Some time in the last decade, the favorite foods of Wisconsin developed a kind of idealized sheen. No, that's not just the laminated menu. Certain restaurants took the familiar foods of the state's taverns and supper clubs and started treating them very well, sourcing sausages and meats and cheeses from top purveyors, upgrading the fish in the Friday fry, pairing the food with the best in the state's craft beers. A pioneer in this, the Old Fashioned, continues to be packed, pretty much noon and night.
Buck & Badger joins the Fountain on upper State Street as an ode to Wisconsin dining. Buck & Badger adopts the look of a Northwoods lodge, with light knotty paneling and chunky timber furniture. It looks the part.
But while the Fountain has created its own particularly Madison vibe, playing host to political groups and live music, Buck & Badger seems not to have found its niche. Ultimately, I'd take advantage of the bar's lineup of local beer taps and order a cheeseburger. Because as at the typical up-north lodge, the best bet is not to order anything too unusual.
The menu has some odd notes. Like the bratwurst. It's not detailed -- is it a red brat, a white? Are we talking Stoddard's? Jacobson's? However, it's "topped with caramelized peppers and onions" and "melted Gruyere cheese."
Inconceivable! Gruyere cheese, or cheese of any kind, has no place on a bratwurst. It's unnecessary. Does a bratwurst need more fat? The classic combo of tangy kraut and spicy brown mustard plays off the richness of the sausage. This very mild brat isn't going to inspire visitors to Wisconsin to order one again.
Likewise the "Norwegian Meatball Sandwich" is presented as "smothered with marinara." If a Norwegian meatball is going to be smothered by something, it shouldn't be marinara.
Sometimes it's what the menu fails to describe. The trio of duck sliders is called "house smoked." Nowhere does it mention that the duck will be, well, smothered, by a medicinally sweet barbecue sauce and include almost more onion than duck. If the meat is smoked, I couldn't discern it.
This is the kind of food that you shouldn't be eating a lot of often. So if you're going to eat it, it better be darn good. The Old Fashioned makes these dishes seem less indulgences than necessities ("I can't stop eating this!"). At Buck & Badger, I found myself thinking "I shouldn't be eating this" -- followed by "I wish I hadn't eaten that." Instead of the approach of the well-sourced purist, Buck & Badger too often opts for something that's just needlessly over the top.
Take the B & B BLT, which adds avocado and chipotle mayo to the standard bacon, lettuce, and tomato. Small chunks of avocado don't create much flavor. The sandwich would be fine without thick-cut bacon -- bacon in a BLT should be light and crisp, a contrast to the lettuce. It comes on greasy grilled bread, rather than BLT's default toast. The BLT is meant to be a lighter summer sandwich; I felt duped.
Also heavy is the walleye hoagie -- three pieces of fried fish, quite crisp but also quite greasy, and not tasting very much like walleye.
The sweet mustard coleslaw that comes with all sandwiches varied from visit to visit. Sometimes it had crunch and a decent horseradish kick and was quite good; sometimes it was limp and without much flavor. Once it arrived just too darn warm for coleslaw. When I ordered an upgrade from the coleslaw to one of the suggested sides, I received the coleslaw anyway and was charged for a side. The apple cider glazed carrots were pretty good -- they tasted pleasantly like carrots, with garlic herb crumbs -- but the "add a side...for an additional charge" language seems confusing if all it means is "order a side."
French onion soup was disappointing and vinegary, though on another visit a potato leek soup of the day was better, with decent potato flavor and tang from the leek.
Dinner entrees include a heaping helping of baked macaroni and cheese, a dish that's better off as a side; smoked pork loin ("with an orange demi sauce" that's not necessary); and fried chicken, which might be what I'd choose when wanting a dinner.
However, I'd probably stick with the cheeseburger. From "local Angus beef," it was ground fine and was moist even ordered medium, with a nice fresh brioche-like bun and a choice of cheeses. Hold the coleslaw. Upgrade me to those carrots. Don't grill the bun.