The Yukon Pavé could well be a winner.
Rare Steakhouse, the newest offering from Noble Chef Hospitality (Capital Tap Haus, Buck and Badger, Ivory Room), looks like the prototypical steakhouse. There's the beautifully appointed mahogany dining room, the opulent red leather booths, a tedious wine list full of big Napa cabernets, doting waiters in white jackets, and exclusive private dining. There's also an impressive-looking glass-encased wine cellar and a wine club to go with it –– membership to which gets you a locker with a personalized brass plaque.
Such signature, albeit outmoded, elements of the steakhouse genre are dutifully re-created down to the finest detail, save for one thing: the execution, which, instead of matching the elegant build-out, is akin to watching a kid pick up his prom date in dad's Cadillac. Inconsistent food and service hamstring what could be a real red-meat contender in Madison's crowded downtown dining scene.
With miles of wood (three miles, to be exact) complemented by a shiny black ceiling set with chandeliers, Rare's interior pops; its smart layout and luxe style create a serene environment across from the Capitol. In the bar, which sports its own abbreviated menu, there are thoughtful touches like a subtle, well-placed TV and a convenient high table to accommodate larger groups.
The vibe here is clubby, but casual and inviting. On offer are well-made cocktails served by friendly, skillful staff. Both a Scofflaw, a Prohibition-era rye whiskey and grenadine drink from Paris; and an easy-quaffing Negroni, made with less abrasive Luxardo Aperitivo rather than the usual Campari, were excellent.
Service in the dining room is very forward, which is to say you'll know your waitstaff –– and even get their business cards –– by the end of the meal. This style isn't for everyone, so if you're expecting a reserved experience where service is seen but not heard, you'll be disappointed and annoyed. Surprisingly, since there is a fleet of captains and servers and runners, timing is often off, leading to gaffes such as shared appetizers arriving with no accompanying plates upon which to eat them.
First courses are unsuccessful. The crab cakes are generous, crisped hunks of solid lump crabmeat with a hint of citrus. But while they're larger than those at the Capitol Chophouse, a too-thick chili aioli makes them greasier and clumsier.
The Oysters Rockefeller are soggy and appear tossed on the plate, the Pleasant Ridge Reserve and Nueske's bacon that should be their saving grace lost in murk. The beet gnocchi, which are as firm as pencil erasers, need to come off the menu. I could hear Gordon Ramsay: "If your gnocchi can ever, even once, make it to the dining room floor like that, f@%ing 86 them!" They were struck from the bill, but our waiter continued to defend them to the last.
If you're charmed by a show, the Caesar salad and the Bananas Foster are prepared tableside. The Caesar is alive and brilliant as only a fresh version can be, redolent of spicy garlic and umami-laden anchovies. It will have aficionados of the salad swooning. Conversely, the Bananas Foster is skippable unless you appreciate pyrotechnics.
It's not the steaks but everything surrounding them that is pricey at Rare. With a side of creamed spinach at $11, and a wedge salad an ungodly $15, the bill can become stratospheric. And how is the iconic wedge? The house-made French dressing was turning, leaving a nasty, mildewy aftertaste.
Surprisingly worth it, however, was an off-menu order of white asparagus, perfectly crisp and purportedly direct from the farmers' market. Also nearly convincing is the Yukon Pavé, a dish made famous by chef Thomas Keller, the recipe for which appears in his cookbook Ad Hoc at Home. A fussy version of scalloped potatoes, these were on one occasion a revelation of texture and finesse, but then flat and soggy a second time. Consistency, the very lifeblood of a steakhouse, is sorely lacking.
But give me a dry-aged, on-the-bone steak, thickly charred on the outside and medium-rare on the inside. On a second try (the waiter whisked away the first overdone attempt), Rare delivered exactly this, a very nearly sublime bone-in Kansas City strip steak of the highest order.
As meat dry-ages, moisture evaporates and enzymes break down and tenderize the tissue. The steak becomes "beefier," nuttier, tasting a bit like popcorn. After considerable hang-time, the flavor grows even stronger, taking on the tang of blue cheese. Rare sources its steaks from the famed Allen Brothers in Chicago, and then ages these high-quality beauties for about a month in-house. Under an 1,800-degree broiler –– your home grill pushes 500 degrees if you're lucky, 800 if you have a Green Egg –– the steak develops a thick black crust while remaining rare inside.
This is flavor and texture you just can't achieve without the help of an aging room and the flames of hell –– which means I may have sampled Madison's best, first, big-league steak. Too bad that, so far, it is work getting to it.