Hello again all! It has been a VERY long time since we blogged. There are certainly a lot of excuses we can offer: life is crazy busy in general, Amy got a new job and is working too many hours, we took a trip to Italy and had a 4 month hangover afterward, Wisconsin winter sucks, my triathlon habit. The list goes on and on, but I guarantee, we didn’t give up loving food, loving dining out, trying new restaurants, and being as glutinous as ever! There have been many new restaurants open in Madison since our last post, and in fact, some of them have already closed (you know who you are, Kickshaw!) In general, the food scene here in Madison is alive as ever.

We would love to catch up and write about every restaurant we have tried since our last post, but we would be writing out of a sketchy memory, writing out of our asses, so to speak. So we will start with a recent restaurant visit, Graze (L’Etoile’s spawn).

Other blogs to come (hopefully), include best pizza in Madison, best dessert (can’t wait to taste test for that one),  more on procuring the best ingredients from our wonderful farmers’ markets,  specialty grocery stores, pick your own farms, strip mall gems, and of course more new and established restaurant reviews.

Read on, and (hopefully) enjoy!

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A Jim and Amy collaboration

It is late April, one of my favorite times of year. The world is green again, there is no more brown snow. Their is a chance (on at least some days) that we can sit on my deck and drink a glass of wine. Their is the sound of a cracking bat on TV again, with the return of major league baseball. But what really makes the season, is the return of the outdoor Dane County Farmer’s Market.

Since Amy and I first visited the Dane County Farmer’s Market (DCFM) in 1999, we have been truly in love with Madison. It is the heart and soul of our great city. But not only is it a great diversion from a hectic work week, it is also the market that, with a little thinking and planning, can be your primary source of sustenance.

So here are some reasons why the DCFM should be your grocery store.

1. Know your producer. There is nothing more comforting that being able to look your producer in the eye, shake his or her hand, and know him or her by name. You just don’t get this when picking up your apple at a grocery store.

2. Sense of community. Every walk of life shows up at DCFM. Street musicians, local artists, kids of all ages, jaded protesters, content farmers. It is all there. Most have a smile on their face. No one is in a hurry to leave. There are red wagons being pulled, pastry being devoured, and music being played. No one is hiding behind a metal cart.

3. Passion behind your food – you are buying from producers who are passionate, and knowledgeable, about their products. They take great pride in what they are selling.

4. Cash and check only (in most cases). No money going to the middleman of a credit or debit transaction.

5. Minimal carbon footprint. These products, on average, come from less than 100 miles away. Enough said.

Now, for the fun details. These are some of my favorite products we buy time and again from the DCFM.  This is not at all an exclusive list, but just a list of favorites.

6.  5 year aged cheddar from Hook’s Cheese – purely sinful, but glorious. Losing some of it’s bite at this level of aging, but gaining that more crumbly, slightly crunchy texture. A first rate cheese, and a jewel from such a dairy heavy market.

7. Asparagus from Matt Smith (Blue Valley Gardens) – a sign of spring. Realize, there are many great asparagus producers on the square, but Matt is the asparagus guru, as far as I’m concerned. Spargle is also offered (white asparagus).

8. Ramps from Richard deWilde (Harmony Valley Farm) – perhaps the greatest prize of spring (arguably better than morels). This is a wild leek, and it’s flavor is unlike any onion like vegetable out there. Part garlic, part onion, part leek, part cabbage, part shallot, all that rolled up into the best addition to scrambled eggs you could think of.

9. Heirloom peppers from Jean & Michael Martin (Jones Valley Farm) – in late summer and early fall, the oddly shaped and glorious color of these peppers draw you in to Jones Valley Farm’s beautiful display. Cook them any way you like, they give your mind and mouth a taste experience different from any pepper you’ve ever had.

10. Apple Cider from Bob Willard (Ela Orchard) – one of the only products rarely tried by late market goers (after 11 a.m.), tt sells out early, but for good reason. This is far and away the best apple cider I’ve ever tried. It is different each week, but Bob still makes a consistently delightful cider that is good for drinking cold, hot, or slowly reduced and added to a sauce or salad dressing.

11. Fresh chevre from Anne Topham, Fantome Farm – creamy, only slightly tangy, light, delicious. My favorite use is to add it to a fall salad of apples and walnuts, with a dressing made from Ela Orhcard’s cider mentioned above.

