Spring Green has deserved better food for a long time. While the town offers almost as many powerhouse cultural landmarks as Madison - this, after all, is the home of Taliesin and American Players Theatre - and draws a steady stream of arty visitors, it hasn't been able to dish up any kind of tour de force dinner in recent years.
Anyone looking for a serious meal before or after their helping of local culture has been pretty much limited to the General Store, where the daily quiche is fine and the crowd is a venerable Spring Green mix of hippies, actors, architects, artists and organic farmers. But even the best quiche, in the end, is never going to make for a star-turn dinner.
That's why the recent winter opening of the Bank Restaurant & Wine Bar has excited as much local talk as the 2008 APT play list. Actually, more. In fact, before the doors even opened, the renovation of the handsome, neoclassical landmark on Jefferson Street, once the State Bank of Spring Green and then the private home of a local artist, was being closely watched.
And once the doors flew open, the watch seemed justified. In fact, it's worth driving to Spring Green, even in the dead of winter, just to ogle the now fully revived gem faced with terracotta tiles. The small bar, just inside the front door, somehow seems to work seamlessly with the elaborate tiled floor and original marble bank counter, which divides the boozy entrance from the small lounge cafe. Just beyond the cafe are the two main dining rooms, which are done up in a swish whirl of art nouveau wallpaper, high-backed banquettes, oval dining chairs upholstered in rich gold brocades, white tablecloths and whirling ceiling fans.
The real focus, though, is trained on the open kitchen backing the larger, central dining room, where executive chef James Jens - who has cooked variously at the American Club in Kohler, the Opera House and the Capitol Chophouse - gets cozy with locally grown and sourced ingredients. In fertile Spring Green, that means an essentially limitless, bulging harvest and a lot to work with.
Whether the kitchen's fussy menu - divided into Firsts, Seconds, Thirds and Desserts - is going to work once the APT crowds flood in, expecting a quick dinner before show time, is debatable. Considering the witheringly long waits between Firsts and Thirds when we visited on a recent arctic night, when the dining room was half-empty, the pacing will have to improve.
Though you can't blame the efficient, cheerful waitstaff, dressed up in bleached white shirts, who seem ready to jump whenever an order comes up. Perhaps Jens and his staff are just playing now, perfecting the dishes that will make the ultimate show time, and taking the extra time to get them right.
And that's probably a smart move. Because the few things that didn't work on our visit - and there weren't that many - do need concentrated tweaking. Start with one of the Firsts - seared jumbo coconut shrimp that were seriously undercooked and relentlessly tasteless. Among the Seconds, a hunter's stew served in a bread bowl was hearty but needed a lot more meat.
Top to avoid among the Thirds: A buffalo chicken breast doused with searing peppers and way too much sour Tabasco sauce, so the result wasn't just spicy but blistering enough to numb the mouth. Consider ordering it, maybe, before a dental procedure.
But a lot of what we sampled at the Bank was very good, starting with a First of seared goose breast (a bit too rare and tough) paired with an elegant Texas quail glazed with mango barbecue sauce. This was a creative run-up to the best entree: a big, tender, absolutely perfect slab of a lacquered tenderloin topped with herbed blue cheese butter and served with fluffy corn-cheddar grits.
Also well worth the drive: an ambitious global wine list (over 200 varieties in the cellar, from French to Italian and Spanish labels) and a coffee-rubbed pork loin topped with a sweet stout demi sauce. Better yet: a cioppino flush with clams, mussels, tuna, sea bass and salmon, and roused by a delicately understated seafood broth, infused with saffron, that proved the kitchen can layer subtle flavors fluidly.
Maybe the biggest surprise, though, was dessert. Thankfully there wasn't a crème brûlée or flourless chocolate cake in sight. Instead there were two big chocolate-dipped vanilla tuile cookies stuffed with a delicate, frothy pistachio mousse. There was a chocolate tower filled with cherry-infused dark chocolate mousse and a knock-out deconstructed sweet rice sponge cake paired with chunks of braised pineapple and complemented by a caramelized macadamia nut and coconut cream.
That's the kind of food that bodes very well for the Bank and should keep diners lingering, even if it means missing that first act of A Midsummer Night's Dream. And it's a sweet, thoughtful mouthful that Spring Green has deserved for a long time.
The Bank Restaurant & Wine Bar
134 W. Jefferson St., Spring Green, 608-588-7600
Lunch 11 am-2 pm Tue.-Fri., brunch 10 am-2 pm Sat.-Sun., dinner 5-9 pm Wed.-Thurs., 5-10 pm Fri.-Sun. Entrees $18-$26. Street parking. Credit cards; Madison checks okay. Wheelchair accessible. No Smoking.