Monday, September 29, 2008

The Malt House

To everything there is a season,
a time for every purpose under the sun.

- Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

But doth not the appetite alter? A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age.
- Much Ado About Nothing, Act 2, Scene 3, William Shakespeare

There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.

- Tao Te Ching, Chapter 29, Lao Tzu, Stephen Mitchell translation.

When I was a young and angry man, I liked quite different things than I do now. I appreciated fast cars. I listened to fast music. When I went out of a weekend, my main desire was to put myself in the vicinity of pretty girls, loud music and a reasonable amount of peril. Like many people that age, I didn't want to actually lead a dangerous life, I just wanted it to look like I did.

I have never been a BIG fan of bars or clubs, but when I did choose to go to one, it was usually loud, raucous and hopping. A lot of people like bars like that. A vast majority of people in fact. When they go out, they want their drinks cheap and their music loud. The kind of bar where one can easily get drunk and stupid. Thoughts on quality of drinks or conversation are tertiary at best. It actually makes me wonder about the state of our social society when we apparently seek to avoid talking to people by frequenting establishments where the music is to loud to hear people talking.

As I grow older, what little love I had for the loud bars has evaporated completely. I'm a Words Man, a student of the human condition. I make my way via my command of the language and my love of it. When I go out for social time, good conversation, that lost and elusive creature, is my ultimate goal. The enthusiastic exchange of ideas, the verbal sparing of a debate, the ebullience of a discovered shared interest, these are my bread and butter. All it takes is one loud band or one overblown DJ to ruin a wonderful evening.

And so, I began that search, years ago, for a quiet social venue where one may interact in a meaningful way with ones fellow humans. Luckily society has invented such institutions already. They call them "Taverns".

Actually, they call them any number of things. Pub, lounge and saloon are also used. The nomenclature is pretty hazy but in general, if you say "neighborhood bar", most people understand what you are talking about.

If that still doesn't do it for you, let me define the species.

In general, the creature will have most of the following traits: Dark wood, low lighting, bartenders with personality, above average drinks, lots of accumulated memorabilia and/or items of interest and a fierce local following who will happily bus tables and make a bouncer unnecessary (may the gawds help the stranger who bows up in a neighborhood bar, few things are more embarrassing than explaining to the cops that you got knocked the fuck out by a 65 year old ex-marine swinging a barstool).

Such establishments, once you have summoned enough testicular fortitude to brave the swivel factor, pissed a territorial circle around a bar stool and made the scene enough to earn the title "regular", are a refuge, a Sanctum Sanctorum and a home-away-from-home. I have been lucky enough to find such an establishment once in my life, and, unfortunately, I left it behind in FDL when I came down to Madison.

It's been a year and a half and I've used what little free time and free fundage I have to scour the city in search of a new watering hole.

There have been any number of failed attempts. Madison is a big city and has a lot of wonderful and not-so-wonderful establishments. Many of them are still in the running for my go-to bar but recently I found someplace that lept to the top of the list in very short order.

The Malt House was, for many, many years, the Union House Tavern, legendarily a waystop for Union soldiers on their way to Camp Randall for training and deployment in the Civil War. When Madison's East Side was the hub of Madison's industrial commerce, Union House was a beloved neighborhood bar whose fortune and fate became inexorably tied to the East Sides eventual decline. With the death of it's last owner, Earle Erhart, this local landmark boarded up and locked it's doors after 150 years.

But, Dear Reader, what may seem like a sad story is only the turning of a chapter. The only constant our weird and wonderful world offers is change. So it was that out of the ashes of an abandon Madison Icon, grew the dreams of a man named Bill Rogers. Bill is the head of the local Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild and in the old, boarded up tavern, he saw history and possibility. I didn't get a chance to meet Bill, but I'm looking forward to spending some time with someone who is probably Madison's #1 Beer Geek.

