Getting a table for the Gourmet Dining Room at Madison College's Truax campus feels a bit like trying to score a spot at a hot restaurant. It's not exactly easy. The website isn't well maintained, and it's not entirely clear that you can, in fact, get a four-course formal dinner experience for $20.
And further, that this experience is available at noon sharp and will last nearly two hours.
And that it's served in a room (120A/B) that's not on any kind of map (though just ask where to go at the front desk). Yet even these hurdles will seem minor compared to navigating the parking situation. Diners are allowed in the "visitor parking" area, but with that full, we left the car on a curb and prayed. Which is to say, give yourself plenty of time to get in your seats.
In past semesters, the menus (which change midway through the semester) have been posted online, but the current menu, based on Thomas Keller's venerable Napa Valley restaurant the French Laundry, wasn't posted as of this writing. The current offering will last for the next few weeks, at which time the menu will likely change to a "slow food" theme, depending on classroom schedule and when local ingredients become available.
Somehow, in-the-know diners do find their way to the "restaurant," a room that feels like a windowless hotel bar with the addition of large, closed-circuit flat-panel monitors on the walls. The screens show the classroom kitchen hard at work on your meal behind the scenes, and it is all very surreal in the best way imaginable. Lovers of food TV, rejoice; it's like being live on set.
There's a hostess stand plopped in the hallway, and as you leave the bustle of students on the way to class or heading out to jobs, the scene transitions abruptly to a serene setting with classical music and hushed conversation. White tablecloths are topped with bread baskets and whipped butter in ramekins. There are fresh flowers on the tables and smartly dressed servers.
The servers are all in the Madison College Culinary Arts Program, and are all required to practice their skills on the dining room floor as well as in the kitchen. So your server could be a future pastry god who isn't so sharp with your table orders, or a self-assured future front-of-the-house manager who whips plates around like she was raised in a diner. They all appear a bit nervous, but capable and very congenial.
There are at least two options for each of the four courses.
The first course, a torchon of foie gras poached in stock and then chilled, arrived with a couple of toast points, pickled cherries and a tuft of arugula. The cherries didn't quite sing enough to counteract the fattiness of the foie, but the arugula dressed in vinaigrette helped, and made for a commendable starter. Better was the "macaroni and cheese," a delightful preparation of lobster tail (a bit underdone) resting on orzo pasta in a lobster broth and mascarpone sauce. There was a crunchy Parmesan pinwheel resting on top of it all, with flecks of red lobster and green onion making for a beautiful plating with great texture contrasts.
The second course was the least successful. The "soup and sandwich" was a fine, if not particularly notable, grilled cheese with an accompanying tomato consommé. A victim of less-than-stellar winter produce, the consommé contained three small blanched and peeled tomatoes that were hard and flavorless. The consommé itself was a tad watery.
But the plate was redeemed by spectacular butter-fried sweet potato chips. The other option was a deconstructed Caesar salad in which every ingredient was fighting, or at least sticking to, every other. A deliciously tangy anchovy sauce competed for attention — and lost — with a thick balsamic reduction that seemed out of place.
For the third course, there was a straightforward pot-au-feu of braised short rib with roasted vegetables on potato purée. The generous portion of meat was a touch tough, but flavorful and comfortingly familiar, with vegetables immaculately diced and a rich sauce artfully smeared around the plate like a Robert Motherwell ink painting. The sautéed veal medallion with shiitake, crimini and oyster mushrooms may not have been quite as prettily presented, but was supremely delicious. French green beans provided just enough crunch and color to give the plate added interest.
Both desserts were accomplished stars — a strawberry shortcake with fluffy yet toothsome shortbread biscuits and fresh strawberries as well as strawberry sorbet perched atop a vanilla bean crème fraîche sauce. It was a study in contrasts between fresh and prepared fruit that enlivened the palate. Not to be outdone, a cranberry apple kuchen with a hot brown butter cream sauce threatened to steal the whole show.
While there may have been some minor foibles in service, and a couple of alarming Caesar salad bites, the overall impression of the Gourmet Dining Room was of a surprisingly perfectly paced — and relaxing — formal restaurant experience. The meal runs smoothly, the hostess stops by just frequently enough for it all to feel real, and for these students who are making a career of hospitality, it's a true working lab where your visit will be worth every penny.
Madison College Gourmet Dining Room
Noon Tues., Wed. and Thurs. through April 23 (no meals March 16-20 and April 6-10); meals resume in the fall. Advance reservations required: 608-246-6368 or