Hilltop Inn

Hilltop InnIn a word: Old-school supper club with fine hospitality and (bonus!) hummingbirds.

The specs: #00908  
4173 County Road P, Cross Plains 53528
Details at Yelp, Hilltop Inn on Urbanspoon
Official web site, Facebook

Latest Hilltop Inn news and reviews at del.icio.us

JM ate the pork chop with a lemonade.
Nichole ate the scallops with a decaf.
The bill was $33, or $16.50/person, plus tip.
JM gave Hilltop Inn a B-; Nichole gave Hilltop Inn a B+ (see our grading rubric).

 

On a rambling county road south of Cross Plains

You may find a nice and old school supper club

Hidden there among the rural country lanes.

 

The bread provided slices nicely despite the lack of grains

But the old school salad bar was Hilltop Inn's flavor hub

On a rambling county road south of Cross Plains.

 

Salad barSoup and bread

 

Add in southwest chicken soup whose pepperiness hardly wanes

Presaged the scallops huge and the drawn butter tub

Hidden there among the rural country lanes.

 

The portions were ample and as Nichole clearly explains

"You get a lot of food for your dollar, bub"

On a rambling county road south of Cross Plains.

 

Though a dry pork chop caused JM's mouth strains

A baked instead of mashed potato was sadly a flub

Hidden there among the rural country lanes.

 

Scallop dinnerPork chop

 

On the other hand, Ms. Pac-Man and FIFA pinball games

Digestion is easier with ghosties and goalies to drub

On a rambling county road south of Cross Plains

Hidden there among the rural country lanes.

World Cup 1994 pinball

Highland Grounds

Wasiman Center lobby with breakfastIn a word: Fine enough.

The specs: #00907  
1500 Highland Ave., 53705
Details at Highland Grounds on Urbanspoon
Official web site

Latest Highland Grounds news and reviews at del.icio.us

JM ate a muffin and a milk.
Nichole ate a donut and a coffee.
The bill was $7, plus tip.
JM gave Highland Grounds a B; Nichole gave Highland Grounds a B+ (see our grading rubric).

Highland Grounds isn't so much a restaurant as a window.  It's the coffee shop in the Waisman Center and, while it is nice that these folks can get java (as evidenced by the small line that had formed by the time we left), one wonders where this caffeine necessity will end. (ed: This is so JM talking right now.)

In the positive, Highland Grounds opened right on time. (We'd been out early, looking up stuff about dishwashing in the 1930s - spoiler alert, the institutions studied were not named, but restaurants were cleaner than taverns.) The functional, small space was ably manned by a personable staffer.  Babcock and Union foods abounded, along with some Gotham and Oakhouse morsels. The space is good enough to be functional, but not so large as to detract from the actual purpose of the Waisman Center. If you are there and need a morning show of awake, certainly stop by.

Highland Corner Grill

SaladIn a word: For the Out of Towner.

The specs: #00906   
2424 University Ave., 53726
Details at Yelp, Highland Corner Grill on Urbanspoon
Official web site

Latest Highland Corner Grill news and reviews at del.icio.us

JM ate the nachos grande with a strawberry lemonade.
Nichole ate the top sirloin with mashed potatoes and a salad.
The bill was $28, or $14/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole gave Highland Corner Grill a B+ (see our grading rubric).

Highland Corner Grill replaced Francie's Casual Cafe in the Inn Towner and is so much better. The Inn Towner, as a hotel, is a little bit mystifying and (this is JM talking here) sad. Most of the people staying at the Inn Towner are not college helicopter parents or Badger fans or Epic customers.  No, this hotel is usually filled with people visiting and caring for people at the VA and UW hospitals. The faces of our fellow diners appeared tired, scared and overwhelmed. Conversation was subdued and no one seemed focused on the plates in front of them save us.

The good news in this is that Highland Corner Grill really is pretty good food.  Not awesome, locally-sourced confits and foam-laden exotic seafood, but simply comfort food prepared well at a reasonable price, served by people who are really nice.  The familiar is here in bulk quantity with a personal touch.

Nichole was feeling like steak, which is not normal for her, but it was on special. She got a cooked-to-order top sirloin with a heaping helping of garlic mashed potatoes and a side of sauteed veggies.  Steak is a lot about selecting the right cut of meat and the sirloin here was top 25% but not much higher. Nichole did finish everything given to her which says something for the quality.

