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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Overcast
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Jimmy's American Tavern serves hearty classics
Livin' large

Credit:Sean Rowley

How does one evaluate a stand-up comic who follows a tanking opening act? Or Jimmy's American Tavern, which has taken up residency in a no-luck address in Fitchburg? Can good food save what feels, in so many other ways, like a doomed effort?

Well, it's not Jimmy's fault that the space it occupies has churned through three other restaurants in the span of eight years or so. It's not new owner Jim Luedtke's fault that the massive space is tough to fill. (There are not one but two cigar bar-ish lounges, plus a main bar, a banquet hall and second-floor seating.) And the food is pretty good, by and large.

With its "American tavern" label, Jimmy's kitchen is tasked with compressing a nation's worth of culinary references into a manageable menu. There's a bit of sprawl here, some fat that could be trimmed, but keeping the lunch and dinner menus fairly distinct is a good start. Lunch doesn't stray too far from the soup-and-sandwich model.

There are some fine components at work. Fountain Prairie beef composes the American burger, while the Jimmy burger deploys seven ounces of ground Strauss lamb - though at just this side of $13, it's a bit of an investment.

The lobster roll piqued my curiosity; taking that chance was rewarded with well-cooked lobster meat, light dressing and a tender yet surprisingly sturdy bun. A nicely apportioned Reuben on marble rye beckoned from an adjacent table - another time.

A selection of small plates appears in lieu of the usual dinner appetizer list: Maryland crab cakes, Louisiana stuffed baked oysters, even an Augusta (Georgia) cheddar pimento sandwich. Most of these small plates are small meals; only the duck fat fries and a pair of salads seem like true starters.

A word on salads. Jimmy's has been compared to a Wisconsin supper club, and the salad bar is the prime example. Items like house-cured bacon, Hook's blue cheese dressing, and a couple pasta and egg salads make for a nice selection, but they aren't inexpensive. The all-you-can-eat option for around 10 bucks is fine, though the single trip, which will run you seven, seems to be subsidizing the AYCE crowd. Plus, the salad bar is in the wrong spot in the room. If I have to walk that far with a plate of light fare, I'd better be on the lido deck. At Jimmy's, hoofing it to the salad bar feels cruise-liner in the wrong way.

And yet hearty, full-figured main courses arrive and things get much better. A Bronx (a.k.a. New York strip) steak, served over mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus, is well seasoned and cooked expertly. Just about the tenderest pork chop you'll ever taste comes massive, panko-crusted, and on the bone; it's great, even if mine showed up still trussed by butcher's twine.

The tasty, sometimes overloaded pizzas come on a Roman crust; think tavern style, via Naples. One false note was the roasted chicken, which was juicy underneath a perfect crust of skin and herbs, yet lacking in flavor.

The cocktail list is appealing, including a beer cocktail section that includes a fine shandy of Spotted Cow and lemonade. The dessert list, on the other hand, is two items long. One was New York cheesecake run through with a proliferation of little pebbles of hardened butter. A raisin-studded rhum baba was offered as a kitchen experiment one night; it was nice enough, but also too buttery.

Service at Jimmy's is too personal and too casual. One server reminded us to not eat too much at the salad bar, while another mentioned - twice - how his manager thought a dish we were ordering was the "best damn" whatever-it-was. It's a bear hug when a handshake will do.

On the whole, Jimmy's has a good heart and some charm. But there's a problem with scale that reveals itself in prices being a few bucks high on almost every dish. This can't bode well for a long and prosperous future if Jimmy's American Tavern doesn't step back from trying to be a superpower.

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