Verona Woods shouldn’t be overlooked for lunch

Have you seen that new development just south east of Verona on Highway M across the street from Wisconsin Brewing Company? Well if you haven’t it’s because you haven’t been over there. On my last pass through that area there were at least five buildigs, most of them housing multiple businesses, and a couple still being built. I believe there are two new restaurants and a winery. The Verona Woods is one of those new restaurants over there.

front seating

When I met a friend over there for lunch a couple months ago the bar area and most of the dining room was empty — except a large group of ladies having some sort of luncheon/meeting. We were seated fast and our waiter was extremely helpful and friendly, but with that large group they could have used more staff.

dusty fries

The lunch menu is pretty standard…appetizers, soup, salad, sandwiches and burgers. We both decided to get a salad and split an order of dusty fries — fries dusted in house dry rub served with remoulade dipping sauce. The fries were very tasty — crispy and hot with a good spice from the dry rub. The dipping sauce was a good creamy balance for the dry rub with a touch of sweetness. The fries were definitely a good addition to our salad choices.

charred beet salad with chicken

I got the charred beet and goat cheese salad — minus the goat cheese and add chicken. The half salad itself is a bit small, but the amount of chicken you get makes up for it. The salad was arugula, baby spinach, charred red and golden beets, shaved fennel, honey dipped almonds, chickpeas and a toasted almond vinaigrette. It all worked very well together — the spiciness from the arugula, the sweet from the honey dipped amonds and the tang from the vinaigrette. The chicken breast was juicy and well worth the extra $3 to add.

My friend also ordered a cup of soup, but she never got it so our server brought us this tasty dessert. I don’t 100% remember what it was, but I do remember none of it was left when we were done.

FOOD NOTES: The Verona Woods is a great addition to the Verona area. Keep it in mind for a lunch spot if you need something out in that area. I’d like to give some of their entrees — like a pasta or steak dish — a try. Also…huge props to our waiter for managing that big group and then making up for the forgotten soup with an amazing dessert!

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Cheese on sushi? We must be in Wisconsin!

I’ve been on and off the sushi train a couple times — In college I ate sushi weekly with a group of friends, but I hadn’t had sushi in a couple years because of some unfortunate food poisoning. Luckily, my lunch at Takara 88 in Middleton with Michelle was the perfect transition back onto the sushi train.

Takara house salad

Takara house salad

We started with the traditional sushi restaurant house salad with ginger dressing. I forgot how much I loved ginger dressing. Each sushi restaurant has it’s own version of the orange dressing, and Takara 88’s was just as good as all of the other versions I’ve had.

Shrimp and veggie tempura

Shrimp and veggie tempura

After the salad we tried their tempura with shrimp and bigs chunks of vegetables. The shrimp and the vegetables were perfectly cooked and the tempura was light and crispy. Sometimes tempura can be heavy and greasy, but Takara 88’s wasn’t.

Now on to the sushi. We got to try two of their special rolls and both of them were good, but I preferred the BMW roll.

BMW roll

BMW roll

BMW roll

BMW roll

The BMW roll comes with tempura shrimp and avocado and is topped with seared salmon, cheese, caviar and a special sauce. This was the perfect roll to ease back onto the sushi train. The cooked shrimp and avocado went great with the seared salmon. The BMW roll was my first introduction to sushi caviar. I could barely tell it was on the roll, but it did add a good salty flavor. The cheese is what made this roll a lot more interesting. I’ve never seen cheese on a sushi roll before, and I don’t think Michelle had either. The ingredients in the BMW roll sounded like everything and the kitchen sink, but they ended up working really well together.

"V" roll

“V” roll

"V" roll

“V” roll presentation

"V" roll

“V” roll

"V" roll presentation

“V” roll martini glass

The second roll we tried was the “V” roll, which is spicy tuna and crab, lettuce, avocado and asparagus wrapped in rice paper and topped with a spicy sauce. The presentation of the “V” roll was crazy pretty and used a martini glass. The “V” roll was good and the lettuce added a much-needed crunch.

FOOD NOTES: Sushi will probably never be my first choice, but Takara 88 in Middleton has some great special sushi rolls. The tempura is a great substitute for sushi, but if you’re OK with raw fish, the BMW roll is the way to go.

