The Jet Room's eggs Benedict are their claim to fame.
There are many places at which the food is an experience in itself, and happily, a few at which the experience is so much more. Here are five restaurants whose atmosphere gives them the effect of an engrossing book or movie.
I found my perfect storm at Fresco Rooftop Restaurant and Lounge on top of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. It's a voyeur's dream, surrounded on three sides by floor-to-ceiling glass, a thin veil between a panoramic view of the city and a bubble of a chic, minimalist dining room. It's modern with its clean lines and black-and-white accents, but cozied up with flickering tea lights and the ember-red glow of the bar.
Though Fresco is popular as a perch for watching sunsets, I challenge you to go during a raging thunderstorm. The spectacle of watching the city light up in a flash of lightning is chilling.
Fresco's menu rotates seasonally, but thankfully the sheep's milk ricotta gnocchi in a brown butter cream sauce never leaves. The rest of the menu runs the gamut of duck, lamb, chicken, fish and beef, and I've leaned toward the fish. The panko-crusted salmon, in particular, is well prepared - moist, in contrast with a delicate, crackly jacket of panko.
The true stars come out on the dessert menu. Pastry chef Julia Julian (an American Culinary Federation gold medalist) departed in February, which is a loss, but her creations remain on the menu. A deconstructed peanut-butter-and-jelly dessert with tart Concord grape sorbet and peanut butter powder is a novel approach to the familiar combo. With mint syrup and fig fruit leather also on the plate, this PB&J can taste like a different dessert with each combination of components. The presentation is almost too pretty to eat, but you'll be glad you did.
When I think of the perfect meat-and-potatoes meal, I think of Tornado Club. In the style of a classic Wisconsin supper club, the eye candy here takes on a decidedly masculine edge. Sturdy wood furniture, big serrated steak knives, and a steady flow of suits and ties visiting from the Capitol make it the kind of place that practically begs you to wear your Mad Men best and order a Sazerac and a rib eye.
Highly knowledgeable staff will guide you through the menu if you're unfamiliar with steak - which here is all organic and grass-fed. Even the most petit offering, a tall eight-ounce medallion of lean beef tenderloin, makes an impression. I like my beef medium-rare, and it's surprisingly difficult to find it prepared according to temp, and accurately so. At Tornado, the temp was perfect. That's a rare gift to receive while eating out. The seared, buttery Brussels sprouts and the onion rings that were big enough to be worn as bracelets were just frosting on the cake.
Speaking of which...the pineapple upside-down cake is, as the host suggested, "smack-yo-momma good." I really have nothing to top that. Trust him - it is.
It's rare that I go to Fresco or Tornado, as much as I like them. I have expensive tastes but unfortunately not the bank account to back them. However, I find that Bunky's Café, a Mediterranean and Italian restaurant on the near east side, delivers on making meals and people feel special in a casual setting. The kitschiness of the place is charming.
Family photos cover the walls, and the dining room looks as if a pack-rat grandmother has taken it over, with crocheted doilies, baubles, figurines and, appropriately, even the "grandmother's table" for larger groups. There is, if you're so inclined, spaghetti on the table - family style in the most let-your-hair-down sense of the phrase.
If that's too much, try the basic spaghetti and meatballs. Despite fancier pasta options on the menu, the quality of the meatballs - tennis-ball-sized and bound with just enough breadcrumbs to lighten the texture without diluting the inherent beefiness - is my main draw. They're also highlighted in a meatball sandwich on the lunch menu. Also noteworthy is the pasta puttanesca, a briny "whore's pasta" with kalamatas, capers and anchovies.
But the falafel is perhaps Bunky's most precious commodity. The lightness of the insides and the golden, crisp shell of these chickpea fritters make them the best incarnation in Madison. They're free of excessive oiliness and pleasantly focus on the chickpeas, perked up with a little parsley.
Umami Ramen and Dumpling Bar is one of my favorite places to eat for a cozy, intimate dining experience. The renovated late-19th-century house on Williamson Street became a restaurant only about a year ago. It retains its hominess while showing off a sleek, urban, Asian-inspired interior. I love old homes, especially ones appropriated for new uses. Although most of the restaurant is lit with the soft glow of colored lights for hip ambience, the back, a bright orange room, is where I feel Umami succeeds best in its intimacy. It's here that the dining area most closely resembles a room in a home - exactly what makes it so comforting.
Umami has the one dish - or bowl, rather - that I return to again and again. I can't say no to the tonkotsu ramen: RP's Pasta ramen noodles in pork broth with chasiu (roast pork), a flavor-infused egg and garnishes.
But don't stop there. The buttered corn shot is a great topping to add to the tonkotsu ramen. It makes the dish, enriching the contents with the glossy, succulent kiss of butter.
For starters, the pork buns have also held my attention. The pillowy dough is folded in half over braised pork, house pickles and hoisin. The pickles are mild, and the pork is modestly portioned, but the components, mellow as they are, make for a perfect low-fuss appetizer.
It seems people either love Pat O'Malley's Jet Room or have never heard of it. A former FedEx driver introduced me to this hidden gem in the Wisconsin Aviation terminal on the Stoughton Road side of the Dane County Regional Airport. It's the type of place where I could imagine my dad, an ex-pilot, geeking out about getting to enjoy his egg breakfast and look at planes.
Watching planes take off and land is, in fact, one of the main attractions at this vintage-style diner. With chrome-edged vinyl-upholstered seating and black-and-white photos of the old airport, it brings to mind the golden age of air travel...before security.
The menu is practically a book. The Jet Room's eggs Benedicts (the menu includes several types) are their claim to fame, but any standard egg breakfast is a safe bet here. The hash browns win me over every time - cooked on a flattop and thoughtfully neglected long enough to develop a desirable crust on one side.
Another weakness of mine is old-school sandwiches, and I must make a plug for the Jet Room's triple-decker club, the "Tri-pacer," which is a BLT with turkey (and enough for two meals). Get it with the fresh fried potato chips with spicy dipping sauce. For those who love the Harmony Bar's hot chips, these are a pretty attractive alternative.