Soho converted me to a calamari lover

Soho has been known as one of the go-to food trucks for dumplings in Madison for years, but now that they’ve opened a storefront in Fitchburg, they’ve expanded their menu. And boy were those good additions! Of course they still serve dumplings, but if you’re going to the restaurant in Fitchburg I would suggest some of the things they don’t serve out of the cart.

I like being Michelle Li's roadie!

I like being Michelle Li’s roadie!

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IMG_3247Before trying calamari at Soho with Michelle Li, I had tried it several other times and didn’t like it — both fried and sauteed. I thought the texture was terrible and the taste was worse. But Rocky at Soho really knows how to do calamari. His secret…promise you won’t tell…is cornstarch. I could eat an entire order of it by myself. The batter is salty and crispy. The calamari is tender and not fishy. And to my surprise, the pieces with the tentacles were the best ones because they were crispier. The calamari comes with a tasty dipping sauce, but it is not necessary. All you need is a little lemon juice squeezed on top and it’s time to dig in! If you don’t like calamari, do me a favor and give Soho’s a try. They will convert you.

IMG_3250We also got to try Soho’s green beans and fried tofu. I know, you’re thinking that both of those sound boring, but trust me…they aren’t at Soho. The green beans are charred, salty and in some sort of sauce that was so good I started eating them before I even had a fork, and couldn’t stop.

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IMG_3251Now for the tofu. Every time I try to cook tofu it ends up mushy and tasteless…so I usually avoid it. Well apparently the secret is to deep fry it…because everything is better deep fried! The tofu soaks up the sauce they use, so it’s soft and flavorful on the inside and super crispy on the outside. As a non-tofu-lover I was surprised that I just kept popping cubes of tofu into my mouth.

Soho pork and chicken dumplings

Soho pork and chicken dumplings

FOOD NOTES: Soho’s dumplings are good…there’s no question about it, but if you’re going to their store in Fitchburg instead of their food truck I really suggest giving some of their other menu items a try. I would venture to say their calamari tops most of the places in Madison and they really know how to serve up usually boring green beans and tofu with flare.

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New Bonefish Grill among subpar chains near West Towne

Bonefish Grill

Bonefish Grill

Restaurants near West Towne Mall have been popping up left and right, including a Chick-fil-A, Jason’s Deli, Freshii and now Bonefish Grill. I tried Bonefish Grill out with my mom after a day of shopping and hanging out. Even though it was only the middle of April we decided to sit on the patio. The dining room was very nice, but the sunny weather and patio heaters were enough to get us outside. The disappointing thing was that the impressive dining room and nice patio were the highlights of our lunch.

Bonefish caesar salad with salmon

Bonefish caesar salad with salmon

I got the caesar salad with salmon, which was pretty marginal. The lettuce was probably a day past its prime, the dressing was generic and the croutons were flavorless. The salmon had a good grill char on it, but it was super small and was not seasoned at all.

Bonefish arctic char seasonal special

Bonefish arctic char seasonal special

My mom got the arctic char seasonal special, which came with pasta and spring veggies. It looked like a decent dish, but it wasn’t worth the higher price tag.

Bonefish key lime pie

Bonefish key lime pie

Bonefish creme brulee

Bonefish creme brulee

For some reason we both decided to get dessert, which was regrettable considering both the key lime pie and creme brulee were huge and not great. My creme brulee tasted like cold vanilla pudding with a crunchy topping. Creme brulee should be a little lighter than gooey pudding, but this one straight up tasted like pudding. The one thing to note about the desserts it that they are huge. My creme brulee could easily have served three people.

Bonefish Grill

Bonefish Grill

FOOD NOTES: Bonefish Grill is a typical chain restaurant. Our lunch was edible, but not great. The quality was a little disappointing considering the $10-$15 price range. The service was terrible…it took almost 20 minutes for our desserts to come out (key lime pie and cold creme brulee should not take 20 minutes!). I probably won’t be going back, but I do know quite a few people who love the bang bang shrimp.

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.

Flavors shine through rough special menu at UW Club

The University Club

The University Club

During the amazing four years I spent at the University of Wisconsin I walked past the University Club weekly, and probably closer to daily the year I lived off State Street. But I never ate there because I thought you had to be a member. Once I graduated I looked into the club rules and found that non club members can eat there for breakfast and lunch. I had heard their breakfasts were pretty good, so when I saw a posting for a locavore lunch I asked a friend to go. Their locavore lunch is kind of like restaurant week, where you get to choose an appetizer, entree and dessert from a special menu, but during locavore week they focus on ingredients from local farms and vendors.

University Club salad

University Club salad

I  was surprised by the quality of the food, but disappointed by the continuity between the menu and what I was served. The salad I ordered was supposed to be a roasted sweet corn salad with shallot vinaigrette, micro greens, rabbit confit and radish. What I got was extremely good, but was not a sweet corn salad. In fact, there wasn’t a single piece of corn in the salad. It was a pretty good serving of arugula with a creamy vinaigrette of sorts, a small amount of rabbit confit, and and some slivers of radish. The salad itself was fantastic (especially the rich rabbit confit with the crisp radish and peppery arugula), but based on what I was expecting I was a bit annoyed.