12. Raspberries from Paul and Louise Maki (Blue Skies Berry Farm) – who doesn’t love a good raspberry. Paul and Louise are some of the nicest people on the square. Their berries are grown with passion: orange, yellow and multiple varieties of red berries are available. Amy and I routinely visit their farm each year to pick our own.

13. Dried beef from John and Dorothy Priske (Fountain Prairie Inn and Farms) – I first tasted this dried beef on a sandwich at L’Etoile, and I have never gone back. Slightly salty, intense beef flavor in just one slice. Buy it for a very special sandwich.

14. Chorizo sausage form Eric and Carrie Johson (Jordandal Farm) – sausage in general from Jordandal is fantastic, but I especially like their chorizo. It is a perfect blend of spices, but not too greasy. I love to crumble it into a tortilla casserole with chipotle salsa.

15. Bacon from Tony and Susan Renger (Willow Creek Farm) – bacon that closely rivals Nueske’s bacon from northern Wisconsin, Willow Creek pork in general is a step above. Smoky, thick, and gorgeous when cooked. Enjoy it best in late summer on a BLT with market heirloom tomatoes.

16. Beef from James and Rebecca Goodman (Northwood Farm) – this is the source of my burger of the gods. This is pure organic meat from another friendly producer. I use their ground beef, adding only salt and pepper, for my ultimate home made burger.

17. Heirloom tomatoes from Quentin and Mary Carpenter (Carpenter Farm) – the most consistent, and reasonably priced tomato producers on the square. They do a beautiful job with a beautiful product. Heirloom tomatoes, as far as I’m concerned, are the crown jewel of summer produce. Nothing beats them, ever.

18. Wintered spinach from Bill Warner and Judy Hageman (Snug Haven Farm) – the star of the first market of the season, this spinach is delectably sweet. Put it in anything, but left best for a simple spinach salad.

19. All blue potatoes from John Aue (Butter Mountain Potatoes) – John is the ultimate potato head, and seems to know every potato in and out. He waxes poetic (pardon the pun) about his products. My favorite are any of his fingerlings, or his all blue potatoes, which are, in my opinion, the best way to truly taste the earth without putting dirt directly in your mouth.

20. Eggs from John Carr (Pecatonica Valley Farm) – another super nice guy on the square, John also offers many delicious meat products, including a killer smoked chicken. However, we buy our eggs almost each week from John, they are guaranteed fresh and flavorful.

21. Sweet Corn from Richard deWilde (Harmony Valley Farm)  – I didn’t want to mention one vendor twice, but I just can’t go without mentioning that the sweet corn from Harmony Valley is to die for. Sweet corn in general on the square is far better than the grocery stores, but Richard grows a particular varietal, or grows it in a particular way, that produces the best sweet corn I have ever tasted.

22. Carrots from Cate & Mat Eddy (Ridgeland Harvest)- organic carrots that taste sweet, crunchy, and abundant. This producer in general offers top quality produce, I also love their swiss chard, and winter squash.

23. Concord grapes from Dale and Cindy Secher (Carandale Farm) – another highlight of fall, the fruit that produces my favorite pie.

Visited February 6th, 2009.

Primary author – Jim (Amy will comment once her life is less hectic)

Amy and I had been talking about trying Monroe St. Bistro for few months. This seems to be the latest restaurant trend in Madison, the bistro. As far as I can remember, it all started most recently with Sardine (one of our absolute favorites), then Brasserie V, now Monroe St. Bistro. Apparently, the proprioters were once at Brasserie V. 

We were first pleasently surprised when we were seated immediately. We had seen large crowds, sometimes waiting outside the door, when driving by multiple times before. The environment was nice enough, unpolished, casual, open feel, more akin to a english pub then a stodgy french bistro.  Tables were aligned just how Amy likes them (please turn on sarcasm), jammed next to one another, close enough to reach over to your neighbor and steal a frite. This close to your neighbor feel fits the overall feel of the restaurant, however. Monroe St. Bistro is yet another restaurant with what seems to be a common one in cold climates: missing a vestibule.  So, as I’ve said in previous reviews, wear your jacket.

