How desperately does Monroe Street need a bona fide hangout? The answer is obvious at Brasserie V, the newly renovated bar cum bistro (previously known as Relish), which was so packed on a recent Friday night that the crowds were two deep at the long wood bar, and diners weren't just lining up for a table. They were actually spilling out the door, clustering on the sidewalk and facing a very long wait for food.
That's no surprise. Monroe Street is the anchor of one of Madison's most vibrant, well-traveled communities, and while the neighborhood restaurants are all good (how's that for diplomatic?), there is plenty of room for a real showpiece of a creative, urbane kitchen.
I'm not sure Brasserie V is that place, but for now it deserves its spotlight and a lot of credit, though some of that has to do with pedigree. Relish was always one of Madison's best lunch places - a gourmet sandwich spot where the thoughtful sandwiches were stacked like little works of art, offering an antidote to the chains' assembly-line hoagies. So there was some neighborhood anxiety when the place changed names, the builders came in, and the long cooler filled with Wisconsin cheeses and imported meats gave way to the long, sleek, cherry-toned bar.
Wisely, though, the renovation didn't mean a full-scale change. In fact, Brasserie V's slightly edited menu of sandwiches includes many of Relish's classics, so this is still one of Madison's best lunch spots. Even better, you can order some of the sandwiches off the dinner menu as well.
And in fact, as it turns out, they make for some of the Brasserie's most reliable dinners. While the croque monsieur doesn't have the airy, almost soufflé quality of a great monsieur, the kitchen's smoked turkey, served on a toasted crusty country bread with cheddar, avocado, chipotle-lime aioli, spinach and tomato, is a satisfying signature dish. So is the avocado BLT, starring Nueske's bacon. And the V burger, topped with Muenster cheese and beer-battered onion straws, is one of the few burgers in town that actually holds its shape, and doesn't drop down through its shredded bun, thanks to that sturdy toast.
If the sandwiches are a draw here, so is the very serious list of Belgian tap beers (including a sweet raspberry Lambic) that accounts for the crush at the bar and the almost constant din that makes Brasserie an acoustical nightmare for anyone expecting a quiet, intimate dinner. The uneven dinner menu, once you shoot beyond the sandwiches, doesn't always guarantee a sublime meal either.
Among the best of that menu, surprisingly, are the crab cakes. While this is a dish, as mysteriously ubiquitous as crème brûlée, that almost always disappoints, the Brasserie V version is one of the finest renditions in town. The three small, delicate cakes come fat with crab and feature a whipped, feathery texture that answers to all those other leaden cakes, dense with filler, that have become the local norm. Also very good is the homemade cheesecake served on cherry graham cracker crust and topped with Door County cherries.
What to order in between that knock-out appetizer and dessert if you want more than a sandwich? All of Brasserie V's entree's are generously portioned and surprisingly low-priced (the highest tab, for steak frites, is $18), so it seems churlish to complain. And most of the dishes, though not necessarily memorable, are just fine, especially a very fresh, thick chunk of pan-seared salmon topped with lemon dill butter, and a massive, double-cut pork chop that was a little dry and underseasoned, but still tasted great in a sandwich the next day.
If the crisped skin on the slightly rubbery duck breast was too salty, at least it still wore its skin (there is no worse fashion than those denuded, bloody slices of tasteless, skinless, pointless duck that get served in too many contempo kitchens). And while the steak-frites could feature crispier, less floppy frites, the only flat-out disaster, bad enough to make you think wistfully of Olive Garden, was the inexplicable bucatini - so overcooked it was simply gummy and tossed in an overly spicy, clumping, one-note marinara sauce doused with red pepper flakes.
Avoid that little fiasco, don't expect the more polished, stylish brasserie cooking of a Sardine, and avoid weekend nights. And order the cheesecake. Then Brasserie V will start to look like the real local landmark it wants to be.