Full Review


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

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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.

Visited 12/31/2008

Primary Author – Jim

New Year’s Eve is Amy’s birthday. Although it seems like a cool date for a birthday, it is in reality kind of a pain. Birthdays are supposed to be “all about you.” When New Year’s Eve rolls around, everyone around you has other plans. Well, almost everyone. Our good friends and their 3 month old went along with us to try Amy’s choice of restaurant for the evening, Inka Heritage.

Amy tends to stay up on the new restaurant scene much more than I do. I had never heard of this place, despite her telling me about it months ago. She will attest that this happens a lot in our marriage, her telling me things I seem to forget two minutes to two months later. Inka Heritage is a Peruvian restaurant. That means a little bit to me, but not much. I try not to make assumptions about South American food. That is to say, and I know you know what that  assumption would be: “it tastes like Mexican food.”

Previewing the menu online before we went ( http://inkaheritagerestaurant.com/) was an effective appetizer. I recognized flavors and characteristics I already loved. But like any new restaurant, I don’t like to read too much of the menu unless I am actually sitting in the restaurant. Amy, on the other hand, is the queen of research, and often will make menu choices before she even arrives. Making such a planned decision is not in my nature, which in the case of choosing a menu item, is not that big of a deal.  This is a different story in other aspects of life, as Amy and I have debated many times before.

Inka Heritage is located just 2 blocks north of St. Mary’s Hospital, on Park Street. Parking is therefore sparse. We found a space only a block away, which isn’t a big deal unless its 5 degrees, which it was.

The interior of the restaurant is appealing, with mustard yellow walls, wonderful what seemed like original art on the walls, white table clothes, a small bar in the corner with walls lined in bottles of red wine, and napkins folded to resemble a candle. 

Although napkin origami usually makes me cringe, and indicates a restaurant is trying too hard, in the case of Inka Heritage, it was successful. It drew me to the table, and the boldly shaped candles on the table echoed the napkins shape. There was clearly thought out, which I appreciate.

The major flaw to the ambiance was the lack of a vestibule, which meant a constant draft blowing into the restaurant. Although this wouldn’t be a problem during the summer, on this night in meant those dining around me were still donning their coats.

The feeling entering the space was a warm welcome (draft excluded).  The staff was friendly the colors and lighting lively and appealing.  They did not bat an eye when we mentioned that a 3 month old child would be joining us in our fine dining experience.  They quickly pulled up a high chair.  Other children were dining with their families as well.  Sharing food and family was a value of this restaurant that was not only given lip service but put into easy practice.

The menu was rather large. With a rather extensive appetizer section, as well as seafood, meat, and soup and rice sections, there was plenty to choose from. Without being fully familiar with the cuisine, the menu items seemed to run together somewhat, with familiar base flavors in different combinations. This can make choosing more difficult, where it seems like you may only swap one flavor for another when choosing between two menu items. Ingredients making frequent appearances were aaji amarillo (yellow hot chili pepper),  Peruvian corn (choclo), yucca, huancaina cream, and Tacu Tacu (rice and canary beans mixture grilled).  Also making a frequent appearance was the potato. According the the menu, Peru grows over 4,000 different types of potatoes.

Following the potato theme, for the first course we chose the Causa Limena . This was an essentially finely mashed potato colored yellow by aji amarillo, layered amongst avocado and shrimp, and a sauce entitled “golf.” Not sure what a “golf” sauce is, but the dish as a whole tasted of the fancy potato salad you buy at the local deli. There was certainly a nice texture to the potato, and it didn’t weigh me down, but the flavors overall were no more bold or assertive than potato salad.

I felt it rather bland and an appetizer to skip.  I think it needed more salt and some type of acidity to balance all the creaminess.

We also ordered the highly recommended ceviche. Ceviche is certainly a trendy item on many restaurant menus these days, but if any restaurant should do ceviche, it should be Inka Heritage. The coast of peru is known as the ultimate place (like the Yucatan in Mexico) to get ceviche.  Ceviche, done well, is simple. Marinate fresh fish in a citrus, and add in a few fresh flavors. Inka Heritage makes ceviche well. It had a certain simple, yet vibrant flavor, predominantly of lime and cilantro, but with a touch of ginger. The choclo was a nice addition, adding a creamy but light texture reminiscent of a fava bean.  The garnish of onions was the only shortfall, since they over power the dish a bit if eaten in the large pieces presented.

I think perhaps tilapia was not the right seafood choice here.  There was a slightly rubberized millimeter or so on the surface of each piece, which suggests that it was marinated for too long and has started to be cooked by the acid.  I don’t know how long they marinate or if choosing tilapia is part of the equation, I just know that I found myself drawn to eating the other parts of the ceviche (sweet potato, corn etc.) more than the fish itself.

For the main course, I had the Lomo Inca Heritage, an approximately 5 oz piece of beef tenderloin, served with tacu tacu, sweet plaintain, and a fried egg. The star of the dish was the tacu tacu, an earthen mixture of beans and rice, cooked, mashed, then grilled. It’s outer thin crust with a creamy interior contrasted nicely with the beef. The beef was cooked well to my specification (medium rare, the ONLY way to ever order red meat, never rare, never medium, more on this in a later blog, maybe). The fried egg is another trendy garnish seen on many menus. This is easy to screw up, if it is cooked even 10 seconds too long, the yolk is too hard. But Inka Heritage did it well, with a molten yolk center cooked just long enough to ease, but not abolish, your worries about salmonella. The black sheep of the plate was the plantain. An intact, phallic shape on the plate, seemingly deep fried once. The raw, firm starchiness of the plantain had no chance to break down enough with this type of preparation. Overall, however, the dish was a winner.

Two others at my table, Amy included, ordered the lamb. For about $11, this dish won best value. Although I didn’t try all components of the dish, the lamb was well seasoned, but didn’t, to my surprise, overwhelm the cilantro sauce. This was a combination of flavors I didn’t predict would meld well together, but in this case, the cilantro’s pungency seemed to subdue a strong lamb flavor that can sometimes distract you when eating this meat. I guess this shouldn’t surprise, because the overall strength of flavor of cilantro is not that far off from mint, a known classic flavor to pair with lamb.

The lamb was perfectly cooked, which is no small feat and its flavor was nicely balanced.  The cilantro was additive and not overwhelming and the lamb was not greasy or gamey.  The presentation with creamy canary beans, white rice and cilantro and yucca was an example of good simple authentic ethnic cuisine, true to itself.  The yucca although nicely crispy would have been accentuated with a light salting.  What was also worth noting was that the portion size was perfect as was the price.  Too often lamb is a costly adventure.  What was presented was a handful of perfect lamb morsels for $11.  Not a heaping mass of lamb, nor a price tag of $25.  I was greatful  for the taste it gave me and that if left me with room for dessert.

As for the wine, the list was just the right length, about 20 to choose from for each white and red. The red list of course included a fair number of south American wines. We chose a Carmenere, which paired well with my dish, and had enough tannin to cut the richness of the beef and fried egg yolk.

I was pleased to see the South American concentration.  Too often I find a wrong turn restaurants make is not having their wine list align with their theme and their food.  I don’t want to go to a Peruvian restaurant and find nothing but Fess Parker and Kendall Jackson on there simply because they have name recognition.

Inka Heritage is one of many ethnic restaurants Madison has to offer, offering earthy flavor with tempered but bold flavor. If you are looking for a semi-fine dining experience located in an area not known for semi-fine dining, give Inka Heriage a try.  Just don’t forget your wool socks.