Gates & Brovi’s cod cakes are a nod to the East Coast.
If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s brunch disdain from jaded New York food writers or crabby sous chefs. I feel like brunch must be a miserable experience in some cities, judging from how often it is disparaged in national food coverage.
In Madison, brunch is anything but miserable. We’re a city that is 100% on Team Brunch, and there’s no shortage of opportunity to enjoy a meal that’s filling, relaxing, recuperative and enjoyable. I could take up this whole publication with my favorites, but here are 11 of Madison’s most noteworthy brunches.
It took awhile for Umami Ramen and Dumpling Bar to offer brunch service, nearly three and a half years from its 2011 opening, in fact. The wait has been worth it for a brunch that offers dishes unlike any other in town.
Okay, they’re sort of like other brunches. There’s a beefy hash with eggs, of course, but instead of corned beef, this dish incorporates chopped Korean bulgogi. It shines with scallion salsa, with its competing bass and treble notes of sesame oil and green onion. More restaurants need to embrace a handful of chopped scallions. They’re the best.
Omurice, more or less a Japanese enchilada/omelet hybrid, is unique to Umami. A thin wrap of egg holds bacon fried rice and greens, and a sweet, ketchupy sauce that’s true to the Western influences on the dish brings it all together as salsa roja would in Mexican cuisine. Creamy Thai iced tea and Vietnamese coffee bring in nutty, soothing flavors from the broader Southeast Asian region, perfect for sipping on the patio in spring.
Oliver’s Public House is a leading light among the businesses moving into a rapidly modernizing Campus Drive area. The menu is comfortable and Midwestern. At brunch, there’s a flavorful smoked trout omelet packed with Wisconsin’s own Rushing Waters trout, and beer waffles lighter and fluffier than you’d think possible from something that tastes almost as densely eggy as French toast.
The sides are nearly as big a draw — the grilled pork breakfast sausage, a rich and gooey cinnamon roll. If you’re feeling more like lunch than breakfast, the hot ham sandwich is big enough for leftovers.
One thing you will not want to leave unfinished is the glorious Warm Irish Sweater cocktail, a hot mix of whiskey, coffee and stout syrup under a blanket of cool oatmeal cream (it’s like a puréed oatmeal cream cookie — delicious). You may crave it even when the weather isn’t cold; when it is, though, this drink is essential Madison mixology.
Gates & Brovi is a restaurant that just feels right: what it offers, how it’s decorated, where it’s located. I love the painted barn wood around the pass to the kitchen, I love the high gloss on the bar, and let me tell you, I love brunch here.
Technically, the restaurant calls it breakfast. But is there sweet? Yes, in the form of excellent lemon ricotta blueberry pancakes, for example. Maple syrup is offered, but does anyone put maple syrup on pancakes that already include lemon curd?
And is there savory? Oh, plenty. Cod cakes bear a good seared crust and get a boost from bacon and a bed of white cheddar grits.
The scramblers section of the menu is almost entirely vegetarian, but you won’t be left wanting. The mushroom, spinach and cream cheese version is rich and dense. A cup of coffee and brunch at Gates & Brovi always puts me in a good mood for the rest of the day.
Bassett Street Brunch Club is all robots and kitsch inside, with a tidy, modern wraparound patio outside, which makes it a lively brunch destination whether or not the weather’s accommodating for outdoor dining. The menu is sprawling, with plenty of trendy tweaks on standard diner fare.
Lemon ricotta pancakes are officially a thing in the American brunch lexicon, and Bassett Street does them with plenty of blueberries along for the ride.
Savory French toast is less common. Here it’s a heaping portion of greens, hollandaise and battered sourdough. Things do shift around on this menu. A fun sausage banh mi has disappeared, but now there are chicken-fried Brussels sprouts that I very much want to eat.
Unusual options at Umami include the omurice.
If you want the challah French toast at Stalzy’s Deli, it’s available any time the restaurant is open. Same is true for any dish from the breakfast menu. But going there for a weekend brunch is a natural fit. Maybe you’re coming from church, maybe you’re going for a walk, or shopping on Atwood. Stalzy’s is a great neighborhood wander-in restaurant with excellent savory options in addition to the French toast and densely sweet baked goods.
Brunchy specials might include a delicate grilled weisswurst with eggs and toast. The breakfast sandwich is simple, messy and delicious; and don’t judge its fried bologna on reflex. Just go with it.
On the other end of the spectrum, brunch at Cento feels a little bit glam, considering it’s happening in an austere dining room that’s a natural fit for a pre-Overture Center dinner or date night. Any presuppositions about a dainty, tea service-style meal are put immediately to rest when the very generous portions arrive.
