IMG_3039.JPGName: Estrellon

Location: 313 W Johnson St, Madison, WI 53703

AmbianceUpscale, formal tapas bar

Price: $$$$

Best Dish: Market Paella

If you’re looking for an elegant, upscale restaurant, then Estrellon is your best bet. With classy marble tables, leather chairs, and a soundtrack of gentle Spanish music, Estrellon nails the classy tapas bar ambiance. Unfortunately, that does come with a hefty price tag – although still quite reasonable when compared to tapas places in New York City, Chicago, and other major metropolitan places.

That being said, Estrellon is definitely worth at least one visit. Every dish cultivates the flavors, lovingly pairing them so they burst in your mouth in a wonderful combination. Their menu rotates with the seasons, using the freshest produce – if you go to the Farmer’s Market on a Saturday morning, you can even see the chef (who also works with Graze, L’Etoile, and Sujeo) walking around the Capitol picking up vegetables for the day ahead.

However, two of their items have been on the menu both times I’ve gone, and have been delicious – their baked goat cheese ($12) and their market paella ($40). Their baked goat cheese blends creamy, cool goat cheese with a spicy, tangy marinara and fresh bread. The marinara cuts through the thickness of the goat cheese to make the dish lighter, and the baking melts the goat cheese so that it’s just soft enough to spread and beautifully warm. It serves as a wonderful precursor to the star of the show – the market paella. At $40, it’s expensive – however, split between two or three people, the dish is well worth the cost. The rice is tender, seasoned well with the richness of saffron and herbs, and the pan allows it to crisp up at the bottom. The assortment of vegetables add freshness – although some of them are cooked through, others are left a little more raw to add crunch and texture, adding a lightness to a usually heavy dish.

Although expensive, Estrellon excels at what it sets out to do. It provides a classy atmosphere with an exceptional assortment of tapas. The care they take to choose their flavors is evident, and should you choose to make the splurge, it is well worth the cost.



Grampa’s Pizzeria

IMG_2884Name: Grampa’s Pizzeria

Location: 1374 Williamson St, Madison, WI 53703

Ambiance: Hipster, chic

Pricing: $$-$$$

Best Dish: Barberini

I’m not going to lie – I’m very biased towards this place. It’s easily my favorite pizza place in Madison, and has an outstanding combination of flavors and perfectly baked thin crust. Tucked in a nondescript white building on Williamson, Grampa’s Pizzeria is a former gun shop repurposed for far tastier uses. The owners also have a bar next door and Porter Coffee out on West Wash.

In appetizers, their beet salad ($8.50) is tasty. The roasted beets are complimented by the nuttiness of the pistachios and creaminess of the chevre, making for a good opening to dinner. While every pizza on their menu is delicious (according to meat eaters), the Barberini and the Goomba are the two vegetarian pizzas that stand out. The Goomba has a garlic cream sauce base and is topped with a variety of mushrooms and herbs, adding a meaty, umami richness. The variety of mushrooms lends different textures and subtle flavors to the meal, and it’s well complimented by the cream sauce with a strong garlic flavor. However, my personal favorite is the Barberini. It’s an odd combination of flavors: calabrian chiles paired with watercress and honey, but it somehow works very well. The ricotta cheese suits this pizza, a light enough cheese to keep it from being weighed down. The freshness of the watercress is welcome after a slice of the Goomba, and there’s a little tang from the calabrian chiles. The drizzle honey is a surprising finish, a sweet note that sneaks up on you and softens the palatte. That being said, my companions said they had to get every ingredient in on the bite for it to have the full effect.

The dessert menu is short and sweet. Their mousse is good, but I would go to Chocolaterian Cafe down the street instead to finish the meal. Grampa’s Pizzeria has a beautiful atmosphere – with huge windows and an intimate, cozy finish, the place is perfect for date night, and is a great use of a gun shop.



