Where there once was McDonald's, there is now Sucre.
There is no better metaphor for the evolution of downtown Madison - from fast-food restaurant to Euro-chic patisserie, from Quarter Pounders and fries to cold poached shrimp and Sachertorte, from Coke to cosmos.
Sucre, which opened in January, has transformed an ordinary space on West Mifflin Street into a clean, sleek and most inviting bistro, with white walls and booths, and contrasting areas of exposed brick. There are graceful teardrop lamps, touches of orange, and - the only art on the walls - three colorful abstract animation panels created by visual artist Jeffers Egan. And at the ordering counter there is a beautiful polished glass case to display the restaurant's greatest works of art, Sucre's very raison d'être - the beautifully crafted pastries.
Punky Egan, mother of Jeffers, is both the inspiration and the guiding force behind Sucre. A certified master baker, she has been teaching pastry-making at Madison Area Technical College for more than 20 years. Now she has fulfilled a dream by opening a European-style patisserie on the Capitol Square.
A recent luncheon visit yielded a beautiful blue cheese and pear sandwich, featuring Hook's blue and crispy fresh pear slices. A nioise salad was perfect, with tender, moist tuna, Bibb lettuce and local red potatoes and green beans. There are two quiches offered daily, one vegetarian, one with meat. I loved my sausage quiche with spinach, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, cheddar and green onions.
The evening menu offers several European-style small plates, including one Wisconsin and one Spanish cheese plate, a relish plate and savory dishes. Those include succulent lamb chops, perfectly sautéed, with market vegetables (mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and a garlic reduction sauce); cold poached and brined shrimp with sesame-topped cucumber salad and lemon dill aioli; and beautiful tender scallops with local asparagus and parsley-roasted garlic oil. For light evening dining, these are incomparable.
Here, no meal is complete without a pastry. A noir de chocolat was a perfect mound of rich, dark chocolate with chocolate cremeux and a ganache glaze made with heavy cream. The Sachertorte, with almond sponge, apricot filling and ganache, was - well, I will not say perfect because you can simply assume that all the pastries are perfect. A spiced apple carrot cake, drum-shaped, was iced with a light cream cheese mousse, a little buttercream orange carrot perched on top.
Other pastries include pear frangipane, opera torte, perfect little fresh fruit tarts, sinful napoleons and tarts made with lemon curd and flaky butter crust.
There are Viennese tortes - chocolate raspberry and kiwi apricot - and homemade breads. On Saturdays there are Viennoiseries, bread-like creations that include brioche, scones, croissants and fruit vol-au-vents (filled puff pastries).
Sucre also has a full complement of coffees, loose-leaf teas, house chai and San Pellegrino Limonata. There is a featured iced tea daily.
The wine list is impressive, with vintages from Italy, France, Switzerland, Austria, Portugal, Germany - even a George Skouras from Greece. There is a small but outstanding selection of spirits, including bourbon, grappa and - for the adventurous - absinthe.
The martinis are more than intriguing. They include limon, pomegranate (I highly recommend this one) and espresso. There is also a Thai iced tea martini, the creation of the talented Dain Heffernan, the Australian night manager and barista extraordinaire.
Punky Egan has hit every note just right for Madison. The dowtown farmers' markets provide fresh ingredients for the quiches she bakes. Punky buys her cream from the sustainable Blue Marble Family Farm, in Barneveld, because it is creamier than others.
She buys imported Swiss chocolate because it is silkier on the tongue than French chocolate. Her teas come from a special purveyor in New York. And as many products as possible come from local organic producers. Soon there will be a new selection of Italian-roasted coffees. The flooring is made from locally forested sugar maple, the interior paint is low VOC, and the carryout containers are made from biodegradable cornstarch.
Now that summer has finally arrived in Madison, Sucre is definitely the place to go for a late breakfast, a lunch or light dinner, a pastry with wine or coffee after a movie or show at Overture or the Orpheum, or a repast for Concerts on the Square. In addition to seating for 44 indoors, there is a small sidewalk seating area that looks out onto the leafy Capitol lawn.
For those who might miss the Capitol Square McDonald's, do not mourn. There are still more than a dozen McDonald's around Madison.
But none of them serves a Thai iced tea martini.