Baked eggs over polenta are enough for leftovers or trading bites with your tablemates. There’s a little spice and a lot of zingy tomato sauce, with the polenta getting just a little crisped around the edges. Sides like simple breakfast potatoes are sufficiently ample to split with a friend. A half-pound brunch burger has a seared crust like you wouldn’t believe.
Definitely worth considering: the Boozy Brunch offer. A pastry, coffee, your choice of brunch entree, and not one but two cocktails, all for $25. It’s a lot of food, but a serious value. Try the bright, acidic Italiana ’87 made with gin and sage, or the novel Lemon Capri, which combines limoncello, chilled espresso and cream in a way that grows on you with each sip.
You’d expect a kitchen headed by Dan Fox, a guy who raises his own hogs, to be particularly proficient with pork. And there’s plenty of it at Heritage Tavern, with its line of “old-fashioned” ham-studded dishes — sandwich, omelet, even a cinnamon roll.
But it’s with seafood that Heritage’s brunch menu really shines. The smoked salmon platter is artfully presented on a cross-section of tree trunk, with adorable little blinis and plenty of tender salmon and pickles. The smoked whitefish and crab cake also features bacon and minimal filler. A lobster scramble offers big chunks of the buttery crustacean mixed into creamy scrambled eggs. The toasted croissant that accompanies the dish could be turned into a mean lobster roll with only a little reconstruction.
The doughnuts with chocolate-espresso ganache for dipping are both decadent and a decent price for the three doughnuts-and-their-holes that you get.
Sometimes you need a Magic Coffee on a weekend morning. In that case, Café Estrellón to the rescue. Pull up a bar stool and treat yourself to Spanish brunch, Tory Miller-style.
The sandwiches and crepes change as seasons and ingredients merit, but you’ll probably always find some kind of mortadella sandwich and some kind of jamón crepe. When the menu board lists “butter” as the second ingredient behind mortadella, believe it; every nook and cranny of the crusty baguette on which the sandwich comes is filled with butter. The jamón crepe doesn’t skimp on the fillings either, without being overly pricey.
Pastries are some of Madison’s best; as demonstrated with the desserts at L’Etoile and the baked goods at Graze, Miller has an eye for what his pastry chefs do well. I fell cataclysmically in love with the manchego and green olive-filled croissant from the first bite, and the pastry cream-filled xuco (aka xuixo) is no slouch, either. And it goes great with Magic Coffee.
There are a handful of places in Madison where soccer fans congregate, and the Coopers Tavern is near the top of the list. With the EUFA tournament and Summer Olympic Games approaching, what better way to watch a match than over brunch? Coopers’ brunch menu includes most of the lunch menu, with a healthy dose of other morning favorites.
The Reuben is a standby with good reason, considering the corned beef is cured in-house and the kraut is given a dunk in Lake Louie Scotch ale. A southern-fried chicken sandwich taps into the current passion for Southern food. Chorizo provides a complementary flavor in that chicken sandwich, and features prominently in a couple other brunch dishes. A melon chutney that accompanies the French toast is an uncommon offering, and those duck fat-fried eggs on the crab cakes Benedict should be on your list.
Cento’s burger for brunch? It’s a great choice.
The menu at the Weary Traveler Free House hasn’t changed much in years — a new dish here, a tweak there, but mostly the same. I’m thinking, though, that this is in keeping with its name. If you’ve been busy, or if you’ve been away from Madison for a while, you can always come back to the familiarity of the Weary to get your mojo back.
And this is true of its brunch, too. Steak and eggs are a good call here, the steak nicely marinated and no sawing required. The egg version of the Weary’s legendary West of the Andes sandwich shows the essential beauty of the recipe; it works with every primary filling.
You can get a lovely Bloody Mary and a side of bacon if you’re looking to chase away a hangover, or some quality French toast. Whether you’re at a cozy table or, even better, sitting at the bar, brunch at the Weary is a balm.
Biscuits and gravy? Just try to keep us apart, world. I have yet to find a better plate of biscuits and gravy than at 4 & 20 Bakery and Cafe, tucked away a block behind East High.
The menu does change at 4 & 20. The biscuits, though, are always there, whether holding together a breakfast sandwich or under a layer of creamy, peppery gravy and a fried egg.
While ordering, you’ll find yourself staring at the pastry case. I dare you to resist a lemon cream pop tart, or a knobby lemon blackberry muffin (I mean, if you didn’t already order the lemon quick bread blueberry French toast). Either way, why not take one home for later?