My trip to Malt House started with the Isthmus article and that familiar queasy feeling in my stomach. "A reasonably quiet place where you can sit and talk" you say? "150-plus bottles and 18 tap beers" you say? "Best whiskey bar in town" you say? All this and more adds up to potential. I love the historical backround of the place, I love the spirit of the owner. I have been known to do a little homebrewing myself so I love that it's one of our own running the place. Nobody knows beer like a homebrewer. Someone who loves beer enough to want to go through the laborious and smelly task of making it at home? There breaths the soul of a true Beer Man. I also love me some Whiskey. Irish Whiskey for preference (since it is THE BEST).

Potential like this makes me profoundly nervous. For every chance a place has to get something right, they also have a chance to doubly fuck it up. First because it's bad, second because it could have been so good.

And so, it is with great trepidation that I made my first visit to Malt House on a Friday night a few weeks ago.

The revitalization of the Near East/East Washington area is still an ongoing project whose future is still unsure. But, while this is not the best neighborhood in Madison (yet), it's weaknesses can also be it's strengths. I'm not sure if they tore something down next door to the Malt House, but they managed to get themselves a nice BIG gravel parking lot.

One of the things I hate about going to bars downtown is having to figure out where to park so I love me a nice big parking lot. I also hold that a big lot with no overnight parking restrictions is going to lead to a much safer clientele. If someone has had one too many they are far more likely to take a necessary cab home if they know that their automobile is safe and secure and someplace they can easily return to tomorrow.

I was suppose to be meeting My Bride and Lisa Who Eats Paste there at 11pm for some post-work relaxation but the ladies were dragging hindquarters and arrived in their own sweet time. This suited me however as it gave me an extended period in which to peruse the establishment and take in the setting.

I suspect quite strongly that former regulars at the Union House would barely recognize their old stomping grounds now. A thorough cleaning, refinishing and redecoration plan has left the interior cozy, strategically lit and comfortable. A large crew of enthusiastic conversationalists were gathered around 3 or 4 tables pushed together and were creating a pleasant background babble that I enjoyed.

150 beers does make for a daunting menu, 90 some whiskeys doesn't hurt either. Luckily, I'd been wanting to try a glass of Redbreast Pure Pot Still 12 Year since I'd first heard of it, so I got to indulge myself. At 6 dollars a glass, this delightful artisanal beverage is a very affordable luxury (and it was excellent, fiery with a lovely butterscotch aroma and a mellow finish). I sat and nursed my whiskey while chatting with Jaquie our charming bartendress.

From Jaquie, I learned a few entertaining facts about the establishment. Apparently the cleanup was quite a production. Many old men had smoked many cigarettes while enjoying many years of tasty beverages at the Union House and the walls and floor tiles were stained a deep nicotine yellow. The walls were scrubbed and painted but the decision was made early on to leave the famous antique bar in place, along with it's etched glass bar mirror displaying the historical Union House logo as something of a anchor to the bar's historic past.

Everything else in the bar has been redone. New fixtures, lots of tables and a truckload of exotic beer memorabilia covered the walls. The new barstools met the comfort test for my overlarge buttocks and the ladies reported the bathrooms on the girls side to be clean and comfortable. What music there was came from some kind of computerized electronic playlist that seemed to be hitting a lot of The Police's greatest hits at a tolerable backround volume that one could easily be heard over.

I eventually switched from Redbreast to Lake Louie Warp Speed Scottish Ale which was sublime.

Between the fixtures, the lighting, the crowd, the selection, the facilities and the parking, this bar has all the great fundamentals. While it has no kitchen, no grill and thereby no food, it does permit patrons to order in from any of the local establishments who deliver. As such, we ordered ourselves some dinner from another new Near East institution, Burrito Drive. Jaquie was even Janie-on-the-spot with a pile of paper plates and napkins to make our meal easier.

