Tag Archives: restaurant reviews

Let’s do Lunch: Sprecher’s Restaurant & Pub

15 Mar

Considering what seems like half of the search hits to this blog have come from queries related to my earlier posts on the impending opening of Sprecher’s Restaurant & Brewery, I figured it was high time I made an appearance to get the lay of the land.  Sunday lunch with Pops seemed like a good time to see what they’ve done with the former Houlihan’s space.  Now I’m not sure I ever went to that particular Houlihan’s but based on the Wisconsin Dells location I’m sure it was lots of booths and dark wood and lamps and appeteasers.

The location, on John Q. Hammonds Drive in Middleton, is pastoral meets office park and the building itself is your standard national chain-style box.  Inside, they’ve done a respectable job of creating a comfortable dining and drinking atmosphere with a mix of table and booth seating and display cases of German beer glassware flanking the large U-shaped bar.  Several flat-screen TVs in the bar area were showing typical Sunday afternoon sports fare, namely golf and World’s Strongest Man re-runs on The Deuce.  The walls of the bar area were adorned with impressionist-style “paintings” depicting scenes from around Madison including Camp Randall and the Memorial Union Terrace.  It’s a nice reminder that even though I’m in a bar/restaurant between a field and an office park that I’m still technically in Madison.

Their selection of Sprecher beers on-tap was surprisingly robust with 14 offerings including year-round, seasonal and special releases in addition to 4 draft sodas (even more beer and soda available by the bottle).  In my post-racquetball tournament body coma, the Bourbon Barrel-Aged Doppelbock was my poison of choice today.  Served in a snifter, this doppelbock went down silky smooth thanks to the softness imparted by the oak and bourbon and finished with a vanillin’-laced malty sweetness.  I’m glad to see them really committing to carrying the entire Sprecher catalog.

The menu spans the familiar territory of soups, salads, burgers and sandwiches, with a selection of flatbreads and entrees ranging from steak and ribs to a “Thai Peanut Bowl”.  The eclectic menu evokes similar wide-ranging ethnic-fusion dishes present on the Great Dane’s menu which also includes a peanut stew and Ahi tuna salad.  The lightness of the latter dish appealed to my weary digestive system and overall “morning-after” disposition.  It mimicked the Dane’s rendition in the execution of its sesame-seared tuna, peanuts and crispy wonton strips, but veered from the Thai theme with the inclusion of a chile-lime dressing and jicama.  It was crisp and refreshing, if somewhat less inspired than some other versions I’ve had.  My dad opted for the Sunday brunch buffet which included a selection of standard breakfast meats and sides, prime rib and a design-your-own-omelet station.  He was feeling a little under-the-weather and didn’t end up indulging with his usual gusto, but said it was otherwise satisfactory and comparable to similar brunch buffets around town.

I think the place has potential to do great business with the built-in office park crowd and nearby lifestyle shopping centers and the Sprecher brand name certainly carries a certain caché among those who dabble in the craft beer scene.  It would certainly be a place I would stop in after work or drop by if I was in the area, though I doubt its location would land it on my regular nightlife rotation.  I can’t help but continue to think of Sprecher’s as a sort of Great Dane Lite for the Far West Set, which is certainly no major slight to Sprecher’s as they could pick far worse establishments from which to draw inspiration.  I foresee some post-shift Sprecher-sipping in the near future now that I have a decent beer spot between my two places of employment.


Let’s do lunch: The Coopers Tavern

17 Jan

The Coopers Tavern is a restaurant a long time in the making.  A venture of Peter McElvanna, former manager of Brochach Irish pub, it was recently announced that local restaurant conglomerate  Food Fight! has stepped in as a financial partner with McElvanna retaining most autonomy to run the business.  A cozy space on the square that previously held short-lived dessert bar Sucré and a McDonalds has been transformed into a rustic-yet-chic upscale pub atmosphere.

A mix of exposed, weathered brick, lots of hardwoods, clean cool wall treatments and brass fixtures makes for country-meets-city vibe that works well for what they’re trying to do.  Tables made of barrels (owing to the cooperage theme) are foiled by the standard wall-length-bench-booth-facing-chairs-style seeting so common in upscale urban eateries these days.  Among the more unique features of the space are a genuine Irish snug a private room with access to the bar via a window or small door.  Historically used by women when it was frowned upon for them to socialize openly in a pub, and others seeking more privacy during their revelry; Coopers’ snug would be perfect for small gatherings and is apparently available on a first-come, first-served basis.  Also of note are the ceiling fans which are connected and driven belts and pulleys and add to the bucolic atmosphere.

