Since it moved into the space at 908 E. Johnson St. almost a year ago, Johnson Public House (coincidentally owned by a couple named Gwen and Kyle Johnson) has more or less become my office away from home.
Let's be real. It's kind of a hipster joint, and take that for what you will. But it's also the type of place where conversation, study, work and even kids, at times, seem to peacefully coexist. The music is almost distractingly good, at least in my book; too often I find myself tapping my foot to Ray Charles or looking up, thinking, "I just heard Eminem in a coffee shop. Sweet." On the walls, Ben Floeter's 1970s-Jamaican-reggae-inspired multimedia portraits (some with vintage luggage for a canvas) are particularly transformative.
As a coffee vendor, Johnson Public House is forward-looking. It caters to a crowd willing to pay perhaps a tad more, and wait a tad longer, for something a little different for Madison. There's no drip coffee, there's no decaf, and until recently, there were no prices on the chalkboard menu of rotating bean choices. Mostly it's Intelligentsia Coffee out of Chicago, with occasional cameos from Noble Coffee out of Ashland, Ore.
The coffee here feels more like wine to me. As one friend commented, this is the only place she drinks black coffee, because she enjoys the flavors that come through in a cup of joe here. Even if you don't normally go black, this is the place to make the leap.
The roasts trend away from dark, inviting the beans' innate flavor profiles to come through without being overshadowed by flavors induced from the roasting process itself (as is common with dark roasts). Intelligentsia and Noble are well-respected artisan roasters. And there are three slow-brew methods to choose from: pour-over, Chemex or French press. The staff is happy to explain the differences.
The Chemex filter is thicker than the pour-over filter and results in a super-crisp and virtually sediment-free coffee; the oils stay behind in the filter. The pour-over method (more readily available in Madison, for instance at the Victory) also lends itself to clarifying and cleaning up flavors. For a richer, heavier brew, try the French press. Because there's no paper filter with this method, more of the oils are retained.
Try the house-blend chai, too, a welcome deviation from what normally shows up in boxed concentrate form at most places.
The service can be slow (even, I presume, for slow-brew coffee). But the quality of the offerings and the progressive vision of the place outweigh the temporary annoyance I've experienced on occasion with following up on the status of what I thought was a forgotten order.
Pastries and bread come from Batch Bakehouse, tea is from Rishi, and there's a fridge full of microbrew beer singles, too, to accompany a surprisingly solid made-from-scratch menu full of familiar yet inspired options: breakfast sandwiches, grilled cheese, tuna melt.
The Public House does a good job of giving just about every item a subtle signature twist. The grilled cheese can be decked out with ham, tomato, pesto or caramelized onion (particularly tasty); the PBJ boasts fresh berries in the mix; and my personal favorite is the grilled roast beef on multigrain bread with provolone, grilled red onions and Sriracha aioli. The Sriracha aioli is an ingenious alternative to horseradish: The heat creeps in slowly but doesn't overwhelm. In fact, I wanted to ask for a dollop on the side, I liked it so much.
The staff favorite, and I'm inclined to agree, is the breakfast sandwich with a hardboiled egg, fresh mozzarella, ham, tomato and pesto on multigrain. Or, off-menu, get it vegetarian with roasted red peppers subbed for the meat.
Even the ham and cheese - which arguably is one of the more basic and perhaps passable sandwiches - still offers a bit of intrigue with a smear of rosemary mayo.
Some of the sandwiches - the portobello, in particular - seem overwhelmed by bread, more so because of the bread's thickness, although the flavor certainly benefits from Batch Bakehouse bread.
When deciding on chips versus greens for a side, go greens. There's nothing wrong with the chips, but the greens are perky and fresh and beautifully seasoned, dressed just enough with a house vinaigrette.