Open Book Cafe

In a word: Open and shut.

The specs: #00998   
In the Helen C. White Library, Goon Park, Madison 53706
Details at Yelp, official web site

Latest Open Book Cafe news and reviews at pinboard

JM ate the sweet roll and a lemonade.
Nichole had an almond steamer.
The bill was $5, or $2.50/person, plus tip.
JM gave Open Book Café a C-; Nichole gave Open Book Café a B+ (see our grading rubric).

Snack

Open Book Café is the foodservice outlet in the College Library part of Helen C. White Hall. Often open 24 hours, it fuels undergrads and others in the vicinity with Badger Market grab and go snacks, and lots of coffee. We went late at night (for us - 9pm!) and it was hopping. Lucky for us, we blend in well enough - maybe double the typical age, but harmless enough to pass and place and order and sit looking out the spiderweb-bedecked windows at a dark lake.

Their take on the college eatery was a little bit same-old-same-old (Nantucket drinks represent the smallest improvement over convenience store beverages, and the sweet roll was more brick than bakery) and a little bit above average (Nichole ordered an almond steamer [it was past bedtime, remember], which wasn't on the menu, but they made it for her anyway, and it was good.

On a pass fail rubric - though Nichole does in fact often stop here for coffee when in the area - for outings together we'd probably give this place a pass.

One Barrel

In a word: Roll out the apps.

The specs: #00997   
2001 Atwood Ave., 53704
Details at Yelp, official web site, Facebook, Twitter

Latest One Barrel news and reviews

JM, Nichole and Nino split a pretzel, pizza, and a sausage and cheese plate. 
The bill was $30, or $10/person, plus tip.
JM and Nino gave One Barrel a B+; Nichole gave One Barrel a B (see our grading rubric).

There's a new brewing place on the near east side that serves light repasts with their beer. (What do you mean that's not enough information?)

It is easy to say that the extremely local brewpub that makes its own beers is a little too Madison for the mid-teens, but it is kind of true. The number of times we mixed up Next Door and One Barrel in our memory only underscores the problem. That said, One Barrel does a nice job curating other local foods rather than trying to reinvent the wheel by having its own chef and kitchen.

Nino did try the beer which meant getting a Behemoth which was a nice beer. He'd have liked to have tried the coffee beer, but knew that high caffeine content would not sit well, and sadly no one could tell him how much caffeine might be in the brew. Nichole and JM stuck with water, as One Barrel is so beer focused that they don't really have anything else to drink.

On to the food... the pizza is prepped at Fraboni's, and is a pretty nice balance while being very traditional. There was a penguin pizza on the menu, but since there was no info about the 'berg the bird grew up on, we just got a tasty sausage pie.

Pizza hands

The pretzel was served with a couple of kinds of proper mustard which were very nice and complemented the beer and pretzels atmosphere quite well.

Pretzel

The cheese and sausage were fancier than what we'd just had at Olive Lounge, though the sausages were difficult to cut, even with a sharp knife provided. This added some tabletop drama.

Cheese and sausage

Since the kitchen mostly consists of a pizza oven and a microwave, the whole aesthetic here is more laid-back and low-key with an emphasis on gemütlichkeit. That said, the place was the opposite of busy. As Nino put it, "I wanted to like it more, but it felt like they were still getting used to being open." There's nothing wrong with One Barrel, but being in the hot zone of places we'd rather hit, it seems like give our druthers we'd probably stop somewheres else.

Oliver's Public House

In a word: Oliver's café is here to stay. (JM's glad we got an Elvis Costello reference worked in to an 'In a Word' before #1000.)

The specs: #00996   
2540 University Ave., 53705
Details at Yelp, official web site, Facebook, Twitter

Latest Oliver's Public House news and reviews

JM ate the ham and cheese sandwich with a side of frites.
Nichole ate the Big Island breakfast with a grapefruit juice.
The bill was $36, or $18/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole both gave Oliver's Public House an A- (see our grading rubric).