The bar itself is dominated by two tap towers featuring some 28 beers on draft and a pair of large chalkboards over the bar listing the beer and wine offerings.  A pair of modest LCD TV’s on either end of the bar were tuned to soccer when we arrived (switched to the Vikings-Cowboys playoff game at the request of a fellow patron) and a larger wall-mounted TV dominated the rear wall of the pub next to the kitchen door.  While not a sports bar per se, I can imagine Coopers being a great place to watch the upcoming World Cup in South Africa with a good beer in hand.

In the gastropub tradition (is the gastropub phenomenon old enough to have a tradition yet?), Coopers’ menu aims at upscale pub fare paired with beverages for discriminating palates – namely the 28 tap beers and an extensive bottle list numbering over 100.  On this visit, I must warn, their tap offerings were limited either because the beers weren’t available yet or they had already sold out of them in the few days since their soft opening.  The first 3 beers I tried to order on-tap were not available, though I was happy to settle for a Blanche de Bruxelles Belgian white ale.

Their current offerings come from a limited lunch menu consisting of a few appetizers, soups, salads and sandwiches.  Word is a more comprehensive dinner menu will be added in a month or two.  I can’t blame them for trying to establish themselves with a solid and simple line-up that doesn’t overreach.  During today’s Sunday lunch with Mom, the poutine was tough to pass up as a starter.  For those unfamiliar with the French Canadian delicacy, poutine  consists of french fries/frites topped with fresh cheese curds and brown gravy.  Forget your diet for a day.  You’ll be fine.  It’s a wonder there isn’t another joint in town offering this joyous pile of deliciousness.  The frites were good, if not a little soggy (hard to avoid with a slathering of gravy that, as my mother commented “was good, but needed a little something”) and the cheese curds, which had melted into a mass underneath the pile of frites added another layer of gooey goodness.  It ain’t exactly high-brow, but it’s comfort food to the core.  Puzzlingly, the poutine was delivered with our meal instead of as, you know, a starter.  Apparently this isn’t a unique instance.

I ordered the reuben and my mother ordered the lamb sandwich, both with house salad of mixed greens and herb vinaigrette.  We decided to swap a half sandwich so we could each try both.  The reuben was very good, if not a little…sweet overall.  The corned beef was tender and flaky and the Lake Louie Warped Speed Scotch Ale-soaked sauerkraut and house-made 1000 island were tasty but lacked a certain zing, lending to the perceived sweetness of the sandwich.  The dark rye was buttery and held up well to the generous fixings within.  The lamb sandwich on sourdough was filled with tender thin-sliced lamb with creamy caramelized onions and a thick and herbaceous, paste-like “tomato jam” that served as a great compliment to the lamb.

Based on our experience today, I think Coopers fills a great niche on the square, much like Brasserie V does on Monroe Street.  While their tap list isn’t as inspired and their food offerings are limited, the concept is right and the execution seems to be on point.  And it’s always great to have another place to grab a good sandwich and tasty beer with friends.

Let’s do lunch: Papa Bear’s BBQ

29 Sep
Nothing bad ever came out of a white styrofoam container
Nothing bad ever came out of a white styrofoam container

It was somewhat by-accident that I happened to find myself at Papa Bear’s BBQ for lunch yesterday.  I was working on the East Side (well, Monona if you want to be specific) with my new car for the first time, so the possibilities were numerous.  I wanted to try something new, so I turned to my technological  crutch for inspiration.  A quick local search on Yelp! brought up Papa Bear’s, a new-ish BBQ joint in my old stomping grounds (corner of Cottage Grove Rd and Acewood Blvd on Madison’s East Side).  An Isthmus review from 2008 offers a little more information on Papa Bear himself, proprietor Jeff Norwood,

Jeff Norwood (a.k.a. Papa Bear) was a chef at Cherokee Country Club for 11 years, but loved to cook barbecue.

how this spot came to be,

And so, in 2007, when his wife, Ursula, noticed the empty space that Bull’s BBQ had recently vacated, the urge was irresistible. They soon were in business.

and the way he does his Q:

Jeff cooks his ribs in the traditional manner: “low and slow,” as the mantra goes. He uses hickory wood exclusively (experts say that hickory and pecan are the best woods for smoking pork) and cooks the ribs at 225º for hours, until the meat has absorbed that wonderful wood smoke, most of the fat has drained off, and the meat is ready to fairly fall off the bone.  The ribs are slathered in Jeff’s own sauce, which is a fairly standard Kansas City-style sweet-and-tangy tomato mixture, very mild.

Last year I had the opportunity to travel to Kansas City for the first time to represent UW-Madison in the USA Racquetball Collegiate Nationals tournament.  While a mysterious and untimely bout of pinkeye largely sullied my on-court performance, the smoky, saucey silver lining on the trip was without a doubt the food.  Our modest contingent made a concerted effort to eat as much BBQ as humanly possible in the 4 or so days we had down there and I must admit that we did pretty well for ourselves. To the best of my recollection, we were able to sample the succulent offerings of Fiorella’s Jack Stack (Q was tasty enough, but definitely had a sterile,” upscale corporate chain” feel to it – replete with oversized plates, silverware and leather-trimmed, laminated menus), two different locations of Gates Bar-B-Q (while a local chain, food and staff had soul to spare), and the venerable Arthur Bryant’s (the kind of place you see highlighted on the Food Network for its charm, tradition, plucky staff, and damn good Q).