Revamped menu at The Wise features upscale ingredients

I’ve been to The Wise twice — once for lunch during restaurant week and once for brunch on Game Day. Both times I enjoyed my meal, but the third time I went was after the new chef released a revamped menu and it was even better than the first two visits. The revamped menu also came along with a revamped dining room — they made it bigger and homier.

tapas

tapas

We started with a tray of snacks on a stick. We got the date stuffed with chorizo wrapped in bacon; jamon iberico de bellota with tempura ramp; and prosciutto, Carr Valley cocoa cardona, strawberry and mint. The bacon-wrapped date was good. I liked that it was stuffed with chorizo instead of cheese, but the other two out-shined the date. The prosciutto and cheese was sweet, salty and refreshing. It was one perfectly balanced bite. The star of the tray was the ham with a tempura fried ramp. The garlicy ramp wrapped in fancy, imported ham was something spectacular! I loved it.

asparagus salad

asparagus salad

We also got the asparagus salad with arugula, poached egg yolk, croutons and crispy bacon. The salad also has a light vinaigrette on it. This one was good, but a little disappointing based on the ingredients. I thought with bacon, egg yolk and arugula it would be a very flavorful salad…but it was just missing that something special. Maybe the egg yolk was too poached…maybe the bacon was too crispy…I’m not sure, but I wasn’t blown away.

smoked half chicken

smoked half chicken

The last thing we got to try was the smoked half chicken. This dish was pretty special. It comes with a BBQ jus, cheddar spiked polenta (hiding under the chicken) and honey glazed carrots. The polenta was creamy and had the perfect amount of cheesy flavor. And the carrots were great — spring carrots are super sweet and there was just enough glaze to work well with the smokiness of the chicken. The chicken was juicy and the smoky flavor was great — not overwhelming, but just enough to make the chicken super flavorful. The one downfall is that it’s a little hard to eat…you literally get half a chicken and a knife…so your plate looks a little like a massacre when you’re done.

FOOD NOTES: I’m glad I got to eat at The Wise before the revamp because it gave me a good base for comparison. The revamped menu definitely offers higher-quality dishes with special ingredients and flavor combinations. Tapas, salads and chicken are pretty common menu options, but these were elevated with fancy ingredients and unexpected flavor combinations. When you go to The Wise, go with an open mind and don’t be surprised if  you come across something that sounds weird on the menu but that actually tastes great!

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.

Freshii concept is good, execution could be better

freshii green wallfreshii wallI’m always looking for healthier options when it comes to getting food on the go, so the prospect of a super healthy restaurant right off the main road I drive every day was really exciting. The two concerns I had about Freshii when I went to try it with Michelle was that the food would basically be a more expensive version of what I already make at home, and it wouldn’t actually be as healthy as I wanted it to be. And unfortunately, Freshii had issues with both of these concerns.

Freshii dining room

Freshii dining room

In general, everything we got had high and low points (some had lower points than others) and everything had a focus on healthy ingredients. However, everything was also a lot higher in calories than if I had made it myself at home, and everything was also pretty pricy. Don’t get me wrong…if I’m in a pinch and need something to eat, I will definitely choose Freshii over the other options on the west side.

Freshii teriyaki bowl

Freshii teriyaki bowl

Freshii offers soups, salads, wraps, burritos, bowls, smoothies and juices. We got to try a couple different dishes and by far, my favorite was the teriyaki bowl. It has brown rice, broccoli, carrots, edamame, green onions, crispy wontons, chicken and teriyaki sauce. I believe most of the options come vegetarian and you can add tofu, chicken, steak, shrimp or falafel…but another thing to note is that adding a protein does cost extra. The teriyaki bowl has over 600 calories without the chicken…that’s a little high for something that’s supposed to be super healthy. But I did enjoy the brown rice, edamame, al dente veggies and the teriyaki sauce. The bowl was filling and the ingredients were indeed fresh.

Freshii pangoa bowl

Freshii pangoa bowl

We also got to try the pangoa bowl which has brown rice, avocado, black beans, shredded cheese, corn, grape tomatoes, cilantro, hot sauce…and ours had chicken in it. This one was basically a smaller, less flavorful version of a Chipotle burrito bowl, plus their hot sauce was thick and not very flavorful, and their avocado was hard as a rock.

Freshii cobb salad

Freshii cobb salad

The cobb salad looked promising when we started digging in, but the heavy honey dijon dressing and lettuce slightly past its prime did not impress me. In addition to also having rock-hard avocado, it had blue cheese, which I really don’t like.

Freshii smoehouse burrito

Freshii smoehouse burrito

The smokehouse burrito was also a sub-par version of something you could get at Chipotle. It had brown rice, black beans, red onions, tomatoes, corn, shredded cheese and what the menu called “fiery barbeque.” I’m not sure there was even any barbeque sauce on the wrap…and if it was on there, there was nowhere near enough of a flavor to call if fiery. It was basically a brown, mushy wrap with no distinctive flavor…all for more than 730 calories.

