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Lunch from the meat counter: Triumph and tragedy at the Underground Butcher
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Clockwise from left: Hot dog, porchetta, meatball sub and coppa on a demi-baguette.
Credit:Linda Falkenstein

How of-the-moment is the Underground Butcher? Butchery itself is very much in vogue, and the meats inside the case here exemplify nose-to-tail. Don't be surprised to see a pig's head next to various parts. The meatcutters may sport extravagantly apportioned beards, as if they've been sent over by Central Casting. Everyone is sincere and helpful. It's perfect.

Underground Food Collective is the hottest culinary entity in town right now - and with its restaurant, Forequarter, garnering a "Best New Restaurant" nomination from the James Beard Foundation, it's official. The collective's butcher shop, in a newly renovated blacksmith's shop on Willy Street, opened last November. It's devoted to what could be classified, at this cultural moment, as carefully curated, local, mindfully raised meats, often heritage breeds, and artisanal sausages. It's not a restaurant, and so far it's not even really a deli, but it does offer a daily menu of sandwiches from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Small menu. Big highs. Saddening lows.

Start with the smoked whitefish salad sandwich, one of the blackboard menu's several constants. It's dazzlingly good, a flash trip to the great north. The fish comes smoked from a supplier in Door County and is well matched with sweet-tart pickled onions between slices of a Madison Sourdough miche (slightly tangy, true to French country bread).

Next to the cash register, no bags of chips or standard add-ons. But look for productions from the Food Collective kitchen, like a bag of taralli. These Italian munchies look like diminutive bagels and are simple flour and olive oil concoctions, imbued with fennel seeds, salty and crunchy. If you like fennel, they're a must.

A special, the meatball sub, sported dreamily yielding beef-and-pork meatballs, with a vegetal, red-peppery romesco sauce as counterpoint, but the bread - like a wide multigrain sub loaf - was almost impossible to bite into.

If pressed for time, you can do worse than the grab-and-go coppa and Pleasant Ridge Reserve on a demi-baguette, punctuated with a sharp Dijon. Classic flavors and possible to chew.

A sopressata sandwich with Marieke Gouda and mustard was a rustic picnic, the Marieke almost overpowering the salty, chewy, nearly gamey sopressata. This could have used a note of sweet...pickle, relish, caramelized balsamic onion.

And now, drifting to the disappointing.

A mortadella sandwich with 'nduja (a spicy, spreadable sausage), Hidden Springs Driftless Cheese and Dijon was surprisingly light, which is to say that for $8, there was not very much inside of it. (Sandwiches here range from quite small to quite hearty, but all are $8.) The 'nduja added a little burn, but together it, the mortadella and the cheese made no inroads against the bread.

A summer sausage sandwich with sweet tomato chili marmalade, cherry mustard, three-year cheddar and kale on focaccia was a great confusion. The marmalade clashed with the cheese, the mustard and the sausage, and I'm not sure what raw kale contributes to any sandwich. The bread was so dense it was like the focaccia version of a brownie.

I was looking forward to a juicy hot dog ($6), capped with kimchi, but "juicy" is a word that would never be applied to this frank. It's a very summer-sausage-like version that seemed kind of wizened and parsimonious. It came with shishito relish instead of the billed kimchi, which was fine with me, and the bun was great.

The greatest tragedy was the porchetta, paired with romesco sauce and shishito pepper relish. The focaccia was soaked through with grease; oil was dripping out the wrapping and through the bag. I wasn't sure it was even possible for that much grease to be coming from one slice of meat and wondered briefly if someone had spilled a bottle of olive oil on the sandwich. This was an unfortunate showcase for an otherwise excellent preparation of heritage pork.

You can expect to find, on a daily basis, the whitefish salad, the hot dog, and a hardboiled egg and pickled beet sandwich, with one or two specials. The Butcher doesn't list the special sandwiches on its website; a special might or might not be posted on its Facebook page. It would be very useful to have the daily sandwich menu reliably posted somewhere online.

The creators here need to give greater thought to the overall effect of the various elements within the sandwich. I don't doubt that these cured meats would rock a charcuterie plate. They don't always rock a sandwich.

A stellar sandwich is more than the sum of its parts. It can be eaten without deconstruction. It holds together. It sustains.

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