Sweet Tooth

A look at the sweeter side of Madison’s culinary scene.

Ah, desserts! There are so many places they fit into our lives; whether for when you dine out, for dinner parties at home, weddings, bridal showers, baby showers, office parties, a special birthday gift…desserts are necessary. Whether the occasion is big or small, desserts can add a memorable touch.

The proliferation of excellent cookbooks covering every imaginable cuisine and the rise of TV channels like the Food Network have made the wide world of food styles much more accessible. Meanwhile, shows like Cupcake Wars and DC Cupcake have brought prominence to the sweeter side of food. So where does Madison stand in the balance between great savory food and great sweets?

According to the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau, Madison has “the most restaurants per capita of any city in the United States.” Lucky for us! With that comes any number of terrific dessert options. But desserts don’t have to come exclusively in a restaurant setting: Madison has varied and wonderful dessert options for your night out at a restaurant, your office shindig, or any personalized event you can dream up.

At a Restaurant

We mostly think of the best desserts as restaurant creations. Here are some terrific restaurant desserts that you’d most likely eat:

For some of the most elegant restaurant desserts you’ll find in Madison, think of Harvest (21 N Pinckney St). They feature seasonal desserts that can top off any of their fine-dining offerings. In fact, they update and re-invent their food so often that I had to work directly with their Pastry Chef, Lindsay Wehmeyer, to find a dessert that would definitely be on the menu while this issue of Our Lives is on the stands. She volunteered their Tropical Carrot Cake. Since it isn’t available yet, I asked Lindsay to describe it in her own words: “The cake itself is moist and oh-so-tender, and the carrots brighten the crumb to a beautiful shade of orange. The cake is dotted with roasted macadamia nuts and shredded coconut, which give it a buttery, nutty, rich flavor, setting the smooth tropical tone. The unseen hero in this cake is the super ripe pineapple, finely diced so it is captured in every bite. This bright flavor is complemented with a compote of rum-roasted, vanilla-scented pineapple, accompanied by candied macadamia nuts that are loosely piled on top of the cake with a few chunks falling in to a pool of orange creme angalise.” Yum! And that’s just indicative of the many creative desserts that Harvest comes up with throughout the year.

Madison is known for its lakes, and the von Rutenberg family owns three Madison restaurants—Mariner’s Inn (5339 Lighthouse Bay Dr), Captain Bill’s (2701 Century Harbor Rd, Middleton), and Nau-Ti-Gal (5360 Westport Rd)—with water views. A lovely setting is a wonderful complement to a great dessert! Between the three restaurants, they’ve been operating for more than 100 years, so they’ve clearly figured out how to please generations of Madisonians. At Nau-Ti-Gal, the dessert list is short but, well, sweet! Their Mariner’s Cheesecake is a family recipe dating back to 1966—48 years of popularity speaks for itself. The Peanut Butter Pie is a rich and creamy layering of peanut butter and chocolate mousse on a cookie crust. And their Betty’s Key Lime Pie—again from a family recipe—strikes the exact sweet-tart balance you’d expect from this classic dessert.

The Wise Restaurant & Bar at the HotelRED (1501 Monroe St), on Madison’s very-near-west side, is a stylish restaurant and cocktail bar. The Wise offers breakfast, lunch, dinner, weekend brunch, as well as desserts all day long. For those looking for a throwback, sumptuous option, try the Espresso Pot Du Crème—who could resist a “rich and thick mousse-like custard with Alterra Toro espresso beans and decadent chocolate”?

For a Mediterannean spin on desserts, try Bunky’s Café (2425 Atwood Ave). At the 2012 Madison Originals Dueling Chef’s competition, their dessert bested every savory dish in the field. Try any of their Mediterranean classics like Tiramisu, Cannoli, and Baklawa. Bunky’s also prides itself on gluten-free and vegan food and desserts.

So what if you would rather drink your dessert (or what if you just want a delicious and not-too-sweet cocktail for any reason)? Stop by Plan B (924 Williamson St) and try their “Kamchatatini.” Now, I’m a martini guy and usually a martini purist, but this creation made me expand my field. It’s a knock-out! A flavorful and creamy combination of Absolut Vanilla, Irish Cream, and RumChata with a dash of cinnamon on top, this is a well-conceived cocktail. Not too rich and not too sweet, it has a silky mouth-feel and the flavors are beautifully balanced.

