Rockhound is an old-fashioned term for a geologist or rock collector, and Nate Warnke is a rock guy, with a bachelor’s degree in geology from UW-Madison.
“I never really used the degree, but it made for a good name for a restaurant or brewpub,” said Warnke, who opened Rockhound Brewing Co. on Park Street April 5.
Rockhound is Warnke’s idea of a good name, and it’s my idea of a great brewpub.
Not only does Warnke, who also has an MBA from UW-Whitewater, serve outstanding beer, but the menu is creative, varied and well-executed. Nick Nesthus, formerly of Buck & Badger and what is now the Wisconsin Brewing Tap Haus, is the executive chef. The night I visited, there were four house beers on tap, brewed, for now, by either House of Brews or the Great Dane using Rockhound recipes. Beer is available in cute, 5-ounce rounded glass goblets ($2 or $2.50) or 10-ounce ($4 or $4.50) and 16-ounce ($5.50 or $6) sizes.
Warnke hopes to start brewing on site soon and have his first beers out in early July. He wanted to have restaurant operations stabilized before getting a final permit and one last piece of equipment running.
Besides Rockhound’s original beers, the beer list had eight well-chosen guest beers. Of Rockhound’s original beers, there wasn’t a dud in the bunch. The Mosquito Bite, a citrusy IPA, was my favorite, followed by the refreshing Sandstone blonde ale, the smooth Grinder porter and the creamy Greenbush pale ale. My companion, who didn’t think she cared for porters, liked this one. In fact, she couldn’t put it down.
A nice feature at Rockhound was that our friendly server gave us a helpful printout of our beers and set them up in order, so we could keep track of what was what.
Excellent beer was a prelude to a delicious meal, starting with the chicken Parmesan bites ($10), which looked like meatballs with marinara sauce and shaved Parmesan on top. The ground chicken balls were filled with a small amount of mozzarella, breaded and fried. Also worthwhile were the coquettes ($9.50), five triangles of flaky phyllo, akin to spanakopita, but instead filled with sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke and goat cheese. They were served with a yogurt spinach dip that had a touch of sweetness.
My companion loved her saffron mushroom burger ($12) topped with a subdued German Swiss cheese. I couldn’t taste the saffron, which was in the form of a saffron aioli. But my friend stood up for the burger, arguing that saffron has a subtle flavor. That may be; I just thought it needed more. It certainly had plenty of sautéed mushrooms, which I appreciated.
The meat didn’t taste like anything special, either, but my friend found it to be thick and high-quality. Warnke later told me that the beef comes from grass-fed cows. The roll was a brioche bun from Madison Sourdough, which explains why it was so good. The side of fries was superbly crisp, but too salty. Customers can also opt for greens.
I preferred my entrée, a chicken flatbread ($9) with an attractive square shape, cut into quarters. The tomato sauce, like that in the chicken bites, was outstanding, and the other ingredients — bacon, goat cheese and grilled scallions — were a nice addition. A shallow pool of olive oil left behind on the plate helped to explain why the flatbread was so tasty.
The brewpub’s impressive stainless steel fermentation tanks are one of the first things you notice when you walk in and immediately make you thirst for a beer. A copper-clad, U-shaped bar dominates the front of the room. The bar area features tall tables, while the dining area behind it has a mix of regular tables and comfortable booths.
Rockhound sits on the former site of Lane’s Bakery, in Madison developer Joe McCormick’s new mixed-use development called The Dude. Parking is an issue in that part of the Greenbush neighborhood and is almost impossible to find west of Park Street. I suggest parking on the other side of Park, near Monona Bay, even though crossing at the crosswalk in rush hour traffic is a bit dicey.
Warnke has been a homebrewer for more than 10 years and is putting his brewing chops to good use. I’d navigate the busiest street for another Mosquito Bite IPA or Sandstone Blonde Ale.