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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 8.0° F  Fair
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At the Paoli Cafe, field-to-fork is not just hype

Ken Ruegsegger is industrious. Together with his wife, Sherrie, and son, Mitch, he operates a farm, a CSA, a meat company, a natural foods store and the Paoli Cafe. The store, Paoli Local Foods, opened in 2007. The cafe, opened just a few months ago, is the natural expansion of a business that now runs all the way from Ruegsegger's own farm in Blanchardville - as well as from other nearby farms - to forks in Paoli.

It's rare to find a restaurant that's foremost an outlet for produce, with a farmer who has become a restaurateur. It's rarer still to find that farmer waiting tables.

But at Paoli Cafe, Ken Ruegsegger grows your food (or gets it from friends), takes your order, helps prepare dishes, and then brings them out. It may be the only restaurant quite like it in the country. If it weren't so honest and endearing, and the food so good, the premise could be a Portlandia sketch.

Don't expect much when you walk in. While the front grocery store has the signature healthy look and smell shared by little natural foods stores everywhere, the back deli/kitchen area and dining room are spare. Fake paneling and secondhand furniture give it the aura of an insurance office, while fake-looking flowers that turn out to be very real Super Sonic Cherry Cream Impatiens lend some color.

There are daily specials like asparagus soup and stuffed green peppers, which you'll see written on a whiteboard as you pass into the dining cul de sac. Most often, there will already be a few couples as well as a cyclist or two talking in hushed tones under the fluorescent lights.

On weekend mornings, brunch is the draw. There is a selection of soy-free egg options that include quiches, omelets and various combinations featuring pastured pork and beef. Roesti potatoes, the Swiss invention of Gruyere cheese melted inside of hash browns, makes an appearance as well, although it never arrives quite crispy enough - it's cooked too high and fast.

The menu also has a number of sweet items. The homemade scones are good, although the perfect Swedish pancakes are best. When asked whether you would like maple syrup or sorghum syrup with them, choose the sorghum. It adds a luscious, malty, molasses-like sweetness and is sourced from Rolling Meadows in Elkhart Lake. Ruegsegger explains that he knows the sorghum farmer Richard Wittgreve personally. These pancakes may even outdo those from Chicago's famed Swedish diner, Svea, in Andersonville. Light. Delicate. Divine.

Food here sometimes lacks visual appeal, and this is true of some of the brunch savory specials. Chalk it up to the farmer-driven nature of the enterprise. The stratas, for instance - choice of salmon, sausage or veggies - look like something you might eat while camping. But as anyone who cooks around the campfire knows, this is a big positive for flavor. While the dishes may appear a little rough around the edges, the homemade ingredients make for a heightened experience. You can taste the good provenance of every ingredient.

The trout and eggs, a delightful way to wake up, are straightforward. Both the eggs and the fish are of the highest quality, with flavors and texture at peak. Another star is the PLF's Own Benedict: housemade bread, house-cured beef, fresh eggs and tomato hollandaise sauce. The wheaty bread is thick-cut and crispy, yet pliable; the big poached eggs have impossibly rich, golden yolks; the toothsome beef is an umami bomb; and the tomato hollandaise is simply extraordinary. More a golden tomato confit than a hollandaise, it is memorably succulent, as though it had bubbled on the back of a stove for hours.

Lunch offers a series of sandwiches like BLTs, egg salad and pulled pork, as well as burgers, all sourced from Ruegsegger or other local farms and priced around $7.

Dinner specials can be ordered starting at noon. These include trout, salmon, perch, kalberwurst, chicken stroganoff, pork chops and steaks. A couple of half orders ($10 each) of various items can amount to a combo of sorts, and all come with a fresh-picked garden salad and a choice of potato. Choose the garlic mashed.

For a beverage to accompany either brunch or dinner, sample the house-made Arnold Palmer, a mix of organic tea and lemonade, which Ruegsegger will suggest you try with added ginger.

Typically, the farm-to-table movement has been a chef- or restaurant-driven phenomenon. Establishments source from farms when they can, and often give themselves clever labels like "plow to plate" even when only a small percentage of the ingredients on the plate are raised locally.

At Paoli Cafe, you'd have to come in from the fields for a family dinner to get any closer to farm dining. But you don't have to, because that is precisely the experience the Ruegseggers have brought to you.

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