Service immediately underwhelmed us. Our waitress greeted us long after we had already made all our choices. Generally, the mark of good service is a general feeling of “welcome.” A greeting within 2-3 minutes, a warm smile, and a “I’m happy you are here” is all I ask. However, when greeted with an immediate “do you know what you want to drink?”, I immediately feel rushed. When we asked what specials there were for the night, we recieved a “isn’t the menu good enough” look. We also had to ask for a list fo the soups de jour. I certainly don’t enjoy being up-sold, but on the other hand, I like to know my options.

The menu was what you would expect for rustic french bistro fair. Steak frites, moules et frites, quail.  Appetizers including bacon wrapped dates, cheese and charcuturie plate, and plain frites.

We started with the crab cakes, which was our first introduction to the theme for the evening. The chef was apparently narcoleptic, and a big fan of high heat. Indeed, a crab cake should have a nice, golden brown crust, but this was a notch beyond. The Old Bay tartar sauce was nicely flavored, but a touch on the salty side, while the arugula corn salad was missing a bite of acid to round out the richness of the dish, but depite this, was the highlight of the dish, I thought.

Falling asleep briefly at the grill again, the entrees were equally charred. I had the burger. As you will see in other reviews, I honestly believe the burger is one of the hallmark measures of a restaurant’s success. This one was, did I already mention, charred. The bun was also over toasted. There wasn’t enough aioli to add the moisture needed to make up for the dryness of this burger. We also ordered the frites, a necessary choice for any bistro. They were not apparently cooked by the narcoleptic chef, but instead by a more attentive fry cook. Intead of overcooked, they were overseasoned. I rarely say there is too much pepper, but today, there was too much pepper on those frites.

Amy had the Mahi-Mahi. Again, it was overcooked and tasted of my burger.

So, as you can see, Amy and I were very much underwhelmed with the Monroe St. Bistro. That might be in light of knowing how good the other Bistro style restaurants in town were, but it is hard to look past the inattentiveness of both the waitstaff and kitchen in forming our opinion. So, try it yourself at your own risk, unless you are a fan of “well done.”

Author – Jim (Amy will comment later once her life is less hectic)

This blog is an opportunity to write my rants about the restaurant industry in general. It is a chance to get all my complaints about the poor decisions restaurant owners make on one page, so maybe I can minimize them in actual reveiws. This is somewhat of a spouting off, so forgive me. You have to understand one disclaimer: you may read a rant and associate with a Madison restaurant. Please do not then assume I am painting that restaurant in a completely negative light. These rants are only part of the big picture. So without further ado, here is why your favorite restaurant may suck.

1.  The waitstaff writes their name on the table with a crayon when they first come to your table.

2. They have to explain why they are pouring olive oil on a plate  when presenting the bread.

3. You can easily see into a very disorganized, messy kitchen.

4. There are 4-5 menues for each person to peruse.

5. The water is tepid.

6. The trash can in the bathroom is overflowing with paper towel, or there is no toilet paper or paper towel left.

7. “New york cheesecake” on the dessert menu.

8. “Chicken curry” next to “chicken mole” on the menu. Pick one, maybe two cuisines, and go with it.

9. The words “$ (blank) for shared dishes” on the menu.

10. A gratuity added automatically for parties of only 5 or more.

11. Closing time 9 p.m..

12. The words”no substitutions please” on the menu.

13. An appetizer menu with only fried items.

14. A charge for a bread basket.

15. Beer served in a frosted mug. (You may disagree if you don’t like to taste your beer, or if you like to hold an ice cube in your hand)

16. Wine, or any drink for that matter, poured just millimeters from the top of the glass.

17. Glossy, greasy finger printed menus.

18. Random dusty, kitschy crap as decoration all over the place.

19. Having to move around another laminated marketing cube in order to fit my plate on the table.

20. Menu itmes created or endorsed by Food Network chefs.

21. Surly teenage hostesses texting on their cell phone.

22. A 10 page menu.

23. An add-on possbility for every menu item, “would you like to “load” your fries?” (aren’t they loaded already?)

24. Waitstaff with an obviously soiled apron.

25. A wine list with only one or two producers.

Primary author – Amy

The last two Sundays we have stopped into La Brioche for brunch and lunch.   What you say?  The bakery? This is NOT your old La Brioche.  A marriage and a location change have meant a new birth for the company and a complete overhaul of their menu as well as their intentions.  The new La Brioche True Food has a focus on organic, fair trade and as much as possible local food.  That’s just the intention for the menu, the space has its own mission.

