Few Madison restaurants in recent memory have been as eagerly awaited as the Coopers Tavern, a gastropub that speaks Irish with a Wisconsin accent. Coopers has blossomed instantly into a destination on the Square, with a house so often packed that it pays to choose your moment - no reservations here - or just plan to nurse a beer (or two) for a while before eating.
Owner Peter McElvanna frequently greets Coopers patrons at the door (his is an actual Irish accent). If you're lucky, you can sit in the snug, an enclosed booth that holds a small group and opens onto the bar for personal bar service. Most likely you will rub elbows with a noisy crowd, but luckily McElvanna and his staff have devised a menu that will draw even introverts back for more.
The appetizers include the Sconnie egg, a twist on a Scotch egg that uses a Knoche's Market brat patty to encase a hardboiled egg, and soft pretzels with a Dubliner cheddar and Belgian beer dip. Roasted veal bone marrow is served in the bone, which has been sliced open lengthwise (it'll turn the heads of nearby diners) and may make you feel like a high-rolling Fred Flintstone. The marrow's salty richness is a delicious foil for toasted pumpernickel and roasted garlic.
The appetizer everyone wants to try, of course, is the poutine, a pile of Belgian frites topped with cheese curds and doused in brown gravy. To me, the very concept of poutine is gilding the lily and then some. Nevertheless, my plate somehow cleaned itself. Coopers' poutine is a bit nontraditional, with its orange curds and brown gravy, but like all poutine it is meant to be consumed along with beer and conversation. Take it with both, over a period of time, and you should get your fill of enjoyment without too much abdominal distress.
Coopers serves several sandwiches, all with deft local touches and intriguing elements. The burger pairs Knoche's beef with pork belly bacon, while the Reuben's sauerkraut is soaked in Lake Louie Scotch Ale. The entrees are largely traditional Irish and British dishes embroidered by Wisconsin flavors. Of these, the mac and cheese stood out. The sizable chunk of Lake Louie porter-glazed pork belly that sat on top didn't have the sear I wanted, but the rich cheese sauce seduced me, its flavor undulating between the sharp pungency of Dubliner cheddar and the sweetness of the porter glaze. I also liked the fish and chips, the generous serving of light and crisp-battered fish making up for a forgettable apple-pear slaw.
The dish that will bring me back to Coopers is the Brussels sprout salad, a crunchy green mountain of Boston lettuce and pan-roasted Brussels sprouts, tossed with garlic dressing, bacon and blue cheese. Full of flavor, both light and filling, this salad is solidly enshrined in my memory.
Coopers offers both a small late-night menu and a large brunch menu. Brunch includes several spins on eggs Benedict (including poutine Benedict, which I am convinced could actually end one's life). If you have been longing for a traditional British Sunday roast or Irish breakfast, you can find both here. The corned beef hash featured the house-made corned beef, which was enjoyable though a little dry, and poached eggs that went a few minutes too long. A bowl of colorful fruit lent some needed juiciness to the meal.
Should you find yourself with room, Coopers' boozy dessert menu does not disappoint. The Guinness chocolate cake with Bailey's frosting and bourbon glaze disappears quickly. For maximum pleasure, I advise skipping the dry Grand Marnier bread pudding and ordering the treacle tart. This dessert is sigh-inducing, the tang of lemon balanced and deepened by honey, brown sugar and maple.
Though I didn't find perfection at Coopers, I found much to like and more to admire. The service was uniformly attentive and helpful, but above all I was impressed with what Coopers offers in its price range; many other local restaurants are uninspired by comparison. If you order carefully (pace yourself with that poutine!) and don't mind waiting a while, you can make yourself a very good evening at the Coopers Tavern.