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Saturday, February 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 13.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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The Spot restaurant dresses up an underappreciated block of East Johnson
One for the rest of us
If it's Thursday, this must be rabbit papardelle.
Credit:Joseph Tachovsky

Joe Tachovsky has a long history in the Madison dining scene. In the 1980s he operated a popular restaurant called Porto Bananas, located where Natt Spil stands today. Then he moved to Minneapolis and opened Chez Bananas. It was an eclectic Caribbean joint funky enough to earn mention in Jim Harrison's book The Raw and the Cooked.

A few years ago, Tachovsky was back in Madison helping to open Samba, the Brazilian steakhouse on Gilman. Then he helped open Brickhouse BBQ on Gorham.

Tachovsky's newest venture is called the Spot, in the former Mildred's Sandwich Shop space on East Johnson. When Mildred's proprietor Nels Nelson died last year, the neighborhood went into shock. Nelson had operated the shop for more than a quarter century, and sandwiches such as the Blystone and the Leadbetter had become part of Madison's east-side DNA. But Nelson's family ultimately chose to sell the restaurant.

Luckily for the neighborhood, Tachovsky's latest venture may be his most successful yet. The Spot brings increasing life to a retail corridor that has been experiencing a renewal with the introduction of Johnson Public House and Forequarter.

The Spot fills a niche that has been lacking in recent Madison openings, and seems a perfect fit for this sometimes overlooked east-side location: a restaurant for the rest of us. The price points are sane, the ambiance is cozy, the fare is approachable, and the mood is relaxing yet upbeat.

The remodel has done well by the space's inherent awkwardness. The front room is filled with a honeycomb of booths, and the back has a few additional tables and a five-seat bar. Elegant wooden tables are cheerful during the day and beautiful to behold at night. During the warmer months, dining will overflow onto the back patio.

In a smart move that provides clarity of purpose as well as kitchen focus, there is one menu for both lunch and dinner. This is supplemented with daily dinner specials.

Appetizers start at $5.50, for which you can get a small, well-composed Bibb salad with copious amounts of gorgonzola and crunchy pecans. There is also a plate of roasted root vegetables on arugula with tarragon and leek vinaigrette. These are part of the healthy end of a list that also includes a baked artichoke ramekin and addictive house-made potato chips with melted gorgonzola, white pepper crema and basil.

Albondigas, essentially meatballs, are firm without being overcooked, but the romesco sauce is too acidic, without enough red pepper or nutty interest. These will be a perfect wintertime starter if they receive a bit more complexity and oomph.

When I tried the intriguing-sounding duck sausage entrée, it arrived as a sausage rolling around loose on a pita. Although the sausage itself had great flavor and snap, it was an odd and awkward presentation. By my next visit, this had already changed into a dish more like a pig-in-a-blanket with the duck wrapped in flatbread lavash. Joined by delectable orange-cherry chutney, this is an adventurous "sandwich."

The Spot Burger is described as "chevre stuffed between two four-ounce beef patties with prosciutto, red pepper catsup and fried leeks." It's difficult for the kitchen to achieve customers' request for their beef to be medium rare, but the flavors work well, and any of the three burgers can be ordered as a veggie patty. A basic burger is $7 and, with a choice of mustard-greens potato salad, greens, or black beans and rice, represents good value.

Churrasco beef with chimichurri, black beans and basmati rice arrives as large hunks of tender beef lifted from the mundane by the truly fresh and zippy chimichurri, as well as black beans with deep, satisfying complexity. The portion is large enough to have leftovers.

Daily dinner specials range from tuna and noodles on Wednesdays to rabbit papardelle on Thursdays, which the menu humorously claims is sourced from the rabbits on Gorham and Johnson (I overheard someone ask if this was true).

Tuesday's chicken paprikash is a stunner: Two large potato dumplings that are a bit too gluey but crisped to perfection and touched with nutmeg; knockout cooked red cabbage; and large, juicy pieces of chicken in a flavorful paprika gravy.

The cocktail list offers a few fun drinks in keeping with the not-so-serious vibe, and there are clues -- Bittercube Bitters, Cocchi Americano -- that someone knows how to stock a bar.

With a charming glass pour list and a number of stellar bottles to choose from, the Monday night "at cost" wine special (half-off) is sure to attract a following. Friendly, extremely attentive service rounds out the successful chemistry at this long-overdue potential Johnson Street staple.

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