The Little Village Cafe in Baraboo, WI
In the Dells, nothing is normal â€” which is why we love it, of course.
As you drive through town, you pass a full-size replica of the Coliseum. A Trojan horse. The White House â€” upside-down.
In the off-season, the streets are gray ghost towns, while 6,000 or more people pack themselves into a single water park, of which there are dozens. Adults wander the halls with goblets of syrupy margaritas the size of bowling balls sawn in half. A blinking red sign advertises a barâ€™s daily special: 70-ounce steaks.
Then, toward Baraboo, 10 miles south, the weirdness starts to thin. Ordinary clapboard houses appear, and then an honest-to-goodness main street with an ordinary corner cafe.
This is the Little Village Cafe, a transplant from Madison, where it held a strong reputation as an early harbinger of gourmet sensibilities. Today itâ€™s an oasis in this weird little corner of the world â€” quiet, dim, friendly, and mercifully grown-up.
The menu bears the touch of a curious cook who has passed through decades of fads and accumulated the best parts. There are Mediterranean notes and Cajun notes and Southwestern notes, as well as some relics of 1990s fine dining.
Thereâ€™s a seared tuna (blackened or sesame crusted on the outside, but not quite icy cold on the inside, unfortunately). Thereâ€™s a Moroccan chicken with a luscious Kalamata aioli (purple and tangy). Thereâ€™s a jerk chicken with a nice heat to it, cooled by a side of authentic black beans and rice. Because weâ€™re in supper club land, every entree had a very supper club feel: a salad to start, with a starch and sautĂ©ed veg on the side. Normalcy â€” just what we were craving.
The very best things we ate came at the beginning and end of our meal: a positively slurpable bowl of warm, garlicky, peppery olive oil surrounding an island of goat cheese â€” ostensibly for slathering on slices of bread, but a few patrons were glimpsed just spooning it up. Despite its generous size, it barely made it around the table twice. The house-made hummus plate was good, but it languished in the shadow of the goat cheese.
And, for dessert, it was like we had come home to the Dells at the end of our meal: outsized and impossible rich portions of chocolate torte, chocolate pecan pie, and grilled Bundt cake (above). The perfect note on which to usher ourselves out of our little oasis of normalcy and back into the land of excess.
The Little Village Cafe
146 4th Ave
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / in the high season
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $16â€“22