Extremism in defense of tastiness is no vice.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Restaurant Review: Brasserie V

No, that's not a five, and it's certainly not a cinq. Instead, it's one of the most appealing new restaurants--with one of the best bars--to come to Madison in quite some time. The sandwiches from Relish are still there, for the most part, and they're still mostly good. That said, they're no longer really the point. The shop has instead become, as the name and location would imply, a Wisconsin brasserie with a serious focus on imported beer.

Belgian aficionados will find a lot to love at Brasserie V. V's focus is Belgian beers, of which there are over a dozen to try on a given evening, and genre fans will appreciate that each is served in an appropriate glass. On our visits, we particularly enjoyed the Delirium Nocturnum, a dark, fruity, complex beer that went well with our dinners, and the ruby-colored St. Bernardus Prior 8, a sweet, very drinkable dubbel. The domestic portion of the beer list wasn't an afterthought, featuring a broad range of excellent selections, and while the wine list likely won't be winning any awards, it too was well-constructed.

An excellent introduction to the restaurant came in the form of the gentleman tending bar on our first visit; he seemed genuinely happy to discuss the beer selection with us, and clearly knew and cared about his product. This level of service was unfortunately inconsistent. While, on a busy evening, a server was enthusiastic, helpful, and friendly, her colleague at the bar took over ten minutes to ask for our drink orders as we sat waiting for a table.

On one evening, an appetizer of almond stuffed dates, wrapped in bacon and baked under brown sugar, came dangerously close to the abyss but proved successful. They seemed too sweet at first, but the fatty, smoky bacon and the accompaniment of bitter frisée provided welcome contrasts, and taken together brought a depth of flavor to the plate. Along with the almonds, the frisée proved a pleasant textural counterpoint as well. Without these choices, the dish could have easily become a sugary mush; with them, it proves a good match to a fruity Belgian beer.

The frites, on the other hand, were a minor disappointment, in an especially unfortunate turn for a self-styled brasserie with a Belgian emphasis. While they had flavor and were accompanied by the requisite aïolis (with and without red pepper), they were on one visit too thick, too soggy, and over-spiced. While they were happily crisper on another evening, the result was still a lesser counterpart to the crisp, classic frites one expects from a traditional European brasserie, and that one finds in Madison at Sardine.

Entrées were largely what one would hope for from a brasserie focused more on Wisconsin than its transatlantic roots: rustic and unpretentious, but well-crafted and seasonally appropriate.

A duck breast with cherry pan sauce did not remotely resemble one of Homaro Cantu or Wylie Dufresne's newest creations. It did, however, do everything right. The sauce was flavorful, the skin nicely crisped, and the breast a perfect medium rare. To be sure, it didn't innovate, nor was it the most flawless piece of duck I've ever tasted. Instead, it was what one expects from a brasserie: a properly cooked and properly seasoned classic with a few touches--the Duvel braised cabbage side, for example--that made it the restaurant's own. It was a good, simple dish, and a bargain at $16.

Vegetable risotto, likewise, could have been an easy throwaway, but it was well conceived and well executed. The rice was creamy, the sweet beets, distinctive parsnips, and other vegetables properly cooked, and the resulting texture pleasant. This was another simple, seasonal, and successful selection, and a vegetarian dish that more Madison restaurants could seek to emulate.

A mussel special, unfortunately, failed to leave an impression. The portion was colossal--even in Wisconsin, this is not obligatory--and the spicy chorizo broth was unremarkable and out of place on the menu. While there was nothing offensive about the transplanted mollusks, they were entirely forgettable.

More memorable by far was the cheese board, featuring a Manchego alongside offerings by Hook's and Uplands, as well as nuts, olives, and bread. Serving Hook's bold ten-year cheddar alongside an appropriately hard-hitting beer list was a wise move for a Wisconsin brasserie, and the board would be excellent as a close to a meal or snack at the bar.

In many ways, the delicious, straightforward cheese board was indicative of what was best about the restaurant. What Brasserie V may lack in innovation, it makes up for in simple craft, with a passion for fine beer and good, local flavors. What is fast developing into a Monroe Street fixture could, with a bit more focus and a few minor tweaks, become one of the best casual restaurants in the city.

Brasserie V

1923 Monroe Street; (608) 255-8500
Price: $$
Atmosphere: Dark, woody, and masculine, with a prominent bar. Moderate to loud noise level.
Beverages: Serious, thoughtful beer list with a strong emphasis on Belgians. Surprisingly well conceived wine list, too, with many selections available by the glass or bottle.
Suggestions: Belgian beer, sandwiches, and Wisconsin fare. Regional dishes are generally better than those drawn from farther afield.
Hours: Opens at 10 a.m. daily. Closes at 11 p.m Monday through Thursday, 12 a.m Friday and Saturday, and 5 p.m. Sunday.
Reservations: Not accepted.
What ratings mean: Stars indicate overall impressions of a restaurant, rated from zero to four, with price taken into account. Zero stars indicate a restaurant that is not recommended, while four stars indicate an outstanding restaurant, worthy of at least regional attention.
Prices range from $ to $$.

1 comment:

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