Freshii green smoothie

Freshii green smoothie

The other thing that I very much enjoyed was the Freshii green smoothie with kale, spinach, pineapple, avocado and low-fat frozen yogurt. It was surprisingly refreshing and light…and tasted nothing like the green ingredients that were in it. The smoothie has just over 250 calories in it, and I’m told they can add protein powder…which also probably costs more.

FOOD NOTES: I had high hopes for Freshii, but some of those hopes were dashed during my first dining experience. Some of the ingredients (lettuce, avocado) were less than fresh (bad lettuce, rock-hard avocado), some of their dishes are not as healthy as I’d like them to be (the salads) and the prices are a bit high since you have to pay extra to add protein to your meal. The smoothies are good and I’d like to give their breakfast options a try, but their hours are a little limited (they close at 7pm and aren’t open Sundays), so I probably won’t be able to make it back for a while. If you go to Freshii — just ask yourself, “Can I make this at home or get a better version at Chipotle?”

Jason’s Deli tops other chain restaurants on west side

Jason's Deli

Jason’s Deli

I always walk into chain restaurants with low expectations in an effort to not be extremely disappointed by my meal. Usually it works, but when I went to Jason’s Deli with a friend the food and dining experience actually far exceeded my chain restaurant expectations and met most of my regular expectations for a good meal.

Jason's Deli dining room

Jason’s Deli dining room

Jason’s Deli opened a couple weeks ago and on my first visit I was pretty impressed. The building behind West Towne Mall just off Mineral Point Road has a large dining room with Madison-themed pictures, an open kitchen and a great outdoor seating area. The staff seemed very green (I did just open), but they were extremely nice throughout our entire visit.

The menu has a lot of different options, including soups, salads, sandwiches, paninis, a couple pasta options and baked potatoes. They also have a nice-sized salad bar and free ice cream when you dine in (one of the super nice employees told us they deliver, and we noticed they have a drive through!). Everyone who eats there also has access to their free dry bar, which includes bread, mini corn muffins, crackers and pickles. I love pickles and corn muffins, so this was an awesome perk to find out about!

Jason's Deli Cuban panini

Jason’s Deli Cuban panini

My friend got the Cuban panini and it got a thumbs up. All sandwiches come with chips, even when you get the manager’s half-sandwich special, which means you get a half sandwich with either a cup of soup, fruit or salad bar.

Jason's Deli salmon salad

Jason’s Deli salmon salad

I decided to try the Mighty Wild Salmon Salad. The description has a special box around it on the menu denoting it as something developed with the MD Anderson Cancer Center…I know it sounds kind of gimmicky but it was also the only thing on the menu that had the calories listed. The salad is a mix of organic field greens, beets, beans, nuts…and more, topped with grilled, wild Alaskan salmon for 610 calories with the oil and vinegar dressing. Everything on that list sounded great except for the ‘and more.’ I was concerned the ‘and more’ would be some sort of goat or blue cheese but the guy taking my order said it was a mix of craisins and seeds! When the salad came out I was pretty happy with the size and extremely happy with the quantity of ingredients on top. The lettuce was fresh, the beets were…well they were beets and would have been better pickled…but I like beets! The salmon was a good size, but it was a little dry. But because it was a little dry and didn’t have a lot of seasoning it went well with everything on top of the salad. The beans consisted of lima, garbanzo and kidney from what I remember and the nuts included sunflower, pepitas, and walnuts. There were also large florets of broccoli and a couple tomatoes! The light oil and vinegar dressing mostly helped keep the salmon from tasting too dry, but I didn’t need any more flavor assistance from the dressing because the rest of the toppings had so much flavor!

Jason's Deli potato and broccoli, cheese soup

Jason’s Deli potato and broccoli cheese soup

Both of us decided to get a cup of soup. I got the broccoli cheese and my friend got the potato. Both of them were pretty typical restaurant soups…nothing special, lukewarm, heavy with not a really great flavor, but still good. The best thing about my soup was dipping the crispy chunks of bread in it from the dry bar!

FOOD NOTES: Jason’s Deli has a ton of different menu options — it seems they have something for everyone! The food was a little pricey, but in comparison to Panera I felt like I got more food — and better quality food — for my money. The extra freebies diners get are super fun and were really unexpected. The Mighty Wild Salmon was tasty, pretty healthy for a dinner out and not too high in calories for what you get. The soup was forgettable. While we were there I did notice one thing being delivered to tables that I want to try next time I go — the  Plain Jane baked potato. It comes stuffed with cheddar, sour cream, butter, bacon and green onions. That doesn’t sound plain Jane to me!!

