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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
The Paper
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Wild Bull in Middleton aims at a broad target and mostly succeeds
A for effort
on

Credit:Timothy Hughes

Restaurants like Wild Bull can put a reviewer in an existential dither. It's just sitting there minding its own business in the parking lot of the Marriott Residence Inn, not asking me to criticize its cuisine. Yet the fact that the place has sprung up in our fair city makes it fair game for a review, so here I am. Axl Rose welcomes me to the jungle from a loudspeaker overhead as I open the front door.

There are lots of people already eating, looking content. Oddly, adding my name to the list of people waiting, I am asked to wait 10 minutes even though there are a dozen and a half open tables. In the meantime, I count the televisions (nearly two dozen), the happy-looking diners (nearly all of them, save for the people I end up sitting next to, whom I overhear asking for something to be taken off their bill), and the amusements (several: a pool table, a jukebox, crayons for the kids, and more). After exactly 10 minutes, the buzzer I'm holding goes off and it is my turn to be seated. I quickly scan the TVs that I can see from my table and position myself strategically to be looking at some crime-lab-type show rather than college basketball. I am not sure why.

Wild Bull's menu is, as promised, "all American," meaning that every dish you would expect to find in a Chili's, Applebee's or similar restaurant is on it. In fact the menu, like everything about the restaurant, focuses on being big at the expense of other virtues. It is so overwhelming that I actually have to ask the waitress what she likes to eat. She recommends a grilled chicken breast sandwich, which I order, except I get mine with barbecue sauce while she prefers the Cajun. When she drops it at my table, she chirps, "Let me know how awesome that sandwich is, okay?!!"

All around the room there are families - large groups, all ages - as well as clusters of twenty- and thirtysomething friends, and a few couples. They all appear to be having a fine time. This is the kind of place where you'd bring a varied group, knowing they'd all be able to find something acceptable on the menu; where you'd come to knock back drinks and feel the staticky comfort of being surrounded by a supranormal number of television viewing options; where you could bring children and have no feeling of guilt for letting them be as loud and disruptive as they like. The place simply has room for it all: The sheer volume of space can hold all the noise and all the folks and just absorb it, leaving only a feeling of cheery relaxation. And there's food.

My preternaturally glistening, lightly barbecue-coated chicken breast was a mixed bag. I liked the pillowy bun, but the chicken lacked flavor and had the artificial juiciness of factory-farmed meat. The fries were good, the skinny, crinkle-cut kind. A rack of ribs had much better flavor and the kind of smoky-sweet sauce I prefer. The kid's pizza was better than the usual; instead of the doughy, bland crust and nuanceless, tomato-paste-heavy sauce that even pizza joints use for kid pies, this one had a well-executed cheese-to-sauce ratio and a crispy, buttery crust reminiscent of Pizza Hut's.

I took the waitress' advice once again when it came time for dessert. Her two favorites, the apple crumble and the brownie bottom pie, came out still warm from the oven. Perplexingly, the brownie bottom pie was just a round pan of brownie - it had ice cream on top, but I'm still not clear on what made it a pie. However, I won't argue with a warm and smooshy brownie topped with ice cream. I don't care what box it came from; it touches some primal desire. The apple crumble faltered, though, its chemical taste stopping me from trying more than a bite or two. I concentrated on the brownie, transported back to my childhood fantasy of owning an Easy-Bake oven. It was probably best that I never got one. I doubt I'd have left my room.

Wild Bull is accomplishing every goal that it appears to have set out for itself: big crowds of people taking it easy with family and friends, and a large menu full of reliable, unadventurous standards. I have no reason to return, but harping on it any more feels like criticizing an elderly aunt's holiday-themed sweater. Best to seal your lips and move on.

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