Take It Away

Many Madison restaurants offer desserts on their menu for dining in and also feature take-away, catered, or custom desserts.

The Daisy Café & Cupcakery (2827 Atwood Ave) made a splash as Wisconsin’s first establishment to offer gourmet cupcakes. In less than five years, they’ve sold more than 370,000 of them. That’s a testament to a lot of cupcakes for weddings, bridal showers, office parties, wedding showers, and birthday parties. And that’s not even the half of it, literally—more than half are sold to customers dining at the Daisy, where they serve a breakfast/lunch menu every day and their lunch/dinner menu Tuesday through Saturday nights. There’s plenty of cupcake competition in Madison now, but the Daisy keeps their story interesting by rotating about half of their cupcakes on at least a monthly basis. And they’re creative—their monthly flavor themes have included cupcakes based on children’s books and classic adult novels, music genres, Earth Day awareness, holiday song lyrics, and many more fun concepts. I know of no other cupcake place in the country as conceptually inventive as the Daisy. Gluten-free and vegan cupcakes are offered daily (as are numerous gluten-free and vegetarian café dining options), and the bakers can also customize any cupcake or cake order with very little notice.

Chocolaterian (2004 Atwood Ave) is relatively new to Madison. With their name, it would be easy to think they just make chocolates, but there is so much more. The décor is stylish and comfortable, and they offer lighter lunch and dinner fare like paninis, quiche, and soups, plus beer and wine and live music on weekends. And they actually have one of the broader selections of baked goods and confections in the city—including their famous Christine’s Butter Toffee (featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show and at the 2011 Emmy’s), the Ugly Cookie (a chocolate chip cookie enhanced with pistachios, cocoa nibs, and Christine’s Butter Toffee), and Badger Bait (a fudgy brownie topped with buttercream frosting and encased in rich chocolate ganache). Their desserts include multiple gluten-free and vegan options daily.

If you’re looking for fast and casual, Madison has three Michael’s Frozen Custard locations. Beyond burgers, dogs, and fries and such, Michael’s has shakes, malts, and sundaes made with their frozen custard—a great add-on to any meal. Plus, the near-eastside location (3826 Atwood Ave) offers about 50 flavors of pint-sized to-go frozen custard every day (the other two locations also offer pints to go, but fewer options). With so many choices, one’s personal taste is the best way to pick flavors, but classics like Moose Trax, Cookie Dough, and Bavarian Thin Mint are among the favorites.

Another casual option for desserts is Java Cat (3918 Monona Dr). They take pride in their coffee and bakery—deservedly so—and their gelato is a standout. I’ve had gelato in Florence, Italy, where they certainly know their craft, and I think that if I were blindfolded, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Java Cat offers 12 flavors of gelato daily.

Sweet Gifts

Finally, here are two options you can take out or give as gifts.

The accolades for Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier (2086 Atwood Ave) are too long to list! Besides a constant stream of local praise, they’ve been acknowledged by the Food Network (“the best little box of chocolates in the nation”) and Martha Stewart and Bon Apetit Magazines, among many others. Start with their acclaimed salted-caramel chocolate truffle and work through a broad selection of “classic,” “adventurous,” and “tea-inspired” truffles after that. We’re finally digging out from winter, but if you’re looking for an excellent cocoa drink, Gail’s own hot chocolate mix has also staked out its place as a favorite.

Finally, let’s not forget our furry friends! For dogs, the pet store Bad Dog Frida (2094 Atwood Ave) features cupcakes in pre-packaged containers and small cakes that can be “personalized” for your canine friend. In summer, they even sell ice cream for dogs! The aforementioned Michael’s also offers frozen custard for dogs.

So to go back to the original question: “Where does Madison stand in the balance between great savory food and great sweets?” Well, we’ve barely scratched the surface here—there are any number of other wonderful restaurants, chocolatiers, bakeries, and other dessert spaces in Madison. Lucky for us! And as Bad Dog Frida and Michael’s show us about the importance of desserts—they’re so good, they aren’t just for humans anymore!