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Wednesday, July 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 78.0° F  Mostly Cloudy


Upscaling the box lunch in downtown Madison
Ocean Grill and The Local vie for hurried diners

The Local's aiming for that old lunchbox/lunchroom vibe; there's a hint of the school lunch in the menu entrees.
Credit:Linda Falkenstein
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Downtown restaurants are trying to attract the attention of the hurried/harried lunch crowd in various ways, although a recent survey of the Ocean Grill at 12:15 p.m. proved there's no shortage of people who are willing to sit down in air-conditioned comfort and really do lunch. For those of you rushing back to your desks but who want to upgrade up the lunch experience a little bit....

The Ocean Grill offers less expensive grab-and-go lunch options with items drawn from its regular lunch menu.

The grab-and-go menu is the same every weekday. Three wraps, two salads and soup-in-a-bread-bowl -- all about $6 -- comprise the special takeout menu. Order at the bar and your meal emerges a few minutes later in a chic black takeout box. (These items all cost more when ordered to-sit.)

The Sesame Chicken wrap is a tightly rolled bundle of lettuce, chicken, tomato, scallions, cucumber, carrots, wonton crisps and peanuts with a sesame-ginger dressing. The chicken Caesar wrap also bundles chicken with lettuce, parmesan cheese and creamy Caesar dressing. And the worthy turkey avocado wrap includes real avocado, onions, Gruyere, carrots and organic mixed greens with a light pesto dressing. They're well-done wraps -- hefty without being overpowering, with the ingredients well-balanced.

It's also hard to go wrong with the Ocean Grill's rich, clammy New England seafood chowder. It's possibly the seafoodiest in town. And if you're going to someplace called the Ocean Grill, you may as well opt for seafood, although this is the only grab-and-go entree that features the fruits of the sea. Oh yes, your box lunch comes with a healthy apple for dessert, a big juicy Braeburn.

The Local Tavern on the Square touts a different $5 Hot Lunch special for each day of the week. It's available as dine-in, or carryout in the same sort of shiny black box used by Ocean. The Local's aiming for that old lunchbox/lunchroom vibe; there's a hint of the school lunch in the menu entrees.

I'm fond of Monday's egg salad "sammich" (fond of everything except the spelling of "sammich") despite the rather flimsy white sandwich bread it comes on. The whipped sweet mashed potatoes that accompany it -- a generous scoop -- are smooth and rich, buttery and sweet, piped in an attractive rosette, and maybe even more satisfying than the egg salad.

Tuesday's taco salad and Thursday's chili come solo, but Wednesday's grilled cheese comes with tomato bisque soup and Friday's BLT comes with roasted red potatoes. It's a satisfier for $5, and the service, at least when the order is called in ahead of time, couldn't be faster.

Since we're talking about upgrades, here, I have to mention that the food looks a little bare resting in the boxes. Even a crisp sheet of wax paper would dress up the presentation... think of what an orange slice or a spring of parsley would do.

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