Oliver's Public House is a stereogram with one eye focused on Food Fight's sleek aesthetics, with the other squarely aimed at Underground's farm dynamics and menu building. This works quite well, if it is a little pricier than one might expect.

We went to lunch on a Saturday and the place was not packed. When planning our visit, we'd been considering Oliver's child-friendliness - and did see two happy toddlers during our visit, as well as high chairs - but the menu is only so-so for the short set, and a tantrum would have been loud given all the flat surfaces.

Nichole opted for brunch and got the Big Island Breakfast which came with sausage (lamb: sweet + savory) and gravy (mushroom).  She also got two poached eggs, barley, and a pinch of greens dressed in light vinegar b/w carrot and radish slices.  The flavors on the plate were diverse and synergistic.  The presentation and preparation were very nice and filling, always a good metric for a place more interested in flavors than calories.

Big Island Breakfast

JM got a ham and cheese sandwich. Really? Yup. With some nice fries. The mustard was a nicely balanced whole grain. The ham was tender, without being too damp, and the cheese had the right degree of texture and body. It came with a peppercorn ranch (which mostly ended up on the fries). This had a nice herbal note, betraying none of the chemical brightness of obnoxious bottled ranch dressings.  The ciabatta was firm enough, and pretty tasty.

Ham and cheese

This was Super Bowl Saturday, and a sign indicated that on Sunday they'd be "closed at 3pm in observance of the Super Bowl." This nicely captures the whole enterprise. Cheeky and an upstart? Sure. Knows where its priorities are? Absolutely. We'll be checking in again.

Olive Lounge

In a word: I don't care! Olive it!

The specs: #00994   
9 E Wilson St., Madison 53703
Details at Yelp, official web site

Latest Olive Lounge news and reviews

JM and Nichole ate the cheese plate and truffle fries.
The bill was $27, or $14/person, plus tip.
JM gave Olive Lounge a B; Nichole gave Olive Lounge a C+ (see our grading rubric).

Of all the meal types that we most frequently skip, after-work drinks is right up there with fifthmeal, dunch and Christmas Chinese.  So, Olive Lounge in the Hilton, which leans so heavily on the after-work drinks motif that it is mostly otherwise invisible, is not really for us.  If you want to meet someone somewheres posh, sure.

Olive Lounge is fancy. Plush chairs and tall ceilings make the room feel even more affected than it probably really is. The good news is that the place still felt friendly. The bad news is that plush chairs don't come cheap. 

Cheese plate and truffle fries

We got a cheese plate that was flipping huge but cost double digits, so it all balances out. Ample hunks of Swiss, cheddar and pepper jack were served with traditional crackers and olives of two kinds. There were big green ones, and kalamatas with some orange zest, which was a nice touch. The cheese plate was served with a horseradish Dijon mustard, which was good but not novel. We were hoping maybe for a nice fruit mustard or something herb-y. We took enough cheese cubes home to pack in our lunches for the next three days.

JM liked the truffle fries with Sarvecchio, which didn't come with quite enough ketchup, but he used some of the mustard too so it was OK. The preparation here was golden and crispy with fries that were on the thinner side while still being short of frites. The flavor combos were very pleasant across both dishes.

So, basically, if you are looking for a nice upscale place for drinks after work with some goodies to nibble on, sure, Olive Lounge.

 

Olde Town Coffee House

In a word: Grove for it!

The specs: #00994   
218 S. Main St., Cottage Grove, 53527
Details at Yelp, Facebook

Latest Olde Town Coffee House news and reviews

JM ate the piggy BBQ sandwich.
Nichole ate the special eggs Benedict with a slice of pie to go.
The bill was $24, or $12/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole both gave Olde Town Coffee House an A (see our grading rubric).

Pie

Olde Town Coffee House might just be a mirage. Cottage Grove has produced just so many "meh" experiences in A to Z lore that it would be unlikely that a coffee shop in that fair city would snap the longest drought of "double As" in A to Z history (119 restaurants - Forequarter/prior record: New Glarus Hotel to The Bank - 88 restaurants). Yet, here it is.

