The new Union South has six dining spaces that have opened fulltime only this fall. The wide selection of cuisines and the modern, clean ambiance of each eatery is an appealing change from the sub-sandwich-ridden cafes that dominate other university options. The only problem is deciding where to start. Here's a cheat sheet.
The Sett, or "the badger's den," is three floors of endless entertainment. It's easy to forget about food between the 20' x 8' big-screen TV, the live entertainment stage and the billiards tables, not to mention the bowling alley and climbing wall on the lower level. However, if all that stimulation happens to stir up an appetite, it's worth checking out the Sett's sports-bar-style menu.
Besides the expected list of burgers, sandwiches and fried appetizers, the menu also includes several Wisconsin favorites, such as deep-fried cheese curds and brats from Usinger's of Milwaukee. The Sett chili (bowl, $3), topped with Wisconsin cheddar, diced onions and jalapenos, packs a punch appropriate for bitter January nights. But it's great anytime as part of Nacho Momma's Platter, which also includes cheddar cheese sauce, tomatoes, black olives, sour cream and guacamole ($7.75). And of course, don't forget the beer - the Sett has 32 bottled beers and 24 choices on tap.
Harvest Grains is a good option for those seeking a healthier, local meal. The menu highlights toasted and deli sandwiches, salads and soups. All breads and baked goods are sourced locally; produce is when it's in season. The El Paso, a baguette topped with grilled chicken, smoked bacon, Wisconsin cheddar, roasted red peppers and chipotle aioli ($6.25), is too salty, but it's hearty.
The farmers' market sandwich ($6) is a good idea, but the mushrooms, mixed greens, tomatoes and red onion get lost somewhere between the herb aioli and the pillow of a cheese roll they're served on. If these sandwiches lack something, the sides make up for it tenfold. Diners are offered a choice of organic blue chips, carrots, roasted Wisconsin red potatoes or signature macaroni and cheese. The potatoes are perfectly seasoned and almost had me thinking I was eating at Mom's house. The mac and cheese is equally inviting; a Dairy State classic done right.
If you're looking for something a little lighter, the Harvest salad is a sure win. The combination of mixed greens, Wisconsin blue cheese, sunflower seeds, dried cranberries, tomatoes and Dijon vinaigrette make for a slightly sweet and tangy salad.
Harvest Grains plans to up the local ante in the coming months by implementing a "CSA Friday Special," a dish that will be composed primarily from the ingredients of CSA shares from Blue Mounds-based Vermont Valley Community Farm.
Ginger Root ventures away from the typical sandwich or burger. While lines tend to be long come noon, service is fast and generally worth the wait. The bento bowl is the featured item. Choose your bowl size ($6 for a small, $7.50 for a large) and decide between white or fried rice. Then, choose between several entrees like vegetable stir-fry or crispy chicken, and, finally, choose between an eggroll, a crab rangoon or a potsticker. A 16-ounce fountain soda is included in the price.
While the vegetable stir-fry was unseasoned, the crispy chicken option is satisfying, and the potstickers had distinct notes of lemongrass. Also available are several cold salads, including the crispy noodle salad ($3), a good accompaniment and a welcome change from the standard side salad. Check out the selection of authentic Asian beverages, including the "chrysanthemum drink," a sweet, flowery tea made with chrysanthemum extract. And don't forget to grab a fortune cookie on your way out.
No college institution would be complete without a pizza joint. At Urban Slice, you can order a basic slice, and after 2 p.m. you have the option of ordering a whole 20-inch pie. The cheese slice is forgettable; opt for specialty combinations like the On Wisconsin! with smoked bacon, sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms and onions ($20 for a whole pizza), or the Madtown, which includes all 16 of Urban Slice's toppings ($25).
In addition to pizza, Urban offers a calzone or pasta dish of the day, salads and beverages.
Prairie Fire serves Peet's coffee and tea, and the wine bar is an exciting new option for those who prefer something besides the Union's famed pitchers of beer. Finally, the perfect ending to any Union South dining experience is found at the Daily Scoop, which serves up the much-loved ice cream from UW-Madison's Babcock Dairy.