Now, those who know me also know that I have a deep and profound love of a good cocktail. A good mixed drink is a rare commodity in this town and honestly, the Malt House, from what I saw, is not the place to get one. Normally, I would complain about this but really, I don't think it would be fair. You might not be able to get a great mixed drink at the Malt House, but that doesn't mean you can't get a GREAT drink. 150 beers and a massive selection of Whiskey, Rum, Scotch, Gin and other exotics means that you will find something that you like, one way or another. Gawds forbid I'll just have to content myself drinking my way through their massive selection... damn my life is hard.

In the end, this is a comfortable, well appointed establishment with a proud history, profound potential for the future and a very solid foundation in both product and purpose. The Malt House is the kind of place you can call home; a catylyst in the lives of its patrons and regulars. A place where jokes will be made, tales will be told tall, eyes will meet across the room, friends will be greeted after long times apart and if they are lucky, a new chapter in the history of this place will be written.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Cloud 9 Grille

From the minute I walked in the door, I wanted this place to succeed.

Madison is growing out in all directions, looping around lakes and bureaucracy. Like all things in the natural world, it does not grow symmetrically. In some places you find dense clusters of shops, houses or parks, while other stretches are Ikebana-like exercises in empty space. The East Side is like that. Thousands of houses, huge tracts of residential neighborhoods and Sweet Fanny Adams for good local restaurants. Don't believe me? Head east off of Stoughton Road, out into the frontlines of Madison's War Against The Countryside, you will see for yourself. When I moved here over a year ago, I spent my lunch hours driving around the east side getting a feel for the land. The thought came to my head spontaneously, "Damn, this place needs a restaurant, or a bar, or a coffee shop." I'm not the only one. I've heard a number of Eastsiders complain that you've got to drive across town to get to "the good stuff".

So here we find, beyond Stoughton Road, beyond Sprecher, beyond even the Interstate, boldly striking out on the front lines, within sight of the retreating Cornfield Army, Cloud 9 Grille.

As a Foodie, I'm very judgmental when it comes to restaurants. I read too much into decor, waitstaff, plating, bar glass, lighting, sound system... even the choice of silverware. So please, Dear Reader, take my assessment with a grain of salt. Opinions vary, tastes vary, moods vary. No one person's pronunciation is going to encompass a restaurant in toto. At most, I can hope to offer you a perspective. A piece of the picture, but not it's whole. Accept this, too, as default for future restaurant reviews. Always remember, I may be full of shit.

The picture above is the sign that greets you as you walk in the door. Right there, in your face and unapologetic. This is not a motto, this is not a catch phrase, this is a declaration of War. Whoever started Cloud 9 has come to the understanding that long term financial stability and profit comes from being, not an restaurant, but an institution. You must weave yourself into the fabric of the neighborhood in such a manner as to make yourself inextricable. When Eastsiders want to step out for dinner, they should think to themselves... "I don't have to drive all the way across town to some fancy place downtown or on the Westside, I can just go to Cloud 9." When Dad wants to watch "the game," Cloud 9. When Mom wants to go out for drinks with the girls, Cloud 9. When the family wants to go out for dinner, Cloud 9. When the office crew needs someplace to go for drinks or a party, Cloud 9. A restaurant that has accomplished such a feat, (examples 1, 2 and 3), enjoy success, stability and are sources of pride for those involved and in charge. It's something of a Restaurateur's wet dream - to be the owner of a famous local restaurant.

Cloud 9 is aiming high and I would honestly love to see them succeed, but so far is not so good.

Cloud 9 is following along in the long tradition of other Sports/Fusion/Brewpub/Cocktail/Wine/Supper Club/Family/Bar/Grill/Steak House/Restaurants out there. From the Vegas wall mural, to the Moulin Rouge posters, the movie posters, Rat Pack pictures, the multiple flat screens displaying the latest Nascar race and the Cowboys/Viking game (which nobody, as far as I could tell, was watching), the Bowling and Golden Tee video games, the mandatory gas fireplace, the pub tables, the cocktail table/settee groupings, the dining tables, the booths, the wine racks, the cocktail glasses, the large tap beer selection... Cloud 9 has obviously swerved into the short-sighted, never-successful "Let's Make Everyone Happy" plan. Like so many places before it, in a good-hearted attempt to do everything, they won't be able to do one thing well.