University Club beef kabobs, grilled corn, cilantro-lime rice

University Club beef kabobs, grilled corn, cilantro-lime rice

The beef kabob was inconsistently cooked, but had a good flavor. The cumin grilled sweet corn (maybe this was the corn that was supposed to be in my salad!) was perfectly grilled and had an amazing char. The corn was billed as cumin grilled sweet corn, but even though I loved the flavor I didn’t taste any cumin. The kabob was supposed to come with a lemon-garlic rice pilaf, but it ended up being cilantro lime rice. As you may know based on previous reviews, I really hate cilantro. If I had known the dish came with cilantro-lime rice I probably would have gotten something else.

University Club baklava, ice cream

University Club baklava, ice cream

For dessert I got the baklava with Babcock ice cream. The ice cream was amazing (obviously because it was Babcock) and the baklava was great. It wasn’t too sticky or overly sweet, and it actually had a bit more cinnamon than normal, which was unexpectedly good. The serving size was also larger than the other two courses, which was unexpected, and given the quality of the dessert I was happy it was bigger than anticipated!

FOOD NOTES: I am very torn about my experience at the University Club. My salad was fantastic, but it was not at all what I ordered. The beef kabobs were fine and the sweet corn was good, but the cilantro lime rice was an unwelcome surprise. The baklava was good, and the ice cream was fantastic. I had high hopes for this iconic place on my campus, and I left mildly disappointed. The service was slow, and based on what I saw other people were ordering from the regular menu and what I got, I was not impressed. I do have a strong desire to like the University Club because of my UW pride, but I’m not sure I’ll be back for lunch. I might give breakfast a try though.

1 thing will always bring me back to Mickey’s Tavern

Two words: sexy fries.

mickey'sWalking into Mickey’s Tavern on Madison’s near east side I lost all hope for the quality of the food. The bar was dark, the seating was sparse, the tables were dirty, the kitchen(which was open) looked dirty, there were people smoking like chimneys outside on the patio and the service was awful. We sat down at the only spot left, a tiny table shoved in the corner behind two bigger tables. After we sat there for 15 minutes or so someone finally figured out we were there and brought us drinks.

Mickey's cheese curds

Mickey’s cheese curds

We started with an order of cheese curds because they are always the best appetizer option on a menu. Well not this time. The curds at Mickey’s probably come out of a box because the batter is extremely heavy and flavorless, and the actual curd comes out in a lukewarm chunk, not stringy goodness like fresh cheese curds. They were extremely disappointing.

Mickey's burger

Mickey’s burger

For dinner I got the Mickey’s Burger, which has supposedly been named the best bar burger by Madison Magazine. I’m not sure who voted for that award, but I 100 percent disagree with them. The burger is mixed with spicy giardiniera and herbs, and is topped with chili aioli, tomato and buttermilk battered fried onions. It all sounds like a really good combo, but the burger I got was definitely missing some components and the ingredients that were there were subpar. The burger was extremely crumbly, which made the entire thing super hard to eat. I did not see or taste any giardiniera or herbs in the patty, and it could have been cooked a little longer. It was this odd light brown color. It would have been exponentially better if it had a good grill char on it. The fried onions flavorless and soggy, and added unnecessary heaviness to the burger. The tomato was mushy and probably a couple days old, and the aioli was thick and didn’t have any flavor, let alone any promised chili spice. The odd little container of coleslaw was unwanted and forgettable.

Mickey's sexy fries

Mickey’s sexy fries

Now on to the one and only reason I will ever go back to Mickey’s Tavern, and that’s their sexy fries. They are hand sliced thin chunks of potatoes tossed in truffle oil and covered in parmesan cheese, chives and crushed red pepper. The sexy fries are the single best french fries I have ever had. They are crispy, crunchy, salty, savory, cheesy and a little spicy. Most fries are made better with a good dipping sauce, but any type of sauce added to the sexy fries experience would take away from their perfection. Whoever came up with the amazing idea to combine parmesan cheese, truffle oil and red pepper flakes on top of perfectly cooked potatoes chips is a genius!

FOOD NOTES: The only thing that I will ever go back to Mickey’s for is the sexy fries. The service, dining room and the rest of the food were all subpar. The Mickey’s burger was awful and the cheese curds were even worse. Next time I go I will get the largest order of sexy fries they have and maybe I’ll give one of their sandwiches a try.

New Indian restaurant serves up standard buffet dishes

Haveli

Haveli

If you’ve been to one Indian restaurant buffet you’ve been to them all. Most places make a decent chicken tikka masala or spinach paneer. I’ve been to some really bad Indian buffets, but most of them are pretty solid. The draw for most Indian buffets is their location — I usually pick one of the five I enjoy eating at based on where I’ll be before lunch or where I’ll need to go after. There’s one in Middleton, one on the far west side, one by West Towne Mall, one on the near west side, one right downtown and now one just opened up in Fitchburg. Haveli opened up on McKee Road in the same strip mall as Subway and Barriques.

