The Local Tavern
102 King St., 287-1455
11 am-11 pm daily. Ramp parking. Wheelchair accessible. Nonsmoking. Sammiches $7-$9, dinner entrÃes $13-$15. Major credit cards.
Is 102 King St. haunted? Maybe the ghosts here just don't like restaurants. Since I've been in town, I've witnessed CafÃ Europa, Chesapeake Bagel Bakery, Luigi's and the Flatiron all flourish and suddenly vanish from the lovely 19th-century stone building at the apex of the King Street-Pinckney Street triangle. Even the canny Food Fight group couldn't make a go of it here.
And now we have the Local Tavern, the latest to venture into a spot that may be haunted ' but more likely just hasn't had an occupant to come up with the right formula for success.
The Local has made scant effort to improve the decor left by the Flatiron folks. They have repainted the walls in ketchup and mustard colors, but that hasn't brightened up the place any, and it sure could use brightening up ' or, at least, intimate lighting. The space is dim without being romantic. There is a dining room seating about 60, and an adjoining room with a long bar and more dining tables.
The principals have a wealth of restaurant experience. Jim Picard was with the Flatiron. Sue Kirton owns the Opus Lounge. Ethan Lund has been with the Orpheum, Brocach and Opus, and was chiefly responsible for turning Mickey's into an east-side hotspot. Executive chef Alex Caves apprenticed in Japan and cooked at the renowned Heaven City in Mukwonago. So these people should know what they're doing. The only thing is, I can't figure out what it is they're doing.
The menu seems to be the work of a committee, which it may well be, with four owners. There is a little of the old South here, a bit of Japanese, some traditional bar food, a couple of vegetarian items and a pinch of Italian. And if you're looking for something local at the Local, well, there's RP pasta in the Duck Buscatini and the Linguini Local. And the menu has welcome touches of humor throughout, if you can get over gagging when they call all their sandwiches 'sammiches.' (The Earl of Sammich himself would gag.)
Several visits to the Local have yielded mixed results. A dinner visit was most unimpressive. We began with an app ('apps' being the menu's plural of this noun) of Louisiana Lobster pot stickers. In Japan these are called gyoza. They are little dumplings filled with a morsel of meat of some kind, then folded over, pinched shut and steamed. These were supposed to be filled with minced crawfish, but they might just as well have been filled with pork or duck or raccoon, since no flavor of any kind came through the dough. A sweet dipping sauce vainly attempted a rescue.
On the other hand, a Mushroom Delight salad was indeed a delight, warm slices of portobello mushroom served with candied cashews and sugar snap peas on a bed of mixed greens with a spirited wasabi vinaigrette. The wasabi successfully countered the sweet ingredients, while the portobello added meaty substance. A winner.
Among entrÃes, barbecued ribs is supposedly a signature dish here, but these must be among the least inspired ribs I have ever encountered. I don't doubt that they were slow-cooked, for the meat was tender. But I don't believe these ribs ever sniffed a single puff of wood smoke, and they were therefore virtually tasteless. And the cloyingly sweet barbecue sauce did little to rescue them.
On the other hand, the accompanying baked beans were hearty, meaty and just a little spicy, and the creamy, sweet coleslaw was a nice complement.
The Southern Roast Chicken platter was fine enough. This was a bone-in breast, marinated and pan-roasted. No excitement here, but then you don't demand much excitement from a chicken. The accompanying dumplings were similarly subdued, but the tart collard greens perked up the dish quite a bit.
At lunch one day, I did grimace and order a Local Pig Sammich. And it was good. The pulled pork shoulder, slow-cooked to tender perfection, lacked smoky essence, but that was okay, because the nice flavor of the pork itself carried the sandwich. And it was served on a substantial kaiser bun. Just a little of the accompanying sweet barbecue sauce was enough to add further interest. I recommend this sandwich.
Finally, I recommend the Local Hero, a five-ounce slab of sirloin served with sautÃed mushrooms, caramelized onions and a sherry garlic sauce on a ciabatta roll. Accompanied by Cajun coleslaw and mashed sweet potatoes, this combination, like many dishes at the Local, does verge dangerously toward the overly sweet. If you're going to do the sweet-tart thing, you gotta remember the tart.
The Local has a nice selection of martinis, wines and beers (Lake Louie on tap!) but specializes in gimlets. I recommend the Barbados Lime gimlet, made with Gold Mount Gay Eclipse rum and fresh lime juice. A refreshing departure from Madison's overworked margaritas.
The Local has a little more shaking down to do before it can compete successfully in the King Street restaurant row (and I include the Great Dane here), but I trust the talented ownership committee to do some serious shakin' and bakin', lest the curse of 102 strike again.