The roasted chicken is good, and even better in combo with the ribs.
The cynical among us may, during these holiday months, look at the paved expanse of East Towne with scorn. It's cold, hard commercialism all right, a shopping mall and a bunch of bank drive-throughs and scads of national chain restaurants.
The hopeful among us? They're packing into Doolittles Woodfire Grill.
Doolittles already operates four other locations, in Minnesota and North Dakota, so it is a chain of sorts. Madison can be wary about restaurants that even seem like chains, but it's also demonstrated a willingness to forgive an unpretty location for a wood-burning grill -- witness Bonfyre, off the Beltline at Todd Drive. And besides, who can resist a warm hearth, especially in December?
Doolittles (no apostrophe) is named for World War II pilot Jimmy Doolittle, a distinguished and decorated officer. Aviation imagery crowds the dining room, dominated by a large mural. The interior is otherwise fairly well-appointed, with a great length of window between a bank of booths and the bustling kitchen. That artwork, though, evokes airport restaurant, or a mid-1990s bar and grill.
This is the struggle at Doolittles, a push-pull between traditional, late 20th century American casual dining, and current conceits like hanger steak, sriracha, and craft beer and cocktails. Doolittles refers to the latter as "crafted," which is the kind of terminology a well-intentioned but out-of-touch parent might employ. A gin and elderflower liqueur-based Cucumber Smash was crafted to be far too sweet.
All is not lost, though. A wood-burning grill can make a lot of things better, and rotisserie chicken is a forgiving style of poultry cookery. These benefits are on prominent display in the rib and chicken combination plate, which is quite a bit of food even in the smaller of two portion sizes. The chicken skin is nicely crackling, with a juicy thigh and wing as the default portion. While the pork ribs might not be the finest cut, or particularly smoky, they're cooked well, and the meat pulls clean from the bones. It's a dish that scratches an itch for ribs 'n' chicken at a fundamental level.
I liked the bacon cheeseburger, too -- a substantial patty with plenty of smoked cheddar and two fat strips of applewood-smoked bacon. For being cooked far past the requested medium, it retained a respectable amount of moisture and flavor. With a smoked paprika aioli, it's not too far afield from the cheeseburger at the Old Fashioned.
A lunch combo of a half Reuben and a cup of thick chicken and wild rice soup -- which seemed appropriate given the restaurant's Minnesota roots -- was satisfying. The sandwich benefited from a restrained application of Thousand Island but plenty of thinly sliced corned beef.
Baked five cheese tortellini, oddly found on the "Saute" section of the dinner menu, delivered a whole lot of cheese with a side of midwinter weight gain. That I could account for only four cheeses hardly had an impact on the comforting net effect of the dish.
Doolittles edges into Southeast Asian territory with a seared pork tenderloin sandwich that is basically a banh mi. The pork is good, rich with grill char and fish sauce umami, and the sriracha aioli was a nice touch, but the doughy roll did its best impression of a par-baked grocery baguette.
Fine-tuning of flavor and doneness is a constant gremlin here. Bland hanger steak was cooked properly enough but doused with a flatly acidic red wine demi-glace. It was served alongside spinach that was described as braised but in reality was only barely warmed.
Walleye fingers, pushed hard by waitstaff, were good transmission vectors for tartar sauce, but most pieces were too fishy and overcooked. Sides (coleslaw, mashed potatoes, fries) were universally disappointing, and the desserts felt distinctly prefab; a chocolate pudding cake special was spongy and wet, and that big window into the kitchen showed plate after plate of identical desserts passing through the microwave and out to tables.
I appreciated the thoughtfulness of packing my to-go lamb burger's slab of mint jelly in a separate container, but did not enjoy the jelly's harsh vinegar flavor and hard gelatin consistency. The patty itself was wickedly spiced, jalapeño goat cheese mitigating slightly the raw herbal flavors. Those flavors are all good ideas, but Doolittles doesn't quite have the chops to execute them exceptionally.