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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Spring Green's winning dining options
Take me to the river... and the bank
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Given Spring Green's status as a cultural center, the town should be crammed with top chefs playing with the culinary culture. But the dining options, at least until recently, have been limited.

For breakfast and lunch, there was the Spring Green General Store, which fully deserves its reputation as the town's best arty hangout, and something more; the kitchen dishes up a first-rate quiche and a supernal chunky chicken salad. For dinner there's The Shed, where the weekly summer barbecues and the homemade desserts make for a pastoral hoedown.

But if you've plowed through those two menus one time too often, there are a couple of new alternatives that add something serious to the Spring Green culinary mix.

The first is the Riverview Terrace Cafe, situated in the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center overlooking the Wisconsin River. The long-running restaurant has mostly been famous for its river views, but Madison's Food Fight recently took over the operations, and the quality of lunch suddenly comes closer to matching the landscape. In fact, most of the six sandwiches on the menu, priced between $8 and $9 (all with a choice of pasta salad or coleslaw) are worth their relatively steep prices (don't forget that view).

Especially good: the hot Italian turkey BLT, which stacks sliced turkey breast, bacon strips, Swiss cheese, and a bracing pesto-Parmesan mayonnaise between actually fluffy slices of herbed focaccia. The Reuben also does right by its pedigree; the corned beef is tender, the kitchen doesn't skimp on the Russian dressing, and the pumpernickel rye adds its own deep flavor.

The chicken salad wrap, though, is done in by a very dry, leathery whole-wheat tortilla that squeezes the life out of its filling - though the meager chicken salad might stand up to that wrap if there was just more of it, and more actual chicken meat.

There are also three salads on offer. Though the Szechuan chicken salad might seem like the obvious misstep, it isn't. The big chunks of grilled chicken come tossed with a crunchy corn relish, a spray of pan-roasted red peppers, zucchini, squash and carrots, and a subtle peanut dressing. Closer to home but just as good: a very fruity strawberry rhubarb pie, topped by a buttery blue-ribbon crust.

The other big culinary news in town is The Bank restaurant in downtown Spring Green, which opened last year to very mixed reviews. The pricey, complicated menu seemed all wrong both for clock-watching American Players Theatre-goers and for locals seeking a kitchen that didn't take itself too seriously. Thankfully, the menu has been reformatted and the new, vastly improved Bank has become something of a genuine find.

Located, true to its name, in a circa-1915 terracotta bank - one of those imperious neoclassical buildings that add a sense of grandeur to Midwestern main streets - the restaurant features a warren of dining rooms. If you can, grab a table in the airy front room, behind the marble-faced teller cages, under a high ceiling rimmed with plaster work. And book ahead; on weekends the restaurant fills up quickly.

That's a change from last year, and the reason is obvious from the menu. Although there are still five lamentably generic entrees on the menu (salmon to pork loin), the focus is on the 14 hot and cold tapas, the impressive international wine list and the selection of local, artisanal cheeses.

Tapas can be a cover for bad, thoughtless cooking, but The Bank is serious about its small bites (although some are a lot better than others). I'd passion the muddled crawfish-n-chips. And the quinoa sliders, though a nice choice for vegetarians, mostly taste like throwback veggie burgers.

But the duck pizza is a satisfying pie, topped with shredded Cedar Grove organic whole mozzarella, spinach and a surprising abundance of shredded duck meat. Just as good: a calamari salad that features tender calamari riding high on a bed of sweet-and-sour seaweed, and a garden bruschetta that doesn't try to get away with anything. Unlike a lot of the crouton-like bruschettas tossed out in too many restaurants now, this rendition is lifted by actual grilled bread crowned by diced red onions, tomatoes, mozzarella and parsley.

And then there are the cheeses, which rate a visit in their own right. Served on wood planks with whole-grain mustard and seeded wafers, the 2-ounce portions of cheese offer the kind of homegrown salute that feels especially fitting in Spring Green. If you have to choose one, try the hard, nutty Pleasant Ridge Reserve, produced in Dodgeville, or maybe the wildflower cheddar from Carr Valley. While that may be dessert enough, it shouldn't sideline the strawberry shortcake - a real-deal biscuit of a shortcake topped by very red strawberries and a cloud of whipped cream.

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