the blue cheese on top, but I’m not a fan of blue cheese to begin with.

Steenbock's Korean ribs

Steenbock’s Korean ribs

My friend Nicole got the Korean BBQ ribs with french fries for her entree. The ribs were a little tough, but the sauce was tangy and had a good spice. I didn’t necessarily think it tasted like Korean BBQ, but they were good. The french fries were my favorite part of her dish! They were crispy, hot and perfectly salted.

Steenbock's chicken with brussel sprouts and bacon

Steenbock’s chicken with brussel sprouts and bacon

I decided to go with the chicken, which is odd because I usually don’t get chicken at restaurants because I make it so much at home. The best part of the chicken dish I got was the plentiful amount of bacon that came with it. The brussel sprouts and potatoes came in a light olive oil sauce with crispy pancetta…I usually like brussel sprouts, but adding pancetta makes them so much better! The chicken was moist and the skin was crispy, but the bacon crumbles between the meat and the skin was what made it special. I’m not sure what was in the crumble other than bacon, but it was super savory and good enough to make me want to order the chicken dish again. Bacon makes everything better!

Steenbock's croissant bread pudding

Steenbock’s croissant bread pudding

They only had one dessert option, but it was so good I wasn’t upset with the lack of choices. The marble croissant bread pudding was something so unique I’m not sure how to start explaining it, but I’ll try — it was bread pudding made with flaky, buttery chunks of plain and chocolate croissants. There was some sort of sweet sauce on top, some powdered sugar and two raspberries. The bread pudding itself was so good, it didn’t need the toppings. The plain croissant was sweet and buttery, while the chocolate croissant was rich and slightly bitter — the combination made for a substantial, but not too sweet dessert!

FOOD NOTES: The difficulty level of getting to Steenbock’s if you’re not already on campus really overshadows the tasty food. My Restaurant Week appetizer was an unimpressive salad, but my chicken entree was stellar and my dessert was probably one of the top 3 Restaurant Week desserts I’ve had over the last 6 years. If you’re on campus and looking for a great lunch…check out Steenbock’s, if you’re not already on campus look somewhere else.

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Brocach #restaurantweek meal peaked at appetizers

Brocach on the square

Brocach on the square

To kick off this winter’s Madison Magazine Restaurant Week I headed to the Capitol Square with a friend on a Sunday night that already had one bad thing against it — the Packers lost in overtime to the Seahawks in the third round of the playoffs. While the Packers were giving their Superbowl spot to the Seahawks, I was driving to Brocach on the square for a three-course Restaurant Week meal.

Brocach scotch egg

Brocach scotch egg

Before our Restaurant Week courses started I wanted to try their version of the Scotch egg because the one at Cooper’s Tavern was so good. Brocach’s Scotch egg was not as good as Cooper’s Tavern. The biggest problem was the thick batter covering the egg and sausage. The batter was lacking any distinct flavor and so was the sausage. It’s hard to mess up a sausage-wrapped hard-boiled egg, but this one wasn’t great. The pickled vegetables were forgettable.

brocach croquettes

Brocach croquettes

The single best part of the meal  came next — the potato croquettes with aged cheddar sauce. Both of us got the croquettes and both of us loved them. The three golf-ball-sized croquettes were perfectly warm and soft on the inside and crispy on the outside. And the aged cheddar sauced was so good I could have licked my plate…I didn’t, but I did wipe it up with my finger — you know, to try and keep is classy!

Brocach salmon

Brocach salmon

That’s when the meal went down hill. I got the salmon which was crispy, but needed some sort of seasoning and the salad was literally two sprigs of greens. The tangy dressing was good, but considering how cheap greens are I was expecting the salad to be a bit bigger. The puree on the bottom was sweeter than I was expecting (and I don’t remember what it was made of), but it went well with the unseasoned salmon.

Brocach pork belly

Brocach pork belly

My friend got the pork belly and I got to eat the brussel sprouts that came with it. The sprouts were fine…I’ve had better and I’ve had worse. Her pork belly came with a similar sweet puree under it (did they use the same puree for two Restaurant Week dishes?) and sliced apples on top. It was an interesting dish, but not good enough to bring me back.