The menu is so broad as to be unbelievable. Salads, sandwiches, full breakfast items including eggs, deli meats and cheeses, and vegan and veg fare are all represented, and not just with token items... with full menu sections.

Nichole opted for breakfast and got the eggs Benedict special, which had just two drawbacks: the muffin was not toasted quite enough to not get soggy, and the onions were a touch too plentiful. Everything else about the breakfast was top drawer: the avocado and tomato were fresh and tasty and the Hollandaise was bright with a clean flavor.

Benedict

JM tried lunch, which for him meant a pulled pork sandwich with bacon and cheese. Though a bit expensive, this sandwich large and sturdy covered with delicious cheese and APPLE PINEAPPLE BBQ SAUCE.  For crying out loud, could they make this sandwich taste any better? It was filled with such tasty innards that the bun, which was mass produced somewhere nearby, didn't bother him at all. 

Piggy BBQ

Both of us enjoyed the sides of breakfast potatoes which were nicely prepared and took to 'chup and salt well.

Given that we had a borderline A experience just from the food, let us also extol in list form the other benefits of Olde Town in case jaded Madisonians still cannot convince themselves of its charms:

  • They have ample parking.
  • They are located at the eastern edge of the Glacial Drumlin trail, meaning you could get breakfast and then go and work it off with a long bike trip.
  • They sell state bike trail passes, so you can roll past the DNR cops instead of clogging up the bike trail (really people).
  • They sell Huston Farms beef at their deli counter along with other meats and cheeses.
  • Their seating varies from solo to large groups.
  • They serve pie and Nichole's was great! 
  • You can get the pie to go.

Olde Town is not a place to loll over brunch -- it is more an eat-and-get-on-with-your-day place. But it is a star, and we hope to be going back real soon.

Lucky 13

Oasis Cafe

In a word: Respite despite expenditure.

The specs: #00993   
2690 Research Park Dr., Fitchburg 53711
Details at Yelp, Facebook

Latest Oasis news and reviews

JM ate the chorizo burrito.
Nichole ate the breakfast sandwich.
The bill was $18, or $9/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole both gave Oasis Café an A- (see our grading rubric).

Madison certainly has a ton of places to get a breakfast sandwich and a coffee. The food at Oasis is certainly above average, but if it were, say, in the heart of Madison's near east side breakfast bonanza, it would compete with the likes of Lazy Jane's, Manna Café or 4&20, and might be found lacking. However, they also have pel'meni, which is awesome. (We didn't get pel'meni this time because we're almost to the P's anyway.)

Breakfast sandwich

Nichole got a breakfast sandwich of bacon, Swiss and egg, served hot and fresh on sourdough. The bread was soft & lightly toasted, mild & flavorful. She washed it down with a latte that merited an A+ on its own.

Breakfast burrito

JM had the chorizo burrito, which was a pleasant surprise to even find on the menu. The tortilla was tomato and it contained spicy but rich chorizo, scrambled egg, and an unidentified green streak (maybe spinach or a mild herb), which was a good combo. Even better, it was neatly pressed and easy to eat with hands instead of fork and knife. Irony aside, this was a good entrée which was served with more-than-anyone-could-use Asian-style hot pepper sauce.

We still paid Madison prices at Oasis. Breakfast for two ran almost $20. But if you are looking for good brekkers in the desert of Fitchburg, Oasis might be just that.

Novanta

In a word: No, I do vanta.

The specs: #00992   
8452 Old Sauk Rd., 53562
Details at Yelp, official web site, Facebook, Twitter

Latest Novanta news and reviews

JM ate the pizza Margherita with prosciutto.
Katie ate the pizza Margherita.
Nichole ate the pizza Napoletana.
We split the Nutella pizza.
The bill was $53, or $17ish/person, plus tip.
JM gave Novanta an A- ; Nichole gave Novanta a B+ (see our grading rubric)

It sure seems like Madison has a lot of Neapolitan pizzerias. Café Porta Alba, Naples 15 and Pizza Brutta are all still open and all got decent notes from us.  So what to make of Novanta?

