It’s telling that, after two months in business, it’s not clear just what to call one of downtown Madison’s busiest dinner spots. Those with their noses in the scene call it the Underground Kitchen, borrowing the adjective from the restaurant’s proprietors, the Underground Food Collective. The UFC has become one of the Madison food scene’s most attention-grabbing players: They operate Underground Catering, oversee the student-run Ironworks Cafe at a local community center, and, most notoriously, orchestrate transient (i.e., underground) one-night dinner parties such as Pre-Industrial Pig, which earned raves both when held in Wisconsin and in Brooklyn — the food blogosphere was so enraptured of these events that, correct me if I’m wrong, they coined the meme “pigs or it didn’t happen.”
Diners were therefore thrilled to hear that the UFC would open a Capitol Square restaurant in the old Cafe Montmartre space, and the name “The Underground Kitchen” propagated among the chatterers, including from within the collective. But when you come in off the street, the exceedingly unadorned exterior merely bears the word “kitchen” in neon lowercase, and the menus likewise name the restaurant as Kitchen, with no modifier.
I think “Kitchen” is a more appropriate name, in two ways. First, while the old Montmartre space is four feet below sidewalk level, the restaurant isn’t “underground” in the way that the food world uses the term. Second, based on my December visit, I think “Kitchen” explains its proprietors’ ambitions — it wants to be the ur-kitchen, some kind of platonic ideal of the hearth, where local ingredients become tasty dishes, with a greater emphasis on traditional preparations than uncommon ones. Put more simply, as I ate one of the veal and chicken meatballs in smoked tomato broth ($8), my overriding thought was, “Just like Mom used to make.” Kitchen has that kind of kitchen. Those at my table perhaps only considered one or two dishes an outright “wow,” but the cumulative experience was an unqualified “wow.”
When we arrived at 7:30pm on a Saturday night, Kitchen was hopping. It opened in late fall with hours beginning at 4pm, so few patrons have ever experienced Kitchen in daylight, but it’s a cozy haunt when the sun is down. There’s an adjunct dining space that the previous tenants dubbed “the sidecar,” but the main action occurs in a narrow central room that diners share with both the bar and, notably, an open kitchen in the back of the space. This layout combines with the warm woods, candlelight and Mason jar light fixtures without feeling at all country kitsch. Indeed, the kitchen is a galvanic element, its presence restating the simple declaration of the menu and neon sign with gusto, giving the vibe of the simplest possible execution of the simplest possible restaurant concept.
Kitchen doesn’t accept reservations, so we had time to enjoy the bar until a table opened up. There was some real kapow in their campari, grapefruit, and tequila cocktail; smooth, fizzy fun with their chocolate bourbon cream soda with orange oil; and abundant whisky goodness in their rye, sarsaparilla, maple, cherry bark, and vanilla concoction — very drinkable, although the sarsaparilla flavor was a little light. Ginger seems to be a clutch ingredient at their bar — it adds a lot of pep to their rum, cider, and maple cocktail, and was delicious when mixed with fennel, lemon, and Wisconsin’s Death’s Door gin (all cocktails $7.50).
When we were seated at 8pm, we had missed out on the night’s special (a chop that was the only pork entrée on the menu), as well as one of their four main dishes (roast lamb). Fortunately, though, our consensus best dish of the night was still available — the cheese plate special with Uplands’ Rush Creek Reserve, served with applesauce, pistachios, and honeycomb. Gourmands I trust insist cheese is the epitome of cuisine, but, being both mildly lactarded and a Wisconsin non-native, I’ve never been convinced. Rush Creek Reserve makes a fine argument, however, both by its smoky-smooth self and its inspired pairing with those other ingredients — the cheese on honeycomb with accouterments was pure socko, the highlight of the meal.
Many will head to Kitchen for the charcuterie ($18), which, that night, was pork rillettes, rabbit bacon, chicken liver paté, lardo, and brawn. The rillettes were the most traditionally tasty; the rabbit bacon was flavorful, though each comical strip was smaller than a matchstick; and the paté was fine. It was this eater’s first experience with head cheese and lardo, so I can’t say how comparatively well the dishes were executed — the brawn was savory-sweet and, like any good jelly, best appreciated with bread to blend the textures and ground the flavors, but no substrate made the lardo taste like something besides cold, smoky fat, which is pretty subtle as far as pleasures go.
Other starters we tried included the pickle plate ($3), which was roundly appreciated, although while the vegetables were assorted — most sought after: the beet — the brine used for each was, as near as I could tell, disappointingly the same. The polenta fries ($6) were the most whimsical dish, fair food gone gourmet: The dish came with only four fries, but each was larger than a candy bar, and while the flavors were much closer to cornbread than papas fritas, the spicy squash ketchup was the perfect accompaniment.
We ordered two salads, one on the recommendation of the server that it was her absolute favorite thing on the menu; we figured it would be one of ours, too. And, indeed, the warm mushroom salad with citrus and almonds ($11, above) was universally acclaimed, a woodsy marvel of ingredient selection, presentation and sheer delightful chewability. But the salad that had been recommended was kale with hazelnuts ($8), and it was a big letdown, the kale toasted crunchy-crispy but without any attendant sizzle — it struck us as, at best, a garnish.
Of the three entrees available that night, the favorite was the tooth-perfect gnocchi with leek mushroom succotash ($13), which nicely complemented the mushroom salad. The duck sugo ($14) had a very savory broth, but the contrast with the layer of egg whites wasn’t working for us — though when we made our way back to the dish at the end of our meal and the egg had absorbed more of the broth, it was a good sight more delectable, if of course cooled. The chicken with cheesy orecchiette ($14) was a perfectly succulent portion with a tasty pasta side, but after the cavalcade of great flavors, it warranted the least of our interest — the one time Kitchen’s homemade ethos came up with a dish we felt like we’d had too often, without triggering “comfort food nirvana” endorphins.
The only dish that didn’t work for us was the chocolate caramel tart — good flavors but too dry, an ascetic kind of decadence. Fortunately, the vanilla ice cream with plum sauce in a waffle cone was fantastic, with the plum as an unexpected catalyst for that familiar vanilla / cone alchemy, drawing out the spice notes in the cone and just generally being yummy.
Our server told us this was the first menu that Kitchen had maintained for more than a week; their current menu has none of the same entrees (although the gnocchi with sausage and ricotta, a current offering, is a tempting reassignment). But our trip to Kitchen earned the chefs my trust, and I’ll be happy to go back and see what’s new. As a college student, I lived a block away from this location; if I was a young professional in the neighborhood, particularly one who wasn’t a dab hand at cooking, Kitchen would be a regular stop for a first-rate dining room, lively and jolly, with wonderful flavors at reasonable prices, a touch of home away from home.
BEST BET: The menu has changed a lot since our visit, but the warm mushroom salad is a great plate, and the gnocchi are perfectly made.
(The Underground) Kitchen
Horn-rimmed locavore on Madison’s Capitol Square
127 E Mifflin St
Madison, WI 53703
OWNER / CHEF: Underground Food Collective / A group of chefs including Ben Hunter, Jonny Hunter, and Kris Noren
Tues-Sun 4pm-12am (food available 5pm-12am)
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: No / No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $12-16