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Saturday, February 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: -2.0° F  Fair
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O.S.S.'s Wisconsin-centric menu goes way beyond bratwurst
Often super sausage
Tortilla strips and peppers decorate the chorizo-centric Fundido.
Credit:Paulius Musteikis

There are sausage ghosts in this town. Recent wiener-centric operations -- Mad Dog's, Dog Bites, Bison Jack's, Diggity's -- didn't stick around for long. So you'll excuse my initial grimness regarding the stealthy early February opening of O.S.S., an all-encased meat restaurant on Regent Street.

You're forgiven for hearing a pun in my use of "initial," given how O.S.S. likes to play with the meaning behind its intentionally opaque name: "Our Sausage Shop," "Old-School Sausages," "Off State Street." (That last one makes almost no sense given the actual location on Regent at Park, but it keeps being proffered.)

No, I use that word to indicate that whatever early apprehension I had at the viability of yet another sausage restaurant disappeared when I saw the production values at work in the heavily renovated, steampunky space, and especially when I took my first bites.

Making a good first impression are the thick, fresh, only-two-bucks french fries. They were seasoned to varying degrees over my visits and are a fine start even at their mildest. But even better than the fries? The generously proportioned cheese curds, from Monroe's Maple Leaf Cheese, also fried fresh and also notably inexpensive.

The fruits of Green County are on display at this offshoot, of sorts, of Baumgartner's. The legendary Monroe bar and cheese emporium provides its "2nd Best Chili" for deployment on the Sloppy Dog (or when ordered as a side, which is never wrong). And the staff, from the owners on down, is loaded with Baumgartner's expats. Zuber's Sausage Kitchen, another Monroe business, crafts O.S.S.'s sausages from the restaurant's recipes.

And these recipes are fun, even as they come and go on this rapidly changing menu. Gone for now: a Swedish meatball sausage, a pork and beef mixture topped with nutmeg gravy, mushrooms and cucumber, which was bizarrely but deliciously evocative of a plate of actual Swedish meatballs. (I'd have taken lingonberry jam in place of the cucumber slices, but I get the Nordic reference.)

In its place currently is a mushroom- and Swiss-infused dog -- portobello and cheese mixed in with the pork -- topped with more mushrooms and cheese, plus onions. Inside the snappy, grilled skin, the melted cheese amplifies the juiciness of the meat.

Among the more outré options, the Alentejana sausage is a nod to Portugal's famous pork and clam stew. This is a weird one, but with the pickled carrots and cauliflower, the scattered chunks of clam start to make a kind of sense.

There's the Drunky Ducky, which compares very well to a similar sausage I had at the lauded Biker Jim's in Denver recently. Duck sausage is infused with maple and bourbon, onions, cranberry sauce, and brown mustard. These strong, rich flavors will probably give way to a more summery concoction, but are worth trying while winter still hangs on.

There are some seriously pretty offerings on the menu, too. The banh mi sausage is topped with bright, crisp veggies, jalapeño slices and a pinkish spicy mayo, with a bed of fresh cilantro underneath. Eat this one fresh, before the cilantro starts to wilt. Given the name, I expected gooey cheese on the chorizo-centric Fundido, but was greeted with unmelted shredded cheese instead. Still, the contrasting bell peppers, tortilla strips and deep red sausage were a sight to behold, and the base sausage was excellent.

Basic sausages are equally enjoyable and customizable with a tidy selection of toppings. There's a nicely charred smoked Polish, a standard hot dog either split-grilled or deep-fried (for you New Jersians craving a good ripper) and a lightly seasoned bratwurst. Three varieties of vegan sausage are also available on their own, or to sub for the meat in other menu items.

The Chicago dog may be slightly askew of the breed standard -- it comes with excessive non-neon relish and no poppyseed bun -- but it'll do in a pinch.

Both the public and outside chefs are invited to participate in crowdsourcing the menu. There's an "open-source" section that has already featured a sausage designed by chef Wave Kasprzak of Monticello's Dining Room. The current open-source dog is the Glarner, a silky smooth veal kalberwurst with red cabbage, Swiss cheese and sweet-hot mustard -- all senses engaged, really exceptional.

Seating is composed of long, glossy wood-and-iron tables, plus a bar along the front window. Plexiglas tubes filled with bubbling water and lots of gears and maps fill out the design aesthetic. The staff is just this side of solicitous, omnipresent but with good intentions, clearly working hard to keep the place going in a rough season for walk-by traffic. With a lively, appealing menu and the staff's charm offensive in full effect, O.S.S. stands a strong chance of beating the sausage odds.

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