Well, Novanta feels a lot more casual than most.  The space is small, like Naples 15, but not so much intimate as Noodles-like. For example, you fill your own fountain soda. There is nothing wrong with a slightly more casual version of Neapolitan pizza -- just know before you go. 

We got a Napoletana and two Margheritas, one with extra mozzarella and the other with prosciutto.  The ham didn't make onto the pizza before the pizza migrated to the table.  This the staff quickly corrected, and they even comped us a complementary pizza card. Each of the pizzas, once fully topped, was exactly as we'd want it to be: warm, crackery, with very hot cheese.  The prosciutto was quite tasty and Nichole's Napoletana was topped with her favorite, salty little fishies, which complemented the mild cheese and tangy, bright sauce very well.

Pizza

Since this place is related to Porta Alba, we also had to split the Nutella dessert pizza.  In both storefronts, this is a good choice as it is the right combination of tasty and blasphemy.  This is not a place for big groups, but seems like a place that carry-out could make some sense.  Nearby office denizens take note, Novanta could easily be your lunchtime pizza place.

Nutella pizza

North & South Seafood & Smokehouse

In a word: Could use some direction.

The specs: #00991  
6604 Mineral Point Rd., 53705
Details at Yelp, official web site, Facebook, Twitter

Latest North and South news and reviews

JM ate the ribs and shrimp with mac & cheese and hush puppies.
Nichole ate the Biloxi tilapia with potato cakes and veggies.
Tiffany ate the pulled pork with mac & cheese and hush puppies.
We split some cornbread.
The bill was $60, or $20/person, plus tip.
JM and Tiffany gave North and South a B+; Nichole gave North and South an A- (see our grading rubric).

The former location of Joey's Seafood has transformed from just seafood, to seafood, BBQ, and soul food. Fans of Joey's may miss the free mini cornbreads and the deep selection of fish to go with chips, but, for the most part, the upgrades North and South brought in were well needed. One thing that was fortunately left undisturbed was the beautiful fish tank near the entrance, where you can watch various piscine creatures swim while you wait to be seated. (There was a lovely jellyfish bobbing around in there when we went.)

As indicated, North and South serves a pretty wide array of smoked meats and seafoods. You can have them in just about any combination, with any one of nearly a dozen preparations, including some dry rubs and some regionally sanctioned versions. Check the large chalkboard for the kinds available.

LunchRibs & shrimp

We started with an order of their new-style cornbread, which was served like a small cake.  It was very moist and tasty with just enough kernels of real corn baked in. With a dollop of butter, these cakes are very tasty... though the honey butter of Joey's has joined their muffins in retired menu item heaven.

Cornbread

JM's "competition style" ribs were a little more chewy than he'd expected, which moves them out of the category of meat candy where he'd often find them. That said, they became great vehicles for the sauces, which were tasty and fun. (More on them later.) His shrimp tended toward the small side, but it was a reasonable value given the price, and that was comforting enough. Tiffany's pulled pork was also a healthy portion which made a great vehicle for the sauces. Both eaters proclaimed the mac & cheese fine, but not worth a special trip.

The sauces were a mixed bag, with the Kansas City sweet being the big winner early. Tiffany and JM both thought it was a nice rich a balance with an expected and desirable sweetness. The mustard BBQ sauce was delicious as well with clean vinegar flavor, though it used mustard powder instead of whole seeds, which is JM's preference. The smoke-y was the most contentious, with JM protesting that it didn't taste like anything, while Nichole tasted real smoke and felt that it was robust and probably her favorite. The whiskey sauce was basically a bottle of booze with peppers mixed in. 

Nichole took a suggestion for our server and tried the Biloxi tilapia. It was a great choice - light and fresh-tasting, topped with a corn salsa and not overwhelmed by its Cajun spices. The potato cakes were pretty amazing.

Tilapia

North and South may not have as many fans as some other BBQ joints in town yet. It is going to take a lot of customer-base-building to make us forget the brief blazing star that was Porky Pine Pete's, the west side wonder. But with a robust seafood menu like North and South's, there are definitely times that we'd follow our compass back here.