Eldorado Grill

Chef-Crafted Tacos

Name: Eldorado Grill

Location: 744 Williamson St, Madison, WI 53704

Ambience: Upscale, warm

Cost: $$$

Best Dish: Spinach and Mushroom Enchiladas with Salsa Verde (in Platos Mexicanos)

Reminiscent of Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill in Chicago, Eldorado Grill provides an upscale, rich palette of Southwest dining. They don’t pretend to be an authentic Mexican restaurant — and they aren’t. They excel at Southwestern food (and tequila, according to their webpage), and they’re a fantastic place to go for a nice dinner out.

One thing I really didn’t like was that chips and salsa are $1.99 — you have to ask for them as an appetizer, and a small, three mini-ice cream scoops of guac is $3.99. That being said, both the salsa and the guac are excellent and well worth it, hitting just the right combination of ingredients. The guac is topped with pico, and both of them tasted remarkably fresh, something that is quite rare when it comes to standard chips and dip. Their non-alcoholic margaritas were also very good. We got pomegranate and strawberry. The lime juice was clearly fresh and very tangy, and the underlying fruit flavor came through without seeming false.

However, Eldorado Grill truly was at its best in the entrees. With a remarkable selection of vegetarian options, they made it difficult to choose — but both were outstanding. The chef crafted tacos (which change daily, one meat and one vegetarian selection; $12.99) with sautéed zucchini, wilted spinach, portabella mushrooms, and onions were delicious. The vegetables were well cooked, and the zucchini was flavorful and still firm. But the spinach and mushroom enchiladas ($12.99) were the star of the show. The tanginess of the salsa verde provided the perfect complement to the dryness that tends to accompany corn tortillas, and the mushrooms were extremely flavorful and added a nice bite to the dish. The Monterey Jack and chile pasilla added great depth of flavor, particularly the chile. The rice was well seasoned and surprisingly tasty, and was a great addition.

Clearly, from my long review — this restaurant is well worth a visit. They are definitely on the expensive side, but their ambience affords a great place to take family or friends out for a nice dinner with fantastic food.

Non-alcoholic Strawberry Margarita
Spinach and Mushroom Enchiladas with Salsa Verde

La Brioche

Vegetarian Eggs Benedict

Name: La Brioche

Location: University Station Shopping Mall, 2862 University Ave, Madison, WI 53705

Ambience: French bistro

Cost: $$$

Best Dish: Tres Leches Cake

La Brioche sits rather unassumingly, in a strip mall right next to Dairy Queen. However, walk inside and you’re immediately greeted with an extensive bakery and a warm, friendly atmosphere. A lot of the patrons are groups of older adults rather than college age kids, or families coming in for brunch. The rich wallpaper seems like it should be rather jarring, but once you’re seated, they just add to the vibe. Also notable is that they have signs asking patrons to turn off their electronic devices, which surprisingly — is very well heeded. As a result, people actually converse with each other.

Their brunch menu carries relatively standard brunch options for a French place in the USA — crepes, a variety of eggs, and sandwiches. Their crepes ($10.75), while tasty, are outshined by those of Bradbury’s. They lack the lightness that Bradbury’s crepes had, weighed down by the rich creme anglaise and the generous portion of berries and caramelized pecans. It felt like there was almost too much going on. Their vegetarian eggs benedict ($10.75) was served on a croissant, which was very good — however, my dining partner felt like there could have been more to the dish. The eggs were well done, and the yolk blended well with the bearnaise sauce. The roasted garlic potatoes ($4) were very well cooked, but had little to no garlic flavor, and could have done with some herbs. The dishes were fine, but neither really stood out. I think I would order the sandwiches the next time, rather than their more brunchy options.

Where La Brioche really excels is their bakery — their tres leches cake, which isn’t always there, is simply phenomenal and is easily their best dish. Their carrot cake leaves for wanting, but their cream puffs and eclairs are also very good. Overall, it’s a lovely place to take family if they’re in town for a weekend or to celebrate a birthday — the atmosphere is fantastic. However, if you’re looking for good brunch, there are better options in Madison.