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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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Leah Caplan and Heidi Busse
Washington Hotel Coffee Room, 402 W. Lakeside St
Heidi Busse (l.), Leah Caplan: Keeping it local.
Heidi Busse (l.), Leah Caplan: Keeping it local.
Credit:Susan Kepecs

Occupation: Leah Caplan's the executive chef and proprietor of the Washington Hotel, Restaurant and Culinary School on Door County's Washington Island; Heidi Busse manages the Madison outlet.

Where: Washington Hotel Coffee Room, 402 W. Lakeside St.

Why you should go: The Coffee Room, which shares the building with Lakeside Fibers, has a spectacular view of Lake Monona and food prepared the way it ought to be but usually isn't - from organic, sustainably farmed, locally produced ingredients, popping with flavor. The smoked whitefish spread on sourdough in particular provokes gustatory euphoria.

Why did you set up an outpost of the Washington Hotel in the capital city? Caplan: My business partner Brian Vandewalle and I started the Coffee Room last year with the idea of creating markets for our Washington Island Brands. We work closely with wheat farmers on the island, so a lot of our products are wheat-based, like our brick oven-baked artisan breads. We sell wheatberries, stone ground wheat flour, island wheat dog treats, and soaps and lotions made from wheat. We also produce Death's Door vodka and gin, which we can't sell here since the Coffee Room doesn't have a liquor license.

The Coffee Room's a great way to keep a baker employed year-round, and it's a place to offer other locally made, sustainable products. I love coffee shops, but I like healthy, whole-grain baked goods with my coffee, and it's hard to find them. I wanted this place to be distinctive and true to what I want in a neighborhood gathering spot.

You trained at the Culinary Institute of America - you could have been an Iron Chef. How come you picked Wisconsin? Caplan: I could still be an Iron Chef! My passion for food comes from traveling the world and experiencing cultures and life through cuisine. But honestly, I wanted to work with real, local ingredients, and the potential for doing that was great in Wisconsin. The Washington Hotel was a good option for me. I went to college in Madison, and like a lot of people, one of my goals after I left was to come back. I can't see myself living in New York City again.

What's on the Coffee Room menu? Busse: It's mostly inspired by what Leah creates at the hotel - not just the recipes, but the way she works with local producers, too. I was born and raised on a Wisconsin dairy farm, so I know how important that is. Leah's organized the Washington Island wheat growers and helped them gain control over their product and pricing. I was in the Peace Corps in South Africa working with co-op farmers growing lentils, and before I came here I worked with cheese makers - my main interest is in artisan dairy products.

A classic example of how our interests work together is our Washington Hotel wheatberry salad, with Snug Haven Farm organic spinach (from Dane County) and Hidden Springs Creamery's Driftless sheep milk cheese (Vernon County). We're rolling out a new cheese plate this week that features some fine artisan cheeses, with Washington Island ginger-rhubarb preserves and sourdough bread.

We're very proud to use Blue Marble Family Farm whole milk and cream (from Barneveld). From that we make our own fresh vanilla whipping cream - it's the best. And the fruits in our smoothies come from in-state - we use Door County cherries, of course.

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