The Madison Concourse Hotel and Governor's Club,
1 W. Dayton St., 294-3033, 5:30-10 pm Sun.-Sat. EntrÃes $18-25.
Parking lot underneath hotel. Wheelchair accessible. Credit cards and checks.
Hotel dining rooms may be competitive in other cities, but Madison's hotels don't really stake their reputation on food. The Edgewater dining room coasts by on its views, and the Concourse is mostly known for the size of its brunch. Only the Hilton has established a solid reputation for its muscular, consistent steakhouse dinners.
The Concourse, though, recently attempted to introduce some actual competition by hiring a new chef for its Ovations dining room and revamping its menu. So far, the Hilton has nothing to worry about.
Actually, even the Edgewater is in the clear, if only for that view, because the first thing that strikes you about Ovations is the lack of any natural light. Hidden behind the brunch room and blocked off from those big picture windows overlooking downtown, the dining room, probably meant to feel intimate, has more of a bunker-like effect. The palette ' a mix of peach, rose, brown and rust ' is as sadly autumnal as the dark carpet, the exposed rec-room brick, the French doors topped by a big neon exit sign, and the dirge-like '50s playlist. Frank Sinatra may be a classic, but no one really wants to eat dinner to a rendition of 'Autumn Leaves' and a lot of weeping violins.
Well, maybe some people do, and those are the people who might like Ovations' very overwrought but uncouth menu, which reaches back in time, too, like the music. The food, though, evokes a more recent past. That would be the '90s, when chefs liked to throw together flamboyantly whimsical, let's-have-fun-in-the-kitchen, pseudo-maestro combinations of unlikely ingredients, stacking up flavors with slapstick abandon and no real sense of coherence.
That would explain pretty much everything we tried on a recent night, in the resolutely empty dining room. Among the giddy appetizers, the best were some seriously seared crab cakes that didn't taste much of crab, but that picked up some nice clean flavors from black beans and avocado. The flavors were much more muddy in a dish of doughy ravioli topped by thick, but oddly tasteless, sweet white corn coulis. And a grilled flatbread was a misnomer; the thick, leathery dough, anything but flat, came topped with a few vaporous pieces of chicken drowned out by a crown of artichokes, Greek olives, capers and feta cheese that coalesced into one very acrid, salty top note.
Among entrÃes, things picked up a little. Roasted rack of lamb, left mercifully alone, refused to be done in by its multiple pairings (this time, artichoke mashed potatoes, a goat cheese croquette and ' why not? ' tomato fondue). Roasted breast of chicken, though, was overcooked and gained nothing much from the sour cherry-peach chutney. In fact, the dish would have fared better, like every other entrÃe on the menu, if it dropped at least one ingredient (in this case, the too-tart peach, and the too-much rosemary flavoring the big blocks of polenta). Grilled salmon was oversalted, and four thick slices of chewy duck straddling two crepes stuffed with seared duck breast and porcini, all topped by an orange-raspberry reduction sauce, was what you call a mouthful.
Dessert made the best case yet against flourless chocolate cake, called chocolate marquise here. The two very bittersweet, gluey triangles of sweet marquise approximated bad state-fair fudge, and there was nothing the pistachio ice cream or sour-cherry syrup could to do reclaim it. Better was the citrus chÃvre and hazelnut cheesecake. Sound deceptively simple? Don't forget the guava-lime sauce.