One of the best things about living in Madison is the fact that we're day-trip close to ethereal Spring Green. Even that ripe name has a pastoral whiff to it. And if one of the Midwest's artiest villages wasn't already alluring enough, given American Players Theatre, Taliesin and the venerable General Store, it now flaunts something Madison doesn't. That's Arcadia Books, which is everything a perfect bookstore should be and a reminder of what we lost when Borders closed. The only thing that's been missing from Spring Green has been ambitious restaurants that live up to the area's blooming frame of farms.
The Bank Restaurant and Wine Bar came close, and that restaurant was just hitting its stride - a very good one - when it suddenly closed. Hope revived, though, this fall when Freddy Valentine's Public House took over the Bank's space, in the town's converted neoclassical bank, and I heard mostly positive things. "It's authentic," a friend said.
Now, authenticity is one of those spongy words that's hard to define and can mean pretty much nothing in an age when everything tries to pass for authentic (consider those thuggishly faux-sincere BP ads that trumpet their commitment to America - i.e. the federally enforced cleanup of the coast they destroyed).
But Freddy Valentine's deserves credit for sincerely trying to revive some authentic heartland grub along with downtown Spring Green, even if the restaurant's interior feels like a minor slight to authenticity. Repurposing the bank's original counters and teller's windows as seats and wall mountings, Valentine's has salvaged a bit of genuine Spring Green history, but uprooted it too. What takes center stage in the front pub room are two epic flat-screen TVs, turned to a blaring sports channel when we passed through. The warren of dining rooms beyond the bar are quieter, calmed by inky dark walls, though the best place to sit while summer still holds off fall is the side terrace, shaded by big red umbrellas.
What you'll be eating is the kind of menu that has become the go-to local standard, classic comfort food crossed with some polite border hopping. This isn't exciting or particularly memorable food (ironically, the Bank's final incarnation was much stronger), but the strategy makes sense. After the Bank's closing, caution is understandable, and most of what the Valentine's kitchen dishes up is decent value for the money.
When it falls short, it's because it clings too tightly to safety and serves too many bland flavors. The kitchen's beet and tomato salad, for instance, should showcase a much more buoyant display of produce than its slices of standard-issue red tomatoes. In fact, we collected a gorgeous horde of heirloom tomatoes at a farm two miles away, an hour after dining. The shepherd's pie should offer more, too, than mashed potatoes overwhelming a soupy lake of chopped meat. And the mac 'n' cheese would do better as a thoughtful take on the original, marrying a heartland classic dish and artisanal dairyland cheeses, instead of the dull rigatoni pasta dish that it morphs into here.
But those missteps are redeemed by lots of choices, and there is enough here to keep you eating happily (and drinking; area brews Lake Louie and Furthermore are on the draft beer list). I especially liked the trio of brat sliders - a nice regional variation on the ubiquitous burger slider, lifted by a tangle of onions and braised cabbage.
The shrimp tostados, though they could use a better base, came flaunting big grilled shrimp. Even better was the chicken club featuring big, beautifully battered, crunchy chunks of meaty chicken. Salmon pot pie was cleanly updated, the seared salmon glazed with a lemon cream sauce and paired with a triangle of puff pastry so airy it almost levitated.
Best of all were the Valentine's meat dishes, especially a slow smoked beef brisket that was mostly tender, with a chipotle barbecue sauce that managed to fluidly layer a trio of notes: sweet, tangy and subtly spicy.
The happiest surprise was dessert. A homemade strawberry shortcake was an instant classic, its light biscuit crown offset by the freshest strawberries and a feathery lick of whipped cream. That's the best sign yet that Spring Green may ultimately get what it deserves.