Steaks, martinis, supper club atmosphere at Smoky’s stand test of time

Disclaimer: Due to the generous martinis Smoky’s Supper Club serves, this rave review may be slightly clouded by the very strong martini I started drinking before dinner.

Whenever I talk with someone in Madison about the topic of steaks, inevitably Smoky’s on University Avenue is mentioned. I had heard two things about Smoky’s before visiting it with my mom for her birthday: the steaks are amazing and the martinis are strong. And both of those things turned out to be extremely accurate.

Smoky's

Smoky’s Supper Club

If you don’t know where Smoky’s is, it’s probably because you’ve driven by and it not noticed it. It is tucked in between newer buildings on University Avenue. And aside from it’s neon sign, it doesn’t look like an upscale supper club. There are multiple dining rooms. I saw four but there may have been more tucked around corners, and a huge oval bar that sticks out in the main room when you walk in. It’s pretty dark inside, which may be part of the ambience or a sneaky way to hide that the building could use some updates.

Smoky's Razzputini

Smoky’s Razzputini

We got to Smoky’s a little bit before our reservations so we were asked to wait at the bar. After paying our $20 bill for two martinis, we realized that the price tag and the rumors proved true and that neither of us had ever had such a strong drink. I got the Razzputini, which from what I can remember had raspberry vodka, some other type of liquor and then grapefruit juice. That grapefruit juice was my saving grace. Thanks to the juice my martini actually tasted good and wasn’t 100 percent alcohol. My mom got the pomegranate martini, which was made with three different types of alcohol, and again from what I remember, didn’t have any juice in it. That one didn’t taste as good as mine, and had a stronger kick. I’m not a big drinker, so I preferred the one with the juice in it, but others might prefer no juice! Either way, they were both extremely well-made drinks.

Smoky's

Smoky’s

My one complaint about Smoky’s is that about 20 minutes after our reservation time we went up to ask the host why we weren’t being seated (because there were open tables and everyone else had been seated). Basically he told us he forgot about us, which was kind of annoying but nothing too bad to overshadow the great food we eventually got.

Smoky's bread basket

Smoky’s bread basket

Smoky's relish crock

Smoky’s relish crock

For starters, we had a traditional supper club bread basket and relish tray on our table. Neither were spectacular or original, but there is something special about those traditions and I wish more places offered them with dinners. We decided to skip ordering an appetizer because we asked our waiter about the fried mushrooms and he said they were not homemade. Plus, dinners come with soup and a salad, so ordering an additional appetizer didn’t seem necessary.

Smoky's salad

Smoky’s salad

The salad was exactly what I was expecting. A small, perfectly fresh salad with cucumbers, red onions, croutons and multiple homemade dressing options. As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one dressing option when getting a salad at a supper club, and that’s French…but my grandparents would disagree with that and say blue cheese is the only option. I went with French, but I can only imagine their homemade blue cheese would have been just as good.

Smoky's clam chowder

Smoky’s clam chowder

There were two soup options the night we went. I got the clam chowder, which was a good choice. It was the perfect balance of creamy and savory while not being too heavy and thick. The vegetables in the soup were chunky, and both the vegetables and the clams were plentiful.

Smoky's ribeye

Smoky’s ribeye

We both went with the 12 0z ribeye, which did not disappoint. It came out on a sizzling platter with a great charred exterior and perfectly pink inside. It was also seasoned with the right amount of salt and pepper that added that simple, classic savory flavor to the charred exterior. It was definitely one of the best steaks I have ever had, and because of the size I got to take another serving home.

Smoky's hashbrowns

Smoky’s hash browns

The hash browns come on a separate plate and must have been cooked in a cast-iron pan because they were round, extremely hot and perfectly crispy. I loved that they weren’t greasy at all, but we did add some additional salt on top.

FOOD NOTES: The rumors about Smoky’s Supper Club are true. The steaks are amazing and the martinis will knock you on your ass. Everything about Smoky’s screams quality, expertly-executed, traditional supper club, and I love it. I also love the location. It’s kind of hidden, but perfectly accessible in the middle of Madison. The prices at Smoky’s are a bit steep at first glance, but the quality and quantity of the food proves it to be 100 percent worth it. I hope someone someday soon will put a little TLC into the building so Smoky’s and it’s great menu will be around for many more years.