Robinia Courtyard Trio

Photos by Molly Wallace

Photos by Molly Wallace

By Annaleigh Wetzel

East Washington Avenue is the site of a food revival in Madison. New restaurants, a grocery store and several bars are popping up all along the street, begging to be visited. Among the many additions to the area is Robinia Courtyard. The Courtyard is made up of Julep restaurant, A-OK coffeehouse and Barolo wine bar: a seemingly odd concoction of establishments that somehow make complete sense together on the taste buds.

Hip Julep

Photos by Molly Wallace

Photos by Molly Wallace

Julep is the grouping’s full-fledged restaurant featuring Southern-inspired snacks, little plates and dinners on its concise, one-page menu. The interior is fresh and hip, with exposed white brick and a sleek wooden bar. The menu builds steam and impressiveness as diners peruse it from start to finish. That said, ordering from it in stages is the way to go; be sure to give its three parts each a little bit of love. And don’t forget about selecting a cocktail or two (the Mendoza is a fun treat) to sip on while enjoying this down-home feast.

The Buttermilk Biscuit, Cast Iron Cornbread and Smoked Ham Hock Terrine are some of the snack stand-outs. Arriving at the table still warm, the biscuit is fluffy and moist on the inside, but deliciously crumbly on the outside. It’s a great starter to share with a pal:  half is a nice portion to stifle the rumbling of your stomach. Skip the lackluster jam and butter that comes with; it doesn’t need any accouterments anyway. The cornbread offers what the biscuit does not: a touch of added sugar. Both carbs are equally tasty, but eating them side-by-side clearly marks the biscuit as savory and the cornbread as sweet, making them the perfect pair. The terrine is perhaps the biggest nod to the restaurant’s novel take on traditional Southern cooking. The cold, pâté-esque ham spread is plated with a few pieces of Texas toast, chilled, pickled green beans and a grainy mustard that gives the dish a subtle kick.

Next, don’t be dissuaded by the presence of pig ears in the Nashville Salad. Think ‘bacon bits,’ and munch on. Or spring for the Mississippi Delta Tamales with roasted pork and a dark chocolate mole sauce. Then comes the fireworks finale: the dinner section. Farro Risotto and the Brisket Pot Roast act as happy complements to one another, both with warm winter veggies and rich flavor profiles. The Perlou is another killer choice with smoked white fish, oysters and Andouille sausage atop crispy grits.

Next time you find yourself in this budding food-friendly neighborhood, take a spin through the Courtyard. Grab a few small plates and imbibe in a Mint Julep, as the name of the restaurant begs.

It’ll be A-OK

Photos by Molly Wallace

Photos by Molly Wallace


A-OK Sunshine & Spirits screams just that, plus some more. It’s fashioned after an old-school diner with a new-age flare. A rounded bar counter is accompanied by spinning stools, high top tables and wooden booths, all set atop blue and yellow geometric-checkered linoleum floor. Tough to picture? Now to complicate things even further: A-OK is a coffee shop, bar, lunch break spot and burger joint. Still confused? Well, that’s just part of its charm.

At its most basic level, A-OK is defined by the time of day you’re visiting. Kick-start your day there with a cup of Kin-Kin coffee or nibble on a midday meal. Orders depend on whatever gem options (such as a bacon cheddar quiche or red beet and shallot soup) are listed on the ever changing daily special board or on a favorite from their traditional food menu. Maybe you’re in need of more than just lunch, though. Then you’ll grab a burger and fries and a shake, all available until close at 9 p.m. And, of course, you’d be remiss to not explore the full bar, with beer and booze galore.

If you are indeed in search of a beverage, look no further than the black and bold-lettered, 11-item drink menu painted on the white brick wall immediately upon walking inside. From brewed coffee to kombucha to espresso, soda and tea, the options needn’t have descriptions. Say you’re in the mood for a milkshake. That requires a conversation with the bartender-server-cashier (there is typically only one staffer per shift), as there aren’t any flavors to choose from in plain view. They might recommend the espresso shake with a whopping four shots in it, or the bourbon shake that tastes as good as any cocktail.

The same “what you see is what you get” philosophy is applied to the burgers and fries at A-OK. It’s actually exactly what it sounds like—a burger (topped with “dijonaise,” onions and pickles, as you’d find out once biting into it) with a side of crispy, addicting fries.

With ties to Johnson Public House (JPH), you could say A-OK is JPH’s wacky younger cousin. There’s no doubt this place is all over, but only in the best way possible.

