The feel of Oliver’s Public House is warm and contemporary, and minutes after being seated, my dining companion and I agreed we’d like to return to sit at the handsome pewter bar.
After a couple of Oliver’s creative cocktails, we were ready to set our return date.
The restaurant and bar have a polished look because Oliver’s is owned in part by local builder Bob Harriman, 67, a silent partner in one of Madison’s best-looking restaurants, Sardine. His co-owner is Don Michelson, 66, a retired commercial real estate broker. The men have hired an excellent staff, from the chef and managers to the bartenders and servers.
After building a number of restaurants in town, Harriman thought “it would be kinda cool to do one of those from-scratch, farm-to-table, everything local” type restaurants.
Harriman was raised at the knee of his grandmother, who farmed on the eastern shore of Lake Monona. He gave the restaurant her maiden name.
Oliver’s opened Nov. 13 in a new mixed-use building on Old University Avenue across from the Blue Moon Bar and Grill, in the approximate location where the Mediterranean restaurant Lulu’s used to be.
The menu is concise with seven appetizers; a soup; four salads; and 10 entrees.
To start, we made the mistake of ordering the ricotta fritters ($8). The five lightly-breaded bundles of ricotta cheese sat on a bed of creamed spinach and were drizzled with honey. Unfortunately, ricotta by itself has too mild a flavor to carry a dish like this. The puffy dumplings wound up tasting something like a pancake.
The chèvre salad ($9) had a lot more merit. The well-dressed tangle of greens was sprinkled with maple toasted oats as well as dried cranberries, which elevate any salad. Particularly satisfying was the berry-balsamic vinaigrette and the three silky-smooth dollops of goat cheese.
Our entrees were also worthwhile. The beer can Cornish game hen ($23) was hard to pass up, and both the attached breast and drumstick were moist and flavorful, highlighted by chile-beer jus. For the uninitiated, the cooking method involves stuffing a beer can into a chicken’s rear cavity to support the bird upright for grilling or roasting.
Upstaging the hen was the rösti potato it sat on. The thick, golden hash brown patty was perfectly cooked and seasoned, as were the roasted broccoli and cauliflower florets that picked up the broth on the plate beautifully.
The hens are raised specifically for the restaurant at Nami Moon Farms, a new farm in Custer, Wisconsin, said manager Roger Barts.
My companion’s buckwheat crepes ($14) were folded in such a way that they no longer resembled traditional crepes, and were filled with squash. The best part of the dish was the roasted brussels sprouts crisps, although they didn’t appeal to my companion. I was more than happy to take them off her hands. The plate also had big chunks of sweet onion, fried pepitas and pumpkin seed oil.
For dessert, we split the excellent bear claw tart ($7), which had a soft caramel belly and dark chocolate and cashews. It was topped with homemade brandy whipped cream.
Cocktails are a main focus here and that’s because the bar menu was devised by the newly-formed consulting group Three Count Beverage Company, made up of experienced bartenders from Merchant and Maduro.
My favorite was a rum drink called A Moment in the Sun ($9) that I inherited from my companion, who deemed it too bitter. The cocktail had lime juice, homemade “island” syrup, Luxardo maraschino and Angostura bitters. The drink, which is made in a large batch and comes on tap, tasted slightly carbonated.
Another good choice was the Old University ($9), a citrusy, apéritif-style drink with Death’s Door gin, lime juice, ginger syrup, housemade curaçao, and Jamaican bitters.
The Monkey Gland ($8) was more appetizing than it sounds, and with gin, lemon juice, orange juice, grenadine and absinthe, it looked something like a Cosmo. “I could drink that like pop,” my companion said.
Harriman did the build out for Sardine, Marigold Kitchen, Heritage Tavern Cento and Sujeo, but didn’t have a hand in the designs of those restaurants. He was responsible for the design of Oliver’s, which has attractive orange banquettes, one of which turns a corner in the restaurant. On the walls are black-and-white farm photos.
The lighting created a nice relaxed ambiance, but I needed to hold the table’s candle to the menu to read it.
Oliver’s chef is Patrick McCormick, whose impressive résumé includes stints at Nostrano, Tornado Steakhouse, Muramoto, and most recently, Heritage Tavern. Harriman said he knew immediately that McCormick was the right fit when he interviewed him.
For now, Oliver’s is a dinner spot, but Harriman said the restaurant will begin Saturday and Sunday brunches on Jan. 10. A bar menu with more modestly-priced sandwiches and soups will debut then as well.
If brunches go over well, he and Michelson may consider lunch service down the road, he said. He wants to see how the neighborhood reacts.
Judging from the enthusiastic crowds the Saturday night we visited, the neighborhood is reacting positively to Madison’s newest “from-scratch, farm-to-table, everything local” restaurant.