The focused, small-plate dinner menu at Mint Mark, a trendy new restaurant on Winnebago Street, changes frequently, with the chef replacing about a third of the listed items each month.
But there are a couple of things that have become fixtures of the menu: the Friday bluegill fish fry ($17) and the kitchen’s buttery Southern biscuit ($5).
Both items have remained for good reason. The fish fry is one of the best around (if bluegill is your thing), and the garlic-honey glazed biscuits are so appealing they’ve become a go-to item for regulars at this small neighborhood eatery.
The attractive restaurant opened in December, replacing the Mermaid Café and completely revamping the space on the city’s near-east side. Its new look includes deep-green, banana-leaf wallpaper, ferns and live, climbing vines that give Mint Mark an unexpected tropical feel.
A bar—with one of the prettiest back bars in town—anchors one side of the room opposite a comfortable dining area. There is seating near the back of the room that overlooks an open kitchen, while in front is a counter along a large window providing a view of Winnebago Street.
Service here is terrific, with a staff that is knowledgeable, friendly and professional. But Mint Mark does not take reservations, so it’s a good idea to time your arrival to avoid the crowds.
The other drawback is the noise level, which can be very loud when the room is near capacity.
Chef Sean Pharr has created some tasty and innovative dishes, although some come off as more showy than substantial. These include the chicken liver mousse ($10), which consisted of an airy mousse topping a cinnamon-raisin toast resting on a bed of port onion jam. It arrived as a single disc of toast on a small plate, which didn’t impress my dining companion, who felt it could have used a bit more presentation. Flavor-wise, it was interesting, but it wasn’t something we’d order again.
Also, a plate of four triangular raviolis ($10) filled with spinach and ricotta was richly flavored and accented with brown butter. But it wasn’t much food for the price, and it didn’t strike us as exceptional.
The kitchen’s pierogi ($10) comes as two dumplings filled with house-made kraut and mushrooms with caraway jam on the side. The “mish mash” ($18) plate includes Wisconsin cheeses and meat preserves with a side of toast (which comes with about half the plates here).
Our initial reservations about the food were tempered with the bluegill plate. It featured four perfectly seasoned, beer-battered filets—crispy outside but moist and tender within—along with house-made tartar sauce, cole slaw and a choice of baked potato or fries. It’s one of the few plates here designed around a protein source.
Mint Mark has a few dessert options that have all been well received, according to our server. We shared an amazing piece of almond cake ($7), in which a vanilla cream filling rested between two discs of cake, covered with caramel sauce.
Open for dinner six nights a week, Mint Mark also serves breakfast, lunch and a weekend brunch on Saturdays and Sundays.
With its attractive dining room and bar and a small-plate approach, Mint Mark is a singular café that has already made its mark on the vibrant Schenk’s Corners neighborhood. This is not your typical neighborhood “greasy spoon,” which also has its place in the city’s panoply of eateries.
For diners who thrive on the new and unexpected, Mint Mark is definitely one to add to the list.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.