Top sirloin and steamed vegetablesNachos grande

The same could almost be said for JM's big-enough-for-an-entree app order of nachos.  He did ask for the olives to be removed, so it was quite the whole thing. The cheese sauce was mostly a non-dairy affair, but the ground beef was good and the chips held up from start to finish.  The peppers were not so spicy as to render the rest of the dish inert.

"Highland Corner" as an intersection also features New Seoul, Sushi Box and Lombardino's, and Blue Moon is just a couple of blocks down. So it's a pretty happy corner, all things considered, and the hotel restaurant is a decent fit that does a good job.

Heritage Tavern

In a word: They're scheming on a thing...

The specs: #00905   
131 E. Mifflin St., 53703
Details at Yelp, Heritage Tavern on Urbanspoon
Official web site, Facebook, Twitter

Latest Heritage Tavern news and reviews at del.icio.us

Bread & picklesJM ate the bouillabaisse with a lemonade.
Nichole ate the scallion pancake with a Coke.
The bill was $50, or $25/person, plus tip.
JM gave Heritage Tavern an A-; Nichole gave Heritage Tavern a B+ (see our grading rubric).

Retro naming is all the rage in Madison, as if it communicates something about the nature of your storied cuisine.  Vintage... Old Fashioned... Heritage...  Certainly, you can find quality food at places whose names range from soup to nuts, but the shorthand of naming yourself something old is equal parts small-c conservative (though the Heritage Foundation does cross the mind) and trying to build in more tradition than you can rightly claim. 

On the night we went, and most nights, the server assured us, we could have walked into Heritage Tavern and ordered a whole roast suckling pig to eat family-style, and it would be ready in about an hour. The whole menu is the kind of production that we'd like to call sophisticated, but hesitate to, because that implies that we have some broader knowledge, and what we actually mean is it's way above our heads. Some key words popped out - Au Bon Canard duck breast, Waygu beef, and Mangalitsa pork, for example. So, Heritage is a place for food people.

As it turns out, we didn't eat anything with feet. We only noticed that in retrospect - it wasn't an ideological stance or anything. Though it turned out to be a cheap way to go.

The bread plate was nice. There were baguette slices brought in from either Batch or Madison Sourdough (dang, we are off our game), fresh butter, and a generous pile of fleur de sel that Nichole put on everything because she just loves salt. There was a little jar of pickled asparagus, too, more on that later.

BouillabaisseThe bouillabaisse was a wonder of fishy goodness in both senses.  In many ways, there was seafood here that JM just plain would not have eaten if it hadn't been coated in buttery soup. The flavor, though, was right, with more spices than specifically seafood-y overtaste. This all turned out to be good because Heritage had the JM-style problem, namely everything looked great except for one thing in each preparation that scared him off. In some ways, the less he knows about what's on his plate, the better.

The vegetarian scallion pancake & root vegetable slaw dish was pretty, and colorful. The cubes of fried tofu were amazing - soft and light. The slaw, carrot planks and long, unruly red and green cabbage shreds, came in a creamy white soy dressing. The gochujang butter, made with Korean fermented chili paste, added a bite to the works. The cashews were chewy little nuggets and the fried farm egg was delicious; probably the least fun but most filling part of the dish was the actual pancake, which seemed a little overcooked.

Scallion pancake & root vegetable slaw

Based on the not-so-wonderful asparagus (woody and greyish) that came with the bread plate, and the little dish of kimchi with the scallion pancakes, the pickle program at Heritage could use some fine-tuning. The flavors were OK but the textures were just a little soft, and the colors unappealing.

Other than that, Heritage offers a high-end experience at just below market prices.  That makes it a go-to spot for after work drinks and fancy dinner, but it sure seems like Madison has a lot of these places and we can only hope that each one survives the others.

Henry's Sub and Ice Cream Shoppe

Henry's Sub & Ice Cream ShoppeIn a word: Who's zoo-ing who?

The specs: #00904  
702 S. Randall Ave. 53715 (inside Henry Vilas Zoo)

Latest Henry's Sub and Ice Cream Shoppe news and reviews at del.icio.us

JM and Nichole split the ham and cheese sandwich, a root beer float, and an ice cream cone (Moose Tracks).
The bill was about $12 plus tip.
JM gave Henry's Sub and Ice Cream Shoppe a B-; Nichole gave Henry's Sub and Ice Cream Shoppe a B (see our grading rubric).

