The Jovian Taphaus tries to mash sports bar, beer hall and upscale restaurant into one entity and succeed as a community watering hole for the Grandview Commons neighborhood. Plus, the place needs to whisk away memories of its predecessor, Cloud 9 Grille, which flamed out last March. It's a tall order.
In the lower-level pub area, the idea is to nosh and catch a sporting event. Foreigner, ELO and the Eagles are on the stereo. Convivial groups of families and blue-collar guys gather to watch one of many games on one of many flat screens, eat burgers and drink cold brew.
The beer list is extensive. It takes up as much room on the menu as the food and caters to the Wisconsin of yesteryear (Leinenkugel's Red, Pabst Blue Ribbon) without ignoring microbrews, including locals Lake Mills Bitter Woman IPA, Ale Asylum Mad Town Nut Brown and Central Waters Ouisconsing.
The deep-fried cheese curds are from Kramer's Dairy in Watertown, and weren't quite hot enough, but quickly vanished anyway. "I love cheese curds, and there's no such thing as bad one," said the Wisconsinite next to me, with some wisdom. "Some are better than others, that's all."
So-called Molten Lava fried potatoes are served with beer cheese, chives and bacon bits, and the plate is actually on fire when it arrives at the table. Whoa! The idea is to dip the potato into the beer cheese, then roll it in the bacon bits-kind of a dipping version of potato skins, and one that successfully upgrades a bar-food classic. Battered shrimp, breaded mushrooms, fried pickles and fried calamari round out the appetizers; the standout is braised short rib sliders on a brioche bun.
Porky's Deluxe is a slow-roasted pulled pork sandwich on ciabatta. It's bracingly satisfying, especially when anointed with the fresh cut jalapeño slices that come on the side. The fish tacos with Creole coleslaw and a shrimp sandwich with scallions are also good pub meals. The Taphaus burger - ordered medium - was too pink, but otherwise a decent entry into the Gigantor school of burgers, heavy with onions, pickles, tomatoes and melted Wisconsin cheddar.
Somewhat lighter options include four salads ranging from a wedge with blue cheese, red onion and bacon; to a beer-battered chicken and spinach salad with apples and pecan vinaigrette.
The upstairs is the more formal dining room, clearly the area you want if you're here on a dinner date (and this is where diners can gawk at the panoramic view of Madison from the hilltop). Here the menu takes an American classic like mac 'n' cheese and ups the ante by pairing it with honey beer-braised pork bellies. A beef stroganoff is amped with portobello mushrooms. And there are various takes on grilled meat, like "Bone-in Cowboy Ribeye" and roasted pig shoulder.
The fish and chips (actually french fries) arrived plenty hot, but without lemon wedges or vinegar. Unthinkable! There wasn't much Atlantic cod under all that batter, either, and who could tell what the fish tasted like? This was a greasy disappointment. Flatiron steak, by contrast, was tender and flavorful, but steamed broccoli and potatoes on the side seem piled on to no effect.
The service for our visits was outstanding; we received excellent recommendations and a friendly and relaxed approach. This was encouraging, because it's been a wobbly opening, even according to staff. "The original chef from Watertown did not work out," explains general manager Jason Kinslow, who imported Allen Yedlin from Kansas City as the new chef (barely one month in) to bring a culture of scratch cooking and German training.
And changes are afoot: A program to source more vegetables from Wisconsin and Minnesota is in place, and Bud Lite will be replaced with Delirium Tremens. "We're going to develop the beer list to be a little heavier," says Kinslow, "after a bit of a cautious start."
While this is a worthy attempt, Jovian can't quite keep all the plates spinning. The upscale dining doesn't work as well as the sports coverage in the pub. That's a win, and the beer list is a smash, but the food so far fails to be exciting.