Wine Time
After a meal at Julep or a cup of coffee at A-OK, you may be tempted to stroll on over to Barolo to wine—ahem, we mean—wind down for the night. Since it’s conveniently located right next-door, that’s definitely an idea worth exploring.

Photos by Molly Wallace

Photos by Molly Wallace

The bar is dimly lit by overhead light fixtures reminiscent of the bulbous Capitol just up the street. With too many tables packed like sardines, presumably in an attempt to create ample guest seating, the space is rendered a little cramped. There is a long wooden bar and several smaller tables lined up along the opposite wall, as well as an awkward side room, separate from the rest and with larger lounge booths. But looking at this from the bright side, it may strike you as “intimate.”

And so is the wine list itself. The short menu is marked at the top with the date, indicating what’s on the shelf, or in your glass, for the night. Wine is available by the glass and by the bottle, with the larger selection being the latter. Cabernet-sauvignons, merlots, rosés, zinfandels and so on are presented for pouring.

Photos by Molly Wallace

Photos by Molly Wallace

In keeping with its small but mighty theme, Barolo has a few food options to accompany their drinks, and even offer a palate cleanser between sips. Try one of the savory flatbreads, and don’t be shy about asking your bartender for recs on what to nosh on that will go best with your wine.

If red and white beverages aren’t your thing, but you want to check out Barolo regardless, you’re in luck. The bar has a brief list of beers on tap and cocktails to choose from for those who are less wine-inclined.

Barolo is a natural end to an evening spent meandering the Courtyard. And what’s even better—you can look forward to relishing its food and drink offerings on the outdoor patio during the summer months as well.

Mezze

Photo by Annaleigh Wetzel

Photo by Annaleigh Wetzel

Article by Annaleigh Wetzel

After a long day at the grind, what sounds better than sitting down with a drink and some ‘za? Not much. How about after a short day…say one that ends around 3 p.m.? Even better.

Cue Mezze, a hip Mediterranean-inspired restaurant and bar that opened this past fall in the old Amy’s Café space. With a kitchen that is open from 3 p.m. to midnight, Tuesday through Saturday, it’s hard to find an excuse to have a cocktail or two anywhere else. Add on the happy hour $4 dollar mixer and beer deal, and the idea of passing up the place seems downright ridiculous.

Photo by Annaleigh Wetzel

Photo by Annaleigh Wetzel

Mezze’s interior is minimalist and swanky, with clusters of mirrors along the walls. Look up while devouring the last bite of falafel to catch your reflection staring back at you. Deep, black wood and earth tones echo the relaxed vibes of the restaurant’s menu too.

In the no-man’s-land between opening and 5 p.m. dinner service, Mezze thrives. It offers hearty “snacks,” such as several pizzas, a lamb burger and za’atar fries to accompany your drink(s) of choice from its extensive booze list.

The pizza crusts are charred, leaving your fingers stained with black soot residue—a happy reminder of the meal. The Basil Pistou with ricotta, capers, tomatoes and garlic (two to three whole, roasted cloves per slice!) is a tasty option. The mellow ingredients compliment each other especially well, but it could be amplified with a punch of crushed red pepper. Then again, couldn’t everything?

The lamb burger is simple and simply good. Garlic yogurt sauce is theonly condiment this Sylvan Meadows lamb patty needs with fresh arugula and a pita bun to finish it off.

Get the fries with it, and layer them on the burger if you’re in the mood for something fun. The za’atar seasoning, a traditional Middle Eastern spice mixture, is wildly delicious, and it pairs well with the rest of the menu’s flavors. For those who enjoy their fries less potato-y than others, ask for them extra crispy.

Photo by Annaleigh Wetzel

Photo by Annaleigh Wetzel

As for the bar, Mezze comes out swinging. The drink list is as follows: about 20 bottles of wine, half red, half white; a page of spirits, ranging in price from $8-$26 dollars; and a page of specialty beer, from canned to draught to bottled. The best part about Mezze’s alcohol selection is its “Dealer’s Choice” special. Ordering a couple drinks with dinner doesn’t have to break the bank when a glass of handcrafted goodness is just $7. Between whiskey, gin, brandy, rum, vodka and tequila, you choose your desired liquor. Then, give your style, either sweet, sour, strong, bitter or salty. The rest is up to your trusted bartender, and the mystery surprise rarely disappoints.