Henry Vilas Zoo, writ large, is a gem.  Its cost ($0) and location (between Monroe St. and the Park St. medical complex) make it an easy stop for anyone with a few hours to burn, especially with tots in tow.

The Sub and Ice Cream Shoppe is, therefore, automatic.  The sandwiches are stangely a step above Sysco, but still, in some way, preprocessed. The bread is tasty but still had to  be baked in the Zoo kitchen. The Schoep's ice cream is is refreshing on a warm sunny day, like we were lucky to have, but the price is a little steeper than we'd pay for a pint of it at the corner grocery.

So come for the animals, but eat here only if you get so hungry you can't make it to Zuzu Cafe.

Hazelnut Cafe

Hazelnut CafeIn a word: Go nuts!

The specs: #00903   
10985 Division St., Blue Mounds, 53517
Details at Yelp, Hazelnut Cafe on Urbanspoon
Official web site, Facebook

Latest Hazelnut Cafe news and reviews at del.icio.us

JM ate the French toast with a ginger ale and a chocolate chip cookie.
Keith ate the Grand Hazelnut breakfast (eggs, bacon, potatoes) with a latte and an almond croissant.
Leslie ate the pulled pork sandwich with a latte and an orange-and-clove morning bun.
Nichole ate the breakfast sandwich with a coffee and a cinnamon twist.
We also bought some granola and a coconut sweet to go.
The bill was $12ish/person, plus tip.
Nichole gave Hazelnut Cafe an A; Keith and JM gave Hazelnut Cafe an A-; Leslie gave Hazelnut Cafe a B+ (see our grading rubric).

Hazelnut Cafe is a real gem in Blue Mounds.  Soon every little town on the outskirts will have a gem like this, but Hazelnut with its Driftless orientation seems like worlds away from its ilk in the city nearby.

Keith and Leslie had sampled Hazelnut's bakery at the Mineral Point farmers market and could vouch for its quality and ability to travel.  Furthermore, the bakery is very consistent from market to bakery. Nichole and JM had taken in some pizza on a prior camping excursion and we all wanted to meet up here again.

French toastBreakfast sandwich
Pulled pork, bacon, eggsBreakfast potatoes

Leslie's pulled pork was a tad too vinegary and healthful-tasting (i.e., not fatty enough). The bun was ample if even a little too big, and the whole sandwich was little bit of a letdown given how good everything else tends to be.

Keith's "Grand Hazelnut" breakfast was well prepared just the way he liked it.  The potatoes were especially noteworthy given that they were a cross between regular hash browns and shoestring potatoes.  The bacon was thick and tasty, though it was over cooked for JM's preference (we know that is in the eye of the beholder).

Nichole's homemade English muffin sandwich was really the star of the meal.  It came with a side of bitter greens coated in a thin patina of vinegar and oil dressing. On the sandwich, the egg supported a delicious slice of melty white cheddar cheese from Farmer John. It really achieved sandwich fusion for a better-than-the-sum-of-its-parts whole.

JM's french toast, though a little light for $9, was four pieces of nicely eggy bread that sopped up all the syrup. The butter was uncommonly good.  Of course, that left room for dessert which we all sampled.

Leslie gets an almond croissant whenever possible, and while this time it was slightly below average, the average is above excellent. It really is a thing of beauty: more raised than flaky, and loaded with almonds. JM got a cookie that was good enough for him, which is to say, really good.  The morning bun was an orange and clove affair that walked the line nicely between novelty and tradition. The cinnamon twist was a nice baseline and great use of some extra croissant dough.

Cinnamon twist

The service can be wildly inconsistent and the space is weirdly shaped for 'serious' eats.  But the Kickapoo coffee has pretty good flavor (even if the milk didn't foam up quite enough), and we've never had a bad item from the place.  Plus, it is about a half mile off the Military Ridge bike path, which makes it an ideal destination for brunch for bikers looking to refuel at the mid point before turning home.

Haveli

HaveliIn a word: Get their goat and they won't get yours.

The specs: #00902  
5957 McKee Rd., Fitchburg 53719
Details at Yelp, Haveli on Urbanspoon

Latest Haveli news and reviews at del.icio.us

Beth, Chuck, JM, John, Kami, Kim, Nichole, Stephanie, and Steve ate the lunch buffet.
The bill was $9/person plus beverage and tip.
Chuck and Nichole gave Haveli an A-; JM, John and Kami gave Haveli a B+; Stephanie and Steve gave Haveli a B; Beth and Kim gave Haveli a B-; plus some bonus As for cleanliness and service (see our grading rubric).