Haveli dining room

Haveli dining room

Haveli is on the end of the strip mall so it has a ton of windows, which makes the expansive dining room nice and bright. The signs are very colorful, which grabbed my attention. The buffet is off to the side and is broken off from the rest of the dinning room with dividers, which I really liked.

Haveli buffet plate No. 1

Haveli buffet plate No. 1

They had pretty standard offerings on their buffet: chutneys, spinach naan, chicken tikka masala, paneer masala, beef curry and samosa chat. The perfectly firm paneer was great, and the creamy masala sauce had a good depth of spices that went really well with the spinach naan. The spinach naan was standard (I wish buffets could figure out a way to keep their naan crispy and not soggy). The onion chutney was a surprise. It had a good kick of flavor on top of the expected pickle flavor, which went really went on top of the beef curry. Samosa chat is samosas broken into pieces served with chana masala (a chickpea dish), yogurt sauce and chutneys on top. I’ve never seen samosa chat on a buffet. First, I’m glad they put it on the buffet so I could try it…I really liked it! It is a lot of things on an Indian buffet that I like all in one dish. Second, I wish the samosas would have been a lot less mushy, but maybe that’s the only way to serve a samosa on a buffet. The sauces in all of the dishes could have used a little more spice, but none of the buffets I’ve ever been to serve up spicy dishes.

Haveli plate No. 2

Haveli buffet plate No. 2

FOOD NOTES: Haveli is a very respectable option for Indian food if you’re in the Fitchburg area. I applaud them for putting samosa chat on the buffet, which is not a typical buffet dish. Haveli’s traditional buffet offerings (chicken tikka masala, paneer, naan, beef curry) were decent, but their masala sauce had a deeper layer of flavors than most buffet masala sauces. The onion chutney was also better than normal with an extra spiciness. The other unique thing about Haveli is that their buffet is $8.95, which is a dollar less than all of the other Indian buffets…not a very significant amount, but could still be part of the decision-making process if deciding between two buffets.

Mt. Horeb diner shines with twist on classic breakfast dish

Schubert's

Schubert’s

Driving to Mt. Horeb for breakfast seems like a stretch, but I figured a friend and I could make a day of it and go antiquing after breakfast. Schubert’s in downtown Mt. Horeb was a recent addition to my list of places to visit, but it fit perfectly with our plans to dig through some antique stores so we decided to go.

schubert's doorThe super cute diner has a bakery case right by the door that anchors a counter that’s the length of the dining room. The counter has tiny, old-fashioned stools and features chalkboard menus and old malt machines. I loved the classic copper ceiling and glass, drop pendant lights. There are booths on the side and down the middle of the dining room, which adds a unique and cozy feel to the diner.

schubert's counter

Schubert's donut

Schubert’s donut

The bakery case got us as soon as we walked in, so we split one of their sprinkle donuts. The icing was perfectly sweet and complemented the fluffy and super thick donut. My friend and I definitely enjoyed our donut appetizer! It also went really well with their old-fashioned diner coffee. Their black coffee wasn’t anything fancy, but it sure was good, hot and strong.

Schubert's corned beef hash

Schubert’s corned beef hash

I got the house-made corned beef hash with sunny side up eggs. The potatoes and corned beef were crispy, crunchy and super fresh. I love that they drizzle the hash with hollandaise sauce. Hash tends to be a little dry, but a little bit of hollandaise really adds a lot of flavor to the dish. I can’t believe other restaurants don’t do that. The eggs were perfectly cooked with great crispy edges, and the toast was fresh. I would have liked to see homemade jam on the table, but I wasn’t annoyed with the individual packs of Smuckers.

Schubert's biscuits and gravy

Schubert’s biscuits and gravy

My friend got the biscuits and gravy. Fair warning: she got the full order but probably should have gotten the half order. The massive biscuits came smothered in great white gravy filled with spicy sausage. Sometimes biscuits and gravy can be greasy, bland and super heavy. The biscuits had a great flaky consistency and a good butter flavor. I’m usually not a big fan of sausage gravy, but this one was deceptively flavorful with a lot of sausage in a great peppery sauce.

Schubert's hasbrowns

Schubert’s hasbrowns

She also got hash browns, but they weren’t anything special. They were nice and crispy, but could have used some seasoning.

schubert's inside signFOOD NOTES: Mt. Horeb is a good 30 minute drive from my apartment so Schubert’s will not be my go-to breakfast stop, but if I’m ever in the neighborhood again I will definitely go back. The donut and coffee were great. The corned beef hash was quality, but was elevated to amazing with the simple addition of hollandaise sauce! I still can’t figure out why more diners don’t do that! The biscuits and gravy were pretty great. The biscuits were fresh and flaky, and the gravy was peppery with a great flavor and tons of sausage. I’m usually not a biscuits and gravy fan, but Schubert’s homemade version was great. With all of the great homemade options on the menu I wold have liked to see homemade jam on the table, but it wasn’t a deal breaker.