Robinia Courtyard, about a mile from the Capitol Square on East Washington Avenue, was developed two years ago as a complex of restaurant/bar and coffeeshop businesses built around a 3,600-square-foot courtyard. Despite their location, all three of the original ventures there have since dissolved and have been replaced by similar endeavors.
One restaurant I reviewed last year, Julep, was among the casualties despite its appealing ambience and fine food. It has since been replaced by Jardin, while its former neighbor, Barolo, is now Madison Tap.
Madison Tap offers small-plate dining and features a different Wisconsin brewer each month. Fourteen of its 17 taps are reserved for beer. In October, it featured The Lone Girl Brewing Company in Waunakee, and this month it’s Karbon4 Brewing from Madison.
We visited Madison Tap last week to find out about its food and came away mostly impressed. It could pass for a gastropub except that its menu is so small, with just nine items to choose from. Like the beer on tap, however, the food here is of high quality.
The venue itself is attractive, with a contemporary bar and design features. There are several small tables around the perimeter of the barroom, and there’s a separate room for large groups.
We unfortunately took a seat near a door that leads to the spacious patio, not imagining anyone would be using it on a cold October evening. But we were wrong. In fact, there seemed to be a steady stream of people using it (mostly employees on break going out for a cigarette), and each time the door opened, we were hit with a blast of cold air.
That points to an issue with the service. Our server happened to be very good, but two bartenders on duty seemed to spend more time entertaining friends than attending to regular customers.
Food-wise, Madison Tap has some good things going on. A plate of lamb sliders was, to my taste buds, amazing. The kitchen serves two sliders for $8 or three for $11, and they feature patties that are well seasoned and cooked medium-rare. They come on buttery buns with fresh arugula, olive tapenade and lemon.
I generally avoid lamb and decided to give these a try because the menu was so small. But if I were a big meat-eater, I would definitely go out of my way for these tasty sandwiches.
Madison Tap’s poutine ($10) is easily the best I’ve come across. It features hand-cut fries with truffle oil, demi glace and melted cheese curds—all topped with scallion sauce. The seasoning and flavors are extraordinary, and the plate carries a large quantity of food.
Those were the highlights, but also noteworthy is the kitchen’s duck confit taco ($5). It offers richly flavored meat with butternut squash puree, pickled blueberries, arugula and scallions wrapped in a flour tortilla. This is another item that I’d return for without hesitation.
A plate of pad Thai ($9) comes as a cold salad—not to be confused with the version you get at most Thai restaurants—and it shouldn’t be on the menu at this time of year. It might work on a hot summer’s day, but even then I’m not sure I would care for the combination of soba noodles, fried tofu, lime, peanut, carrot, cilantro and bell pepper in a spicy peanut sauce.
As I write this, the ingredients sound great, and I’m reminded of how much I enjoy a good pad Thai most of the time. But usually it’s cooked and served warm. This kitchen’s version comes off as unappealing and left me feeling about as cold as the plate itself.
A plate of heirloom tomato bruschetta ($9) was better. It combines cubes of sweet tomato with pesto, Parmesan and balsamic gastrique on slices of crispy toasted bread—not ideal in cool weather, but tasty nonetheless.
Other menu items are fried mushrooms, shishito peppers, duck wings and crispy chicken tenders with Szechuan sauce. The tap room doesn’t serve dessert. For that, you’ll have to go next door to Jardin, which opened a few weeks ago.
Beer lovers and fans of small plates will find a lot to like at Madison Tap. If you’re looking for a hearty meal with big servings of meat and potatoes, you’ll want to go elsewhere. But you’re not likely to find poutine and lamb sliders this good anywhere I know of.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.