Brocach flourless chocolate cake

Brocach flourless chocolate cake

The dessert options sounded promising, but they were pretty disappointing. I got the flourless chocolate cake, which was harder than fudge and was almost — brace yourselves — too chocolatey. It was so chocolatey, it was bitter. The berry sauce tasted like bitter, watered-down jam.

Brocach mint sundae

Brocach mint sundae

My friend got the mint sundae, which was mint ice cream that came with a shot of Bailey’s you were supposed to pour over the top. I think she liked it, but I say it should have had some hot fudge on it too. FOOD NOTES: Brocach has been on my “places to eat list” for quite a while and now it’s headed to my “places to avoid list.” The Restaurant Week meal wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great. The croquettes were pretty great, but the entrees were OK and the desserts were disappointing. Maybe the negative feelings of the Packers’ season ending loss to the Seahawks influenced the dinner…or maybe Brocach just isn’t that great.

Capitol Chophouse tops #restaurantweek meals

Capitol Chophouse

Capitol Chophouse

I’ve been trying restaurants during Madison Magazine’s Restaurant Weeks for four years, but my last stop during this summer’s Restaurant Week was by far the best meal I’ve gotten off of a Restaurant Week menu so far. Capitol Chophouse is a slightly hidden restaurant that is attached to the Hilton Hotel right off the square near Monona Terrace. The dining room features big leather booths and dark wood walls, with clean white linens and classic dishes. It feels like a high-class supper club, even though it’s attached to a hotel.

Market tomato salad

Market tomato salad

Smoked salmon fritters

Smoked salmon fritters

French onion gratin

French onion gratin

For restaurant week the appetizer choices were a market tomato salad, smoked salmon fritters and French onion gratin. My friends got the smoked salmon fritters and the market tomato salad. Both were happy with their choices. I got the French onion gratin. I’m not sure what I was expecting when the menu said the appetizer was a “gratin” but it was basically baked French onion soup. Admittedly, it was the best French onion soup I’ve ever had. The onions and the broth were so flavorful with the perfect balance of onion flavor and savory broth. The chunks of bread inside the soup were not too mushy, which means it was probably made-to-order. And the swiss cheese melted on top was thick, creamy and didn’t have too much of a strong swiss flavor. It was a perfect first course for my final summer 2014 Restaurant Week meal.

Alaskan halibut

Alaskan halibut

Roast Berkshire pork

Roast Berkshire pork

New York strip steak

New York strip steak

For entrees they were offering a New York strip steak, roast Berkshire pork and Alaskan halibut. The two extremely generous slices of roast pork came on top of coffee mole sauce that tasted odd on its own, but paired very well with the perfectly cooked pork. The two equally generous pieces of halibut came in a white wine butter sauce with capers on top. The fish was also cooked perfectly, and the sauce was pleasantly light despite its name. Since we were in a chophouse I opted for the New York strip steak. Unlike my previous steakhouse experience that week, the people running Capitol Chophouse’s kitchen definitely knew how to cook a medium rare steak. The chimichurri vinaigrette that was drizzled on top added a good tang. The amount of the sauce was perfect. There was just enough to taste it, but I was still able to taste the perfectly charred and seasoned steak.

Capitol Chophouse mashed potatoes

Capitol Chophouse mashed potatoes

In addition to this being the best Restaurant Week meal I’ve ever had, it was also the most expensive. Because the menu at Capitol Chophouse is served a la carte, we had to order our sides separately. With some guidance from one of the servers, we ordered two sides to split between the three of us. I’m glad we decided to split the sides because what was delivered can only be described as a serving bowl of family-style sides…definitely not an individual serving. I was also excited to try more than one side. The mashed potatoes were just the way I like them – made with red potatoes with the skins, a little garlicky and a little lumpy. For our second side we got the lobster mac and cheese (forgot to take a picture…sad), which was super decadent. It is al dente elbow macaroni smothered in a rich cheese sauce with chunks of lobster sprinkled generously throughout. I could have made a meal out of just the sides, but I’m glad I didn’t!

