At a cozy little small plates place on the east side, broccoli makes like steak, cauliflower hails Caesar and beef melts like blackberry preserves.
Mint Mark, now buzzing in the former Mermaid Café space on Winnebago Street, turns out a smart, constantly changing parade of cocottes, cast iron bakers and gratin dishes from its tiny galley kitchen six nights a week.
It’s an evolving showcase of skill from chef and co-owner Sean Pharr, who opened the restaurant in mid-December with longtime friend Chad Vogel, owner of the Robin Room cocktail bar.
The technique on display here in the texture of terrines and tarts calls back Pharr’s classically trained roots. Pharr has worked locally at Tami Lax’s Harvest — he has the restaurant’s peapod logo tattooed on his upper arm. Before leaving Chicago, he was executive chef at The Bristol, chef de cuisine at NoMI Kitchen and worked for nine years at Tru.
Dishes at Mint Mark, released from the kitchen in groups of two and three, are generally unfussy without seeming basic. They’re not overcomplicated but they’re not simple either, kind of like Vogel’s all-classic cocktail program ($8-$10).
The balance of textures and flavors Pharr packs into each plate speak to a chef working out of a long-established playbook. But save one dish, a take on shrimp and grits ($12) adapted from his time at The Bristol, Pharr insists these are all new — at least, as “new” as a flaky Southern biscuit dripping with garlic-honey butter ($6) can be.
“I’m not going to reinvent myself after the last 15 years of learning what I’ve learned and doing what I’ve done,” Pharr said. “I kind of hope people just appreciate delicious food.”
Banana leaf wallpaper and live, climbing vines give Mint Mark a tiki bar feel even in the morning, when partners Gwen and Kyle Johnson (Kin Kin, Johnson Public House) run a coffee bar out of the restaurant space.
While lunch hasn’t started yet, Mint Mark does offer breakfast sandwiches ($7-$8) and a full espresso line up. A pourover ($2.95-$4.35) of a bright and fruity Ethiopian coffee and one of pastry chef Debbie Buchanan’s flaky goat cheese/pecan scones ($4) is a lovely way to start the day.
At night, the greenery on the walls reflects a collection of dishes that will become more vegetable-driven at the seasons change. How mutable the Mint Mark menu turns out to be will depend on what’s good at the market and what the neighborhood’s most into. French in technique and Italian in inspiration, Mint Mark hues to no particular origins. A weeknight supper could be any combination of a few New American small plates.
A pair of Polish-adjacent pierogi ($10) with sweet red cabbage were initially going to evolve, but the bacon-y flavor of smoked potato has been met with such rapture, they may stick around for another few weeks.
The tartine will change too. For now, sweet-savory beef cheek jam almost melts on top of a French-style open-faced sandwich ($12) jazzed up with celery leaves and buttermilk blue cheese.
Every bar that claims the name tapas should have something like the small, round potatoes ($5), boiled, smashed and fried until every ragged corner is crispy. The kitchen makes entry-level escargot ($13), pulling the snails from their shells and dropping them into a Staub pan that looks like a mini muffin tin. The kitchen daubs each little gastropod with melted butter, herbs and anise-flavored pastis for a snack that’s as decadent as oysters Rockefeller.
Pharr likes to char things fast and hard. Grilled lemon brightens those escargots, while the blackened edges on broccoli ($9) give an impression of steak grilled over a campfire. Vinaigrette made with guanciale (pork jowl, or even better, face bacon) gives the stalks an extra savory hit.
The kitchen stripes Stalzy’s country bread with black to pair with palate-cleansing, creamy burrata ($13) and a series of pates and terrines. Two of them anchor a shareable board with cheese, pickles and add-ons like spicy smoked mushrooms and fruit preserves.
Boards like these are everywhere lately, but few show this much behind-the-scenes finesse. Recently, rabbit from Stack Farm in Neshkoro found its way into a smooth-as-French-silk pate (on the “Mish Mash,” $18) and a rabbit terrine ($10) studded with sherry-plumped sultanas. With a swirl of spicy mustard on the side, just one of these terrines could double as a light lunch.
The small plates concept holds such promise in theory, though a handful of Madison area restaurants prove it’s not easy to execute well. At Mint Mark missteps were minor. The pierogi could use a little browning. Taken together, these dishes have a lot of salt — order more than a couple and it adds up.
Only once did Mint Mark’s finesse with texture fail, on a soggy kale salad ($9) with a poached egg served cold. A shower of grana padano cheese and crispy cubes of bread couldn’t keep it from getting soupy.
On the dessert menu, a tiny, triangle of shortbread was too dense on an otherwise lights-out tart British lemon pudding called a posset ($7).
The joy and frustration of Mint Mark is how fast things come and go, both to the table and on the menu itself. Bar Harbor mussels ($14) with frites, made with fries from Friday night fish fry, are available only on Saturdays. Two dishes that looked great, a caramelized onion tart ($10) with suckling pork liver and a pot of smoked salmon rillettes ($9), had already gone off three days after we spotted them.
If Pharr ever takes the extraordinary cauliflower ($10) off the menu, I may follow him home and beg for its return. He started thinking about it a year before the restaurant opened as a riff on a croque madame sandwich (“cover anything in gruyere cheese and egg and it’s awesome,” Pharr said).
After a visit to Zuni Café in San Francisco, the dish evolved, taking inspiration from Zuni’s acid-driven Caesar salad dressing. Now, the cauliflower is roasted, fried and doused in a bagna cauda made from one-third each white anchovies, garlic and olive oil.
The dish finishes with a blast of lemon juice and sweet raisins steeped in Madeira. It's garnished with what looks and tastes like cheese on homemade nachos that has escaped the chips, crisping onto the sheet pan.
Yes, cauliflower is everywhere these days. Yes, the anchovies cost more than the vegetable itself. Yes, I want it again right now.
Mint Mark has a few craft taps and a short but well-curated wine list with some decent old world options (try the ’16 La Pepie Muscadet, $9, with the escargots or any of the veggies). Well-balanced, straightforward classics dominate the cocktail menu, executed by Vogel and staffers who will look familiar to Robin Room regulars.
A pretty Pink Lady ($9) shaken with Journeyman’s Bilberry Black Hearts gin and egg white makes for a fine happy hour cocktail. A boozy Vieux Carré ($10) with cognac or the Bobby Burns ($10) stirred with Japanese whiskey felt warming and strong. The Lion’s Tail ($9), interpreted here with Jim Beam bourbon, lime, demerara and an aromatic allspice dram, works for just about any time.
Mint Mark can be loud, even on a Monday. Planners won’t do well here, as there’s no way to pace the meal. If you fall in love with a dish, it might be gone the next time you stop in.
But this little restaurant is already so loveable and approachable for its neighbors. On a recent evening, a group of five ordered every item on the menu, including a skillet cookie ($7) studded with melting dark chocolate and a basque cake ($7) of butter and sugar held together by magic. Altogether it came to $125 before drinks.
On a recent Friday, Pharr was wrapping up porchetta and had recently poached some headcheese from a whole Hereford pig. Soon, expect to see cotechino (Italian sausage made with pork rinds) and Pfälzer sausage, and possibly a boudin blanc in the fall. Roman gnocchi will be served with neckbone gravy, made with canned tomatoes and mirepoix, an aromatic vegetable combination.
“The thing that I wanted with this restaurant, much as it’s going to kill me, is change as fast as possible,” Pharr said. “People are happy to try something new every time ... they scramble to the kitchen counter to hang out.”
Vive la différence. When the spring farmers’ market opens, consider one of those kitchen counter seats mine.