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.