Chocolate terrine

Chocolate terrine

Peach cobbler

Peach cobbler

For desserts we could choose between a chocolate terrine, a Wisconsin cheese plate or peach cobbler. One of my friends got the chocolate terrine, which was this thick chocolate fudge-like substance topped with another white custardy substance. Both were extremely good. There were also little fluffs of toasted meringue on the side. Two of us got the peach cobbler. The cobbler had to have been baked to order, because it was so hot, when we broke into the crust steam started pouring out. The vanilla bean ice cream was melting so fast mine started dripping dow the side of my ramekin. I’m not the biggest fan of peach, but this dessert made me forget that. The peaches were in a light sauce that wasn’t too sweet or syrupy, and the crumbles on top were crunchy and tasted vanilla-y and hardy. The combination of the hot cobbler with the vanilla bean ice cream was a home run.

FOOD NOTES: There were so many high points to this meal, I’m not really sure where to even start. The atmosphere was great. The service was good, but not overbearing. My appetizer, entree, sides and dessert were phenomenal. I was extremely happy with everything, and I wasn’t even upset with the price of the meal, because I did take leftovers home. I’m more of a savory person over sweets, but to this day I think about that peach cobbler and ice cream dessert.

Rare Steakhouse’s #restaurantweek was not ‘well done’

Rare Steakhouse

Rare Steakhouse

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.

Rare smokey popcorn

Rare smokey popcorn

Rare smoked salmon nachos

Rare smoked salmon nachos

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.

Rare sirloin (I was so excited to try the steak at this new steakhouse, this was all that was left when I remembered to take a picture)

Rare sirloin (I was so excited to try the steak at this new steakhouse, this was all that was left when I remembered to take a picture)

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.

Rare chocolate cake

Rare chocolate cake

Rare creme brulee

Rare creme brulee

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.

Rare dining room

Rare dining room

Rare bar

Rare bar

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.

Nau-Ti-Gal’s carefree atmosphere adds to #restaurantweek meal

Nau-Ti-Gal

Nau-Ti-Gal

Nau-Ti-Gal outside seating

Nau-Ti-Gal outside seating

There are dozens of restaurants in Madison that offer quaint and relaxing atmospheres, but in my experience none offer a place that makes you forget you’re in Wisconsin’s capital city of 240,000 people quite like Nau-Ti-Gal (pronounced like “naughty gal” TEEHEE!). The best part of Nau-Ti-Gal is its outside eating areas. There’s the area on the covered back deck and then tables in the back yard, both face a small inlet waterway on the north end of Lake Mendota. The casual seating on the back deck features colorful plastic chairs and nautical-like ropes as the railings. Even though it was warm that night, the shade of the back deck and the breeze off the water kept us comfortable.

Nau-Ti-Gal clam chowder

Nau-Ti-Gal clam chowder

For restaurant week we got to choose an appetizer, entree and dessert. For entrees we could choose between clam chowder, firecracker shrimp or a summer strawberry salad. I got the clam chowder, which was served in a big Nau-Ti-Gal mug and topped with crunchy croutons. The chowder itself was creamy, but not too heavy and had oversized, perfectly cooked chunks of potatoes and celery. Compared to other clam chowders I’ve had, Nau-Ti-Gal’s had more clams in it and a perfectly salty flavor that cut through the creaminess of the soup. My mom got the summer strawberry salad, and loved the fresh ingredients and that the kitchen was willing to substitute feta cheese for the blue cheese that was supposed to come on top.

Nau-Ti-Gal surf and turf

Nau-Ti-Gal surf and turf

For entrees we could choose between shrimp and grits, salmon, or a surf and turf. Both of us got the surf and turf, which also came with a side. We chose the garlic mashed potatoes, which were definitely mass produced but still featured red potato skins, a savory garlic flavor and had unassuming lumps – which I loved. The lobster was good, but not as good as everyone always makes lobster sound. This was my first lobster tail (I’ve had lobster in dishes, but never a full lobster tail), and I’m assuming because it was served in south central Wisconsin, it wasn’t as fresh and good as you would get on the coast. The steak was perfectly cooked, was seasoned well but not too salty, and was big enough to take half of it home for lunch the next day.

