2011 hasn't been the best year for Madison dining. Genuinely creative new restaurants aren't opening, and the sad fire at the Underground Kitchen in June read a little like a metaphor. But then, of course, 2011 hasn't been the best year for Madison in general, so there is something almost heroic about Henry Doane's decision to launch an ambitious, expensive restaurant in the middle of all the gloom. The feisty move, though, is also characteristic. Doane was taking chances on downtown Madison before more timid entrepreneurs followed. His renovation of the Orpheum and his landmark Tornado Steak House - really a local classic by now - are examples of both serious cooking and intrepid urban renewal.
Happily, there isn't any question that his new Tempest Oyster Bar is out to make the same kind of brave statement. You can see it the minute you walk in the front door. Forget about another knocked-together little diner trying to wing it with pop-up décor and small plates. The Tempest welcomes you with a full-blown tableau: a Chris-Craft boat, all gleaming wood, sitting banked under a blue marlin diving across the wall.
That's an impressive starter and the prelude to lots of big thinking. The original home of Magnus restaurant (done in, oddly, by its smart attempt at Scandinavian cuisine) has been cleaned out and reconfigured. The big central dining room is now both pared down and dressed up; the dark wood floor, gray metal chairs and white banquettes make for a playful nautical look. Adding to the effect is the adjoining bar, featuring the long blond wood bar itself sitting on top of stacked, multicolored bottles.
The menu, focused of course mainly on seafood, isn't holding back either. Almost everything chef Greg Walters produces seems oversized, starting both with the appetizer "towers" (the smallest of which, at $20, includes six oysters, four gulf shrimp and four clams) and something as seemingly generic as fishcakes. These materialized in the form of two mammoth whitefish cakes that manage to be meaty and feathery at the same time. Topped by a crown of capers, watercress and buttermilk, they made all the anodyne crabcakes I've sampled this year look forgettable.
While the smoked fish platter, served like a Dutch still life on a silver tray, was good but more predictable, the fruits de mer appetizer was another knockout. At $14, this was a dinner in itself (that's true of most of the appetizers), and the perfect, lightly fried oysters, calamari and clams were a frame to gorgeous, sweet shrimp and the fattest, most tender scallops. Another good sign: the bread basket came filled with slices of Madison Sourdough bread. A restaurant that doesn't take its bread seriously is almost never any good.
Just don't fill up on that basket because those lavish starters foreshadow opulent entrees. Walters' sturgeon was cradled in breadcrumbs (texture, today's culinary keyword, is king here), crowned by a thick lick of caviar crÃme fraiche and perched next to a side of diced bacon and, oh yeah, a fried egg. You can only eat something that overwhelming if that's all you're eating.
The blue marlin, topped by a hazelnut pesto, lime aioli and a big frizzled tangle of fried leeks, was almost as good, and just as hard to finish. So was the plate of fish and chips, more sweet haddock and perfect crisp fries than most people will get through.
The sole serious disappointment as a dish was the lobster roll, but then that's a dish that always sounds good and rarely delivers. Lobster, despite all its luxe cred, is a resolutely tasteless thing, and though it was perfectly cooked here, cut into big cubes and layered into a big bun, it mostly seemed like too much to chew. So did a bloated dessert of upside down cake, paired with a mountain of dense whipped cream.
The only problem with all this ambition is that it can register as overkill. What the kitchen needs to do, now that it has made its showy point, is start editing. Too much of anything can translate as cloying, especially after starters that epic, and good seafood doesn't need so much drama.
But that doesn't diminish the Tempest's real promise and ovation-worthy show of courage. Once the menu is tweaked and some cleaner, more restrained dishes added (maybe some simple seafood carpaccio as an appetizer; maybe a halibut and salmon that don't come dressed with the omnipresent lemon butter), the Tempest has the potential to become a classic in its own right.