Flatbreads change daily. Here, dijon mustard joins carmelized onions, mortadella, pecorino and green tomato jam.
What Barolo is trying to do isn’t easy. Madison is far more of a beer than a wine town, and Barolo isn’t even a restaurant with good wine — it’s a straight-up wine bar. (It hedges its bets with a small cocktail and beer list.)
Can a venture that highlights high-quality — and pricey — vintages thrive in Mad City, a town that has so far been reluctant to head in that direction? I hope so. Madison has to get over the “wine snob” reflex if we are to join the nation’s culinary destinations. God knows we have plenty of beer pubs.
Barolo is part of Robinia Courtyard, the new development at the former Savidusky’s Fur Quarters. Its sister eateries are Julep, a Southern-themed restaurant, and A-OK, a Portland-style coffee shop. The shared, spacious outdoor patio is sure to be a hit when the cold lifts in Madison’s glorious spring and summer months.
Inside, the long bar at Barolo is lit by glass globes, with inset halogen lamps providing pinpricks of light in the mellow interior of the rectangular room. Round tables across from the bar are too small for two people to place food and wine comfortably, though — the booths do a better job. A chandelier crafted from upside-down goblets makes a good conversation piece. Service is uniformly warm and knowledgeable, and servers offer samples of wines before you buy them. Wines are served by the glass, priced $6-$10, and also by the bottle.
All settled into a comfy booth? Now it’s time to taste wines.
2001 Faustino Rioja Gran Reserva (Tempranillo) is served in a 2-ounce glass. “Here’s a glass of the good stuff,” our server said, setting it down reverently. Notes of dewy raspberries and strawberries envelop the nose. The taste opens up and grows more complex with sufficient oxygen (don’t forget to swirl wine in the glass to maximize interaction with the air), conveying velvety rosewater-tinged grapes, mild, with low tannins and only the slightest acidity.
Dolcetto 2013 Abonna “San Luigi” Piedmont is light, reminiscent of summer rains. A wonderful graham cracker underpinning jousts delicately with white pepper and cherry water, finally developing a SoCal nopales (cactus) undertone.
The Gamay 2011 Stephane Aviron Cote de Brouilly “Vieilles Vignes” smacks of the Atlantic Ocean, surging with surf and musky, jammy, dusky tartness.
Yes, there is a lot of florid language here, as you might hear at a wine tasting, but these flavor analogues are all part of the fun. You taste what you taste. Everyone has a distinct palate, and describing wine can be a blast, if you’re really paying attention.
When tasting wines, it’s important to eat something to cleanse the palate and keep from getting too loopy. The idea is to enjoy the taste of various wines, not to get smashed. To that end, Barolo offers smartly designed plates for pairing.
The flatbread selection changes daily. Here, they resemble the original pizzas, which were rounds of pounded-out dough charred on hot rocks around a fire pit from the Neolithic age. We loved a flatbread that featured tart, slightly cooked fresh figs, caramelized onions and taleggio cheese (an inspired choice, semi-soft, with washed rinds) on a crisped homemade crust. For this, the 2011 Jaboulet “Les Jalets” Crozes-Hermitage, with acid undertones hitting the back of the tongue in a smooth, subtle wave, was the right pairing.
The albondigas en salsa diabla is classic Mediterranean — pork and beef meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce. Large slices of garlic are liberally festooned on the dish, along with caramelized white onions crosscut with panko-style breadcrumbs. The tomato sauce is sweet, and a pairing with Pinot Noir creates a peppery fizz, powered by the garlic. A good accompaniment: the 2011 Hyland Vineyard Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which carries a nose of sea foam and hydrangea.
The beef tartare shows off high-grade tenderloin. Olive oil, lemon juice, shallots and capers accent the meat. A blueberry and beet salad is colorful, with avocado mousse, ricotta and mint. Try both with glasses of Nero d’Avola Mazzei Zisola of Sicily 2012 — bright, fulsome and hinting at berries with honey.
The pots de crème is rich, with no chalky undertones in the base; its Earl Grey tea whipped topping creates a nice contrast between light and dark, heavy and airy. Dessert calls for an accompanying port, and Barolo has one of my favorites: the Quinta do Infantado 20-year tawny. It’s perfectly matched with the pots de crème and the ideal finish to a night of tasting.
Raise a glass to the rewards of Barolo, the wine bar Madison deserves.
829 E. Washington Ave., 608-237-1376, facebook.com/BaroloBarMadison
4 pm-1 am daily, Food $7-$15, wines by the glass $6-$10