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Sunday, August 31, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 61.0° F  Fog
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Talula upgrades a familiar spot
Food for the bar crowd, and much more
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Mexicali Rose lasted only 15 months in its east-side location, nestled against the on-ramp to Highway 51 from Cottage Grove Road. Now the space is occupied by Talula's. It's still a lot of fun, and now the food is somewhat better.

You can't miss the place. It's the brightest pink building for miles around. The new owners, Mary Reed and Keith Blew (formerly co-owner of Fyfe's) have toned down the interior decoration, from glaring fiesta hues to more subtle tones, but the bar is still very big, very noisy and lots of fun. Old-timers will recognize one of Madison's ugliest chandeliers, a remnant of former occupants CJ's East and the Pig's Ear.

On a recent Friday night, four of us were lucky enough to secure a table on the large outdoor patio (we had made reservations), where you can really appreciate the fact that the pink stucco walls are thankfully weathering to a dusty rose.

The place was packed, but we were seated right on time, and the service was as good and pleasant as it could be, considering the apparent staff shortage that night.

Fortunately, we weren't in a hurry, especially after we had drinks in hand, along with a basket of chips. We had chosen the first night of live music on the patio. Richard Wiegel, a great guitarist with the Midwesterners, entertained through dinner. Lots of Johnny Cash, traditional American folk music, even a few songs for a pair of toddlers dancing to the music. (Little kids are given chalk to draw on the patio tiles. A nice touch.)

The menu has gone from Mexican American to American American, with appetizers, salads, soups, sandwiches, and 10 entrees. There's plenty here for after-work bar patrons, but lots beyond that, too. And former patrons of Fyfe's might recognize familiar culinary touches.

Appetizers include Atlas crab cakes, artichoke crostini, Buffalo wings, spicy edamame and a snack platter with assorted cheeses, fruit and deviled eggs. We tried the crispy garlic cheese bread and the chips with salsa and guacamole. The salsa was fresh, the guacamole smooth and lemony.

Several salads could serve as entrees, including the cobb, Chinese chicken, salmon and a shrimp with mixed greens and candied walnuts. We tried the house garden salad, fresh and cold and spiced with a mild jalapeño dressing. We also experienced the renaissance of the iceberg wedge with French dressing and blue cheese crumbles.

My clam chowder was fine, with lots of little clam bits and good flavor. That was followed by beef tenderloin kebabs, served with skewered vegetables over basmati rice. The tender beef chunks were perfectly cooked to medium-rare, the vegetables - tomato, red pepper, onion, zucchini and pineapple - grilled separately so as not to overcook them. A beautiful dish.

My companion's pork loin was nicely done, seared properly on the outside, pinkish on the inside, slathered with cranberry port sauce and served with half an ear of corn and roasted garlic mashed potatoes, the last of which, unfortunately, arrived cold.

The signature Pasta Talula was a hit: shallots and mushrooms sautéed with jumbo shrimp and herbs in white wine cream sauce and tossed with fettuccine. Getting both the shrimp and the pasta to finish concurrently tender is no mean feat, but the kitchen pulled it off.

The clunker of the evening was the cioppino, a fish stew, traditionally made with tomatoes and white wine, that goes back to the Italian and Portuguese fishermen of old San Francisco. This version, with shrimp, salmon and mussels, looked beautiful on the plate, but one taste of a mussel made me think immediately of Anthony Bourdain, chef and author of the classic Kitchen Confidential, who said, "I would never eat mussels in a restaurant unless I knew the chef personally."

We ate no more of the mussels, and I said a little prayer before going to bed that night. Oh well, you can't win 'em all. Talula is off to a good start, with a menu several steps above that of Mexicali Rose. At Talula, come for the fun, stay for the beef kabobs.

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