Jackie Patricia, half of the restaurant owning team, is a Feng Shui master.  Every color, fabric, sconce and brick was chosen with a specific goal of how it will contribute to the energy of the space.  The result, is a richly colored, heavily patterned space.  It looks like you walked into the Victorian home of your dotty great aunt who never met a pattern she didn’t like.  I don’t necessarily like all the patterns chosen as it looks a bit much for my taste, but the results of her work are palpable.  On the first occasion we sat in a space which was built for fast flowing chi.  I didn’t think about the feel of the space.  The second time we sat in the medium chi section in deep cushy wing back chairs.  I sat listening to classical music, looking out on the sunny day and natural setting of the park next door,  I was so at peace I found it hard to leave.  This vibe seems to extend to the way the staff and customers feel and interact in the space.  Its something you have to experience to believe.

The kitchen space also stands out. Gray tile and stone marry the dining room and the kitchen. Generally, you just feel welcome in the space. There is a wonderful painting of apples on the wall that obviously beckons you to the food.

What about the food you say?  On the first occasion Jim ordered the French toast with Creme Anglaise and fruit.  He felt the french toast was a bit dry but the balance of fruit and toast was good.  I had a pepper and avocado omelette with gruyere.  My omelette was light and airy, perfectly cooked and with great balance.  There were roasted red peppers folded within the omelette, but there was also a red pepper sauce dotted on top.  The avocados were fresh as well.  It was the perfect size-no plate and a half Perkins special, and it came with fresh greens.

The use of brioche to make the french toast would seemingly make it a better french toast, but apparently lead the chef to believe he/she didn’t need to soak the bread in the batter as long. This resulted in very dry texture, but rich flavor.

On our second visit, we were both ravenous and started out with a soup.  Coconut milk, miso with shrimp.  It was heavenly!  Silken and sweet, but not cloying and with subtle ginger notes.  It had a warm fullness owing to the richness of the stock.  There were a few shrimp, which must have been braising in the soup because they were so tender they melted in your mouth.  I don’t think I can eat shrimp cooked any other way now…I am spoiled!  We agreed it could have used a splash of an acid to add a spark and perhaps green onion or chive for a finish.  It was perfect on a cold winter afternoon.

This was a killer soup. Miso and coconut done another way could have become somewhat cloying, but the ginger cut the sugar enough to balance the sweetness, but still offer enough richness and silkiness to give weight to the soup. As for the acid, a splash of lime juice would have made the soup a 10.

For lunch I ordered the beef burger and Jim, a sucker for a good pulled pork sandwich, went that direction.  The burger ordered medium and with aged cheddar, came medium on a toasted Kaiser roll.  It was seasoned only with salt and pepper to let the beef flavor come through.  Jim felt it could have used an aioli, but I felt the simplicity was good.  Burgers can be many things, tired, dry, heavy, greasy… light and moist.  Hold up, yes light and moist.  You could tell from the moisture and the texture of the grind that they grind their own beef here.  We confirmed this with a cheerful staff member who seemed happy that we noticed.

More freshly ground beef has uneven texture about it. You will occasionally run into slightly chewier pieces of meat. It is a wonderful way of showcasing excellent beef. In this case, the beef was local from Fountain Prairie Farm, once of our favorite vendors at the Dane County Farmers Market.

Jim’s pulled pork sandwich was a little less impressive.  The quality of the pork was good, although is seemed a little dry.The sauce was both too tomato -based and too vinegary for me, but I’m looking for a St. Louis style molasses or brown sugar BBQ sauce anyway.  The bread held up, which rarely ever happens with pulled pork.  The oddity was the vinegar soaked vegetables stacked on the sandwich.  A two inch chunk of celery, some onions and a couple of three inch chunk of carrots.   It wasn’t the idea of vinegar soaked veggies on top that was the problem, but rather the method.  A pickled slaw would have been easier to bit into and given the same effect. 

Both sandwiches came with fresh greens.  You will not find fries here.  Also not found here, ringing cell phones or lap tops.  The food and the space is meant to nourish you mind, body and soul.  It is a place to shed the burdens and pace of modern existence and simply feel and connect to those around you.

La Brioche True Food indeed makes you briefly lose track of time and place. Remarkably, it is in a typical 80s style strip mall on a busy University Ave.. But you don’t feel like just another patron of the typical  strip mall. Making the best of a constrained rectangular space is a difficulty task for a restaurant owner, but they have succeeded at True Food.