Photo by Annaleigh Wetzel

Photo by Annaleigh Wetzel

A few dishes are perfect to share with a pal, or for an ambitious soul to take on alone. For a unique eating and drinking experience, check out Mezze for happy hour, dinner or until bar close on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Osaka House

Photo by Annaleigh Wetzel

Photo by Annaleigh Wetzel

By Annaleigh Wetzel

Drake’s “Back to Back” buzzed from an iPhone plugged into speakers at Osaka House’s makeshift server station, where the restaurant’s only front-of-house employee danced and rapped along. For this, plus its endearing, hole-in-the-wall atmosphere, I want so badly to like it here and say I’ll be back. Unfortunately, even an especially on point music selection isn’t enough for me to give Osaka House another try.

Photo by Annaleigh Wetzel

Photo by Annaleigh Wetzel

The restaurant is tiny, with only enough room for about eight tables. The sushi selection is extensive, and listed on a large menu hung from the wall that’s visible immediately upon walking in. It’s riddled with names of rolls like Lady Gaga, Godzilla Roll and Happy Combo. The rest of the menu is just as long, with tempura and noodle dishes galore. Its overwhelming amount of choices led me to order the pork yakisoba, beef fried rice and the sweet potato tempura roll, decisions I came to with the help of the server’s recommendations. He was extremely attentive and friendly, but if these dishes are what he thinks are “the best,” I fear the rest of the menu.

Photo by Annaleigh Wetzel

Photo by Annaleigh Wetzel

Photo by Annaleigh Wetzel

Photo by Annaleigh Wetzel

The yakisoba, rice and sushi meals all had one common thread: no flavor. Onions and thin strips of overdone pork was all the yakisoba had to offer, similar to the greasy fried rice, with tough pieces of beef, plus tasteless peas and carrots. Albeit still bland, the sushi was improved immensely with the help of pickled ginger, wasabi and soy sauce. Another aspect of my Osaka House experience that trigged an eyebrow raise was the sheer ten minutes it took to receive my food. The speed between placing my order and taking my first bite was so quick; it caused me wonder about the food’s freshness.

If you’d like to see what Osaka House is all about for yourself, I encourage it. Perhaps you’ll find the hidden gem menu item I couldn’t. Or maybe you’ll be perceptive enough to ask for extra chili paste. Either way, please get in touch, and we’ll chat about it over a Dynasty Roll or two.

Photo by Annaleigh Wetzel

Photo by Annaleigh Wetzel

Less is More at the Underground Food Collective

By Annaleigh WetzelDSC_2903

Chef Jonny Hunter defies the notion that good food and its preparation must be complicated, and instead uses “less is more” as a philosophy to invigorate his work.  Hunter is the 2015 Madison Magazine Chef of the Year and the face of Underground Food Collective, the umbrella company for Underground Meats, Underground Catering, Forequarter Restaurant and Underground Butcher.

“Those limitations we put on ourselves help us create,” Hunter explains of the driving force behind their work at the collective. With the long, harsh Wisconsin winter season comes a lack of available ingredients, an unwelcome constraint to many in the food industry. But Hunter and his team do not see it that way. “We weren’t a company that came around to the idea of local. We were using local foods because that’s how we started… so I really thrive in those sparser months,” he says.

That is also the inspiration for the collective’s soon-to-open restaurant on Williamson Street. “Middlewest is going to be an expression of that focus in that we’re only going to have one cooking implement within the entire restaurant,” Hunter says. The restaurant, from its visual aesthetic to its menu offerings, will all revolve around a large wood hearth. Hunter says fryers, ranges and other usual appliances will not have a place in the Middlewest kitchen, and cooking will be done through the hearth alone. “We’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but the reality of it will probably be really difficult. It could maybe lead to some interesting challenges, but I think in the long run, hopefully not too long of a run, we will really come to define what this restaurant is, by that fire,” he says.DSC_2898

This type of innovative thinking in part stems from Hunter’s unique personal background.  Hunter was raised in a small intentional community of conservative Christians in eastern Texas. He refers to this self-proclaimed “cult-like” upbringing as what has shaped his perspective on food and community. His family’s evangelism brought him to more than 40 countries where he spent his time learning about those places and the people who populate them. Since then he has categorically rejected religion, but his understanding of food as culture has only grown stronger. His experience living alongside people in places so unfamiliar to him has allowed him to discover how a culture’s food heritage can build community.  This eventually fostered his approach to cooking in Madison. “I think there is an idea here that what we’re doing [in Madison] is special and that we should be pushing ourselves because we have these extraordinary agricultural products to work with and we have customers and consumers who are so much more engaged and interested than in cities that are much bigger than us,” he says. “And that’s pretty great.”DSC_2877

