Are You Pancake-Experienced?
You know when you go to a restaurant, a coffee shop, or a tavern and have a sandwich, a bowl of soup or a dessert that’s just right? Usually, what makes it so good is that it fits the surroundings in which it’s served. The atmosphere and dish enhance each other. They were meant to be together. Served somewhere else, it wouldn’t have the same effect on you. We feel that way about pancakes. Nurturing, comforting, and satisfying flapjacks, johnnycakes, and griddle cakes. But what must the Dutch, who are often credited with inventing them, think of us when it’s so hard to get a good savory pancake for dinner? While you can get some awfully good pancakes in Madison the rest of the day, what we’ve discovered is that the best are found in places that somehow nurture, comfort and satisfy as well. There’s no shortage of pancakes in our area. We’ve no quarrel with devotees of Mickie’s Dairy Bar, Monty’s Blue Plate, Lazy Jane’s or the Pancake Café. But our favorites have that attention to detail that fits the place in which they’re made. It’s no secret we’re fans of Marigold Kitchen, whose pancakes are as urbane as the restaurant. Rather than the weekday business crowd, young people, students and a remarkable number of families surrounded us at the Pinckney Street restaurant on a recent Saturday morning. Busy yet low-key, the environment is uniquely sophisticated, and so are the pancakes. Marigold’s blueberry cakes are light and soft with a lovely distribution of fruit and served with real maple syrup. The buckwheats are similarly light in texture with a slight (and characteristic) bitterness born from the buckwheat itself. We appreciate it when restaurants use different grains in pancakes, and the Original Pancake House serves up tasty buckwheats as well. But where do we start with the OPH? Probably with the wait. It’s part of the experience. Take a number and hang tight. It’s worth it, because never has a franchise felt so much like a neighborhood joint. This place makes Cheers seem like Burger King. It’s breakfast with friends and includes catching up with Mary Anne, Michelle, Danae, Mildred, Christa, Sita, Carrie and Drew about kids and dogs and life. It’s a place where you place your order, but you don’t have to because the wait staff knows you’ll be having the usual. At the Original Pancake House, the buckwheats are light but chewier than their Marigold counterparts. When mixed with water and beaten or kneaded, wheat flour creates a property called gluten, which is responsible for the chewiness of bread, or pancakes for that matter. The elasticity in the OPH cakes is more developed, hence more texture. The 49ers, made with white flour, are rich in flavor. The apple pancake is the restaurant’s signature dish. It’s dramatic and just plain fun. Regal in presentation, it reminds us of pancakes in Amsterdam – baked, rich and gooey. A cross between pancakes and popovers, these cakes are topped with Granny Smith apples and rich in cinnamon sugar and butter. In the beginning, the combination is molten. Be careful. What’s the one thing that could improve our OPH experience? Real maple syrup, which is plentiful at our third and final pancake mecca. The Roxbury Tavern, an enjoyable 20-minute drive from Madison, is a study in cognitive dissonance. A culinary contradiction, this restaurant serves up yet another pancake that fits its environment. Inside, the tavern is warm and comfortable with a wall of books and toys for the kids. It’s a street-corner tavern kind of place, except here you’re greeted with classical music and the New York Times. Roxbury’s use of local organic flour in the blueberry and apple cinnamon pancakes is a treat, and the added ingredient of amaranth flour gives them a nice, nutty quality. While a couple of the blueberry cakes were served a little squishy in the middle (not enough time on the griddle), the apple cinnamon, with fresh pear slices on the side and real maple syrup, proved cozy and comforting. The service was informally hospitable. The environment, small town and intelligent. The pancakes, authentic. Meant to be joined together, for breakfast ... and dinner. Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
<td class="date" width="100% valign=" top"="" align="right">Madison Magazine - March 2005