Downtown Oregon has undergone quite a bit of renovation and restoration lately, and it has changed the dining scene there most of all. Maria's Pizza is still the humble little brick cube, but Señor Peppers jumped across the street from its original location into a snazzed-up storefront, and its former home has been rigorously overhauled and transformed into Mason's on Main, a "New American" bistro that's shooting for big game in Madison's neighbor to the south.
Oregon may be a village, but it is slowly establishing itself as a culinary competitor to Stoughton and Verona, when not too long ago there wasn't much outside of DeBroux's Diner. Mason's on Main is making an honest effort at the next level of modern American cuisine.
And an honest effort it is, even as it struggles. The name of executive chef Daniel Bear, who has been there from day one starting as sous chef, graces every page of the menu, as well as the name of the dry-aged and Spotted Cow-marinated ribeye. The appetizer menu is labeled "tapas," though there isn't a Spanish dish on it, and many are too robust to function as appetizers, like the croque madame and the Reuben pot pie.
Servers tended to over-recommend items and yet, on several visits, struggled to describe dish specifics.
When Mason's on Main debuted last year, it was open for weekday lunch and weekend brunch in addition to dinner. Now there is only the dinner shift, though according to the restaurant's Facebook page, plans are in place to launch a late-night menu this month, on Fridays and Saturdays. This can only be a good sign.
Prime rib is a standard Saturday special in Wisconsin, and Mason's serves three sizes of vibrant pink, fat-marbled steak for this occasion. The 14-ounce version in the middle of this lineup was juicy but bland, with fat that could have been rendered a little softer. Cheesy scalloped potatoes on the side were cemented together -- dare I say it, too cheesy. Would that everything could have been as fun as the fried chives on top of the steak, a smart idea.
There's a surf-and-turf aesthetic to the menu. Sesame tempura shrimp came with two sauces, neither of which was particularly evocative of sesame. The breading was distressingly funnel cake-esque, but the shrimp were cooked nicely. A dinner special of barramundi (a type of Asian sea bass) arrived with overly salted summer vegetables and two undercooked, unevenly cleaned scallops, while the fish itself was overcooked and oily.
Oil is a consistent problem at Mason's. The chicken carbonara could have been a fine dish, with Fox Heritage bacon and plenty of grilled chicken, but the sauce was either broken or very poorly made, and oil pooled at the bottom of the plate. A young diner joined me for one meal, and his chicken tenders were darkly overfried, while otherwise tasty cheese curds were mostly blond and, yes, oily. (Chives stole the show once again, this time in the excellent accompanying aioli.)
The worst performer was a plate of gnocchi primavera, which were gnocchi in name only. More reminiscent of smashed potatoes or home fries, these burnt, flattened dough fragments bore no resemblance to what anyone else would call gnocchi, and were swimming in oil besides. It was topped with an inelegant pile of raw arugula.
The only dish I came away actually enjoying was the Kobe burger -- the dish for which I had the lowest expectations.
There's almost no good reason to grind wagyu beef, destroying any benefit its finely marbled fat might impart, and yet this burger was juicy, flavorful and cooked to my specifications (though my request for a preference from the kitchen was met with an absent, deer-in-the-headlights expression; I asked for medium). It was a mess, and very sweet from the tomato jam, but Fox Heritage bacon and the good patty nearly justified the $14 price tag.
In small towns, top-quality chefs will be hard to come by, and expectations are difficult to gauge. But Mason's on Main is a real kitchen aspiring for quality -- and falling short.