 

In an effort to rejoin the mainstream society he had been denied during his childhood, Hunter was drawn to the UW-Madison campus where he enrolled as a student. It was here that he, along with his brother and a group of friends, worked at Catacombs Coffeehouse, a café in the basement of the Pres House.  This was the first experience that gave him the opportunity to finally “do [his] own thing” and expand his cooking interests. “Catacombs is a seminal part in my life and something that has completely defined how I think about the world and how I think about what I do now,” he says. The passion for cooking, instilled from his work at Catacombs Coffeehouse, prompted Hunter to pursue a career in the food industry despite his UW graduate degree in public affairs. “I think I came to age as a cook during the Internet explosion of knowledge. So you no longer had to go to culinary school or you no longer had to work up through restaurants. I used those information tools to train myself,” Hunter says. In lieu of a formal culinary education, Hunter has continued to do more with less.

Jonny Hunter is a prominent member of the Madison food community, surrounding himself with likeminded chefs who double as some of his closest friends.  “I think that we have such a great food system here, and that’s because of the people who are involved in it. I view myself as a community organizer even more than I view myself as a cook or a chef or a business owner. And so when I’m able to meet people who are doing the same thing from that point of view, I’m way more at home.”

Cafe Hollander: Hilldale

By Annaleigh Wetzel

Lowlands Group is a popular restaurant group in Milwaukee that owns European-style Grand Cafes including Cafe Central, Benelux and Cafe Hollander. All modeled after the lowlands region of Europe, these restaurants are large in size to reflect their regard for good company, yet warm and welcoming to pair with their comforting menus. Lowlands Group has made quite a name for itself in Milwaukee, and as of recently, Madisonians are beginning to take notice.Screen_Shot_2015-11-06_at_10.59.23_AM

In early October, Hilldale Mall welcomed many new shopping stores and restaurants, including Madison’s first Lowland cafe: Cafe Hollander. For months, the much-anticipated opening of Cafe Hollander has filled the Madison food community with buzz; the hype has yet to die down.

The restaurant is large; almost two times the size of the Cafe Hollander in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood. It includes two bars, one in a separate room dubbed the “Bier Den,” as well as first floor and upstairs dining areas. With a ceiling of skylights and operational garage door walls, the restaurant is filled with natural sun during the day and string lights by night. Bike paraphernalia, with wheels, sprockets and full cycles, is a prominent feature of the décor that highlights the restaurant’s Belgium roots.

Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg are represented in more than just the ambience; Cafe Hollander’s menu is brimming with an American take on “low country” cuisine. From the extensive beer list to the mussels and frites, the offerings at Cafe Hollander allow diners to experiment without completely stepping outside their comfort zones.

Cafe Hollander is a great spot to share drinks and appetizers among friends. The menu contains items that may be familiar to many but offer a European twist. The Belgian Big Board is true to its name, as the board takes up more than half of a small table. It is filled with generous portions of crostini, two charcuterie meats, and marinated local cow feta, deviled eggs, olives, beer cheese spread, pickled Brussels sprouts and gherkins. The feta is salty and herbaceous, and it is the absolute standout of the board.Screen_Shot_2015-11-06_at_11.00.09_AM

The Dutch Bitterballen is another appetizer that embodies the restaurant’s lowlands atmosphere. These croquettes are fried and filled with leeks, red pepper, parsley, Hook’s cheddar chive mashed potatoes and house-recipe spiced sausage. Fresh combines with rich tastes and flavor abounds. The house-made curry ketchup trumps the garlic aioli that comes with it.

Finally, frites. Hollander’s Frites Cone is not to be forgotten, as the fries are extra crispy and golden yellow. The cone is served with two signature homemade sauces.  There are seven to choose from, including zingy sriracha ginger barbeque, spicy curry ketchup, and creamy basil aioli.  Luckily, extras cost just $0.75 more, and each is well-worth the three quarters. Another fun feature of the menu is the listed beer pairing that accompanies each dish.  This helps to make sharing small plates and libations simple and satisfying.Screen_Shot_2015-11-06_at_10.59.58_AM

Despite its relatively odd mall location and less-than-intimate size, Cafe Hollander at Hilldale knows how to please. It is warm and inviting, its menu contains flavorful taste combinations, and the list of rare Belgian biers is extensive.  The place is hopping most nights, giving Madison residents another bar-eatery to frequent alongside the other Euro-inspired haunts in town.Screen_Shot_2015-11-06_at_10.59.15_AM