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Thursday, December 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 36.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Crema Cafe does breakfast, brunch and lunch up right
Modern sandwich
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Credit:Kyle Nabilcy

Crema Cafe sits at the end of a Monona Drive strip mall, with plenty of traffic whizzing by. It has all the makings of a little undiscovered coffee shop that locals and a handful of regulars swear by - except this place is anything but undiscovered. It's fair to say that with Crema, the word is out.

Since launching in the latter half of 2007 in the space formerly occupied by Cuppa Jo in the Lake Edge Shopping Center, Crema has shed its upholstered coffee-lounge vibe, added more tables, expanded to include the neighboring storefront, formerly a Thai takeout spot, and now does a brisk weekend brunch business in addition to weekday breakfast and lunch.

Oh, and there's Twitter too. Chef Steven Buchholz publicizes heavily via social media. Brunch specials are announced online. Buchholz has installed a "Twitter wall" in the back of the restaurant where customers and fans can sign their online handles and praise the cafe's offerings. The wall's pretty full.

Rest assured, the popularity is earned. Crema's sandwich menu has been turning out hit after hit from the start, and the brunch menu - now in its second year - has settled into a nice groove as well. If there's a hitch, it's the speed of service. This has improved noticeably over the years, but coffee orders still plod along; my most recent order was forgotten completely.

That aside, there's no better way to start a discussion of Crema Cafe's menu than with the breakfast sandwich that anchors the morning service. When all goes well - with greens dressed just right, bacon that's crispy but not too crispy, and a fried egg whose yolk still runs golden - this sandwich is among the best in town at any time of day.

And how many cafes can claim not one but two signature sandwiches? Perched atop the lunch menu, the Bluebird is a chicken salad sandwich that isn't just another chicken salad sandwich. Walnuts and dried blueberries give it some character and color, and the cafe sees enough demand to sell the salad itself by the pound.

Crema's menu handles both savory and sweet well, often at once. Lange Farm's roast beef goes to good use in both a breakfast and lunch sandwich. The Balsamic Beef's sweet onions might be a bit much, but your mileage may vary. Lange's ham, meanwhile, is married with tomato jam and goat cheese on both menus. The new-ish Ham and Jam (the a.m. model) includes a fried egg, and is proof that the kitchen is still coming up with good ideas. Tomato jam and goat cheese belong together.

The mildly spicy Hot Chick chicken sandwich is another good bet. Vegetarians have room to run with three appealing meat-free sandwiches: the ArtiMelt (artichokes, sweet onions, spinach and Farmer John's provolone on a baguette), the Modern Egg (organic egg salad) and the Roman II (roasted zucchini and red peppers, arugula, fontina cheese and an olive tapenade that speaks my language).

Ordering with a sweet tooth in mind, you couldn't do much better than the baked oatmeal. Crusty on top, the oatmeal absorbs the accompanying milk to create something bread-pudding-like, rich and fortifying. But the cherry pancakes are better. The three medium-sized cakes studded with fat, tart Door County cherries are a joy, topped with almonds and vanilla butter.

Though breads come from Madison Sourdough and Elegant Foods, all other baked goods are made in-house. The kitchen knows well the combination of cherry and almond. The great scones of Crema don't come much better than cherry-almond, though peach-pecan is right there, too.

Some food critics dismiss brunch as a thin excuse to put eggs on things and overcharge for it. First of all, what's wrong with eggs? And second, the value is strong-at Crema, anyway. Truly amazing smoked gouda grits are $4 for a luxurious portion. The thick smoked bacon is great, and the ample sweet potato hash goes unexpectedly savory with a big hit of rosemary.

Crema's basic brunch menu is an amalgam of the weekday menu's greatest hits, but this is where the weekend specials come in. Scrapple one weekend, breakfast nachos the next. Maybe a burrito, biscuits and gravy, or corned beef hash. Chef Buchholz is a kid at play here, and the experiments are usually worth the price of admission.

The children's menu at Crema is a blast, too: nourishing and fun at the same time. It's yet another reason all those tables looking out on Lake Monona are usually full.

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