Madison's Roast Public House makes sandwiches to savor

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Bill Livick, Special to the Gazette
Wednesday, September 11, 2013

 MADISON—Roast Public House is the kind of upscale sandwich, salad and beer spot that easily could become a comfortable hangout for almost anyone living in or near downtown Madison.

It's also worth checking out if you find yourself near State Street with an appetite and a limited budget.

The bar/restaurant combo—some might call it a “gastropub”—opened almost a year ago when two recent UW-Madison graduates decided to enter the local dining scene.

Doug Hamaker and Henry Aschauer had students and their families in mind, but really Roast Public House could appeal to almost anyone. Its focus on roasted meats will please those fond of beef and pork sandwiches, yet its soups and salads are more than an afterthought, and even the appetizers are well done.

Roast features a large, open dining room with a full bar that offers a big selection of craft beers on tap. Apart from a dilapidated-looking tile floor, the interior is fairly handsome, with dark wood and exposed brick walls.

Customers place orders at a counter near the back of the room. This time of year, most people prefer to dine in the patio area on State Street.

Service on the night of our visit was a bit spotty. The servers themselves are friendly and welcoming, but there were definite gaps in the service. We had to clear a table ourselves (as did the folks who took our table as we left), and it took effort to get the condiments we wanted.

Apart from that, the food was well above average—actually outstanding for the price. Nothing on the menu is more than $10.

We shared an enormous harvest salad ($8) of baby mesclun greens with bits of apple, walnuts, dried cranberries and goat cheese with a sweet balsamic vinaigrette. It's a fairly standard salad that never fails to satisfy.

The kitchen's sweet potato fries ($7.50) come thick, tasty and not too greasy. They're also served in a large portion and come with two sauces: sriracha lime aioli and chipotle honey barbecue.

An order of sweet potato-encrusted chicken tenders ($7.50) was served with the same sauces and definitely didn't disappoint. The meat was surprisingly tender and nongreasy, and the sweet potato and sauces complemented it perfectly.

After all those fine starters, it would be a shame if the kitchen turned out mediocre sandwiches. Thankfully, that wasn't the case.

The Dixie ($8), a slow-roasted barbecued pork shoulder served with house-made cole slaw on a ciabatta bun, is a lot to wrap one's mouth around. It certainly didn't lack flavor. My friend opted to remove the top layer of bun and eat moist pork and slaw as an open-faced sandwich.

A Cajun barbecued beef brisket sandwich was an absolute winner ($9)—the meat braised in Bell's Two Hearted ale and served with cheddar cheese and cole slaw on a soft bun. The thick, fatty brisket virtually melted on the palate and was definitely one of the richest and most filling sandwiches I've enjoyed recently.

For dessert—as if we needed more food—we shared a carrot-ginger soup ($3 per cup; $4.50 per bowl). True, it's an odd choice for dessert, but we didn't see anything listed on the menu as a dessert, and we both love the soup, with its mix of sweet and savory flavors. This kitchen's version was excellent.

We left with a large amount of leftovers and full, happy bellies.

With nearly 20 sandwiches and about that many appetizers, salads and sides from which to choose, Roast Public House is a welcome alternative to the burger and bar food pubs.

If the Public House could get its act together on the service end of things, the operation would shine a little brighter.

Just a note: Roast plans to move to a new location across State Street within the next month.

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