In my attempt to stay longer in my chair looking into the woods I suggested Jim order a dessert.  He went with the carrot cake, because it is a good test of a restaurant and also because many of the cookies and other bars looked over cooked.  Something we noticed on both trips.  The carrot cake was rich and flavorful.  Jim found it a bit oily and I bemoaned the lack of frosting on it.  We sat and thought about how much restraint is shown in the preparation of the food here.  There is not too much of anything really.  There is a moderation in play and an intention in everything they do.  We pondered what makes a restaurant great and at the heart we realized it is about passion and intention, something La Brioche True Food has in spades.

La Brioche True Food is located at 2862 University Ave. in Madison, WI. http://truefoodrestaurant.com/home.html

Author – Jim (after a long debate on content, of course)

We all freqent them, and know them well. The mainstay of a college town, the custom burrito store. Also knows as “Qdoba,” and “Chipotle.” But have you also visited the lesser know, but similarly decorated “Pancheros” and “Burrachos.” In the end, they are ubiquitous, and essentially the same restaurant. But Amy and I have eaten about a hundred burritos and tacos and offer you a different kind of review. Instead of reviewing the all separately, we off the following best of list.

DISCLAIMER– in no way shape or form do Amy and I think these places a true and authentic representation of Mexican food. I (Jim) think Mexican food is truly food of the Gods, and deserves better than to be summed up by a review of the custom burrito world. Read later blogs for reviews of “real” Mexican food.  Also, we are intentionally reviewing the known chain burrito stores in the Madison area. We are, for now, excluding local restaurants here (this will be VERY rare, we promise).

First, the commonalities. Their interiors are all designed by the same decorator, lots of rich color, usually green or red on the walls, and lots of metal all around. And don’t forget the pseudo indigenous art on the walls. They all have essentially the same offerings. Choose your vehicle (burrito, taco, quesadilla, a salad and “burrito bowl” thrown in for good measure). Choose a meat, a salsa, and smother on lots of cheese and sour cream (we are, after all, in Wisconsin).  If you are a true foodie, at some point you try the “extra stuff”, and no, queso sauce doesn’t count. Sorry.

So, on to the review. Here are the best of the best, from outside to inside.

The tortilla – Pancheros: the only redeeming quality to a poor excuse for a burrito store. They designed their entire menu around one thing, the flour tortilla, and forgot how to flavor everything else. I personally don’t even care that a flour tortilla is good (when it comes to corn tortillas, this is a totally different matter).  Sure, it shouldn’t be crap, but in the end, I don’t eat a burrito in order to have a damn good tortilla. If you want a tortilla, don’t eat a burrito, eat a tortilla.

The meat – I think we are better served by digging deeper, into the different types of meat.

  •  Chicken – everybody’s stand-by – best at Qdoba, aside from the occasional gristle I bite down on. The flavor seems to be throughout the meat, rather than just a “rub” like at Burrachos (which, for the record, was like eating chiken frozen for 6 1/2 years before it was cooked).
  • Shredded beef (a.k.a. Barbacoa)- Q Doba, easily. You can taste the spices, cumin, garlic, cloves. You can flavor beef this way, it is a strong flavor anyway. Don’t be afraid to pile on the spice. Chipotle is just one flavor, salt. The others aren’t worth mentioning.
  • Pork – first of all, if you were to have me and Amy (yes, I guarantee we agree on this) choose only one foodstuff on the planet to eat, it would be pork. Pork friggin rules. It will forever make the best burrito. The winner, well its a tie between Chipotle (my choice) and Burrachos (Amy’ choice). Chipotle uses some primo pork, from Niman ranch. This is sustainably produced pork, and it shows. It tastes like, well, pork. Amy says its definitely better quality meat, but it is too salty.  It needs other flavors layered in.  Would a marinade kill them, but I say it tastes like pork.  At Burrachos, there are some other flavors mixed in, including what seemed like chipotle. Nice overall flavor, but not pure enough for me.
  • Ground beef – you not actually going to put ground beef in your burrito, are you? Why would anyone choose “random parts” over “tender, shredded goodness.”