Nau-Ti-Gal rocky road brownie sundae

Nau-Ti-Gal rocky road brownie sundae

Nau-Ti-Gal key lime pie

Nau-Ti-Gal key lime pie

For dessert we could choose between key lime pie, strawberry shortcake or a rocky road brownie sundae. I got the rocky road brownie sundae, which came out in a massive serving. It was extremely simple, but that made it even better. It was an extremely well-done classic dessert with vanilla bean ice cream on top of a brownie, topped with chocolate chips, peanuts, chocolate sauce and marshmallow cream. It was an awesome end to a great meal. My mom got the key lime pie, and said it was refreshing and tasty.

Nau-Ti-Gal

Nau-Ti-Gal

FOOD NOTES: Other than being slightly disappointed with lobster in general, the meal I got at Nau-Ti-Gal was great. I loved the presentation of the clam chowder, and the soup itself was made with quality ingredients, and was perfectly creamy and salty. The surf and turf entree was a good choice. The steak was seasoned and cooked well, and the mashed potatoes were quality even though they seemed like they were made ahead of time. The rocky road brownie sundae was surprisingly simple, but extremely good. The seating was odd because you had to go inside to check in, but then also check in with someone outside to be seated, but the servers were extremely nice and helpful. I also loved the carefree, relaxing atmosphere and the casual outdoor seating. My first meal of Madison Magazine’s Summer 2014 Restaurant Week at Nau-Ti-Gal was a success!

#restaurantweek 2014 ends at disappointing steakhouse

Restaurant week is always a great opportunity to eat some good food for a reasonable price. This year’s winter restaurant week was not disappointing as a whole, but it ended with a slightly disappointing meal. I had zero complaints about my first three restaurant week meals, but the last and most expensive one ruined the perfect streak that was Winter Restaurant Week 2014. I went to Johnny Delmonico’s with two friends and was pretty excited because I’ve heard it’s a very good steakhouse, but my experience was a little less than exciting.

Johnny Delmonico's New England clam chowder

Johnny Delmonico’s New England clam chowder

The restaurant week menu appetizers Johnny Delmonico’s offered included a house Caesar salad, fried calamari and New England clam chowder. I always get Caesar salads so I opted to try something new. I didn’t think I’d be a fan of fried calamari, and I’ve never tried New England clam chowder so I got that. The chowder was a great decision! It was creamy, savory and perfectly salty. The bacon and potatoes were a great compliment to the slightly fishy flavor of the clams. I absolutely loved it!

Johnny Delmonico's fried calamari

Johnny Delmonico’s fried calamari

Both of the friends I went with got the fried calamari. They mostly enjoyed the appetizer, but one of them (including me) was a little freaked out by the pieces with tentacles! The spicy chili sauce that came with the fried calamari was pretty good and the batter wasn’t too heavy. I’m not a fan of calamari, but if you like it you’d probably like their version.

Johnny Delmonico's calamari

Johnny Delmonico’s calamari

For entrees they offered a NY strip steak, swordfish and gnocchi. Because Johnny Delmonico’s is a steakhouse I had to get the NY strip. The steak was pepper crusted and came with mashed potatoes, crispy onion strips and a gorgonzola bechamel sauce. The steak was perfectly cooked, the potatoes were flavorful, the onions added a good crispiness to the dish, and the sauce was rich and creamy. The dish as a whole was good, but I was pretty disappointed in the portion. For being a steakhouse with a pretty hefty price tag even during restaurant week, I was expecting a bigger portion, especially of the steak itself.