Haveli turned out to be a solid choice for an office lunch. Buffets generally have a logistical advantage for this type of outing in speed and ease of settling up the bill, but Haveli also had the advantage of a clean, bright atmosphere and great service. Our group ran the gamut from fans of Indian food to first-timers, and included a gluten-free diner. That everybody surveyed gave an above-average grade speaks louder than most of our alphabetical write-ups, which are inherently small in scope. So we’re glad we got to enjoy this meal with a happy crowd.

On the buffet, there was green salad, which was nice with cucumber sauce as dressing, but otherwise average verging on "nothing to write home (or even on the internet) about." The naan, while warm and plentiful, was also about the middle of the pack and also came in onion flavor. Sadly there were no papadams.

Lunch started to get interesting with soup: a tomato soup had a rich and robust flavor without the apparent aid of dairy products (although shortly before our arrival someone had spllied a serving on the floor; it was gone before our second passes). Some deep fried mushrooms led the pack among a wide variety of vegetable sides. As with most Indian buffets, the food really benefitted from liberal sampling of the various relishes, chutneys and sauces available.
 
The goat curry was definitely the star of lunch, as reportered. Or, as Steve put it, “No kidding, the goat was really good!” It was like beef stew’s smarter, more nimble cousin - fork-tender meat in delectable sauce, with the occasional bone that was worth navigating around for the boost it gave to the flavor.

The chicken tikka masala was a hit, though a bit runny - but one legend has it CTM owes its very existence to a truck driver’s wish for a lot of gravy on his meat, so no ding there. Plus it tasted good over rice. For the more sauce-averse, the tandoori chicken was a good option.

Speaking of rice, several folks praised the egg rice, one preparation of basmati loaded with diced vegetables and bits of fried egg.

For sweets, there were kheer (which John was a big salesman of), honey-heavy gajar halwa, and mango ice cream that got high marks from everyone who tried it.

Haveli re-set the record at a fifth visit to one address, but they have smartly subdivided the formerly-far-too-roomy-to-make-the-rent Fitch's location and now occupy merely the front area.  So while this palace puts on a good show, it is not as palatial as it could have been and is probably more likely to last because of it.

Harvest Grains

In a word: Best of the Batch.

The specs: #00901  
1308 W. Dayton St., 53715
Details at Yelp, Harvest Grains on Urbanspoon
Official web site

Latest Harvest Grains news and reviews at del.icio.us

JM ate the mac and cheese with a fountain drink.
Nichole ate the turkey BLT with red potatoes.
The bill was $15, or $7.50/person, plus tip.
JM gave Harvest Grains a B; Nichole gave Harvest Grains a B+ (see our grading rubric).

Harvest Grains, located in a crowded-and-quiet-finals-week Union South, has the highest quality food of any of the places in that building we've tried.  The bread is almost all from Batch Bakehouse; the menu boasts straight up four salads, each distinct, but well assembled in the abstract.

The counter service is that: UW counter service. Doe-eyed and a little too earnest college students try to answer questions and correctly ring up the orders. Everything in our order came out just fine.

While the turkey on Nichole's sandwich was, at best, food service quality, everything clocked in at OK or better.  There were plenty of greens on this sandwich and that made for a pleasant and satisfying crunch under the toasted bread.  Nichole would try almost any sandwich on the board from the peanut butter-banana through the hummus and up to the faux banh mi.  Especially since the red potatoes that accompanied the meal were nice.

Harvest Grains

The smoked paprika in JM's mac & cheese made it more like a Big Mac & cheese without the hamburger, obviously.  The portion was decent as well, serving to fill him up.  JM is a little concerned about fountain drinks that are behind the counter as those tend to lead to refill upcharge, which he was too shy to ask about.

Nichole would likely pick Harvest Grains at Union South, while JM would waffle between here and the Sett.  For students looking for a thoughtful alternative to Subway, it is probably a blessing in plain sight.

Harley Blue

Harley BlueIn a word: Hardly.

