Fitchburg's newest fine-dining restaurant, Kickshaw, makes a bid for the hearts of Madison-area gastronomes but doesn't want to leave anyone else out. The restaurant is spacious and spread out, colored in warm browns, reds and tans. And it sports a surprising accoutrement: flatscreen TVs, posted all around so that almost no table is without a view. If you want to watch the game while you eat your preserved pheasant leg risotto, look no further.
Kickshaw uses local products to create a wide range of cuisine. All beef is grass-fed and local, and global flavor profiles abound. There are Japanese, French, Italian and Russian influences, to name a few. Kickshaw offers a regular menu, a monthly menu and a $30 "price fix" menu. (I can see avoiding the French "prix fixe," but surely diners could have been afforded the less awkward translation of "fixed price.") By ordering it, you accept the risk - and potential pleasure - of putting yourself in the chef's hands from appetizer to dessert. That's what I did.
The menu's playful verbiage leavens the bent toward serious food. The "kick-apps" veer from frites to tuna tartare to charcuterie. If you can manage to speak the pun aloud, the "ying yang wangs" (lollipopped chicken wings) are rewarding, served with a tangy sesame-soy dipping sauce. As my first course I received a beautiful presentation of duck medallions adorned with figs atop Swiss chard, peas, baby corn and roasted garlic, drizzled with mango puree. While the garlic was roasted to mild sweetness, the duck was tough and had a flabby skin. An appetizer off the monthly menu, crispy ravioli filled with squash and sage, fared better, with everyone at the table enjoying the flavors.
The entrees brought to the forefront some inconsistencies in the kitchen and the service. For my entrée, I was served a juicy, nicely seared flank steak coated with blue and Parmesan cheeses over purple potatoes and mixed vegetables. I also could have happily consumed the entire plate of sea-saltencrusted arctic char with Brussels sprouts and chanterelles. Not so appealing was the grilled ribeye, which was undercooked, yet tasted of charcoal. As for the diner who ordered the double-cut pork chop, he was still waiting for his food 10 minutes after the other entrees had been served. Though the server eventually brought a plate of cheese and fruit for the hungry party to snack on, the rest of us were nearly done when his pork chop finally arrived. Its stately appearance was encouraging, but ironically, the chop was overdone, and its overpowering smokiness rendered its port wine cherry jus tasteless.
For all Kickshaw's trumpeting about "local market vegetables," there were a lot of snooze-inducing baby carrots and some terrible mashed potatoes in evidence. It was a shame that the chard, peas and Brussels sprouts made only cameos.
The inconsistent service continued. I was brought my dessert immediately after the dinner plates were removed; my companions were not offered dessert menus. We did wangle some eventually, but might as well have skipped it. While my sesame semolina cake with citrus curd was a delectable, memorable knockout, other desserts ranged from boring to weird. A tower of puff pastry and berries was layered with unsweetened vanilla sour cream, which, when combined with the mint pesto decorating the plate, leaned way too far toward savory. The artisan cookie plate was a cute idea, but the cookies themselves were uninspired. The "Kick-a-lot-o-Choc" should have been a chocolate lover's nirvana, but instead grouped a gummy mousse, a dried-out bite of cake and a few other mundane nibbles.
I commend Kickshaw for setting the bar high. Some of the dishes were truly delicious. But something I heard Iron Chef Michael Symon say the other day sticks in my head: "If you're creative and you fail, are you creative or are you a failure?" Perhaps Kickshaw can make its concept work, but only if it gets the basics right and its service kinks straightened out. Without technique and execution, concepts won't bring diners back to the table.