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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Tapas time
It's small plates galore at the Icon

The Icon really wants you to have fun, and a lot of people seem to be diving right in. It's getting rave reviews from critics, and the crowd on a recent buzzing Friday night all seemed to be enjoying themselves. In fact, the woman sitting at the table next to us - and Icon is a convivial place that invites confessions, partly because the tables are so tightly spaced - said she thought the tapas were great. That was right before she also told me that she was going straight to heaven, because she had, along with the chorizo flatbread and a scallop or two, Jesus himself deep inside of her. Which means we, as we always suspected, are probably plummeting, Jesus-less, down to an especially lavish and fiery hell.

But not before dinner. Or then again, quite possibly. Because, as it turns out, if you get to the Icon at the wrong time - a.k.a. the pre-Overture Center crush - you and even Jesus himself, on Hanukkah no less, could be waiting an eternity for dinner. In our case eternity translated, literally, into an hour, standing by the front door, commiserating with other hangers-on, observing people plowing through their tapas, getting a cold blast every time the door opened, and then watching the other wait-listed whiners finally give up and stomp out.

Why? Because the Icon doesn't take reservations (and believe me, we tried), a growing theme among Madison dining rooms that restaurant owners like, and that their customers - if they actually want to plan an evening out, or count on eating - probably don't

But the young hostess was implacably cheerful and efficient despite the chaos, and then at least there was a lot to look at while we waited: big paintings of American pop icons like James Dean and poor Marilyn (let the woman rest in peace already); narrow banquettes backed by high lipstick red padding; a long, jammed bar lit by some more lipstick red, low-hanging glass lights. It all looked like a kid's or a strip mall's idea of something chic and playful.

Most kids, along with the woman next to me, will also probably love the Icon's trademark tapas, because tapas trail an inevitable sense of exuberance. They are essentially party food, and there is something giddy about being able to pile up lots of small plates without having to commit to a big one. And it's easier to excuse the disappointments, because there is always another plate coming around the corner, especially at the Icon, where the servers are fast, enthusiastic and endearing.

And in fact, once we were finally seated the plates couldn't come fast enough, and we couldn't stop ordering more. Until we had time to settle in and consider what we were eating. And then the party deflated a little. Because while tapas are small, they still need to think big, and they need to be cooked right. And a lot of what we were eating was just puny, and thoughtless.

Take Icon's smoked salmon: leathery, tough strips of chew-toy lox, everything good smoked salmon shouldn't be, served with dry, tough bread-like things (toast?) you could buff your nails with. Curried chicken salad was soupy with a lot of mayonnaise-y curry sauce, and the tortilla tasted more like an especially bland Perkins omelet (like many things here, it depended on its accompanying dipping sauce, in this case garlic aioli, for any semblance of flavor) than a Spanish tortilla.

Not that it had to taste traditional; tapas can be whatever they want. (In fact try Muramoto's sushi, Wasabi's grilled scallops, a Lombardino's antipasto, or even a slice of the estimable new Pizza Brutta on Monroe Street, where the pizzas are light and ethereal, for an inexpressibly better version of tapas.) But the tortilla is billed on the Icon menu as a "traditional Spanish tortilla," and in referencing classic Spanish tapas, you owe them more than a sloppy, indifferent rendition. Even the flatbread, almost saved by its slices of chorizo, because anything tastes good when it is topped by chorizo, looked floppy and greasy after a few bites.

Surprisingly, things only picked up when we veered away from the seduction of tapas and tried an actual entree (there are five). The roasted chicken was tender and wore a nice golden skin. And the braised short ribs, included on the tapas side of the menu but almost big enough to make for a small meal, had a real meaty heft to them.

And even if they hadn't, dessert would have helped salvage at least some of dinner. Because the caramelized bananas were sweet, simple and perfectly caramelized, and the "traditional flan" offered something no other dish did: it has an authentic, soulful flavor, and just the right firm texture, to pass as serious, considered food. It didn't justify the wait or rate any kind of annunciation, but it was a sign of promise.

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