At the end of a glowing July, country trips are a constant lure, though Madison is oddly lively for midsummer and about to get livelier with the reopening of the original Muramoto on King Street. I'm especially enjoying the peaches at Brennan's (the kind that spit juice, not the mealy, potato-like versions that most groceries sell) and the fish tacos at Tex Tubbs' Taco Palace, which are elegantly designed little meals-in-one, and cheap.
None of that stopped us, this time, from taking some rural drives, first to the Dining Room in Monticello, which still offers the best reason to leave Madison (especially if you order the Wisconsin cheese bread, the cornmeal-crusted pork cutlets paired with poblano cream sauce and cheese grits, and the sticky toffee pudding), and then to the Bistro 101, which opened in Mount Horeb in May.
The Bistro sits on Main Street, in the Hoff Mall, and the layout is casually sprawling. There are high wood tables and black leather chairs spilling into the mall hallway and a lounge punctuated by pillowy club chairs, a couch and a fireplace. Archival black-and-white photos of a truly rural Mount Horeb dot the walls, though the view of Main Street outside the mall's picture windows is sweetly time-warped enough.
The menu is as sprawling as the layout. Taking the notion of tapas to a hefty extreme (baby back ribs don't usually qualify as a small plate), the menu features its creativity up front, with a list of 10 global tapas.
All of the plates we sampled were fine, although the tortilla espanola was a little indelicate and too starchy. With a thick stack of Wisconsin russet potatoes, it was generously priced at $6 and good if you accept it on its own terms - as more of a dairyland tortilla.
The roasted shrimp, served with two dipping sauces (New Orleans remoulade and a chimichurri), were sweet and fat, but the bruschetta proved to be an acquired taste. My friends, acquiring the taste quickly, both thought the bruschetta were great, though I wasn't wild about the crunchy, tasteless base, which resembled an overgrown crouton. But the toppings (there are six to choose from) were fully flavored, especially a prosciutto and a puree of Italian canellini beans.
This adventurous range of tapas leads to the heart of the menu, which, oddly, turns out to be a much more basic selection of salads and panini. The harvest spinach salad featured a nice heap of spinach, toasted pecans, tart apple wedges, goat cheese and crisped prosciutto and was rich enough to pass for dessert (and another great buy at $8).
The panini we sampled were all fine, elevated by thick, grilled bread that would have worked well on those crunchy bruschetta. The three-cheese rendition was less successful, if only because the trio added up to a muddled free-for-all, which means the provolone, cheddar and gorgonzola canceled one another out.
The roast beef with arugula, cheddar and horseradish cream was better, though it could have used more beef and horseradish. The roast turkey with bacon and provolone was best.
But if sandwiches are the heart of a menu, they should be more exciting than the mostly serviceable panini. And if the tapas are the kitchen's real focus, then adding more creative plates would help.
Bistro 101 is still worth the drive, for its decent prices, its attempt to offer more in Mount Horeb, and for that abiding view of Main Street. One dessert is almost worth the road trip alone: The chocolate hazelnut mousse was thick, creamy and chocolately, and proof that Main Street has really come of age.