As my friend Margaret would say, in that deadpan, round-eyed way of hers, "Oh dear." Which isn't the reaction we were hoping for. Madison is at heart a charitable town, and like most people, we wanted to like the Sundance Cinema's second-floor restaurant, which goes by the name Bar Bistro 608. If Hilldale is going to become the near-west cultural anchor it desperately wants to be, food will be a big part of its lure.
But as much as I like the whole concept of Sundance (really, what's not to like?), the restaurant itself needs so much tweaking, it might be easier to start over. Begin with the look of the place. The organic frame of the room - all spotlit birch trees and recycled oak - is high-minded and earnest. But scan the length of the brown-on-brown mud-pie room and it looks institutional.
The service, at least, is anything but institutional, if institutional means robotically efficient. Expect, instead, cheerful, mostly whimsical, a little slaphappy and endearing. And occasionally incompetent, but in a likable way (like when they left the drinks off our bill).
But to be honest, a little careless service never ruins a really good meal unless there is anger or attitude driving the incompetence, and that usually happens in fine-dining places. No one is going to mistake this for fine dining. The global menu veers all over the world and takes an Applebee's fun-food approach. The abiding rule is that any kitchen attempting to juggle sushi and pizza isn't going to do justice to either, and 608 is the proof.
What not to order off that snaking menu? Where to start?
Forget the leathery pizza, so blistered and puffy it looks sick, topped by a crusty wisp of cheese - a pizza that came second to the random frozen pie we tossed in the microwave last weekend. The spicy California roll, a clunky oversized disk of pretty much just rice, lacking even the merest whisper of a crabby taste, is a double-decker smackdown that insults both Japan and California.
The over-battered bang-bang shrimp, a throwback to pupu platters, rates a final bullet. And the chicken and beef sate, thankfully already getting the skewering they deserve, are so tough and tasteless the little puddles of accompanying dipping sauce seem to actually underscore their lack of any discernable flavor.
Tough and tasteless, though, it turns out, is pretty much the kitchen's mantra. It is the only way to describe the grilled chicken and shrimp (though the shrimp at least coughs up a medicinal aftertaste) straddling the overcooked fettuccini clotted with lemon cream sauce. It describes the sautéed tuna which our waitress warned us would come a little red, to retain the juice, but which came pretty much gray, all the way through to its putty-colored center.
And it ultimately describes the cubes of chicken in the odd rendition of a Cobb salad, which is paired with an un-Cobby dressing of apparently undiluted olive oil, the generic kind too many restaurants now proudly serve with their bread. Even the dessert of bread and butter pudding, looking like a lumpen plate of mashed potatoes, is chewy.
What to pluck from the wreckage? I liked an actually juicy Angus beef burger framed by a big pile of crisp thin-cut fries. And the salted caramel cheesecake offered a silky play of sweet against salty.
All of which is evidence that the place could turn around if it thinks smaller, finds some note of coherence, and at least focuses on a single geographic region. Maybe France to match all those Gallic movies downstairs. Maybe the heartland to echo the homegrown surroundings. Or maybe a western barbecue as a real, meaningful homage to Sundance itself.
Bar Bistro 608
702 N. Midvale Blvd., Hilldale Mall, 316-6900
5 pm-midnight Mon.-Thurs., 11-2 am Fri.-Sat., 11 am-10 pm Sun. Entrees $8-$19. Wheelchair accessible. Mall parking. Checks and credit cards.