Sometimes it's hard to leave town. I just rediscovered Brasserie V's muffaletta sandwich, which is a perfect stack of Genoa salami, tasso ham, mortadella, fontina, tomato and roasted red pepper layered on ciabatta. And the new Trapani Pizza, 1441 Regent St., which does a reliable thin-crust pizza, cut into neat squares, delivers. Which means we never really have to leave home again.
But there is that sense of obligation to take a country drive, when summer starts, and the only drive I know well enough to manage is the one to New Glarus. Plus, it's a fail-proof pastoral.
You pass the little village of Paoli along the way, which is reason enough to leave Madison, especially now that the town is home to the Cottage Goddess Gift Shop (despite the twee name a wonderful fall-out of retro ceramics, bargain-priced wing chairs reupholstered in toile and brightly painted rehabbed dressers). And then there is New Glarus' yodeling dreamscape of chalets and Swiss gift shops.
And mostly there is the assurance of good food. If you overshoot New Glarus, the Dining Room in Monticello is still probably the best country restaurant in southern Wisconsin. And if you don't overshoot Little Switzerland, you get your choice of the Glarner Stube, which dishes up first-rate, authentic Swiss cuisine, and the New Glarus Hotel, which tries.
So why did we end up at the New Glarus Hotel? I like the sense of history. The hotel, one of the first buildings in New Glarus, was constructed before the Civil War, and the dining room was once a theater hosting traveling vaudeville revues.
I like the view from the balcony tables - the only place to dine here (the dark interior feels grim and claustrophobic), because they allow you a perfect view down First Street, so you can see the appetite-whetting New Glarus Bakery and Ruef's Meat Market. And I like the determined attempt at Swiss Miss attitude: the lace curtains, the warm waitresses dressed in dirndls, the soundtrack of faux folk music ("wonder and joy in our chalet").
Though frankly, as it turns out, I could do without the folk music, which sometimes turns a little dirge-like.
So does the food, but you get plenty of it, and some of it is fine. Dinner starts with a big, standard-issue salad buffet (an unfortunate touch: the frozen peas rattling around in a bowl), but you don't want to fill up if you're ordering the Swiss signature dishes, which are the only reason to come here. Though, depending on what you order, you might actually want to fill up. I've had very satisfying meals here before, so I'm guessing we came on an off night.
That would explain the geschnetzeltes dish - a plate of browned veal, sliced thin and served in a light cream sauce. All of which sounds good, and usually is, but this time the meat was tough and someone had poured too much salt in the sauce, enough to leave a throaty after-burn. Also surprisingly disappointing was the usually rousing sauerbraten. The strangely uniform slices of marinated beef were also a bit tough, but more puzzling was the oddly restrained and soupy sauerbraten sauce, which was thin, relatively tasteless, and lacking the requisite sweet and sour snap.
The disappointments, though, were redeemed by a good wienerschnitzel, the three big pieces of pounded veal wrapped up in an addictive golden egg batter. And the battered walleye pike was a sweet serving of meaty fish. Add the light spaetzli and the crusty, browned roesti potatoes and it's hard to complain, especially when you get a slice of German chocolate cake to go (quite good once it had time to soften up).
Next time I come to New Glarus, I'll wait for the hotel's Sunday morning buffet brunch, which lets you choose from a snaking smorgasbord of all the house specialties along with the kind of dessert table (think every variety of home-baked bar) that is emphatically worth leaving home, and that pizza, for.