When we Wisconsinites hear the words "supper club," a heap of golden-battered walleye and a Lazy Susan loaded with crudités probably spring to mind. But across the country, a different kind of supper club is making a comeback. These supper clubs, occasional dinners with carefully planned menus, often occur in a secret location and can require a bit of playful cloak-and-dagger to wrangle an invitation. Some feature well-known chefs, but many are simply opportunities for ambitious home cooks to gather with friends and share a passion for eating. Circolo Supper Club is kind of a hybrid of these approaches.
Circolo Supper Club possesses a firmly entrenched local pedigree. Its parent enterprise, Circolo Catering, is owned and operated by Ben and Christy Roberts, who own the two Pasqual's locations in Madison as well as Verona's Gallup Coffee and Bakehouse. The supper club occurs once or twice a month in the Gallup space and has a fixed-price menu with a theme that changes according to what the staff dreams up.
Past themes have ranged from Northern Italy (whose menu included a T-bone topped with triple tomato risotto) to a romantic Valentine's evening complete with lobster tail and beef tenderloin. Upcoming themes include "On a Stick," an eclectic menu in which everything, as advertised, has at least some contact with a stick, and "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," a traditional four-course Italian meal complete with cocktails, wines, coffee and sambuca.
I had high hopes for the Mexican night, given Circolo's sisterhood with Pasqual's. In fact, the actual theme of the evening was "Pasqual's Night." The idea of being invited to eat nachos, a taco, a quesadilla and an enchilada in succession sounded muy bueno. The supper club's menus vary in price and number of courses, but this evening the price of dinner ($26) included three beers (Negra Modelo or Especial) or a margarita and a beer. The two-margarita upgrade cost a couple more dollars, but I wanted to leave upright, so I stuck to the one tall, tart-sweet margarita I was entitled to.
The meal began with individual servings of nachos piled with sliced black olives, jalapeños, scallions, tomatoes, lettuce, sour cream, green pepper and melted cheese. The nachos were warm, but just barely, and the cheese was rubbery enough to bring to mind the dreaded words "heat lamp."
Long after we'd finished our nachos, the entrees finally came. The wait had caused me to wonder if the entrees were going to be fresher than the nachos, or just delayed. When they did come, the plates were pretty: an artful stack of beef hard-shell taco, a chicken and avocado quesadilla, and a red chile pork enchilada, accompanied by black beans, Spanish rice and salsa. But each of the entrees, like the nachos, fell short. My table generally liked the taco, though I thought the shredded beef was a mite too tough. The quesadilla's filling was merely bland and moist. The avocado and seemingly unseasoned chicken pleaded for some definition - a simple pico de gallo, for example - and the tortilla was dried out. The red chile pork enchilada was the most flavorful part of the meal, although my more enchilada-picky companions thought the tortilla was too soft; the texture reminded one of "pudding."
Dessert wasn't included, which was a disappointment given the cost of the dinner. We did order cookies from Gallup's bakery case. The gingersnap was the clear winner, its chewy texture offset by coarse sugar and a strong, gingery bite. A still-thawing seven-layer bar had a rich butterscotch flavor but ultimately struck out by virtue of its overpowering sweetness and icy temperature. A freshly made bar, or even one at room temperature, would be welcome.
My favorite part of the evening wasn't the food, but everything else. Every Circolo staff member I came in contact with was personable even while busy, and the colorful, packed dining room bubbled with conversation. Gloomy weather kept the patio closed that night, but even from indoors, the view of the silvery pond and a wide swath of sky was enough to make me want to return and commune with a margarita out there.
Some of the upcoming menus, like the "On a Stick" night on June 5, are intriguing enough to draw me back. (How often do you get to have Brazilian kebabs, chicken satay and fried mozzarella on a stick in the same dinner?) Next time, I'll make sure to get a seat on the patio.