This is seriously one of my biggest pet peeves. After watching so many other restaurants before it fail horribly, yet another business owner thinks "I'm different!" "I'm special!" "What hasn't worked for thousands and thousands of other businesses will work for me!"

Now, don't think that by any stretch I'm saying that Cloud 9 is not well-appointed. I didn't dislike a single thing about the decor. It was obviously put together by a restaurant professional. The view, blessed by a fantastic Wisconsin sunset while we ate, is to freakin' die for. I was seduced by Sinatra (or, more accurately, channel 75) playing in the background (attention restaurateurs, this is an auto +10 in my book, just so you know). I liked the low key lighting, the chairs were comfy and the whole place is laid out in zones to give it a more intimate feel. But this is nothing that any of us haven't seen before. This was pretty much every play from the modern restaurant playbook. This is a Catalog Restaurant. Everything from the floor tiles to the ceiling lights is ordered direct from a restaurant supply house. It's not an act of creation, it's an act of shopping.

What makes a neighborhood a neighborhood is its uniqueness. The streets are like whorls in a fingerprint. Environment, economy, history, culture and amenities combine to give every neighborhood a special formula that is as unique as the individuals that inhabit it.

What amazes me is how someone can live in a neighborhood and not understand that, especially in Madison. We've got very strong, very distinct neighborhoods, full of pride in these parts. For someone to open a "neighborhood" restaurant and not understand that is honestly... a little thick.

I could note that I've seen every single piece of decor in another restaurant at another time. I could note how much the place reminds me of TGI McFunsters or Granite City or even Applebees. But the best argument for Cloud 9's insipid reality is the menu.

Cloud 9? Who are you? Why should I choose you over so many other restaurants in this town? You are a restaurant after all, if a very confused one, and it all comes down to your food. What do I brag about? What do I drive across town for? When someone comes to visit, what do I say to them when we go out to dinner? "Hey, we gotta go to our local, they have got THE best.... " what?

Let's have appetizers! Are your buffalo wings better than Hooters or BW3? Are your mini bacon-cheeseburger better than the ones at Applebee's or Damon's? Are your Nacho's or fried calamari better than the ones I can get from any other restaurant (and their dog)? Homemade potato chips, that's kinda original, but Crave does it too.

Salads? From the mind-numbingly ubiquitous Iceberg to the old, old, old standby Caesar... at least it's not a Chicken Caesar (though I'm sure you could get it if you ask).

The rest of the menu suffers from the same personality disorder. Jambalaya? Really? I'm going to go to a Sports/Fusion/Brewpub/Cocktail/Wine/Supper Club/Family/Bar/Grill/Steak House/Restaurant for Creole food? Seriously? I'm sure you've got a New Orleans expat tucked in the back there that makes this, this and only this? Enchiladas? With all the great Mexican places in town, you're going to field this? Oh, I know there are those dinner parties that can't agree on where they want to eat. Some people want steak, some people want Mexican, some people want Italian. So the thought is that they can come to your place and it'll make everybody happy, right? WRONG! Fail! Anyone who wants Mexican in this town is probably used to places like Casa De Lara or Laredo's. You really think your half-assed, afterthought dish is going to satisfy? Take a stand Cloud 9! Focus! Pick a thing, do your thing and do it well! When people can't make up their mind what they want to eat, you don't say "we'll make what you want," you say "don't worry, you'll like what we make!"

The absolute capper to this is their risotto.

