We were cranky. It was another boiling day, and Forequarter's no-reservation policy made it tough to coordinate with the people meeting us for dinner. Would we be able to hold a table for the four friends joining us when we'd heard that lines were regularly collecting at the restaurant's door since Forequarter opened a month ago?
At 5 p.m. sharp on a recent Wednesday, though, no lines were in view, and the minute we walked into the dining room all was fine. Consider it a homecoming. Since Underground Kitchen literally went up in smoke last year, the Underground Food Collective have been busy catering, selling their cured meats, doing pop-up dinners in New York and trying to scrounge up a new dining room.
The mere fact that they have been able to open the restaurant on East Johnson (a larger possible property on Williamson Street is still being negotiated) is a big event in itself, for a simple reason. Before its charred apocalypse, Underground Kitchen was one of the best new restaurants to open in Madison in years. While plenty of other kitchens are following their template - call it the artisanal barnyard butchering trope - very few succeed. That's because working some carnivorous, usually porky, allusion into your restaurant name (my favorite: Chicago's Bourgeois Pig) and slapping lots of innards and nose-to-tail body parts on the menu doesn't necessarily make for a good restaurant. It just makes for a trend.
What made the Underground Kitchen so much better than a trend was its sense of dedication. The Kitchen's plates were always beautifully composed and thoughtful, and they always located the delicacy that has to buoy butch carnivorous cooking. Otherwise it just feels like a bloody slaughterhouse, and an insult to the animals that get sacrificed.
Would Forequarter follow suit? The short, good news: absolutely. In fact the Collective all seemed to be working the small eight-table restaurant the night we came, focusing on their plates with a kind of studious Zen-like concentration and fierce attention to detail that gets mirrored in the dining room itself. Though tiny, this is no knocked-together little slapdash café. Those gorgeous wood tables are salvaged from the Swenson farm in Spring Green. The yellow walls are the color of freshly churned butter, the pressed tin ceiling glows gold, the long bar is an elegant strip of wood, and the black bear waving a limp paw mounted in one corner of the room adds a note of whimsy.
All this, though, is background clutter. When the plates started collecting on our table, our attention was fixed and focused because these were gorgeous plates of food. Start with any of the meat boards the kitchen is sending out that night; all the meat is handcrafted and cured in-house. Ours included a spicy andouille that was soft enough to spread on the big grainy slices of Madison Sourdough bread. If that's not enough bread - and it isn't here - get the heaped plate of ripped bread roasted with herbs, olive and shaved onion, served with a little bowl of potted pork that was sweetly pickled and another of herbed ricotta. Move on to the spicy corn cobblettes, mini-corncobs paired with a cilantro lime aioli that coaxes out the corn's buttery sweetness and adds its own bright notes.
Then pause for a second. What makes even these initial dishes so good is the way they distill their respective tastes. Everything, from the andouille to the grilled bread to the corn, pops in the mouth with a clean, fresh, bracing flavor. The lesson gets repeated in our next round of dishes. Cubed roast summer squash is as juicy as fruit and framed by fried squash blossoms that add a slightly greasy kick to the heap of clean vegetables. Whitefish salad features velvety strips of whitefish tossed with corn, cauliflower, fennel and onion. Sliced pork sausages, grilled so the skin is seared red, come served over a soupy bed of sauerkraut, mustard and al dente fingerling potatoes.
But hold out for the kitchen's real tour de force. This is a big platter featuring very thinly sliced, tender pork loin laid in silky sheets over a shishito pepper relish, eggplant escabeche and buckwheat shoot salad. Each of the flavors - the heat of the pepper relish, the woody accent of the eggplant - holds its own and somehow never overpowers the delicate pork itself.
If there are caveats, they don't add up to much. Only one dish - a hot wedge of fermented cabbage topped by chopped smoked beef - was a bit of a muddle. The acoustics need work (the mixed Appalachian country and swing playlist jangles like a hillbilly caterwauling and drowns out any attempt at conversation). And the prices add up here. $12 may not seem like much for a plate of pork sausage, but if you order a few more plates, and you inevitably will, the bill escalates quickly.
If there is one new kitchen in Madison that deserves the splurge, it's this one. Call it a very welcome second act.
Raphael Kadushin is a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler magazine. His feature on Sweden was the Conde Nast Traveler July cover story, and his culinary features regularly appear on Gourmet.com and Epicurious.