Almost any urban hotel trying to win attention these days reels in a top chef. In Chicago alone, you can eat your way down and around North Michigan Avenue, from the Peninsula's Shanghai Terrace and Avenues to the Park Hyatt's NoMI, and you'll dine well (though skip Marcus Samuelsson's inedible C-House at the Affinia Chicago, an example of what happens when a celebrity chef never cooks).
Madison's hotels, on the other hand, haven't always been the most reliable bunch. Maybe, after sacrificing our civic integrity to the coming behemoth on the lake, we'll get an updated menu out of the Edgewater. But until then, the most consistent hotel dining room is the Hilton's Capitol Chophouse.
In fact, the restaurant has become something of a reliable favorite for us. The dining room is a big, handsome, masculine space, all white linens and brown leather booths, epic photos of the Capitol Building and wood wainscoting. The waitstaff is one of the most polished in town, and you can actually hear yourself talk, though the Sinatra et al. playlist (thankfully muted) verges on Rat Pack overload.
What has made the Chophouse a real local contender is its assured renditions of American classics. When the restaurant recently revamped its menu, I was afraid some of the kitchen's strongest dishes would get sidelined or replaced by dicier dishes.
Mostly that hasn't happened, although the refreshed menu is a mixed success. While the kitchen's oddly spongy little dinner rolls, served with salads and starters, have nothing on Tornado's boulangerie worth of bread sticks, biscuits and mini-bread loaves, its Capitol Chop Salad remains a bulging bargain at $7. The pinwheel of chopped greens (mostly iceberg), chunky blue cheese, tomatoes, cucumber, eggs and bacon is a beautiful little set piece.
The crab cakes are still some of the best in town, fat with crab, and they benefit from a new menu treatment - a mango relish, along with the poblano remoulade and red pepper coulis, that adds a clean, fruity accent. The Capitol Chowder is still a creamy bowl, and the fried calamari, which lost its peanut sauce, is better served by the lemon butter sauce that remains.
It's when the menu gets to entrees that some of the changes are jarring. Partly that's a matter of what has gone missing. The french fries with truffle oil and Parmesan sometimes appear as specials now, but they've been dropped from the regular menu, and that's a mistake. Always crunchy and slicked with truffle oil, the fries were a much better side than the new lobster mac 'n' cheese, which is studded with surprisingly generous pieces of sadly overcooked, chewy lobster meat.
And something alarmingly weird happened to the 16-ounce New York strip steak, which used to be a thick, nicely charred, juicy piece of meat. Now, though it's still advertised as 16 ounces, the price has been bumped up from $32 to $34, and what appears on the plate is a homely, puny slice of meat, thin enough to pop in a toaster, that mostly resembles a breakfast minute steak. And tastes like one.
And while the new dish of broiled garlic shrimp features a lot of very fat shrimp, they have a cottony, tired texture.
None of these easy-to-tweak missteps are fatal, and it's still possible to put together a good meal here, starting with those reliable appetizers and then proceeding to the salmon, which is one very juicy, elegant slice of fish, earning drama from a new cilantro-lime beurre blanc. The free-range slow-roasted chicken does full justice to the bird. The bone-in prime rib is still a big thumping plate of prime meat. And a new beef short ribs dish features tender, braised ribs that would only benefit from a little less of the overpowering red wine sauce.
After food that filling, the Chophouse's rich desserts can seem like overkill. If the menu is still evolving, some simpler, regional, seasonal finishes would work well. Until then, the inevitable crème brûlée trio will satisfy anyone still intrigued by crème brûlée, the chocolate lava cake is a lot of chocolate, and the strawberry cheesecake is as good as any in town. Only the too dense, uninspired banana bread pudding seems anticlimactic, but, like most of the Chophouse's new menu, you can easily work around that.