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Wednesday, December 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Overcast
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New menu at Café Montmartre goes serious with food

Authenticity is a hard thing to fake. All those faux hipster clubs that have opened the last few years around State Street look too shiny and self-conscious, like an exploded Urban Outfitters or a new neck tattoo. But Café Montmartre, running since 1992, comes by its boho credentials honestly, and it shows. The scuffed wooden floors and chunky tables, the red walls and exposed brick, the long wooden bar and the subterranean windows, which let you look out on passing legs, and cars, all feel like they've always been there. The look is simultaneously slightly louche and comfortably homey and purely organic.

What wasn't always so comforting or blithely stylish about Montmartre, though, was its food, which earned at best mixed ratings over the years. But the kitchen introduced a new menu this summer, and people suddenly weren't just referring to Café Momo as a hangout; suddenly it was a place to seriously eat, too.

In fact, the new menu features a lot of items that look appetizing, starting with a round of inventive salads, including a melon and pea shoot salad, tossed with goat cheese and a citrus champagne vinaigrette, that's a bright palate-cleanser. That should get your mouth ready for some of the much more meaty entrees. The kitchen was out of the duck confit empanadas when we stopped by - testimony to their popularity - but its take on a classic Cubano sandwich was a hit with everyone at my table. Ham, tender braised pork, sliced hard-boiled eggs and pickles were stacked up inside what the menu calls a baguette but which turned out to be something better: a big, brioche-like bun that offered a sweet counterpoint to that swirl of meaty flavor. Just as good was a bowl of feijoada. Though it deserved better than the very dry wedge of polenta served beside the stew, the little pot of black beans, smoked pork and poblanos was everything a good stew should be. A slight citrus tone pepped up the soupy black bean stock, and the chunks of smoked pork played a little duet with the poblanos. The whole thing had that ineffable thing called depth of flavor. Even the very thin-crust pizzas, though no competition for the serious pizza-makers in town, and marred by a crust that turns limp toward the center (and, okay, too much acidic tomato sauce) are still good buys at $7.50-$10; the porky pie features lots of pulled pork shoulder.

A casual menu playing this many notes will go wrong, sometimes, and the item that was just off was the Salvadoran sandwich, another big stack of stuff (beer-braised turkey, pepitas, pickled onions, chiles and tomatoes) that was done in by very tough, chewy, dry turkey. And even if Nutella is a novelty for you, don't order it smeared on Montmartre's way-too-thick and leathery "crepes." The chocolate soufflé, on the other hand, though no true soufflé, is a deep dish of hot fudgy chocolate and whipped cream, and it works because it doesn't try too hard, and it just wants to have fun, and it plays by its own sense of style. It makes for the perfect Montmartre climax.

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