A massive pork chop with sweet potato and Brussels sprouts.
A farm-to-table restaurant with a serious craft cocktail program -- it's so basic a formula nowadays that it elicits yawns. In big markets, menus barely acknowledge farms anymore; it's taken for granted that a decent restaurant will source impeccably and locally. And craft cocktails are a given.
Although there are restaurants on the west side that have made commitments to local sourcing, there hasn't been a new, high-profile, specifically farm-to-fork spot on the west side, certainly not keeping pace with the growth of that genre downtown. Considering that the neighborhood sports a Whole Foods, Conscious Carnivore, Metcalfe's Market and one of the city's flagship independent wine stores, Steve's, that's been puzzling. And it makes Oliver's Public House, the new venture by veteran restaurant builder Bob Harriman and his partner Don Michelson, a big deal.
Harriman, who has built -- but not designed -- some of the city's best restaurants (Sardine, Heritage Tavern, Sujeo), shows a deft hand in the earth-tone-rich space. There's loads of handsome distressed wood, and a square-shaped bar makes the dining areas feel both cozy and active. The result is low-key and understatedly sophisticated.
That the Oliver's build-out would speak to Harriman's 35 years in the biz was a given; that the guts of the restaurant -- the food, service and soul -- would help push Madison's dining scene forward was less obvious. It's a testament to choosing the right people, in this case the veteran downtown bartenders of Three Count Beverage Company (Chad Vogel, JR Mocanu and Jeremy Bazely) and chef Patrick McCormick.
McCormick has racked up a remarkable résumé while staying under the radar. As a relative unknown who has worked in some of Madison's top kitchens (Muramoto, Tornado, Nostrano, Heritage Tavern), but never as top dog, he is both defining himself and the new Oliver's at the same time. So far, the results are impressive.
The menu is tight and dutifully conservative. There are a few classic supper clubby or tavern-y features such as bread (housemade focaccia and honey butter) appearing gratis. Big-plate entrees are divided between protein-centric dishes and pasta. Notably, there's no burger. Four beautifully presented salads and a fairly robust appetizer list round out the nosh. Oliver's also just started serving weekend brunch.
Start with the seared scallops and shrimp, a dish that brilliantly takes the Tornado Club's classic Coquilles St. Jacques (scallops in a lemon butter sauce over whipped potatoes) and runs it through a Midwestern, farm-to-table filter. It's earthier and more verdant than the original, and reason enough to book a reservation.
Scratch that -- start with the cheese plate. Another of chef McCormick's many lives included a stint at the Capitol Square cheese shop Fromagination. On a recent night, the selection featured Bill Anderson's local, handmade Creme de Coulee cheeses in a tour de force that would have had any cheese-head swooning. Oliver's appears destined to have one of the city's most aggressive and best-curated cheese programs.
Entrees are accomplished, with most being a direct play between savory or vinegary elements and sweetness. The massive grilled pork chop is an undeniable poster child for what farm-to-table can be: A light honey glaze bolsters surpassingly rich flavor. The dish might ultimately skew a bit sweet with the sweet potato puree below, but charred Brussels sprout leaves snap it back to attention.
A wonderfully crispy yet still succulent trout preparation will appeal to vinegar lovers. The generous numbers of capers dotting the plate threaten to overwhelm it, but a fine rösti -- i.e., hashbrowns -- sets a savory undertone.
Just the right balance is achieved with the beer-can game hen, a fun dish in which an addictive chili-beer jus douses a plate of al dente broccoli and cauliflower. Potatoes rest below to soak up the goodness. The flavorful hen is well worth the modicum of hassle with bones.
Less thrilling is the steak, which groans under a touch too much thick hunter sauce, dousing the crispy charred bits of very tender and medium-rare grass-fed beef. And the pastas aren't quite right yet, either. Despite its smoky mushrooms and sweet corn, the tagliatelle hits too few notes -- even if they are interesting ones. The mac 'n' cheese, which is delightfully toothsome at bite four, becomes a slog after 20 -- and the novel addition of small poached pear cubes makes the flavor too consistently sweet.
The wine list accompanying all of this magnificent, expertly prepared produce and protein is uninspired. But Oliver's cocktails put the restaurant on the map. A well laid-out menu features originals and classics. More are listed according to key spirit -- such as a whiskey list with suggested Boulevardiers and Manhattans. There are tiki cocktails on draft. A cluster of non-alcoholic charmers are named after child actors. Most important, there are bartenders who know what they're doing.
All this is to say that as the first directly Merchant-spawned bar program (two of Three Count's members worked there), the next generation as exhibited at Oliver's is looking mighty pro. In fact, with chef McCormick's wide experience thrown in, it's as if the best aspects of downtown Madison restaurants have been rolled up in a rocket and shot west. And with their arrival, the west side just became a lot more, well, Madison.