Real risotto is a thing of absolute beauty. When it's done correctly, when it is properly al dente and mantecato, it is one of the most wonderful, simple culinary treasures you should ever be so lucky to have. It is also very hard to make, not from a cooking standpoint, but from a restaurant standpoint. Risotto is notoriously finicky. It requires constant attention which is a demand that no dish can make in a professional kitchen. It's done when it's done and there is no ingredient other than hourglass sand that can change that. Italian restaurants that serve Risotto usually have schedules on the menu. Basically warning the diner that if you want the risotto, you have to wait till a certain time every hour, giving them the option of delaying their order so everything comes out at once. Risotto is not a side dish, it's not a starch filler. It's not like Americans think of noodles or rice with Italian or Japanese food, risotto is the centerpiece.

So when I see risotto on the menu at Cloud 9, my heart first leaps, then sinks.

It might be real risotto, but it's reheated. They have relegated this most sublime of comfort food, this legendary exotic and interesting crowd-pleaser to the realm of a side dish.

Attention Cloud 9 patrons, if you'll look to the left of the restaurant, you'll see greatness passing by... please wave. So close but yet so far.

If this place made real risotto, they should have people standing outside, holding signs that read "Check it out, REAL risotto!" or "Holy Fuck! Risotto!" But no, it was slapped unceremoniously on the plate like a scoop of lunch lady mashed potatoes (which I had, BTW). It was okay, but reheating is not kind.

All of this criticism has probably led you to think that I didn't like the restaurant. But here is the mind-blowingly stupid part... the food, was good.

Just because the place don't know who or what it is, don't mean the crew can't cook.

Not only was the place well appointed, our waitress was an excellent example of the species, both kind and considerate. She unabashedly warned us that due to a sudden busy spurt, the kitchen was in the weeds when we sat down. I appreciate that, rather than cover it up or try to make excuses, she was very upfront and matter-of-fact.

We started off with the White Cheddar/Sweet Corn fondue.

Good temp, good texture, good taste. My Bride has her own spin on our dinner over at Insert Pithy Title Here and we are in agreement regarding the sharpness of the cheese. Melting cheese makes it lose flavor. This would have benefited from a sharper cheese. It also should have come with a bottle of hot sauce. Cloud 9 obviously only has one fryalator that they use for everything because the homemade tortilla chips tasted like Friday fish-fry. I actually enjoyed that, it reminded me of some tasty childhood bar food, but others might not be so kind. All and all it was delicious. But it was also cheese that you ate with deep fried food, how was that ever going to be bad? It's not particularly inspired. It follows in the current tried-and-true restaurant trick of fatting foods up, but hey, sometimes that's not a bad thing.

This was a damn good steak. I asked for Medium Rare and that is what I got. Honestly, I wish that wasn't a big deal, but it is. So many other places couldn't find medium rare if the cow was alive and giving them a play by play as it cooked. That speaks to someones grillardin. Note the mashed potatoes... kinda lunch lady ain't they? They were good, however... fatted up with butter and cream as you would expect.

I don't want to mention dessert, 'cause... I ate it, and I shouldn't have. It was teh awesome.

Afterward, we retired to the bar where an indifferent bartender poured us a pair of grossly overpriced rail drinks that were adequate, but hardly worth the price. 7 dollars for a rail cocktail is way too much. I can get a beautifully muddled Mojito at Jade Monkey for 5. Come on folks. I know the bar is where a restaurant makes its money, but remember that neighborhood places have to be reasonable. Remember, repeat business. Your prices should be on par with other local establishments and Jade Monkey is packed. Take a lesson.

This was a good meal. It was good food made by a skilled crew which makes this all the worse.

I have nothing to recommend this place that I can't say about so many other places in Madison. They are not special, they are not unique. The food was good but nothing stood out. The menu said nothing. Nothing in particular anyway. They don't speak for Sprecher or the Eastside. If someone put me on the spot and asked me what Cloud 9 has that nobody else does? I got nothing.

Maybe an identity crisis.