The beans – this is the one part of the burrito which generally varies the least. The only part that really sets one apart from another is how correctly they are cooked. Beans should be slightlyal dente, not mush. Pinto beans tend to be a bit thinner skinned, so that become mush more easily than black. In any case, since beans are so often a background flavor, I haven’t noticed an appreciable difference between burrito stores, other than the occasional mushy mess here and there.

The salsa (and other flavorings) – Qdoba – they do the best job of making these distinctly different. None of them taste like Pace, which is also a very good thing. This is the “icing” on the burrito cake. Poblano pesto, ancho barbeque sauce (one of my personal favs), the gone but not forgotten mole sauce (one of Amy’s favorites), a ranchero sauce. There is clear, culinarily minded thought that goes into these salsas/sauces, unlike the cookie cutter salsas you get at the other places.

The cheese and sour cream – pretty much the same, everywhere. I can’ t wait until the burrito stores rock the world by offering something like queso fresco.

So there you have it, the ideal burrito. Someday, we’ll spend two hours going from store to store piecing together the ultimate burrito store burrito.

Primary Author- Amy

Its Friday night and Jim wants to try something new.  I remembered that there was a restaurant in Middleton called “Bavaria” owned by two brothers who also own the very excellent pizza/gelato place around the corner “Villa Dolce.”  “Bavaria” was being retooled and renamed “Sofra Family Bistro” and we thought we would give it a go. 

 We believe the owners of these two restaurants hail from the former Yugoslavia.  Clearly they are motivated to represent this cuisine, at least in part. I am usually pleased with any restaurant with this motivation.

As we pulled up to the place, Jim took a look at it and said, “Its not crowded, that is not a good sign.”   We decided to take a peek at a menu before making a decision, but none was posted, only a sign stating that they were now a Mediterranean restaurant by day and an American restaurant for breakfast and lunch.  This schizophrenic approach would take on new meaning as we entered the place.

The air was think with maple syrup from this morning’s pancakes mixed with oregano in tonight’s shrimp pasta.  We were immediately shown to a plastic upholstered booth with an odd dollhouse quality shape.  There were plenty of interesting light fixtures.  Some involved wrought iron leaves, a theme carried through in the wall art and others had a doppled middle-eastern effect which matched the faux painted walls.  There were the obligatory paintings of the canals of Venice and a photo of the white washed walls of Greece contrasting with the amazing blue of the Aegean.  Then there were the Asian rice paper hangings, some depicting pennies and dimes.  RANDOM!

Random indeed. I felt instantly transported to a roadside diner somewhere in Nebraska that tried to serve the role of every ethnic restaurant in town.

It was difficult to get past the surroundings.  Dining is so much about all the senses being entertained that the whole environment being confusing can take over.  We just kept thinking, “why don’t they just rip out these boothes and put in some cheap tables with white table clothes.”

The menu was no more clear than the environs.  There were Mediterranean appetizers: Bruschetta, Dolma (feta stuffed grape leaves), hummus etc.  The salad section looked straight out of Applebees (Cobb salad, a salmon salad which had craisins and mandarin oranges).   There were a couple of things that were left over from the Bavaria days: weinersnitzel and Beef stroganoff, although that doesn’t even fit with Bavaria!   The entree menu had a couple of interesting items, possibly, but the descriptions were so vague, it was hard to be inspired to order them.  I went in wanting salmon, but the option I had read: Salmon in a Mediterranean butter sauce, rice and vegetables.  Great, which vegetables? How are they prepared?  What exactly is a Mediterranean butter sauce?  Using Mediterranean as an adjective which needs no further explanation seems to be another problem here.

The menu included about 60% Mediterranean fair. The bistro burger pushed the boudries of a traditional Madison burger, containing both ground lamb and ground beef. A couple of Mediterranean inspired panini were also offered, one vegetarian. Albanian sausage and albanian shepherd’s salad offered more authentic options. But the mind games ensued, when you read of odd Asian inpired sesame chicken salad and ginger chicken wrap, just before jager schnitzel  and wiener schnitzel. Suddenly, I was transported to an odd version of the Cheesecake factory.  I realize that the owners are likely trying to keep a few menu items from the old menu in hopes of keeping the regulars coming in. But to me, I don’t want to be tempted to blow up my palate by starting with some hummus, followed by some spaetzel with mandarin oranges. There is something wrong with that course progression.

