123 E. Doty Street, Madison WI 53703 (map); 608-284-0000; greatdanepub.com
Cooking Method: Broiled
Short Order: Outstanding burgers offered in a good variety keeps people filling up the massive restaurant just off Capitol Square
Want Fries With That? Yes, they're well-seasoned, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside
Price: Sustain-A-Burger, $9.25; Brat & Bacon Pretzel Burger, $10
Notes: 3 additional locations
Filling a massive space that was formerly the Fess Hotel in downtown Madison is the original location of The Great Dane. In less than 15 years since it was founded in 1996, The Great Dane has added three more locations and has established itself a favorite for burgers among Madisonians.
The building itself is a beautiful structure on the National Register of Historic Places and is actually two different structures that have been merged into one building. The restaurant, which is also a brewery, has a huge main floor divided into two rooms (one in each of the original buildings), an 80-seat Rathskellar with the original stone walls dating back over one hundred years, a patio/balcony, and a large outdoor seating area in a peaceful walled-in garden. As nice as the building is, the burgers are even better.
Great Dane offers eight different burgers, and on each of them diners have the option of trading in their beef patty for turkey, veggie, buffalo, grass-fed beef, or increasing their patty size from 1/3 of a pound to one-half. The first burger I tried, the Sustain-A-Burger, is a little different in that it starts with a choice of grass-fed cow or buffalo. Everything on the Sustain-A-Burger, which is one of the most basic burgers offered at Great Dane, comes from local farms.
We opted for buffalo, cooked to medium rare, and were more than a little happy with the results. The burger comes with "seasonal cheddar," which in this case was an excellent thick piece of medium sharp white cheddar. Finishing things off were organic greens and a thick slice of an outstanding tomato. It's not flashy, but the Sustain-A-Burger is absolutely delicious; a shining example of a simple burger made with top ingredients at a very reasonable price.
For my second burger, I decided to get a little more adventurous. When I reviewed Kuma's, I mentioned how I always went in planning to get the Goblin Cock, a burger topped with a Chicago style hot dog, but each time ended up getting something else. Well, Kuma's recently changed their menu and the Goblin Cock is no more. When I saw the Brat & Bacon Pretzel Burger on the menu at Great Dane, I was not going to make the same mistake again.
Like most burgers at the restaurant, this indulgent version starts with a third of a pound of choice ground beef, complemented by a quarter-pound bratwurst patty and a nice pile of caramelized onions. Because that's not quite enough, the chef adds a couple of thick pieces of applewood smoked bacon on top of the burger along with a thick slice of sharp cheddar. Lettuce, tomato and a couple of slices of dill pickle finish off this gorgeous beast of a burger that's served on a pretzel roll.
To say this burger was delicious would be an understatement. The beef patty, made from medium ground, loosely packed meat, remained the star. Thanks to the brat and bacon, there was a little extra salt, but by no means was it overpowering as it was well balanced by the sweetness from the caramelized onions. The cheddar, which is sufficiently thick and tangy to stand up to all the meat, was excellent. The burger was served with housemade mustard, a grainy concoction featuring house-brewed Beck's Pilsner. The bun had good flavor, but ultimately was defeated by the burger and fell apart.
Each burger comes with a choice of housemade applesauce, pub fries, cole slaw, mashed potatoes, baked beans, fresh vegetables, sweet fried plantains, or almond-fragranced Israeli cous cous. We opted for fries with one burger and applesauce with the other. The fries are a little thicker than average and had a nice crisp exterior with an appropriately soft interior. There was good potato flavor and they were nicely seasoned with salt and pepper. The cinnamon-heavy apple sauce was a little sweet and unfortunately did not have any apple peel, but was still a nice side.
The Great Dane was actually the first in a three-part journey through the burgers of Madison. Both burgers I tried were seriously delicious, but I am happy to report that the other two burgers I had in Wisconsin's capital were even better. Reports on those delicious meals coming soon.
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