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Tuesday, July 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 65.0° F  Overcast


Prairie Cafe and Bakery: Pure prairie league
Middleton Hills' resident cafe gets fresh with breakfast

Credit:Ann Shaffer
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My near-west-side neighborhood is the kind of place that inspired the New Urbanism of Middleton Hills. The narrow streets and close-set houses allow for much neighborliness; the stores and restaurants within easy walking distance keep the inhabitants on the sidewalks and out of their cars. But the one thing we lack is a reliable, pancakes-and-eggs kind of breakfast place. When we want breakfast, we get in the car, and as long as we're on the road, we might as well drive all the way to the Prairie Café and Bakery in Middleton Hills. The longish drive isn't exactly in the spirit of New Urbanism, but the pancakes are delicious.

It takes a moment to get your bearings when you walk in the door. The counter opens onto a commons area for Middleton Hills residents, with mailboxes and a meeting area. The restaurant itself lies off to the right, an airy space with big, red-trimmed windows. The combination of horizontal wood trim and a ceiling with visible ductwork gives the place an industrial/Prairie Style feel. Frank Lloyd Wright would faint at the sight of the fake fireplace, but the cozy stuffed chairs arranged around it are hard to resist.

And so's the food. Most everything I tried was remarkably fresh and homemade. In a few cases, the freshness made up for a lack of flavor.

Let's start with those pancakes. No complaints there. My plate-sized flapjack was crispy on the edges and cakey on the inside, and my breakfast-mates and I gobbled it up without butter or syrup. The egg dishes were served nice and hot in large portions. We started with the two-egg Prairie Scramble. Out of 13 possible mix-ins, we chose artichoke relish and cheese. Thanks to the chokes, the pillowy eggs were green enough to please Sam I Am, and we liked them with the crisp and nutty whole-wheat toast on the side.

The corned beef hash was also a hit. Unlike most restaurants, which serve small, peeled cubes of tasteless russets, the Prairie Café starts with chunks of toothsome red potatoes. Mixed with squares of corned beef, they made for an excellent hash. The accompanying scrambled eggs were nothing special, and neither was the tomato and onion omelet. But I did enjoy the side of sourdough toast, which was hot, with a chewy crust and a buttery center. Toast is an afterthought at most breakfast places, but using fresh loaves from Clasen's European Bakery, also in Middleton, allows for some memorable slices.

The scones and cookies, made in-house, were less tasty. Still, having been baked that morning, they were fresh and light; that made them good enough to enjoy with a smoothie or chai. The chocolate croissants were better - buttery, with an intense dark filling. For real indulgence, try the coffee shake, a miraculous mix of bitter and sweet that had everyone at our table fighting over the last few sips.

Speaking of coffee, I like the way it's served in carafes on the well-appointed condiment bar, with a generous supply of green glass mugs at the ready, so I could sample the four kinds. You might prefer your coffee stronger and brewed to order, but the serve-yourself ethos is one of the relaxed pleasures of the place.

The lunch menu offers light fare with daily specials, including a savory cup of split pea and ham soup and a giant slice of roasted red pepper quiche. The green salad accompanying the quiche was nothing fancy - just some torn leaves of romaine with a few other greens tossed in, covered with a light balsamic vinaigrette. But it was the freshest salad I've had in a restaurant in years. In the middle of a dark Madison winter, I'd walk a long way for a plate of greenery like that. Or, at the very least, I'd get in my car and drive to the Prairie Café and Bakery.

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