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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 72.0° F  Light Rain
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Espresso Royale: Shine on, harvest mushroom
Cubano con leche and harvest grain soup make for a warm combination at one of the Espresso Royale coffee shops on State Street.
Credit:Linda Falkenstein

What first drew me to Espresso Royale was a great need for a caffeine infusion late in the afternoon on a very cold Sunday late in January. I'm always on the lookout for a drink particular to a certain cafe and saw the Royale's Cubano Con Leche, made with raw sugar packed in with the espresso and, of course, steamed milk.

The drink was beautifully presented with cocoa sprinkled on top, and while pleasantly sweet, it was not like the powerful, overly-desserty concoctions that sometimes arrive after you've added shots of flavored syrup and maybe a little whipped cream and maybe some chunks of brownies or apple pie or whatnot.

The somewhat grainy texture of the espresso remained at the bottom of the cup, a reminder that this drink was still about the coffee. Another unusual option at Espresso Royale: the Spanish Latte, which uses sweetened condensed milk.

As a spot for a light lunch or supper, Espresso Royale offers daily soups and a selection of pre-made sandwiches ($3.80), including turkey avocado and Swiss; roast beef and cheddar; tuna; cream cheese veggie; and goat cheese and pesto.

The goat cheese and pesto came on an undistinguished rendition of a Kaiser roll (too fluffy and tasteless), with a smear of a chÃvre-like cheese, a little pesto, a slice of lettuce, a tasteless tomato, and -- fortunately -- strips of red pepper, which provided most of the flavor. (The purple onions I picked off.) The overall effect was not fresh or appealing.

The daily soup, however, was terrific. My bowl of harvest grain with mushroom ($2.95) was a confetti of colorful ingredients (corn, mushrooms, carrots, celery, and flecks of tomato) anchored with nutty, chewy grains of brown rice and possibly wheat berry.

A selection of pastries and cookies behind the counter includes a wide selection of quick breads ($2/slice). Espresso Royale also carries Cabibbo's biscotti and selected European candies and cookies.

Espresso Royale is a smallish chain with locations in Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Minnesota. Oddly, Wisconsin's only two E.R. cafes are within blocks of each other on State Street -- the campus outlet and the one I visited on upper State, across from the Overture Center. The long, narrow space features couches and tables, the work of local artists (currently the large woodblock prints of Paul Coenen), uncanned music (The Decembrists) as well as free WiFi access. The front window seats are a wonderful place to sip a cup and watch the world pass by.

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