It's hard to believe the original Brocach on the Capitol Square is going on eight years old already. Continuing the formula that worked well here, a second location opened in Milwaukee four years ago. Now, owners Cliff McDonald and Don Gautreau have launched a third branch on Monroe Street across from Trader Joe's.
It is a sensible addition to a neighborhood that continues to support a number of relatively new restaurants: Jacs, Pizza Brutta and Brasserie V, as well as the relocated Pasqual's. The near-west corridor is clearly thriving.
While both the Square and Milwaukee locations boast intriguing spaces with snug spots perfect for rousing dining, the new branch struggles to achieve similar effects - even though the owners used the same company, Bar None, to design the build-out. Black-and-white photos of famous Irish figures are a little too neatly spaced, and the lighting - especially toward the back of the restaurant, where it should grow darker - is too bright in comparison to its larger, quainter, more pub-like sisters.
In return for less ambiance, however, the new location's menu emphasizes some authentic local ingredients. The beer cheese dip is made with specifically Spotted Cow and Carr Valley cheese, the Ploughman's Plate highlights "Wisconsin cheeses," and sometimes the beef is Knoche's and the cheese is Hook's, as on the signature Monroe Burger. It's a wise attempt to tailor the menu to suit the near west's locavore tendencies.
Despite a few changes, however, the menu is the same recognizable contemporary American pub food with a hint of Irish flair. Sadly, the standout Big Irish Breakfast is absent at this location, except during brunch.
Greens seem a bit cursory at Brocach, although the winter squash salad has a pleasant sherry vinaigrette and the toasted pumpkin seeds provide a smoky textural bite. Better is the leek and potato soup, which comes with big, luscious chunks of pork belly. The belly is particular to the Monroe Street branch and is a memorable improvement.
Sticking to the Irish-inflected menu items, the shepherd's pie is deconstructed (elements are separate on the plate) and probably should bear a warning on the menu so diners who are hoping for the classic casserole-style preparation are not disappointed. But the huge portion of flavorful beef and the expertly cooked tender-crisp carrots make the switcheroo forgivable.
The traditional fish and chips are a disappointment. Twice they arrived overly fried and dried out. By contrast, the skin-on house-made fries are fantastic: crispy, flavorful and not greasy. The ensemble could also have used more zingy coleslaw.
An old standby, bangers and mash, is as decadent as ever. It is hard to resist a dish that balances savory sausage, earthy potatoes and sweet roasted apples. The accompanying Harp-battered onion rings might forever raise the bar for onion rings in Madison.
For dessert, an oatmeal stout cake has a bran muffin-like quality that would probably be more appropriate for breakfast than dinner. It is enormous and caramelly, but ultimately proves too mushy; it desperately needs something toothy or a touch of crunch. A dark chocolate and pumpkin bread pudding with cinnamon ice cream fares no better.
The lunch menu at the new location has a short sandwich list, but there are hits. In particular, a chicken sandwich pairs a skin-on breast with cream cheese to delicious, heart-stopping effect. This is no time to watch calories or you will miss what happens when cool schmear meets crispy schmaltz. Tang, texture and loads of taste.
The Reuben is efficient but is easily outperformed by the slow-cooked corned beef sandwich. The latter comes with horseradish Havarti cheese and Scotch ale apple slaw on a pretzel bun. The horseradish flavor complements the beef; the crunchy slaw contrasts with the soft pretzel.
The large front windows that render the new Brocach too well lit for a pub make brunch here an attractive sun-soaked affair. It is also when the menu offers the fried chicken Benedict. If word of this monster-piece is not already spreading, it soon will be: buttermilk fried chicken, bacon, eggs, cheddar and adobo cream sauce piled high on thick grilled biscuit halves. Next to this on the plate are maximally crispy breakfast potato hunks. It sounds like the next fast-food sensation - except fast food could never be this good.
Although it is now a mini-chain, Brocach's attempt to personalize each location has led to some thoughtful menu alterations in its new incarnation. While the new outpost feels a touch impersonal, there is something to be said for consistent food, a proper pour of Guinness, and noticeably good service on a street that not so very long ago had these in short supply.