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Restaurant review: Brunch at Cento feels like a special occasion

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Eldorado Grill was my longtime favorite brunch spot, and its closure in August was a big loss.

I typically only go out for brunch when I have visitors in town, and with my brother here one recent Sunday, we discovered a worthy replacement in Cento, another in the Food Fight restaurant group family.

Any decent brunch starts with good coffee, and Cento’s is great. It uses Colectivo brand and brews it strong. I’m happy with a single cup, but my brother and daughter were glad that our server was attentive in filling up their cups when they got low.

Cento is more upscale than the usual breakfast spots we frequent, and with no coffee prices listed on the menu, I was afraid of getting gouged.

I asked, but our server didn’t know the price, so it was a nice surprise when the bill came and we were charged a reasonable $2.50 per bottomless cup.

My other main criteria in a brunch spot is that it have excellent breakfast potatoes, and Cento’s are. Cut into chunks, they were cooked evenly, not at all greasy, soft inside and perfectly salted.

“I could eat a whole plate of those potatoes,” my brother said.

When I asked for hot sauce, our server brought out not Tabasco or Cholula, but a bottle labeled Smoking Guns sauce from Mandy’s Mood Foods. When I looked it up later, I discovered that the interesting sauce, made with ghost peppers, is one of four varieties from the small Madison company, which produces its sauces at FEED Kitchens on the North Side. It retails online for $8 a bottle, so it’s impressive that Cento carries it.

Omelet at Cento

Cento's seasonal omelet with asparagus, mushrooms and fontina cheese.

A generous portion of the potatoes came with Cento’s seasonal omelet ($14), a misnomer because its main addition, asparagus, isn’t in season. It also had mushrooms and fontina cheese. The omelet was thick and light, but needed salt and pepper, which weren’t on the table. Customers can opt for a mixed green salad on the side instead of potatoes.

The baked eggs ($15) were a more unexpected option with the eggs taking a backseat to what was mostly a bowl of polenta, best eaten with a spoon. Two over-easy eggs were covered with an exceptional, creamy piquillo-pepper sauce combined with peperonata, which gave it a hint of sweetness with sautéed red and green peppers, onions and olive oil. And it was all baked into the bowl.

“You have to get to the bottom layers to understand this dish,” my brother said. It came with a big, grilled piece of ciabatta.

Parmesan was also on board, and the dish was supposed to have chorizo, but it was barely noticeable.

Cento French toast

The foie gras on the foie gras French toast isn't too pronounced, but gives the dish a slight savory quality. 

The foie gras on the foie gras French toast ($18) also wasn’t pronounced, but gave the dish a slight savory quality. The peach compote and maple syrup agrodolce dominated, the latter a sweet-sour spread made by reducing the syrup and peach. The bread was a baguette, which was crispy on the outside, soft inside, and unusual as French toast.

My daughter liked the crunchy, caramelized end pieces, but my brother thought they were dry.

“I’ve never had French toast on a baguette before,” he said. “This is a new experience.”

Our overall impression of Cento was terrific, and revisiting it eight years after it opened across from Overture Center for the Arts turned out to be a smart move. I was unaware it offered brunch until I looked up Madison brunch spots to get some ideas.

Since we made a spur-of-the-moment decision, we arrived without a reservation. But because we showed up a few minutes after it opened at 10 a.m., we got a spacious booth that could comfortably fit six. The main dining room was full by the time we left.

Cento interior

Cento's dining room has 16-foot ceilings, gorgeous walnut tables and lavish chandeliers.

The elegant room has 16-foot ceilings, gorgeous walnut tables and lavish chandeliers. There’s considerable space between tables, the napkins are white linen, and upbeat music played from the sound system at the right volume.

Cento, pronounced “Chento,” means 100 in Italian and is a reference to the restaurant’s prominent location on the historic 100 block of State Street. It’s actual address is on West Mifflin Street, however.

Cento exterior

Cento's brunch has been a big draw since it opened eight years ago.

Given the spectacular atmosphere, and some elevated breakfast dishes, Cento gets credit for prices that are in line with many other local brunch spots.

Jordan Bright, a managing partner for the restaurant group, said Cento’s brunch has been a big draw almost from the beginning. He said the restaurant benefits from 2:30 p.m. matinees at Overture Center, when it can see dinner-like crowds.

“A perfect review from me,” my brother said as we left.

Service was a little lacking at first, but attentive later. That aside, yes, pretty perfect from me, too.

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