Contrary to what one of my friends believed, J.K. Rowling did not invent treacle tart in the Harry Potter books.
It's a real, wonderful thing, and they serve it at Coopers Tavern. It has the consistency of a lemon bar - gooey and sweet in the center, with a crispy, buttery tart crust that's made in house. Almost everything at Coopers is, from the vinaigrette to the smoked salmon served at brunch.
Coopers Tavern opened in early January, the 11th Food Fight restaurant in Madison (others include Bluephie's, Fresco, Monty's Blue Plate Diner and Tex Tubbs Taco Palace). This new gastropub has all the makings of a Brocach or Old Fashioned-style downtown anchor: great food, a long beer list and a cozy, bustling atmosphere.
Peter McElvanna, proprietor and general manager, greets each patron in his lilting Irish accent at the front door, apologizing each time the restaurant is too packed for even one more elbow on the bar. There's even a snug, an enclosed wooden room (which 77 Square featured in a recent Salud! column) in which patrons can claim personal bartender attention.
Coopers is open late every night, so starters and bar-time snacks do double duty. Try a meaty Sconnie egg, a hard-boiled egg coated in a thick layer of sausage, breaded and fried ($5). And don't miss Coopers' extravagant, addictive poutine, a pile of Belgian frites topped with gravy and cheese curds ($7).
As I scooped up bits of salty gravy and crunched the fries, I wondered why it's taken this long for poutine, practically the national bar food of Canada, to gain a foothold in Wisconsin. This stuff was fantastic. Solo, the frites ($4) came with a tart malt vinegar aioli in a tall paper cone. Try not to eat them all.
Soups were substantial, notably a creamy, thick potato topped with sage that had a nice vinegary tang to it ($4). The salads, too, were ample, easily enough for a hearty lunch.
Brussels sprouts came topped with crumbles of blue cheese and bacon, tossed with a creamy garlic dressing that was surprisingly light ($8). In another salad, perfectly cooked red and yellow beets got a boost from a citrus dressing and crispy leeks ($8).
Sandwiches were a bit more hit-and-miss. The Coopers Burger ($8) with its decadent toppings of pork belly and aged cheddar, was excellent, from the quality beef to the golden brown bun. The Reuben, four ounces of house-cured corned beef, sauerkraut soaked in Scotch Ale, Thousand Island dressing and Swiss, was one of the best I've ever tasted. At $9, that's a sandwich worth making a pilgrimage for.
But while everything else on a chicken sandwich ($9) was great - roasted tomatoes, garlic mayonnaise, havarti - the chicken itself was underseasoned. A turkey sandwich ($8) was a little bland, too, though improved by toasted marble rye and topped with Gouda, fruit slaw and housemade Thousand Island dressing.
If you can squeeze in for dinner, you must try Coopers' pork belly mac and cheese ($12). It's actually not macaroni at all - it's campanelle, small flower-shaped noodles coated in creamy Dubliner Cheddar and topped with a big slab of pork belly glazed in porter. No offense to Old Fashioned's fine rendition, but this is the mac and cheese of my dreams.
The wine list is decent and reasonably priced, with organic options and two petite sirahs (most resaturants don't even carry one). But the beer list is the focus here, and it's epic. On one visit, a friend tried the Blanche de Bruxelles ($5.50), a Belgian white similar to Blue Moon with a peachy flavor and a light finish.
And of course, you must order order that divine treacle tart ($5) or bread pudding for dessert, the final, delicious piece of an indulgent yet casual meal at Madison's best new gastropub. That is, if you're lucky enough to find a seat.
To get a good feel for Coopers' extensive beer list without having to try every one, check out Dane101's webcast, "Three Writers. 28 Taps," in which three guys taste more than two dozen of Coopers' taps. They chose their favorites - Blanche, Goose Island Matilda, and Ommegang Hennepin among them - and provided a running commentary on their experience.