Steenbock's on Orchard is the newest arrival to Madison's fine-dining scene, though many may not know it. It's tucked in the ground floor of the new Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery building on University Avenue, a place that most Madison residents will probably never enter. It's not the most intuitive location for an upscale restaurant focused on local, sustainable food, but it is fun to walk around the building's lobby after a meal and check out the technology displays and architectural features.
Though the Steenbock's dinner prices are out of range for most students, the lunch and bar menus offer a high-end meal at a decent price, a boon on an end of campus where there aren't many such meals to be had. The bar menu has foodie favorites like charcuterie, cheese and popcorn with truffle oil, as well as belly-filling moules et frites, burgers, and fish and chips. Lunch features an expanded range of salads and sandwiches, including a lobster club, as well as entrees like pasta bolognese. These menus are served in the outer area of the restaurant, open to the building's grand lobby.
In contrast, the hushed, glassed-in dinner space keeps diners at a remove from the through-traffic while still allowing a view of it. The ambience is calm and cool, wood and concrete embellished with glass and stone, while the service is warm and extremely attentive. Before my white napkin hit my lap, the waiter had jumped to my side with a black one instead so that my dark pants would be protected from lint. I have never felt more like Scarlett O'Hara.
First courses mostly had memorable looks but lacked flavor. A salad of organic field greens arrived in an insanely cute little basket of fried potato strings, with teeny white mushrooms poking out. (This was the moment in the meal when people started whipping out their camera phones.) The yuzu foam and tomato jam that dressed the salad were too frugally applied, leaving a lot of lettuce dry. A roasted beet salad was simply a plate of golden and magenta beets forming a half-circle, Stonehenge-style, around a puddle of ground hazelnuts and espresso. Our effusive waiter divulged with a certain pride that elements of both dishes had been placed with tweezers.
The exception was a poached egg atop truffled grits with pork jowl and Parmesan. It wasn't photogenic, but the creamy grits and smooth egg against the richness of cheese and pork were mesmerizing.
Chef Michael Pruett has a fondness and a knack for intense, earthy flavors that reach right into the caveman part of your brain and make you gurgle with pleasure. A second course, wild mushroom risotto, was deeply savory and generously speckled with several types of mushrooms. Another satisfying second was the pappardelle with a velvety short rib ragout, a bit overseasoned but hearty.
Presentation-wise, the entrees are showstoppers. Three gold-seared scallops rested in a bright citrus beurre blanc, halves of green Brussels sprouts and nubs of pancetta adding splotches of color. Though the scallops themselves did not have much flavor, the sauce and accompaniments were well prepared.
The knockout entrée was a fanned deck of tender duck breast. Cooked sous vide, the deep-pink meat sat on a carrot-ginger puree in a pool of decadent foie gras sauce. A disc of grilled foie gras added a further note of luxurious excess. Interestingly, we "met" the duck earlier in the evening, when our waiter told us about the small-scale farm where it was raised and how the farmer took the ducks for walks. I was glad for the duck, but felt for a moment that the emphasis on local and sustainable food might have just jumped the shark.
Steenbock's does playful desserts with a lot of deconstruction. The "S'more" comes with a smoldering wood chip tucked into one of the homemade marshmallows for an evocative campfire aroma. The carrot cake is an orangey heap that doesn't have the texture or appearance of cake, but tastes darn good.
My lingering thought after dinner was that Steenbock's on Orchard is doing a lot of things well, but I couldn't yet put my finger on anything that spoke to a unique personality. Part of what makes this hard is the oddness of the location: smack in the middle of a public, high-tech academic building, which is smack in the middle of a student neighborhood. Part of it is the restaurant's pedigree, this love child of UW and WARF and Food Fight. Part of it is the anonymous décor - glass baubles in vases, random candles - part is the menu, which already has highlights and spots of whimsy, but doesn't yet have a fully formed identity.
Really, it's still a brand-new baby, and as cute as they are, in some ways they all look alike. Give Steenbock's few months or a year, and I'd say it's quite likely that by then we - and Steenbock's itself - will know exactly who it is.