Southern-style: Chicken and biscuit, with sweet sausage gravy.
Bassett Street Brunch Club, the brunch-all-day spot on the ground floor of the new Hampton Inn at Bassett and West Johnson streets, has managed to belie a truism of campus-area dining: that a location not on State Street is tough to make a go of. BSBC, on a corner previously on no one's radar, has become a big draw.
Early word on Bassett Street Brunch Club characterized it as "Monty's-downtown"; the Atwood Avenue diner is a sibling Food Fight restaurant. But the new space, with floor-to-ceiling windows, a bar and a U-shaped diner counter, sports a different atmosphere.
Before Christmas, during finals, it felt like a very popular airport restaurant, packed with people on their way to somewhere else. The temporary conviviality struck an old chord, too, reminding me of the bustle of Rennebohm's lunch counters, if Rennebohm's had boasted a liquor license and oversized robot posters.
During the polar vortex, the counter was a respite when I ducked in to get a hot horchata (better than hot chocolate!), milky sweetness topped with a puff of froth and a sprinkle of cinnamon. The horchata latte is as good, and almost as sweet.
Which is to say the "club" moniker is not just wishful thinking. There's something chummy about the Brunch Club that makes you feel good, good enough that you may not even notice how your food is maybe a little more so-so than you might have wished.
The menu is broken into "brunchy entrees" both sweet and savory, salads, sandwiches, appetizers and dinner entrees. Much of what slides across the gleaming stainless pass-through from the kitchen are huge brunch platters. Almost everything is plated with a fried egg.
The shrimp and grits, topped with an Italian-style tomato sauce (and a fried egg), comes with plenty of shrimp. I managed to eat a little over half the portion as a late breakfast, and not only was I not hungry again by dinner, I was not hungry by the next morning. I liked this dish, though the shrimp had a kung-pao-ish flavor I couldn't account for.
Grits can also be ordered as a side, with cheddar instead of Parmesan and a generous strafing of bacon. If possible, suggest the kitchen go light on the cheddar, so it's less like eating a bowl of cheese.
The chicken and biscuit, built on a plump buttermilk biscuit nestled in a puddle of sweetish Southern sausage gravy, is topped with a big chunk of deep-fried white meat chicken (and a fried egg). Maybe the gravy is the best part. Or maybe the accompanying apple-bacon salad: greens, tart-sweet dressing, plenty of apple slices, and lots of bacon. It's too much bacon for such a diminutive salad, but the greens are a necessary counterpoint to the overkill of the rest of the dish. The chicken is not entirely necessary (or perhaps the egg is not necessary -- pick one).
The Daily Egg, an always-vegetarian option available as an omelet or a scramble, came overcooked and rubbery when ordered as an omelet. Inside, underdone cubes of sweet potato, green onion, tomato and chevre didn't really come together as a filling.
The lemon ricotta pancakes topped with blueberries and whipped ricotta are very, very sweet, with too much lemon flavoring and a blueberry syrup that overwhelms the actual blueberries. My tablemate, however, polished them off while repeating that they were "the heaviest pancakes I've ever eaten."
You can order lemon ricotta blueberry pancakes and chocolate pancakes and bananas Foster French toast here, but you can't order "a pancake" -- you know, the buttermilk kind that comes with maple syrup. There is almost nothing that simple at BSBC, except the option of coffee and a doughnut. The specialty doughnuts (studded with treats like breakfast cereal, or hazelnuts, or bacon) are middle of the pack compared with other Madison-area doughnuts. Coffee, from Colectivo, tends to be thick and dark.
Away from breakfast, the chicken chimichurri sandwich on toasted sourdough is a good twist on the familiar grilled chicken sandwich. The Butternut and Blue is a refreshing salad, with butternut squash, walnuts, large boulders of blue cheese, apple slices and crisp fried parsnip strips.
Most disappointing were the tempura fish tostadas. The cod was cold and tough and the batter a long way from tempura. Plus, the chipotle salsa makes for a bitter, jarring flavor combo. With only two tostadas to the $12 platter (no side), these may be the most expensive fish tacos in town.
I didn't eat anything at Bassett Street Brunch Club that made me think, "Wow, I need to order this again," yet everything on the menu that I haven't tried still sounds tempting. This includes the long list of hair-of-the-dog cocktails, the crème brulée oatmeal and the macaroni and cheese with kale (both recommended to me by staff at the front desk of the Hampton Inn), as well as the savory French toast....
Such is the magic of the Brunch Club.