HotelRED is wedged into the corner of Regent and Monroe streets, across from Camp Randall Stadium. The blocky faade is dressed up with red accents, including long terraces sheathed in red and some light bulbs that glow scarlet in the dark. You half expect someone to stand underneath the slab of a building at night yelling "Stella!"
No one is yelling inside the hotel, which has been hauntingly empty every time I've stopped by. The sprawling lobby cum lounge is all black and red club chairs and banquettes, a confused attempt at stylish on a painfully obvious budget. The restaurant itself, called the Wise, sits off the reception area to one side and continues the theme. There is a long black bar and eight ceramic chunky white tables framed by squat red club chairs. The very shiny chairs, at least, are puffy and comfortable.
The whole theme, the almost panicked sense of straining to be trend-worthy, infuses the menu too. There are a lot of past-their-prime food fad items: rillettes, flatbreads, sliders, lamb cheeks, wasabi mashed potatoes, things doused with truffle oil, savory desserts. It's the kind of list that will read like a parody in a year, or less.
And none of that would really matter (flatbreads, sliders and truffle oil are all popular for a reason) if the kitchen did right by its dishes. Mostly, though, it doesn't. I would only recommend three of the dishes we sampled, in the empty restaurant, on a recent night.
The meatloaf sliders, three for $10, were a good deal. The patties of ground veal, beef and pork had a rich flavor (enhanced by smoked paprika aioli). If you halve the dry spongy buns that almost obliterate the burgers, you'll get a bigger bite of the meat.
Also good were the braised lamb cheeks, tender enough to cut with that proverbial fork. And while the truffled mac and cheese is really just a fairly standard-issue mac and cheese (that could actually use more cheese), it does get a kick from the truffle oil - which does, despite its past ubiquity, still make most things taste better, if it's used sparingly. Plus the mac was properly al dente.
What to avoid? Start with the flatbread, which wasn't really flatbread. It's more like dry, tasteless pita. The soupy topping of flavorless peppers and some clumps of goat cheese didn't add anything. The arancini - if done the way Italians do it - should be a light, delicately fried risotto ball that crunches in the mouth with a little sigh. The Wise's rendition is more like a hushpuppy filled with very gummy ersatz risotto; it collapses in the mouth with a tired groan.
At least the rice balls aren't a health hazard. Leave that to the three oversized scallops so large they telegraphed trouble; jumbo scallops are usually tasteless things. But tasteless would be preferable to the distinctly off flavor of this trio, so past their prime that a fishy perfume lingered like a funky cloud over the table. The grilled Atlantic salmon, in contrast, was happily harmless, though it was hard to discern any real flavor beyond the overstated mash of mushroom risotto that tasted more domesticated than "wild" (that's the menu speaking).
Desserts, of course, were savory because that's the passing fashion. A few bites of the olive oil cake, finished with blueberry jam, were good. Then the cake turned cloying, because it came infused with too much of the oil, and it forced a question that lingered over the dinner. What can the Wise do to win an audience?
I'd forget the rush toward last decade's trends and the tic of co-opting global ideas that are hard to execute. Think local instead and take advantage of geography, which is staring the restaurant in the face, just across the street, where that big stadium sits like a behemoth. What football fans and a big chunk of the neighborhood probably want is more soulful Dairyland food taken seriously and done right, without pretension, like maybe a consummate chocolate cake (and not a flourless one) instead of that puddle of olive oil.
In the end, of course, the homegrown culinary tradition has just as much dynamism as any Tuscan risotto ball or a sea-slick of truffle oil, and the kitchen's fine meatloaf sliders make the case handily. More of those and the Wise has potential to become a real neighborhood hangout.