Chef Charlie Socher's restaurant, Café Matou, was a well-regarded part of the Chicago dining scene for over a decade. While it didn't have big-name flash or follow trends, the bistro-y spot attracted the attention of knowledgeable diners with its solid French-centric fare. From eating there in its early days, I remember two comfortably appointed rooms, good service and relatively inexpensive dishes that had moments of flavor-combining greatness.
After Café Matou closed in 2010, Socher moved with his sister (and business partner) to Mineral Point. Joined by veteran front-of-the-house man Bill Penton and his wife, Jean Campbell, the foursome opened MP Dining Company last year in the historic Chesterfield Inn building.
All this goes to explain why one of Madison's most inviting and accomplished new neighborhood restaurants is 50 miles outside of town.
The build-out is simple and elegant. A large, open room with high ceilings has been painted a cheery Provenal yellow. The color highlights the former inn's natural stone charm, and the feel is more that of an Italian farmhouse than an old stagecoach hotel in Wisconsin. Oriental rugs dot the concrete floor and warm the space, as does a large wood-fired oven used to cook both proteins and pizzas. Along the far wall, longtime Madison country club bartender David Potter (Nakoma, Blackhawk) affably and ably mans the shakers.
While Socher describes his food at MP Dining as "American," it is very eclectic American. On one night's menu there may be Cajun gumbo, Korean chicken wings, gnocchi, a Mediterranean-style calamari and a couple of Thai-inspired creations. Items will change seasonally.
French cuisine is mostly absent, except for steak frites. Socher may be having fun with more spice than he was able to use in Chicago; a superb eggplant with portobello over polenta and black beans had serious kick.
For starters, on one visit there was a startlingly delicious pickled herring and smoked salmon rillettes. This arrived as a nicely composed plate of herring, caperberry, thick salmon spread and toast points, as well as a bright watercress salad. Paired with a glass pour of Willamette Valley Riesling ($7.25), it was an uncommon and charming appetizer.
A couple of soups always grace the menu, and on another night a butternut squash with sherry evidenced a chef with long years in the kitchen; just the right amount of celeriac gave it earthy complexity. A yellow split pea soup with bacon and coriander was equally subtle, the spicing evenhanded.
These small, almost imperceptible touches are a Socher hallmark. And they accumulate over the course of a meal.
A swordfish over red potatoes and zucchini was juicy and nearly unadorned except for a light tomato-y sauce underneath that held the three main elements together. It was an additional example of this straightforward, understated style.
The wood-fired oven makes its appearance in a few areas on the menu, such as the pizzas offered on Fridays and Saturdays. But a side of grilled broccoli with olive oil and lemon also arrived fire-roasted until its floral notes sang. I would have enjoyed it even blacker and with higher acidity.
A beef brisket from the oven was a star. Braised low and slow for 16 hours in Spotted Cow beer and served with mashed potatoes and cabbage, it simply melted away into ethereally sour and concentrated meaty flavor. It's an ultimate comfort dish, and it alone is worth the drive.
A three-course prix fixe for $17.50 (Wednesday and Thursday only) grounds the offerings. Less expensive than Madison Restaurant Week's $25 fixed-price menus, this represents absurdly good value. (This prix fixe is available for a limited time.)
One sample entrée was a spaghetti carbonara that was perfectly al dente and popped with tang from bits of pork and red pepper. Dessert was sautéed apple with phyllo and caramel sauce, a decadent architectural display of crispy pastry triangles stacked above gently cooked apples. A big dollop of fresh whipped cream added a richness that pushed the dish toward a dessert version of chilaquiles - all cream and crunch.
At first it seems odd for a restaurant to call itself "American" yet sport a globally inspired menu that skews mostly Italian and Thai. But in the casual dining segment, if a restaurant aspires to have regulars, the two main moods to satisfy are comfort and a touch of adventure. Italian and Thai have come to define these two dining directions for Americans probably more than any other cuisines.
It is refreshing to find both options done well in one place, removing any need to haggle with dining partners over whether to go cozy or daring. My hunch is these are the dishes Socher himself likes to eat, and he passes along great everyday examples to his diners.
Add to this menu strategy a decent wine list where most bottles are under $30, and there's a compelling reason to eat here often.
MP Dining Company has great atmosphere, and the spot-on service and food are clearly the result of many years in the industry. The place feels right. That chef Socher chose to resettle in a spot 50 miles outside of Madison isn't an inconvenience; it's a happy bit of luck.