La Brioche True Food, opened last fall by husband and wife David Yankovich and Jackie Patricia, aims for a higher-ground culinary experience, utilizing local organic food prepared well, with just the right amount of fuss.
The University Station restaurant features a bustling open kitchen and large stone pizza oven as its centerpiece. A sense of community fills the well-lit front room, where, to a backdrop of morning buns, macaroons and cake, diners can feel comfortable lingering in conversation over a pot of tea. Hints of finer dining are apparent in the rear, where chamber music joins upholstered chairs, damask lampshades and heavy flatware wrapped in white cloth napkins.
The menu is all about good, wholesome, natural food. With a name like La Brioche, you might think "French cuisine," but the menu includes Italian and upscale USA country comfort as well. Open for all three meals, True Food's breakfast ($5-$9) centers on eggs, omelets and baked goods the original La Brioche was known for. Lunch ($5-$12) offers soup, salads, sandwiches, pizza and omelets, overlapping somewhat with the dinner salads and pizzas. Tapas join more substantial entrees like lamb chops, gnocchi and chicken pot pie ($9-$30) in the evening.
Lunch salads come in single or entrée-size portions, and at dinner can be ordered in a family size. The baby spinach salad is topped with thin slices of Bosc pear, shaved red onion and bits of caramelized pecans. Festive with its champagne vinaigrette, it is a delicate and well-balanced salad, though a tad underdressed.
Don't miss the roasted beets and chèvre crostini tapas; the combination of flavors is exquisite. Three crisp crostini are served on a plate dressed with basil-orange vinaigrette and topped with pickled red onion. Another tapas winner is the eggplant manicotti, filled with a wonderful, dense-yet-creamy filling of ricotta and herbs with an intense tomato sauce hiding nuggets of eggplant, carrot and garlic.
Several pizza combinations, including a tequila-shrimp-guacamole, are intriguing. I opted for the spinach-fig-prosciutto combination on wheat crust and found it nourishing and very satisfying. Soups (good, but not stellar) are served with fantastic sourdough rolls. Shiitake mushroom with sake was the most interesting and quite good. Its only drawback was the half-hearted attempt to puree, which was curious and distracting. The rustic-orange color of the butternut squash soup didn't make up for it tasting like pumpkin pie - and the broccoli ham soup was just that and nothing more.
The Reuben, however, went above and beyond. Traditional ingredients are stacked high and served warm in a pumpernickel pretzel roll speckled with salt crystals. The muffaletta sandwich came in a large roll, with the mortadella, salami and provolone extending an inch beyond the roll. It looked odd, but tasted great, making me wish there was just a bit more. Buttery Gruyère cheese, avocado and roasted red pepper made for a flavorsome omelet served with a slice of baguette.
At dinner, men all around me had ordered the beef bourguignon, so I followed suit. A portion no more than two cups, served in a gargantuan bowl, turned out to be almost too much: tender morsels of braised beef, ribbons of caramelized onion, buttery mushrooms and half-moon slices of carrot in an exceedingly rich beef sauce. If tweaked with a grind of fresh pepper and stronger essence of red wine, it could become a truly wonderful dish.
Check out the dessert case while waiting to be seated. Be sure to order a slice of the latticed sweet-tart cherry pie, or a six-inch custard-oozing éclair with chocolate frosting.
Still in its first year of operation, La Brioche True Food is first and foremost an exceptional bakery - but if Yankovich and Patricia keep refining the menu and operation, it could become an authentic Madison classic.
La Brioche True Food
2862 University Ave.
608-233-3388, $5-$30. 7 am-9 pm Sun.-Thurs, 7 am-10 pm Fri.-Sat.
Accessible, credit cards, personal checks, alcohol served.