Sarah Rose Smiley
Pretty and crunchy: The veggie tostada.
Jim Koch, founder of Samuel Adams beer, recently told CNBC that he feels "there is room for two, three or maybe even four thousand more craft breweries" in the United States. Despite the industry's recent growth, he thinks we're far from capacity.
Apparently that would include Madison. Atwood Avenue's Next Door Brewing is the latest in the city's ongoing contribution to this beer boom. And with experienced head chef Kevin Rikli, it bucks the local trend of brewers shying away from identifying their taprooms as restaurants. This is a real live menu, serving plates large and small, with nightly flourishes that may be gone the next.
Next Door Brewing is laid out in three distinct spaces and has a semi-finished-basement vibe, with golden wood, painted cinderblocks and wall-mounted TV cabinets. The orange and blue color scheme is warm and slightly retro; consider this your cool uncle's house.
Rikli maintains that throwback quality with dishes that hark back to Old World cuisines -- mostly. Nothing announces Next Door's hearty and generally unfussy style better than the beer-braised beef shank, this kitchen's heftiest and most expensive offering.
The beef is tender enough to make a knife unnecessary, and very little fat has been trimmed away. An accompanying root vegetable puree is buttery and just smooth enough. The resulting dish is rich, rustic and in no way prettified. If you don't take home leftovers, you'll be very well fed at the end.
Specials are numerous and appropriately transitory. Look for nutty bar snacks, roasted chicken, hanger steak and even the occasional dessert. (Madison's own Calliope Ice Cream is the only regular sweet menu item, but it earns the spotlight.)
One of the two burgers on the menu is made in a style not found often (if ever) in Madison. The Atwood is what folks in the South call a slugburger. The patty is a blend of beef and beer-soaked rye bread. Lightly studded with caraway seeds and topped with onions and cheese, this is a filling burger with a very Germanic flavor profile. I'd swap the Stalzy's challah roll for something softer, maybe a potato bun, but the burger is still juicy, its toppings ample. Credit is due for serving this burger well out of its regional comfort zone.
Poutine brings Wisconsin palates in line with a Canadian classic, and this may be the best in town. Cheese curds soften between thick, skin-on fries and a blanket of brown pork gravy, and though the chopped green onions go against style, they're an excellent addition to this caloric indulgence.
Those green onions could have gone a long way, along with some salt, in livening up the fish fritters, well-fried but totally bland ovoids that served best as a conveyance for the Old Bay aioli. Alternately, fried sauerkraut sausage balls didn't need the accompanying remoulade. However, if I were in a big group at one of Next Door's massive tables, I'd insist on a few orders for everyone to share.
Mix-and-match skewers are another good call for shared snacking. (And whose cool uncle didn't also run a Japanese izakaya joint on the side?) Spicy sausage, balsamic-glazed mushrooms, honeyed shishito peppers or roasty nuggets of cured chicken hearts -- you pick three for $9, but you should just pay the extra $3 for all four.
Asian flavors come through in the ssam pork sandwich as well. Pickled vegetables, ginger and a mild kimchee sauce keep things both funky and messy, but the pork is flavorful enough to handle the competition.
A crunchy and pretty veggie tostada unfortunately lacks for taste. Try the Wilbur salad instead: tomatoes, chevre and a warm beer-bacon dressing, plus an odd but fun sweet brittle chip made with spent grain from the brewing process.
And have no fear -- the beers themselves are impressive so far, and offerings change frequently as new styles are rolled out. The WPA (Wisconsin pale ale) is the hoppiest, if that's what you're looking for, but it's no hop-monster. The aforementioned Wilbur! is a fine session beer, with a strong oaty flavor that informs its name. Of the newer beers, I enjoyed the S.S. Badger steam beer quite a bit, and wouldn't you know, it's a style as old as styles get in the States.
With its beer menu, Next Door strips away a lot of modern craft brewing frills. You'll spend more time trying to decide what dishes to order. And if there's an occasional snoozer of a dish, the overall aesthetic is familiar and comfortable.