I was recently in Madison for a few days and had a chance to check out some new places as well as some old favorites….
The Coopers Tavern located at 20 W. Mifflin Street on the Capitol Square is a new restaurant and bar owned by the Food Fight restaurant group. The wine and beer lists are extensive with the beer focusing on Local and Belgian brews. The place is loud and lively and the bartenders are some of the best around. I had a Ale Asylum Hopalicious and a Ommegang Hennepin. The menu was filled with some delicious sounding food, especially the appetizer section which features Poutine, Roasted Bone Marrow, and the Sconnie Egg, the Coopers Tavern’s take on the Scotch Egg. I was there later in the evening so there was a limited late night menu, which unfortunately did not have my first choice, the aforementioned Roasted Veal Bone Marrow. I tried the Sconnie Egg, which is a hard boiled egg encapsulated with a Knoche’s Market (Madison) Bratwurst patty and some breading. The egg is deep fried and served with a healthy pool of delicious tangy Stout mustard and a side of some house pickled vegetables. The mustard and pickles were the perfect foil for rich and fatty egg. This might be the perfect late-night bar snack.
If I were to tell you that the best things I have eaten this year were a Greek Goddess Pizza, Asian lobster & shrimp bun and beef dumplings you wouldn’t blink. If I told you they were from the same restaurant you might. That restaurant, Natt Spil, 211 King Street, is an unassuming space with no sign, no website, and no phone (and no credit cards, so bring cash or use the ATM in back). It is also doing some kick ass food which will knock your socks off. The pizza featured a crispy, yet slightly chewy (i.e., perfect) crust and a perfect balance of toppings which included feta, kalamata olives, tomatoes, and artichoke hearts. The lobster and shrimp buns (2 per order) had were very good with the chewy bun giving way to a slightly spicy blend of lobster and shrimp. Even better were the beef dumplings (2 per order). Spicy, tender beef inside of a large dumpling and topped with a spicy sauce equals perfection. It was the best thing I have eaten this year. Each of the Asian dishes (lobster & shrimp bun, beef dumplings) was served with a nice cabbage slaw whose refreshing taste helped temper the spiciness of the dishes. The beer selection is impressive, with several local micros on tap and in bottles. The biggest knock I have read online about Natt Spil is that it is filled with hipsters. I really didn’t get that vibe on the night that we visited but even if it is the norm, who cares when you are serving such good food? Give it a try next time you are in town.
I have been to the Old Fashioned (23 N. Pickney Street) numerous times and have never tried their signature house burger, a grilled masterpiece with fried onions, Bavaria’s hickory-smoked bacon, aged Cheddar, garlic sauce and a soft-cooked egg on a buttered and toasted roll. It may seem like overkill but the ingredients all worked perfectly together. It’s a gooey dripping mess but it’s delicious. As always, I ordered their homemade potato chips with Tiger Blue cheese dipping sauce as my side. The still-warm chips are some of the most addictive things around and never fail to satisfy.
Sadly, the beer cheese soup was borderline inedible. It was gritty, super salty, and bitter. It seems like someone just added a bunch of flour to the soup to thicken it up without making a roux. They took it off the bill which was great, but for a place I have eaten at numerous times, this seems so out of character that I cannot help but think (and hope) it was a one-time occurrence because I know the Old Fashioned can do better.
As much as I love the food at Old Fashioned, it might be their unparalleled local beer selection that keeps me coming back. Offering over 150 Wisconsin brewed beers there is no better place in the state to celebrate our brewing heritage. I tried the Tyranena Sheep Shagger Scotch Ale (Lake Mills), an O’So Black Scotch (Plover), and a delicious bottle of Ale Asylum Sticky McDoogle Scotch Ale (Madison). At this rate it will only take me 50 more visits to try all 150 beers.
Of course no trip to Madison would be complete without a stop at the venerable Great Dane (123 E. Doty Street) and their delicious hand crafted beer selection. In the middle of winter nothing satisfies as much as a pint of their malty Black Earth Porter (in the summer go for the Crop Circle Wheat, which is far tastier than many of its German counterparts). Another favorite is the hoppy, yet well balanced Old Glory American Pale Ale. They also have a rotating ensemble of English Cask Ales, which are hand pulled and served at room temperature which opens up their flavors even more.
Another Madison must-visit is the incomparable Fromagination, located at 12 South Carroll Street on the square where I picked up some Seymour Dairy Ader Kase blue cheese, Carr Valley Virgin-Pine Native Sheep Blue and Bandaged Billy aged goat cheese , and some Cedar Grove Dante sheep’s milk cheese and a delicious sandwich with Nueske’s smoked chicken.
It seems fitting that that the epicenter of the local food movement is also the epicenter of the state’s political system. The streets around the Capitol are filled with restaurants and shops that are truly embracing the “eat local” mantra. From upscale places like L’Etoile and Harvest to casual pubs like The Old Fashioned and Coopers Tavern, chefs are sourcing great Wisconsin ingredients like never before. Add to that the Midwest’s greatest outdoor farmers’ market and the best cheese shop around and there is no other area in the state that comes even close to the Capitol Square area in representing the tastes of Wisconsin.