Let's cut right to the chase. The Underground Kitchen is the first restaurant to open in Madison in a long time that feels like an immediate, unqualified success.
What makes a restaurant an almost instant hit? Part of it is a confident, coherent, sustained vision - a solid sense of self that's palpable - and you recognize the Kitchen's sensibility the minute you walk in, before you can even really articulate it. The big dining room alone, heavily renovated since the late, lamented Café Montmartre moved out, is a study in organic high style, from the long cherry wood bar to the gleaming hickory floors and the pine walls foraged from the Swenson farm outside Spring Green. The chunky wood tables, some of them long and communal, add to the homage to timber and hardwoods, and the candles flickering along the walls keep the vibe homey but polished.
The locavore-goes-urbane mood is accentuated by the locally foraged crowd, a revolving door of bona fide Madison bohos and foodies who happily join each other at those communal tables and pull up stools to the bar, hunkering down to their plates like the serious two-fisted diners they are.
The whole dynamic buzzing scene is ultimately, of course, a testimony to the kitchen, and the kitchen mirrors the crowd perfectly. This food isn't overwrought, overthought or overworked; it isn't trying too hard or second-guessing trends. What the kitchen is doing is turning out smart, playful, locally sourced food at gentle prices, without being too purist or dogmatic about it.
The result is some of the most simply satisfying dishes I've tasted, locally, in a long time. The menu (courtesy of the three members of the Underground Food Collective doing the cooking here: Ben Hunter, Kris Noren, and Jonny Hunter) wanders all over the place, and the best place to start is with a plate of Madison Sourdough bread. On the night we visited the plate was piled with crusty dark rye, polenta, walnut and sourdough breads served in big hunks, and this sampler platter, spread with a sweet smear of butter, was better than any fancy amuse bouche (all for $4).
Pair it with the meat board and you pretty much have dinner. The prosciutto is a velvety antidote to all those leathery prosciuttos that undermine so many charcuterie plates, the chicken liver pate is creamy, and the pork rillette topped with apricot, though bordering on too rich, is all dense meat.
So is a great plate of veal and smoked chicken meatballs riding a very subtle, fruity smoked tomato broth. Just as good: crostini paired with a Caesar romaine wedge topped by white anchovies. Of the non-veg items, the only dish that failed us was a very meaty pork chop that was too tough and borderline tasteless, though the mac 'n' cheese and downright juicy kale it came with both salvaged the plate.
That kale hints at the Underground Kitchen's best surprise: its ode to vegetables. Plenty of restaurants now pay grudging lip service to the veg, but few follow through with anything worth eating. A plate of the Kitchen's brussels sprout hash - a heap of diced potatoes, brussels sprout leaves and poached egg - proves that you can do well here, and maybe even better, without any meat or fish.
I'll come back for the enticing-sounding warm mushroom salad and the vegetable board (marinated white beans, pesto, sprouted lentil salad, marinated mozzarella and salad turnips with feta). In the meantime, the memory of the potato gnocchi is enough. Gnocchi is a notoriously hard dish to make well. The Kitchen's version is perfect, the potato dumplings light but firm, never gummy, and set off by a leek mushroom succotash and a cream sauce.
Desserts change frequently. We tried the plum ice cream, seamed by tart fruit and bundled in a waffled cone. The better pick, though, was a cranberry pudding that layered flavors, the molasses playing off the pop of sweet cranberries. The dish tasted elegant, farm-fresh and fun all at the same time, a good coda for a thriving kitchen.