The specs: #00900 
2961 Main St., Blue Mounds 53517
Details at Yelp, Harley Blue on Urbanspoon

Latest Harley Blue news and reviews at del.icio.us

JM ate the bacon cheeseburger with a lemonade.
Nichole ate the Reuben.
We split an appetizer sampler. The bill was $21, or $10ish/person, plus tip.
JM gave Harley Blue a C+; Nichole gave Harley Blue a C (see our grading rubric).

Bacon cheeseburgerOn the road again, this time in Blue Mounds, there is a little bar called Harley Blue. It is a "biker" bar, though in the second decade of the 21st century, that terminology implies little. It is biker friendly and veteran friendly, which is certainly understandable.

This lunchtide, though, the waitress/cook/bartender indicated that they had been slammed, which seemed to come from the only tables in the place being occupied by six folks.

Onto the food. The burger was handmade and served on a toasted, buttered bun.  For $5, it was neither especially large nor well-topped, coming with just cheese and bacon. Without fries, the sandwich felt a little lonely. 

ReubenSampler #3: o-rings, curds & mozz sticks

The Reuben was as good as you'd expect to find in a Sconnie bar such as this. Decent corned beef with the right moisture ratio served atop a marble rye.

The app sampler was OK and the mozzarella sticks reminded us how the rest of the country has to live without cheese curds. We're lucky in Wisconsin.

Harley Blue is an average Wisconsin tavern, but just doesn't suggest itself very highly among places to go in Blue Mounds.  But your bike mileage may vary.

PS - May 10, 2014 was the 10th anniversary of Madison A to Z and we spent it at spot #900.

Hardee's

In a word: Carl's Sr.

The specs: #00899  
3311 Parmenter St., Middleton 53562
Details at Yelp, Hardee's on Urbanspoon
Official web site, Facebook, Twitter

Latest Hardee's news and reviews at del.icio.us

JM ate the roast beef and fries.
Nichole ate the turkey burger with onion rings.
The bill was about $10, or $5/person, plus tip.
JM gave Hardee's a C+; Nichole gave Hardee's a D+ (see our grading rubric).

When nerdoms were handed out, JM started with geography. All manner of maps pleased his eyes and led him into strange waters.  For starters, he had the state capitals memorized prior to Kindergarten.  Maps, too, led him to name telephone poles, appreciate golf (look! a little map of the holes!) and develop a love of road trips from an early age.

His heart palpitated during a Southern road trip when he discovered a state's 'blue signs' (i.e., the signs at an exit that tell you what gas, food and lodging are at the exit).  That road trip was his first taste of data collection as he counted all of the businesses' frequencies from exit to exit.  When he got home, he nearly wrote to the DOT to have them consider adding these signs to Wisconsin exits.  They went up anyway. 

Fast food restaurants also held fascination for the boy as there were none in his hometown.  Certainly he had regular access to one of the finest roadside diners in the state, if not the region, but there was no McDonald's in 1980s Osseo, and weirder still there was no Hardee's.

Hardee's during the 80s felt like a competitor with Arby's.  They were the place that sold really good roast beef sandwiches with great BBQ sauce.  Sure they had burgers, but when JM needed California Raisins paraphernalia, a roast beef and drink would get him a figurine as well.

And between Eau Claire and the Dells every single exit that had fast food, had a Hardee's.

So what happened?

Hardee's hit hard times during the 1990s. (JM moved to Hudson at the same time but is hardly to blame... Hudson had a Hardee's, too.) By the end of the decade, they had sold off many locations and eventually sold the whole shebang to Carl's Jr.  Upon moving to Madison for his first real job, JM's last breakfast with his move in companions (Nichole, parents, BFF) was at the Hardee's on Fish Hatch.  It closed within three months.

It is hard to find many Hardee's these days.  Middleton has the one we ate at, while there's also one at East Towne.  Those blue signs between here and Eau Claire only offer a few Hardee's and even the one that first broke through in Osseo and opened that exit up to McDonalds is greatly diminished.  Hardee's shtick of giant burger sandwiches doesn't work when you can just go to Culver's (80s Hardee's true spiritual descendants).

Enough gauze wrapped childhood nostalgia; should you go to Hardee's today?  Enh, not really. JM got the roast beef for old times sake and Arby's product is better and you can get it with cheddar.  Nichole's turkey burger was fine, almost classy for fast food, topped with trimmed lettuce leaf and swaddled in white paper.

Hardee's

Are we the only ones who find the Hardee's star a little sinister? (Norm MacDonald notwithstanding.)


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