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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Overcast
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Pick the veggie entrees at Sprecher's Restaurant & Pub
Head towards the light

Credit:Kyle Nabilcy

Although the new Sprecher's Restaurant & Pub on the far west side is not owned by the Sprecher Brewing Company, of Milwaukee, it's licensed to use the logo and serve the beer. It's hard to miss the theme - Sprecher paraphernalia, be it advertising artwork or examples of Sprecher-root-beer-flavored lip balm, is omnipresent.

Plus, there's a definite German vibe to the space. Low arches of dark brick give the decor a close, vaguely Old World feeling. Certain menu items point to Deutschland, too. Leading that charge is the sauerbraten, a starchy and rich blend of long-stewed beef and chewy little spätzle, something like a German form of gnocchi.

Sprecher's sauerbraten features extraordinarily tender chunks of beef that fall apart into luscious strands with not much more than a stern glance. The sauce, while sweet in the ginger-snappy, nutmeggy way you'd expect, was unfortunately also quite salty. The spätzle were well made and played their part in the dish, but were equally salty. The effect was a great initial bite, followed by a puckering saltiness that distracted from the dish's better qualities. Excess salt was, in fact, a common element to many of the dishes I tried at Sprecher's.

The bangers in the bangers and mash were tasty and nicely browned, but the sauce was too much for the dish - and the salt! The mashed potatoes were unspectacular, but the bits of skin gave them a pleasant, homey character. The meatloaf was easily the saltiest meatloaf I've ever had, although it was juicy and prepared well. The five-ounce steak, admittedly not a luxury cut, was at least two highway exits past the requested medium; it was a triangular hockey puck.

With Sprecher's nod to a hearty, Northern European heritage, it's perhaps counterintuitive to the point of bizarre that the best dishes I had there were the vegetarian ones.

The vegetarian "club" sandwich was full of fresh and crisp vegetables and a strong, savory hummus that amazingly managed to take bacon's place. Leave off the provolone and you'd have a fully satisfying vegan sandwich on your hands.

The 10-inch asparagus with pesto pizza, a respectable size for $9, was also a big hit with everyone at my table. Asparagus seems to be a specialty of the kitchen. Both on the pizza and as a side dish, it was served bright and tender.

Lunch options are mostly broken down into a combo menu, with wraps, sandwiches and some pasta dishes paired with a side dish and soup/salad choice. The basic cheeseburger, sampled in slider form, showed promise in both construction and flavor but was a bit overdone. The barbecue pulled pork slider was even more overdone, and the pork was bland, almost indistinguishable from dark meat chicken. The French onion soup was forgettable - although, again, salty.

At the front and back ends of the meal, the starters and desserts were a mixed bag. The spinach-artichoke dip was runny and too reminiscent of cream of mushroom soup. The hot soft pretzels were wet with butter, but the house mustard was zingy. Stuffed mushrooms, clearly fresh-fried and as big as racquetballs, were a nice appetizer, though maybe a little too filling.

Desserts are billed as "mini," and can be ordered individually or in cost-saving multiples. Our stout chocolate cheesecake was indeed stout - dense and rich like a frozen mousse. Crème brûlée and a lemon tart, on the other hand, were on the watery side. For cost/volume ratio, however, they were a steal.

Attention must be paid to the beer, since this place is named for a brewery. My suggestion is go dark; I liked the Dunkel Weizen and the Black Bavarian. The bartenders will pour you a little complimentary sip if you're unsure of what to order, and "Tasters" are $1.50 each, with three for $4.50 and six for $9.

The problems with Sprecher's revolve around value and expectations. It scores points for quantity and clearly aspires to greater things. But you'd expect a place with a wood-fire grill to excel at big, sizzling cuts of meat. Instead, the vegetables and lighter fare steal what show there is to steal.

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