Trendy farm-to-table restaurants with seasonal menus featuring names of local artisans are almost the new norm in Madison. Add a funky bar with a mixologist in a man bun serving up craft cocktails, and poof: you’ve got the magical recipe for a successful business, right?
Not quite. For every farm-to-table dining room that opens, two others close. In this capital city of chefs striving to outdo one another in the sheer number of farmers they can list on the menu, only a few restaurants truly stand out. One of the best is tucked away in a new mixed-use building on Old University Avenue.
Oliver’s Public House, open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday, and serving up brunch and dinner on Saturday and Sunday, may just be the best-kept farm-to-table secret in Madison. Located off the beaten path in a quiet neighborhood, Oliver’s has developed a loyal following. In fact, if Bar Manager Ricky Pajewski doesn’t see regular customers on certain days at specific times, he gets a bit worried.
“If Larry the Uber driver isn’t coming in the door on Saturday morning at 9:00 a.m. for his usual bloody mary, then I know I should probably check our Facebook page because he’s messaged us that he’s running late,” Ricky says. “Our customers are our family. They know it, and we know it. So we treat each other like family.”
That feeling of family starts with staff—from line cooks to dishwashers to bartenders to servers—most of whom have worked at Oliver’s since it opened in 2014. And that’s how owner Bob Harriman planned it; he went through an extensive interview process to find the right people. Ricky, Executive Chef Patrick McCormick, and General Manager Jessica Kucza run a tight ship, working together to make sure every meal served is the best possible.
“When we started this venture, all of us agreed there were two things we were going to try and do better than anybody else,” Bob said. “First, we committed to walking the walk in sourcing quality, healthy food from local farmers. Second, these folks dedicated themselves to working together as a team, to caring as much about each other as they do about the food they’re serving to our customers. And succeeding at both is what has set us apart.”
Oliver’s Public House indeed succeeds at sourcing quality local food. Chef Patrick keeps a spreadsheet of purveyors divided into “big box” and “little box.” Big box are items that can’t be sourced locally—think scallops and shrimp (we live in Wisconsin, after all). Little box items come from local farmers. Of the 30 or so purveyors he uses, 25 are little box—meaning local farmers supply the vast majority of food at Oliver’s Public House.
One of the most popular menu items featuring little box foods is an omelet served during brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. Simply called “Willi’s” and named after local cheese maker Willi Lehner, the omelet features caramelized shallots, house-cured bacon, spinach, apples, Willi’s Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar, and chive hollandaise. It’s not uncommon to see Willi himself sitting at Oliver’s on a Sunday morning ordering his namesake omelet with extra greens and a mountain of extra black pepper.
While much of the lunch and dinner menu tends to change slowly with the seasons, one dish is a mainstay on both the starter and entrée menu: Seared Scallops and Shrimp. Large scallops and gulf shrimp are seared in a pan with house-cured bacon, roasted mushrooms, and diced, poached potatoes. Four ounces of Weissbier are added, with the scallops and shrimp meticulously plated and served on a bed of creamy grits and greens.
Another popular dish is the Hand Rolled Tagliatelle. This pasta is made in-house, and this dish is served with nettle pesto, Sartori Montamore & Romano cheeses, toasted sunflower seeds, and oyster mushroom chips marinated in olive oil, salt, and pepper and then roasted into what can only be described as a umami masterpiece.
Chicken and beef entrées are sourced from local farmers, and even much of the fish comes from fisheries in Wisconsin and Michigan. The kitchen bakes all of its own bread, bagels, muffins, focaccia, rolls, and buns, many of them coming from Chef Patrick’s own “Bob the Blob” starter culture he created himself nearly five years ago.
“We truly try to make everything from scratch. We don’t make our own whole-grain mustard, and we don’t make our own ketchup, but we do make eight quarts of aioli three times a week for frites,” Patrick says.
Diners are invited to eat at either one of the many solid hickory tables in the warm, inviting dining room or at the big square pewter bar, where Ricky concocts original cocktails. While the bar menu also changes seasonally, locals know to ask for Ricky’s legendary Mariachi Band on the Run, made with Reposado Tequila (aged in wood at least two months), fresh lemon and lime juices, strawberry rhubarb shrub fortified with white wine vinegar, and ginger syrup.
Coming this summer will be a reboot of Oliver’s Bloody Mary, made with ingredients grown in the restaurant’s new bloody mary garden. Ricky plans to make a sustainable bloody mary mix, with in-house smoked tomatoes, garden-grown fresh green peppers, roasted poblanos and jalapeno peppers, fresh herbs, seasoning, lemon and celery juice, horseradish, and siracha. Ricky is already looking forward to serving the first locally grown bloody mary in Madison.
Owner Bob Harriman beams when he talks about the assembled group of dedicated people who truly are the essence of Oliver’s Public House, and the idea that perhaps someday Oliver’s garden will be the source of produce for both the restaurant’s entrées and its drinks.
In the end he said, “We are in it for the long haul. We’re committed every day to doing the right thing. We know that doing the right thing is not always easy, nor is it always rewarded right away. But we are here to stay.”
Jeanne Carpenter is a cheese geek and food writer living in Oregon, Wisconsin.