Small plates in nice places: Oliver's Public House
Cheese plates and scallops go well with cocktails worthy of the "craft" prefix. (Photo: The Circa 1931 cocktail. All photos by Adam Powell.)
Madison has wonderful fine-dining restaurants, but they mostly come with hefty price tags. In this column Tone Madison will explore ways to get you into the better restaurants and get you out without breaking your bank. Of course, even when eating light, remember to tip heavy.
Outside Oliver's Public House on a recent summer evening, a light breeze teases everyone's hair as cars drone by, the sun sets over the patio, and condensation gently beads cocktail glasses. Servers glide past with plates of roasted chicken and grilled pork loin. Inside, mustard-cornflower walls with pictures of old-world Wisconsin farming go with the theme of locally sourced tap beers. This intersection of high-end and homey is the brainchild of Chicagoan executive chef Cameron Magee and handmade drink maestros Ricky Pajewski, Caleb Percevecz, and Matt Holtz.
Oliver's serves American cuisine with a farm-to table-aesthetic and lovingly administered craft cocktails (by now you know the drill so well you probably could have completed the sentence after "farm-to-table" without our help). But these folks are serious about cocktails—the whisky menu alone is broad and deep, ranging from the Japanese single malt scotch Kaiyo to Four Roses small batch bourbon to the Colonel EH Taylor Single Barrel. If the patio is too packed it's fun to sit up at the bar—Oliver's bartenders stop short of Tom Cruise in Cocktail territory, but still make quite a show of producing intricate and complex inventions like the rum-and-juice based Circa 1931, a Holtz creation. This concoction is tropical, summery, foamy, and served with a wedge of lime. Standards include the serviceable Moscow Mule (served in a sturdy copper cup) and the Corpse Reviver, gin with lemon and curaçoa.
At Oliver's every red-blooded Wisconsinite likely will go directly to the cheese plates. From a selection of seven you can order your preference, perhaps the Carr Valley "Glacier Penta" five cream bleu, or the Willow Creek "St. Jeanne" soft and washed rind, or the Bleu Mont "Bandaged Cheddar" cave-aged cheddar, at $4 per cheese. All are served with honey, homemade compote (apple butter or blueberry), sliced green Granny Smiths, and crackers. Carr Valley "Cocoa Cardona," cocoa-dusted goat's milk cheese from La Valle, Wisconsin, is creamy and soft. It's thrilling to play with the taste profile by dipping the Cardona directly into honey or compote—it changes perceptibly, the sweetness drawing out notes of heavy cream on the cheese.
Seared scallops and shrimp are served in full ($21) and half ($16) sizes, and the half is bountiful enough for two. This was the knockout surprise hit of the night: three large bay scallops with the exteriors perfectly crusted, giving way to buttery-soft interiors, with two large shrimp flanking the scallops, huge, chunky lardons, with a slightly acidic succulent gravy and finely diced fingerling potatoes.
Our tab: One Moscow Mule, one Circa 1931, one ginger beer, one pâté, one cocoa cardona cheese plate, one half order of scallops and shrimp: $48.53 before tip.
Planning notes: There's been a notable change in the neighborhood over the last few years, underscored by the addition of Oliver's: it's become a bit like a mini Schenk's Corners, with Lombardino's, Blue Moon, Barrique's and Oliver's all on the 2500 block of Old University, and Pasture & Plenty right across Highland Avenue. These all become options for drinks or coffee after an evening at Oliver's. Nightly specials run through the week, with tacos on Mondays and fish fry Fridays come with $5 Brandy Old-Fashioneds.
Also within reach: Mac & cheese made with RP's pasta is smothered in five Wisconsin cheeses and topped with bread crumbs. At $10, this bad baby will fill your belly and keep the bill in check. Soup of the day is $8. For $6 for one or $15 for three, meat and pretzel plates range from porchetta to pastrami to bresaola (dry cured beef tenderloin). We tried the house-made country pâté, which is stiff, with a mellow taste profile. It's served with an oversized pretzel with just enough salt to goose the palate; dip the pretzels in mildly spiced coarse-grain mustard. Cornichons, pickled olives, and garlic scapes round out the platter. All that is for fat lovers; the more health-conscious will hew to the baby kale salad with arugula, mint, ricotta, and roasted sunflower seeds.
Stretch goals: If you have have a little extra to spend, the Butcher's Choice is a nice cut of locally raised beef with crispy shallots, broccoli rabe, and bacon fingerling salad ($28). A grilled half chicken with sauteed collard and mustard greens is served over pearled barley and drizzled with a honey-chicken jus ($33). Roasted Atlantic salmon is served over wild rice with spinach, cauliflower, carrot, and sage, for $26.
Correction: This story has been corrected to accurately reflect the current bar management at Oliver's. Three Count Beverage Company (Chad Vogel, Jeremy Bazely, and JR Mocanu) initially designed the restaurant's cocktail menu and bar layout, but is no longer directly involved. We regret the error. (7/26/2018)