Jim ordered the Chicken Tosca: Tender grilled chicken breast, served with zucchini, sweet peppers, rice, hummus, smoked roasted pepper aioli and yogurt-dill sauce.  I veered away from the non-descript Salmon vegetable rice thing and chose the  Beef Skewers: Beef tenderloin marinated in Mediterranean spices, grilled to perfection, served with rice, fresh grilled zucchini, hummus and yogurt-dill sauce.   Both came with a choice of soup or salad.  Soup options (remember its Friday in Wisconsin) included New England Clam Chowder and Albanian wedding soup.

I ordered chicken, indeed. I view chicken as the litmus test of any restaurant. Screw it up, and your screwed. Do it well, and the general public will find you at least acceptable.

We asked the waitress to describe the Albanian wedding soup and she explained that it was a chicken soup with angel hair pasta and mint.  She couldn’t hide her bias about this mixture of ingredients and did not seem to recommend it.  Jim ordered the soup and I got a salad with the yogurt-feta dressing.  The salad was unadorned and unimpressive.  Mixed greens were fresh, there were cucumbers and a cherry tomato, but no onions, or croutons, or carrots, or garbanzo beans or whatever.  The dressing was fine, tangy and not too feta-y.

 The soup was another story.  It was delicious, although it took Jim awhile to agree.  The noodles were not over cooked the chicken flavor in the broth was strong but balanced by the mint.  At first Jim thought it was like eating a chicken flavored candy cane, but I think it was much more balanced than that.  In the end it grew on him.

Now I am inspired to throw in some chiffonade of mint into my chicken noodle soup. Generally I enjoy herbs mixed into dishes in unexpected ways, and this was no exception.

There were rolls on the table, but they seemed slightly stale and apparently were being rationed.  The waitress initially asked if we wanted more, but the remembered that they were out.  This is a Friday night at 8pm.

We both ordered wine .  They had a fairly sizable selection, with both wines by the glass and bottle.  Yes, Fess Parker and Kendall Jackson were on there but so were more obscure Tempranillos, Malbecs, a white rioja, etc.  My Tempranillo was smooth and paired well with my beef so as not to overwhelm the seasoning.  It served its purpose.  Jim’s Viura (the white rioja) was a simple, crisp white.

When the entrees arrived we were impressed.  The presentation was an ordered partition of obviously well prepared components.  Square white porcelain plates.  Both dishes had a form of grilled protein, rice-pilaf, grilled zucchini, yogurt-dill-cucumber sauce , a dollop of hummus with paprika and olive oil drizzled on top in the corner, and in Jim’s case, grilled red and yellow peppers the size of pepperoncini.  His chicken was perfectly cooked.  Moist and flavorful, not stringy.  He felt his zucchini were over cooked.  We both liked the hummus but it needed more acid.  A squeeze of lemon, and in my opinion, less tahini.  My beef had good flavor, rosemary was predominant.   Apparently that is what “Mediterranean spices” means. If only it was cooked more evenly.  Some of my meat was medium and some was medium well and none, to the doneness I would have liked: medium rare.

The rice pilaf was perfect.  Good, deep chicken stock flavor, not gummy, carrots and peas mixed in.  Rice seems so difficult to get right, but this place has it down.

I agree. There is something about rice that is first introduced to fat before it is introduced to water. It seems to protect the inner grain’s starchiness from getting out and ruining the whole thing.

When it came time for dinner, the schizophrenia returned.  Although all the food is made on-site none of the desserts are.  New York cheesecake (which should be reserved for steak houses only, according to Jim), Raspberry explosion (a form of fruit cheesecake), apple pie, and a chocolate silk explosion thing.  Why!  If you are going to go Mediterranean, where is the baklava?  Where are the crispy fried dough balls with honey and powdered sugar the Greeks eat.

Not only that, but half the desserts were in plastic wrap. This makes me wonder how long they were in there, and only appeals to “day old” appetites. 

Afraid to alienate the white senior Middleton population Sofra is running a pancake house by day and a Mediterranean restaurant by night.  Unfortunately, they occupy the same space and apparently no space in the minds of restaurant seekers.  The food is good, flavorful and pushes some boundaries.  I fear that they will not make it as long as they are afraid to be true to themselves and as long as they still have the plastic Disneyland booths.  So go and order the Albanian wedding soup, and something else ethnic and encourage them to make the shift.