The one concession I must make to Jack Stack was introducing me to the concentrated über-meat that is burnt ends. The charred, chewy, smoky, savory bits trimmed from the edges of brisket, burnt ends are a KC delicacy that are absolutely the best bang-for-your-buck option at any BBQ joint in town.  You’ll find them served alone, smothered in sauce, in a bun or between a couple slices of Wonder Bread, or mixed in with the baked beans as the ultimate flavor enhancer.  You can have your $25 rack of ribs – I’ll take an $8 plate of ends every day of the week and twice on Sunday.  OK, that might be too much, but you catch my drift.  The oft-maligned cast-off cuts bring the most flavor and the best value in most cases – if you can settle for a chewier, homelier experience.

This brings us back to my menu selection at Papa Bear’s: rib tips.  Perhaps not shockingly, rib tips are the narrow ends of the rib closest to the sternum that are generally trimmed off to make a more uniform rack.  These cuts are quite tender and meaty, though they often contain smallish bits of cartilage and/or soft bone and a fair amount of fat marbling.  Like burnt ends, this “trimmings” cut is a great value at most BBQ establishments and Papa Bear’s is no exception.  They offer rib tip meals in two sizes ($6.75 for a smaller portion, $8.50 for large) along with a choice of two sides and a biscuit.  Can’t argue with those prices.  You can see about how much food that $8.50 bought me.  A normal person with a healthy, proportional appetite could probably get two meals out of that fairly easily.  Not this guy.  Let’s break down the components of this classic meal and see how they stack up to my experiences from KC.

  • Coleslaw: I’m an unapologetic slaw-fanatic, so this side dish tends to hold a little more water for me regarding the success of a BBQ meal than it may for most.  This was easily among the creamiest slaws I’ve encountered.  The overall impression was ‘sweet’ and the cabbage itself was a little…limp.  I would have preferred a little more zip in the form of vinegar or mustard, but this slaw was pleasant enough.
  • Baked beans: The beans were swimming in a brown sugar-y sauce and included diced green pepper or jalapeño.  I assumed the latter, but if that is the case, they imparted little or no heat to the beans.  I was also somewhat disappointed to see no discernible chunks of meat in the beans.  Whether or not they use meat as a flavor enhancer or I simply was unlucky and didn’t get any in my scoop is unknown, but again, I was unable to detect any meaty richness or smoke in the beans.  Again, the overall impression was ‘pleasantly sweet’.  I began to see a pattern emerging.
  • Biscuit: This was your standard buttermilk-style biscuit.  While the flavor was there, the texture was more crumbly than flaky and along with the dryness, left the impression that it was just a little old or had been sitting out for too long.  ‘Serviceable’ was the word that came to mind.
  • Sauce: Not all BBQ traditions emphasize the sauce, but it has always been an important part of my BBQ experience.  Sauce, in the right hands,  has the ability to highlight the smokiness and savoriness of the meat and add just the right of moisture to the dryer cuts.  In the wrong hands, it can be used as a crutch and a bandaid – drenching overcooked, flavorless meat in a desperate act of one-upmanship.  Papa Bear offers a fairly standard Kansas City-style sauce – a tomato and molasses-base with a decent vinegar zing.  As you might guess, ‘sweet’ steals the show again and I was left wanting a little more depth of spice or perhaps a little heat.  I appreciate when BBQ joints offer multiple sauces to compliment their meats, but can respect a chef who has a vision and wants you to experience it.
  • Rib tips: The meat was fall-off-the-bone-if-there-were-any-bones-to-fall-off-of tender with a healthy (well, actually not healthy at all) marbling of fat.  The exterior of each tip was pleasantly chewy and had a hint of that trademark hickory smoke, but less than I would have liked.  Overall the flavor of the meat was great and the sauce went well with any dry rub that may have been used, but again – it lacked a depth of flavor that I came to expect from the Q I tried in KC.  Nonetheless, the meat was very well-cooked and generously portioned.  I have to think there is as much meat in the large rib tip meal as in an entire rack of spare ribs.  Value, friends.  Get some.

Papa Bear’s has managed to create some very faithful representations of Kansas City-style barbecue that may lack the depth and character of some of the KC stalwarts, but nonetheless shows that a little passion goes along way in the BBQ world.


Dinner and Drinks: Natt Spil

13 Sep

You do know the secret password, right?