Johnny Delmonico's creme brulee

Johnny Delmonico’s creme brulee

For dessert they offered creme brulee, fruit sorbet and German chocolate cake. I never think fruit sorbet is worth being a dessert on its own and German chocolate cake has coconut in it. So I got creme brulee, which I am usually a really big fan. The creme brulee was the biggest disappointment of the meal. The custard itself was fine, but it wasn’t caramelized enough on the top and was way way way too small. The teeny tiny ramekin was about 1/4 the size it should have been.

Johnny Delmonico's German chocolate cake

Johnny Delmonico’s German chocolate cake

One of my friends got the German chocolate cake, which was a much larger portion than the creme brulee…damn the coconut!

FOOD NOTES: The atmosphere of Johnny Delmonico’s is classy with an upscale twist on a traditional steakhouse. The prices (regular and restaurant week) are way too high for the portion sizes. The quality of the food is great, but the quantity really ruined my experience. When I go to a steakhouse I expect classic flavors and big portions…half of that was missing at Johnny Delmonico’s. All in all…definitely not my favorite Food Fight restaurant.

Good food, atmosphere on Merchant lunch menu

Merchant

Merchant

One of my all-time best meals was the dinner I had with some friends at Merchant during the 2013 Restaurant Week. I think it stands out to me because it was the first time I had mussels and now I love mussels! I also love the atmosphere of the restaurant, which doesn’t lose it’s appeal in broad daylight. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been back since my first visit until the I went to Merchant during the 2014 Restaurant Week for lunch. Merchant serves up classic foodie food for dinner, but for lunch they mostly serve salads and sandwiches.

Merchant buttermilk salad

Merchant buttermilk salad

For restaurant week they offered a soup and three salads for appetizers. I ordered the buttermilk salad that came with golden beets, radish, buttermilk dressing and blue cheese. I’m not a fan of blue cheese so I ordered it with feta instead. The salad was plentiful and fresh. My friend Michelle ordered the Caesar salad, but it was too anchovy-y for her, so we switched. The Caesar salad was pretty simple (romaine hearts, creamy anchovy Caesar dressing and parmesan cheese), but what made it memorable was the flavor of the dressing. What Michelle didn’t like about the salad ended up being my favorite part. The tangy, salty flavor was interesting and something I had never tasted before. It was very good.

Merchant fried chicken sandwich

Merchant fried chicken sandwich

For entrees Merchant was offering about a half dozen sandwiches, but it was a no brainer that we order the fried chicken sandwich. A couple weeks before our visit a local website did a poll for best sandwich in Madison and this sandwich was near the top. There were two options: classic or buffalo-style. Michelle and I decided to order one of each and split the sandwiches to see which one we liked better. The classic fried chicken sandwich came on a brioche bun with coleslaw. It was fresh, tasty and surprisingly not too heavy for a fried chicken sandwich. The batter on the chicken was flavorful, crispy and not greasy. The coleslaw was perfectly creamy and crunchy. But the one thing the classic sandwich was missing was the extra ingredient on the buffalo-style sandwich: buffalo sauce. That little bit of spice and vinegar added a great contrast to the creamy coleslaw and the savory fried chicken. If I were to order the sandwich again I would definitely go with the buffalo-style. The french fries weren’t the best I’ve ever had, but they were good.

Merchant brownie sundae

Merchant brownie sundae

Merchant coffee

Merchant coffee

For dessert they were offering sorbet, gelato or a brownie sundae. Of course, I chose the brownie sundae with chocolate sauce, pecans and whipped cream. The brownie was not overly sweet — it tasted almost like dark chocolate. The entire sundae was a fancier version of a classic brownie sundae. It was super good! I also got a cup of coffee, which was surprisingly flavorful and smooth.

FOOD NOTES: Both meals I’ve had at Merchant exceeded expectations. Merchant will always be one of my top picks for places to visit during restaurant week because their food is so good and the price is so right. The Caesar salad was very unique and had a great flavor. The fried chicken sandwich lives up to the hype — especially the buffalo-style version, and the brownie sundae was a great upgraded version of a classic. The only complaint I have is that we had to sit at an awkward table attached to a pillar on high stools — kind of uncomfortable and kind of in the way.