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Sunday, December 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  Fog/Mist
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43 North introduces a free-spirited menu to Madison
Changes in attitude, changes in latitude
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Credit:Todd Brei

When Café Continental closed its doors in October and 43 North quickly took over the space, the already dynamic dining scene around the Square seemed ready to levitate. In fact, the talent behind 43 North almost guaranteed a creative new kitchen. Shinji Muramoto, 43 North's co-owner, is one of Madison's great culinary mavericks, and the local dining scene would be inexpressibly duller without his manic ambition and his conga line of buzzing restaurants, from Restaurant Muramoto to the Haze and Sushi Muramoto. And executive chef Justin Carlisle, who helped establish Harvest as one of downtown's premier kitchens, comes trailing his own impressive pedigree.

The dining room itself looks like the very model of a contemporary urban brasserie (hardwood floors, burgundy banquettes, whitewashed walls, open kitchen, supremely efficient waitstaff wrapped up in bleached aprons). And the prevailing culinary playlist reads like an amalgam of every current, now passing, gastronomic fashion.

There is the menu that comes more padded with extras than an AT&T bill: the amuse bouche, the after-dinner chocolates, the square of cinnamon coffee cake to take home. There is the beef cheek take on snout-to-tail cuisine that people like to consider an homage to ethical eating, though the soulful butchered pig doesn't care. And there is the haiku of the staccato menu ("goat milk, coriander, celery, mango") that has replaced the wordy one.

All of this should make for at least a stylish dinner, though one that will have to be reconfigured in a year if it doesn't want to look dated. And to some degree everything comes together. There is no question you can have a very good meal at 43 North if you order well, and if you focus on the first two sections of the menu: the very hard-to-distinguish first course and second course.

From the first course, the bigeye tuna belly and foie gras terrine is a smart marriage. Even better, from the second course, is the standout braised beef cheek. The beef cheek, served in a sweet beef jus, is one tender, deeply flavored block of sweet meat, and the fontina cheese ravioli it sits on adds a nice cushion. And the Jonah crab salad, a long sprawl of chilled crab, gets a bright lift from sunchoke, lemon oil and a fresh crown of herb salad. It also makes for a great sandwich packed into your crusty dinner roll (though the powdered butters that accompany the roll are going to end up all over your shirt, and the table, and pretty much everywhere but on the actual roll). Of the main courses, the most familiar is the most reliable. The beef strip is a purely satisfying entree, the perfectly cooked meat playing off a dollop of creamy horseradish.

If you can order well at 43 North, though, you can order poorly too, and there are a number of dishes on the menu that need serious tweaking. The braised lamb (for some reason a first course) is marred by a texture that's so strangely cottony it tastes like nursery food. The poached lobster dish suffers from a similarly mushy fate. In fact, the flavorless lobster meat seems almost pulverized, and the whole white plate, full of soft things that you can gum (including wilting mounds of celeriac and fennel), screams out for some acidity and some texture. The same is true of the vegetarian afterthought of a sad-looking squash platter, though the squash barley, a blend of al dente barley mixed with sweet squash puree, is good.

The corned pork jowl itself is fine, but the squares of truffled bread pudding it sits on are too cloyingly rich for an already rich, fatty meat (it's hard, even if you're ravenous, to get through half of this groaning plate). That points to a general problem: There isn't enough balance, or coherence, to a lot of these dishes.

Desserts don't help. The "quince, oat, walnut, honey" finale is as disconnected as it sounds, though maybe it doesn't matter; the very medicinal-tasting honey overwhelms every other flavor.

The restaurant's price point is also an issue. Main courses (aside from the squash plate) range from $22 to $28. That means there is one more restaurant circling the Square aiming at a moneyed market, and the luxe crush of restaurants is starting to look like a glut. Fortunately, though, 43 North has the talent, and the creative drive, to make the necessary tweaks and do just fine.

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