What was once “that strange , dark little place next to the Great Dane without a sign” has become one of my favorite places in Madison to grab a bite or a couple drinks, but usually both. I’m not sure how many times I walked by the narrow street frontage, half-noticing the frosted glass windows with warm light glowing through and the faint beat of a DJ. It just didn’t sink in that there was this quirky, hip little restaurant and bar tucked behind the Great Dane on King Street that I had never heard of. They don’t have a sign. They don’t have a website. They don’t have a phone. They don’t take credit. What was this place? Who do they think they are? This is Madison, not Wicker Park. Once I got past the air of pretense, I discovered one of the real gems of Downtown Madison.

Natt Spil is a dark, moody little space – a typical long, narrow space with a bar and small kitchen (with wood oven) hugging one side, with tables hugging the other. Lit by Chinese paper lanterns and adorned with carved wooden walls and strange symbols that combine the aesthetics of steampunk and Lord of the Rings, it’s hard to know what to expect from the menu for an uninitiated newcomer. As you make your way to the back of the house, going up a ramp and passing a makeshift DJ booth, you pass through a hobbit-like round doorway and find a couple small tables surrounded by tree stumps for stools and completely overshadowed by a full-wall photograph of an elderly woman indulging in some sort of pipe. Asian hobbits. That’s the vibe I got from this place the first time I walked in.

Drinks: a single menu pulls double-duty for their extensive drink list as well as food. On the drinks front, Natt Spil offers an impressive list of wines, spirits, specialty cocktails, and local tap beers. A beer man fist and foremost, I must admit to more experience from that end of the bar. The selection, while certainly limited, is rotated routinely and generally offers 4 to 5 taps including a couple Lake Louie and Great Dane beers and a small bottle list of both local and the odd import. My most recent trip allowed me to sample the Great Dane’s new Imperial IPA on tap. The Hilldale location has offered an Imperial IPA as a permanent offering for some time now, but I was not aware of its presence downtown. It may very well be the same recipe and it certainly shared many of the pine and citrus hop notes and sweet-yet-light apricot body of its Hilldale incarnation which I have enjoyed on many occasions.

The specialty cocktails are another area where the creativity of the bar shines through. A few visits ago I tried their High Tea, a light, refreshing drink made with both green tea and house-infused ginger-lemongrass vodkas. They also offer classic if not exactly commonly-offered drinks like the Sazerac, a cocktail based on rye whiskey, absinthe and Peychaud’s bitters.

Dinner: not surprisingly, the menu at Natt Spil is as eclectic as its decor. A traditional appetizer menu is largely replaced here with a selection of dim sum ($3-5), featuring items such as spicy pork and water chestnut shu mai, Thai chicken “lollipops”, Mongolian beef dumplings, as well as mussels by the half ($5) or full pound ($9) served in a wonderful spicy broth, and Mediterranean and Mexican snack plates featuring various tasty spreads and dips. A fine meal can be made mixing and matching from the diverse array of small plates or shared as starters among a larger group.

The selection of main courses is small and no less eclectic than the starters. The standout for me is their intensely flavorful Three Cup Chicken (or Tofu), cooked with generous amounts of fresh ginger, garlic, sesame oil and rice wine, served with jasmine rice and an intensely piquant pickled tomato and cucumber salad. I have ordered this dish enough times to research the recipe (it is actually a fairly traditional Taiwanese dish) and make it for myself at home several times. I’ll be sure to post my recipe here in the near future. Their pulled pork sandwich is a safer choice, but flavorful and served on great French bread. The aforementioned wood-fired oven is put to good use preparing their selection of delicious thin-crust pizzas. The Braeburn apple and Brie is lightly sweet and not everyone’s cup of tea, the Greek Goddess Love Nest is a melange of Mediterranean classics (feta, olives, artichoke, red pepper) and they often have specials that you won’t find on the menu. The crust is so thin that it has a tendency to soak up the liquid in the toppings and get soggy, but the pizza is good enough to scarf down before it gets to that point.

I’ll made an admission here: I want to hate Natt Spil. Its eccentricity can come off as contrived. The layout is cramped; the bench and log seating are more at home around a campfire than an upscale-ish restaurant. It’s dark, it’s loud (especially when the DJs really crank it up). Service is hit and miss. It’s pretty close to the perfect restaurantifiation of your typical Madison hipster. So why don’t I hate it? Well, I love the food and I know I’ll always be able to find a good local beer on-tap; but there are lots of places like that in Madison that offer those things in a much less obnoxious setting. I guess there’s that part of me deep down that wants to hang out with the cool kids. It’s hard work to be hip and Natt Spil never makes it easy on you. I guess the fact that I keep coming back means I’ve passed the test. But you? I’m not so sure you have it in you. So you might just want to head back up the street and put your name in at the Dane. It’s already pretty packed in here.

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