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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Overcast
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Alterra captures the Capitol Square with more than coffee
A Cortado, a burrito and Wi-Fi
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Among the best bites: The smoked salmon sandwich.
Credit:Carolyn Fath

When you order a coffee from the coffee bar portion of Alterra, where fresh cups are produced one at a time like all the cool coffeehouses do it now, you sort of hover near the bar and wait. When you order food and choose to sit at a table outside, your food is brought to you by table number. But when you do both? Well, you figure it out, because I had to ask. (There's no good way.)

The newest location for Milwaukee-based Alterra is on the Square in Tenney Plaza, and it wants to be your destination for almost everything downtown. Brewed coffee, coffee beans, Wi-Fi, smoothies, breakfast, lunch, dessert and even a beer after work - yes, Alterra aims for all of these. But its success varies at achieving the diverse goals.

For a hot cup of coffee, the aforementioned coffee bar offers pour-overs of a small selection of beans and assures a fresh, rich cup every time - even if you have to wait a little longer than for a standard brew. The dark, rich Maximilian roast is a personal favorite, but if you prefer a lighter roast, Del Sol is juicy and invigorating. Iced coffee, however, lacks the smooth, full body of the best cold-processed versions in town. (4 & 20, Madison Sourdough and Crema Cafe come to mind.)

Bakery is another strong suit, with house-made breads and pastries coming fresh from the Bayview location daily. A lemon-blueberry scone featured strong flavors of both, topped with crystals of sugar for a pleasant crunch. Closer to Cinco de Mayo, a cinnamon-guajillo chile brownie with a layer of dulce de leche was as sweet and decadent as you'd imagine, with the pepper bringing only the flirtation of heat.

Unfortunately, a slick-looking soft pretzel is inexcusably chewy, even after being warmed up, and bland besides. The chocolate croissant is equally featureless.

There ends the purview of the average coffee shop - oh, but yes, the Wi-Fi is also good, if the number of laptops is any indication. The rest of the day's service is a mix of bonus points and overreach.

Bonus points: the biscuits. They're massive, they're good - maybe a little dry - and they serve as a fine vessel for breakfast sandwiches. Here's a puzzler, though: If the bacon biscuit is essentially the cheesy biscuit plus bacon, why do they cost the same? Either way, be careful; it comes out steaming hot. Take your time and figure out that bacon math.

Burritos are all over the menu at Alterra, and this is the disappointing overreach. Combinations like jerk chicken and potato, or eggs and sausage (they are specials, but tend to stick around for a while), sound great. But the latter was an indistinct agglomeration, and the former was too distinct by half, with the jerk chicken and potato split down the middle like boys and girls at a junior high dance.

Alterra's burritos are just not very good. Maybe a step above something fast-casual like Panera, with the character pressed and toasted right out of them.

A decent pesto mozzarella sandwich arrives with gooey, molten cheese in a bun the size and shape of a long john that envelops the fillings; call it a Haute Pocket. It's better by far than the tomato basil turkey sandwich, featuring both an odd (but flavorful) basil lemon cream cheese and melted provolone. This one is unpleasantly slippery, overloaded with moisture and goo.

All the unfulfilled promise of lunch is reversed with the smoothie, a vastly overexposed segment of the drink market that turns unexpectedly into something worth ordering in Alterra's hands. The mango peach ginger version tastes of all three, with recognizable yogurt notes underneath. I'd order one of these over most of Jamba Juice's menu.

And for something with a little more oomph, there's always the Cortado Imperial Coffee Stout, brewed with Alterra's beans by Madison's own One Barrel Brewing. It's a lovely beer, with no sharp edges and plenty of smooth coffee flavor. One barista told me she's actually seen someone order one at seven in the morning. There's also a pale ale that apparently sells almost as well, but I don't see how that's possible with something as charming as the Cortado on the menu.

As an all-occasion cafe, Alterra's successes can easily get lost in the hubbub. The best bites I took there were in its first few days, before I was officially reviewing it: a silky smoked salmon sandwich with capers and cream cheese, and a falafel burger with a thin raita-esque sauce. I'd say I liked Alterra before it was cool, but it's been a hotspot since the day it opened, and so popular you might not even notice its flaws.

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