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Wednesday, April 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 29.0° F  Overcast
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Roast Public House ups the ante on campus casual
Sandwiches on State

Credit:Eric Tadsen
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Recent UW-Madison grads Doug Hamaker and Henry Aschauer are entering the area dining scene with what could be a wise concept: a convenient hangout for campus-area diners looking to eat from-scratch and local, yet on a student's budget. Roast Public House is the type of place anyone could go with friends or even a visiting mom or dad. Or to have dinner with a date, after a few rounds of ping-pong in the basement (one of my favorite surprises at Roast). Executive chef Andrew Greenberg is a former classmate of Hamaker's. Knowing their audience serves them well.

Roast is a counter-service sandwich shop that opened three months ago. As the name implies, roasted meats are featured prominently. The exposed brick walls and dark wood complement simple, sleek metallic décor that's without pretense. It feels young, and what Roast lacks in nuance it makes up for with bounce. The execution of menu items needs a bit of finesse, but Roast has a lot of potential.

Aschauer gestures to the counter behind him, explaining that while customers usually order there, he could take our orders tableside since the night was slow. He eats the cranberry and apple "Harvest" salad almost every day, he says. Sold.

The mesclun greens fill a full-size dinner plate, and, while fairly basic, the toss-ins of apple, dried cranberry, goat cheese and walnuts never get old. Although the ratio of greens to toppings was a bit heavy, this is a dish I could eat frequently.

For sandwiches, Aschauer recommends the giambotta. It rhymes with ciabatta.

The giambotta is a good place to start. It's sexy as all get-out on paper: slow-roasted pork shoulder, cherry pepper pork gravy and vinegar peppers on a baguette. When the sandwich arrived I initially thought I had received the wrong one. Pork shoulder, when cooked slow and low, is usually a cut that stays pleasantly tender and juicy due to being about 30% fat. This shoulder was a bit on the dry side. Moreover, I couldn't detect any cherry pepper gravy. I'd also expected it to be pulled, which might help the moisture.

Most of the sandwiches we ordered were in need of more moisture, especially those served on toasted bread. We were there on the first night after the restaurant's holiday hiatus, and it was slow. Maybe things were a little dry because of that, or maybe there's something to be tweaked in how the meat is held for service.

Many menu items have very alluring components, and it's a shame they don't shine more. The Gialla Rosa, a turkey sandwich with brie and cranberry-jalapeño relish, is a case in point. The cranberry relish needs more jalapeño, and the sandwich needs more brie and more relish, both meagerly applied.

The Guinness Stout beef brisket with horseradish crème and pickled onions also went astray. The Guinness got lost in the mix. And the brisket is another cut that has great interstitial fat and may do best in a heftier presentation, not sliced thin like deli meat.

The chili and soup were rather thick; both could use a bit more liquid. But the carrot ginger soup was a favorite at the table.

The portions are inconsistent. The brisket sandwich was dwarfed by the giambotta and by the bacon-wrapped meatloaf sandwich (a special that should be on the regular menu), with a slab of meatloaf pushing two inches thick.

But in the end, nothing is more than $9, so the value is good. And a phenomenal difference in flavor is a few easy tweaks away.

Do order the Sriracha lime aioli. Although it's served only with select items, be that person if you have to and order it on something else anyway. It goes great with the sweet potato steak fries. The goldfish cracker-crusted mozzarella sticks are a fun twist, too.

Roast may be young, but it's certainly deserving of a chance to mature.

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