When Escape Java Joint moved down the block from 916 Williamson to the space behind La Rocca's (and later, sadly, closed), I tantalized myself with thoughts of what might fill that space. How about an east-side outpost of Shish Café? What if Star Books came back, bigger and better than ever? Lo and behold, the new tenant turned out to be Madison Sourdough, back on Willy where it began. Founder Cam Ramsey has sold the business to two of his bakers, Andrew Hutchison and David Lohrentz. Fans will be happy to know that not much has changed in the bakery's new iteration, except that there's more to love.
Madison Sourdough is now a cafe as well as a bakery, serving breakfast and lunch seven days a week. The café comprises two rooms, one tall-ceilinged, bright and airy, one smaller, quiet and tucked away. The front room has the bakery counter, where rows of glistening peach and blueberry danish, slices of rhubarb pie and golden spheres of brioche compete for one's attention. The back room, while in desperate need of some aesthetic warming up (some paintings or plants would do the trick), does boast a glassed-in view of the bakery. On one visit, my son and I were cheering on a baker so enthusiastically that Hutchison asked us into the bakery for a tour - no, he didn't know I was there for Isthmus. Overall, the café is homey and inviting, with kid-friendly spaces as well as a counter where one can eat and read the house's New York Times.
The food is inviting as well, and steps from homey toward elegant. French toast consists of three decadent brioche halves fried until crispy and topped with berries and maple syrup. More austere but even tastier is the steel-cut oatmeal served with balsamic-macerated berries. I've never had a better bowl of oatmeal; the juicy, tart-sweet berries make any other topping unnecessary.
The café serves quiche and a few egg scrambles; I tried one with roasted vegetables as well as one with goat cheese, potatoes and chives. Both were good, although I'd prefer them cooked in a little less fat. Many dishes served here are quite buttery, which is offset by a little green salad on most plates. It only took a few bites to confirm that Madison Sourdough offers a viable alternative to standing in line at Lazy Jane's (or sneaking across the street to Willalby's).
One of my favorite lunchtime dishes, a daily special, was the chilled Tahitian apple soup, as delicate, white and frothy as a bridal veil. The modest sweetness of the apple gained complexity from vanilla bean, spiced rum and the slightest blush of apple cider vinegar. Driving past the next day, I wondered if they'd sell me a bucketful.
Every sandwich I tried was also good. The grilled cheese with cheddar and apple on caraway rye is a nice twist on the basic, but my favorite was the goat cheese, apple-smoked bacon and fig marmalade on five-grain sourdough. It's sweet-salty-creamy-crunchy - grilled cheese for grownups.
Another winner was the chicken salad sandwich. Here again was a basic sandwich, but with the volume turned up: the textural contrasts of the excellent country bread, the crisp red grapes and large pieces of roasted chicken, and the unusual addition of pine nuts.
A note: From 2:30 to 5 p.m., only the bakery is open, so if you're going for a meal, go earlier. Bakery treats include cream puffs, which are smaller and better made than their county-fair cousins, as well as chipotle chocolate biscotti and granola. I'd like to issue a friendly challenge to Madison Sourdough to try and match the creativity of Batch Bakehouse down the street, which has been knocking socks off since it opened last year. Throw in Lazy Jane's with their scones and morning buns, and you have a real pastry cage match. If such a thing exists, I'll take a ringside seat.