Bonus book bit: Sunshine Supper, & an event

Hey! Wednesday night, 1/6/2016 at 7:15pm, come to the Goodman Community Center, 149 Waubesa St., for our talk "Here Yesterday, Gone Today: A Flight of Madison Restaurant Lore" for CHEW - the Culinary History Enthusiasts of Wisconsin. Free and open to the public; there will be snacks; new members and food pantry donations most welcome. Now, a bonus post.

Lots of words didn't fit into Madison Food. Here are some more of our favorites that we didn't want to be missed. This piece on Sunshine Supper, Sun Prairie's free community meal, is based on interviews and a meal on March 17, 2014. Sunshine Supper was more recently in the news in August 2015 when Buck & Honey's stepped up to serve a last-minute meal.

Sun Prairie, just northeast of Madison, is a rapidly growing city of about thirty thousand residents. It hosts a Sweet Corn festival that draws over 100,000 visitors each August. It’s the birthplace of Georgia O’Keeffe and the home of Wisconsin’s own weather prognosticator, Jimmy the Groundhog. In January 2010, Sun Prairie also saw the beginning of Sunshine Supper, a volunteer-run program that provides a free hot meal on Monday nights to anyone in the community.

Though it has served almost ten thousand plates of hot food in its first four years, the event does more than simply feed the hungry. It also quite effectively creates and sustains a real community. The experience is that of the most hospitable church basement supper imaginable. Inside the bright, spacious dining room on Main Street, Sunshine Supper’s fourth home since 2010, the feeling of friendship and joy is evident on a typical Monday night. A host greets guests at the door and invites them to pick up a dinner, find a seat, and relax for an hour or so. Someone might sing or play the upright piano as others dine. Near the end of the meal, there’s a pause to sing “Happy Birthday” and give a whole cake to each guest celebrating a birthday that week. Every kid in attendance is invited to choose a book to take home for keeps from a lovingly curated collection.

Books at Sunshine SupperSunshine Place, the supper’s parent organization, also runs a food pantry and thrift store and helps bring together the resources in the community to make these meals happen. Every year, 45 sponsoring groups provide the weekly meals and bring together more than 2,000 volunteers to serve. The event is wildly popular with the civic organizations, churches, and sports teams who host it, and the annual schedule fills up quickly.

The unique thing about Sunshine Supper is that the artificial boundary between giver and receiver is gone; here, everyone is a guest and the volunteers eat too. Julie Wiedmeyer, coordinating chair, emphasized that the organization set out to erase that distinction by having volunteers trade in their aprons for napkins halfway through each meal.

The meal was served at the Sun Prairie Masonic Lodge for the first year. There were about twenty-five guests and almost twice that number of volunteers at their first supper. The Masonic Lodge worked especially well through summertime, when grilling out was an easy and fun option. In early 2011, a great opportunity arose to renovate part of a local warehouse into a kitchen and dining space. Community members put in a great deal of sweat equity and new materials into the project, but tragically, less than a month after opening, they received notice that the warehouse operator was shutting down and they would have to abandon the space. Sun Prairie United Methodist stepped up to house the supper for the next two years, though the disappointment with the need to move was challenging.

But then, in spring of 2013, Sunshine Place purchased a retail building on Main Street near its headquarters. Another major remodeling project was undertaken to break down the walls between several small business spaces. Sunshine Supper’s permanent home boasts a beautiful floor of donated linoleum tiles that resemble a patchwork quilt in both form and symbolic meaning. The walls sport colorful collaborative paintings. The folding tables stay up from week to week now, and when supper’s not on, the space is happily used by other community groups.

The event grew primarily through word-of-mouth, with very little advertising or promotion at all other than a mailing to local schools. Groups in neighboring communities began to organize their own suppers. In March 2012 in McFarland, just southeast of Madison, Shared Table Free Community Meals began serving weekly at McFarland Lutheran Church. Cambridge Community Cafe started up in January 2013 on Thursday nights in a village on the Jefferson County line. And in January 2014, Stoughton’s Gathering Table hosted two Monday-night meals per month at the Stoughton Senior Center.

