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Friday, December 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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Can King & Mane pull it together?
Oh my, cantina
on (1) Comment

Credit:Carolyn Fath

King & Mane was poised to be a heavy hitter before its doors even opened. Co-owners Patrick O'Halloran and Michael Banas helm Madison favorite Lombardino's, and O'Halloran was a partner in the Old Fashioned, among other ventures. Chef Bob Kulow, lately of the Cabana Room, and Sue Kirtan, a partner in the Local, round out the team. This pedigree made me excited to eat at King & Mane, despite its off-puttingly navel-gazing "gastro-cantina" label.

King & Mane has gotten rapped in print and via word of mouth for inconsistent food. I experienced this as well, but I ate some really good dishes there. A duck fat potato cake, for one; it's unctuous and crispy and savory, and big enough to share. Also good are the Mane nachos, which came dolloped with a chili-intense sauce, queso fresco, sour cream and strips of pickled jalapeño, among other toppings. (The King version, for an additional $3, includes chorizo, short rib meat or chicken.)

The appetizer side of King & Mane's menu is to me its most compelling section; nearly everything I really wanted to try came from there. It includes dishes ranging from a simple roasted beet salad to blue-cheese-stuffed figs to albondigas (meatballs) to some ever-welcome Marcona almonds with sea salt and rosemary. The tomato soup is intense even when shared; Eno Vino makes a similar dish, but it's leavened with herbs and oil.

I liked the mixed greens salad with champagne vinaigrette, which comes in a generous portion even as a side, while the "deconstructed" wedge was just okay. I'm not sure what was deconstructed about the salad - the bacon and egg were chopped up? - and the chipotle-pineapple dressing couldn't beat the traditional blue cheese.

At lunchtime King & Mane offers several sandwiches, all fusion-y versions of things you're familiar with. A BLT becomes a BLAT with the addition of avocado; a portabella mushroom sandwich receives a hit of adobo sauce. Slow-roasted turkey and smoked paprika make a good pair, and the smothered beef tenderloin turns Italian beef to Mexican by subbing in poblano and piquillo peppers and chipotle mayo. The torta sandwich, which combines scrambled eggs, olive oil refried beans, red salsa, guacamole and other savory bits, was indulgent and satisfying, a keeper. The BLAT fell flat. Overall, the quality of the bread was variable from meal to meal; at one occasion it was soft and fresh and grilled to a lovely crisp; at another, it was hard, stale and infuriating.

The dinner menu is smaller and less varied. I tried the Monday special, a Jordandal Farm chicken leg and thigh topped with Oaxacan black mole. This is definitely a dish for dark-meat fans only, as the chicken was a little greasy and the skin not as crisp as it could have been. The mole had good flavor but lacked smoothness. The sides of rice and pinto beans were, frankly, boring. I was very disappointed to find that the restaurant uses only flour tortillas, which seems nothing short of a Mexican food travesty to me. Corn tortillas need to happen here now.

A pork tenderloin dish fared better, with tender, flavorful pork cooked exactly right and beautifully presented with refried black beans and a spicy chipotle-peanut sauce. Still, my mind kept returning to the duck fat potato cake.

Dessert was similarly hit-or-miss. The buttermilk-brown sugar panna cotta, while not creative, was lovely, light and tangy. I'd recommend it over the bricklike flourless chocolate cake, which lacked the depth and creamy texture needed to carry the intensity of the chocolate. Its salted cajeta (caramel) sauce didn't have enough salt, which would have helped balance things a bit.

When I go back to King & Mane, and I will, I'll do a few things differently. I'll skip the dark front room in favor of the warm and welcoming bar. I'll try those blue-cheese-stuffed figs and the canela whoopie pie. What I will do exactly the same: the duck fat potato cake and the torta. If it ain't broke....

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