Sharing a meal, it seems, is an easy way to grow community and meet your neighbors and your neighbors' needs. While helping others is the main course, side dishes of civic engagement, fun, and laughter help everyone feel more at home, wherever they live.

Sunshine Supper desserts

Norske Nook

In a word: There's no place like home cooking.

The specs: #00990   
100 E Holum St., DeForest 53532
Details at Yelp, official web site, Facebook, Twitter

Latest Norske Nook news and reviews

JM ate the open-faced beef sandwich with a slice of Butterfinger pie.
John ate the chicken sandwich with a slice of coconut meringue pie.
Nichole ate the turkey BLT with split pea soup and a slice of after dinner mint pie.
Rose ate the open-faced beef sandwich with a slice of sour cream raisin pie.
The bill was $, or $/person, plus tip.
JM, John and Rose gave Norske Nook an A-; Nichole gave Norske Nook an A (see our grading rubric).

When JM first ate at the Norske Nook, he pooped his pants.

Before you fear for his health or sanity, it should be noted that he was an infant at the time. You see, JM was born only four blocks from the original Norske Nook location on Seventh Street in Osseo. This was before Letterman; this was when the farmers would come to the coffee counter after milking, and shoot the shbreeze until it was time to get on the tractor. Myhre pies figure as strongly in JM's memories as the one of the kid who tripped him on the ice and gave him a scar on his chin, and his first grade classroom's orange carpeted bathtub meant for reading.

When we were newly wed, trips up north were common, and many pies were purchased both hither and thither.  We know from Norske Nook pie. We've sampled nearly every one, in a separate food quest that predates this one. We know that many people feel the pies are overrated (a little true!) and expensive (a lot true!). But never, did we ever think, we could get a Norske Nook slice within an evening's drive of our home in Madison. 

Norske Nook pie

JM's parents, who were as adult now as they were on his first visit to the Nook, also joined us on this trip down memory lane.

First: let's get the bad bits out of the way right now. The Norske Nook closes at 8 PM, which makes a drive from the city for dinner a "right after work" thing. It also, somewhat arbitrarily, limits their hours and forces more people through when they are open. This makes the Nook busy-busy at all times. Our server had to disappear for long stretches, though she was warm and responsive to concerns. The food took a very long time to reach our table. 

Split pea soupSalad

But whatever: this food is worth it (just don't go hangry).

Hot turkey sandwich

Rose and JM both got a Nook standby: the open-faced gravy-laden beef sandwich. It took JM right back to listening to Huey Lewis & The News. Rose, who is picky by way of choosy, says that the mashed potatoes at this Nook, like the others, are "to die for." JM was a little worried that the homemade bread lost some its nuance under the weight of the gravy.

John's chicken sandwich was very nice, served on a quality bun that he enjoyed. Nichole's split pea soup had hyuge pieces of ham, while the triple-decker turkey BLT came with Miracle Whip (look, the Nook uses the same stuff you do: Cool Whip on many fruit pies, Miracle Whip on sandwiches; you make the call on whether this is a pro or a con). Nichole's homemade bread was much easier to notice and held up well.

Turkey BLTChicken breast sandwich

We could talk about the pie for hours. We will mention that the meringue that we got at this location may have been a bit overdone. Hopefully, they'll get their head in the game. Otherwise, the pies were as sweet ("they'll make your teeth long"), filling and tasty as remembered. Indeed, the pies arrived as soon we ordered ours, so we suggest you just order them first and consume them while you wait for you hot meal. You may think this is backwards, but it is rather a little backwoods. Pull up a fork, pardner. 

At this point, we were so full we couldn't even think. Have Deforest trip and enjoy Norske. It's like as if... such a good piece of Butterfinger pie. Condensery Road... yeah. Yeah.

NEWS

Madison Food coverOur book Madison Food: A History of Capital Cuisine is out.
We're having a reading at Spring Green Community Library on Saturday May 7. More updates here, and some bonus bits on Porchlight, Argus, and Sunshine Supper.


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