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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 7.0° F  Fair
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Short Stack Eatery comes up short
Sweet triumphs over savory on an ambitious menu
Pancakes are a strong suit, crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.
Credit:Sharon Vanorny

Mismatched chairs, mason jar glasses, a chandelier made out of whisks, vintage envelopes, local purveyors listed on one chalkboard, ironic quotes written across others, Sriracha on the menu as an ingredient and a backstory involving the restaurant's concept originating on bar napkins in Guatemala. Given these elements, Short Stack Eatery seems more likely to be the set of a Saturday Night Live skit featuring Kristen Wiig as a hipster waitress in a cliché über-trendy restaurant than a spot that actually exists.

But exist it does, at the intersection of West Johnson, North Henry and State streets, in the space that once housed T. Sushi and Chi Asian Infused. And while many of the zeitgeist du jour elements don't work — such as mod white pendant lights hanging low from an ugly drop ceiling — the remade space exudes charm nonetheless. It's bright, airy, inviting and cute in a funky, Daisy Café meets Lazy Jane's kind of way. It may be the first new lovable-looking spot to open on this stretch of downtown in years.

What's more, the too-self-conscious details are easy to overlook because Short Stack Eatery exudes life. There are real flowers on the tables, for instance. And life is sorely lacking on a strip that's become denuded by mall-land chains and too many forgettable restaurants.

In this context, Short Stack has a jolting effect; it's a green shoot. Regrettably, its beauty is, so far, only skin deep.

There are telltale signs of a restaurant trying too hard on the menu and not living up to promises on the plate and in the glass. Other problems are evident when ordering, as everyone must, at a counter (a clunky system that doesn't work).

The 25-ingredient Bloody Mary — uh oh! — is a diluted bombshell of pickle-intensive tomato juice that may or may not have alcohol in it. I swear it had a banana aftertaste, too. The mimosas with fresh-squeezed o.j. are a safer bet.

Coffee, from Milwaukee's Boom Coffee, is spiked with cinnamon and hazelnut and is reminiscent of the stuff you might have brewed during finals in your dorm room through a Mr. Coffee — i.e., well nigh undrinkable and weak.

All the menu items have some flavor twist to them, and usually this twist just isn't working. Take the mixed greens that come as a side and have gobs of cinnamon on them — a rude and inedible awakening for anyone who doesn't expect it.

A few times the flavor twist does work, however, as when the sour cream comes with hot sauce in the same cup — convenient — for the breakfast burrito. Unfortunately, you can neither pick the messy burrito up nor cut the chewy tortilla with the dull knife provided. Steak knives would be welcome. And the burrito filling is overcooked potatoes (don't order the side of potatoes with it) in addition to the same chorizo-like sausage meat used for the Cajun biscuits. In the latter dish, the biscuits are crispy and fluffy, but the gravy is greasy and heavy.

The breakfast sandwich, which can be ordered on either a pretzel roll or on Stella's famous spicy cheese bread, works in concept but not in reality. Too many caramelized onions, cooked nearly to marmalade, are too sweet and overpowering.

A scramble composed from a nice list of options like French Fontina, shiitake mushrooms and cherry tomatoes was greasy and overcooked. Accompanying potatoes were nicely crispy, if a little dry, and diners may want to hold the big slab of cheese that oddly detracts from the experience.

By contrast, the pulled pork and grits is a star. Well-flavored pork sits atop a huge bowl of delightfully cheesy and creamy grits sprinkled with queso fresco and pickled jalapeño slices.

And sweet tooths are handsomely rewarded. A tasty chocolate malt with Sassy Cow creamery ice cream was topped with whipped cream and chocolate chips, and a stack of blueberry pancakes arrived crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside with plenty of big, warm, juicy blueberries bursting within.

There are create-your-own floats featuring Sassy Cow Creamery ice cream and WiscoPop soda, but there's no guidance as to which ice cream might go with what soda. A brief list of recommended float combinations would be helpful. Classic root beer isn't available, and mixing local organic ice cream with the full lineup of Coke products (the other options) isn't consistent.

Waits on weekends confirm that diners have high hopes for the space and are drawn in by the cheery look and a sunny patio; the lines are swift-moving, though.

Partners Alex Lindenmeyer and Sinéad McHugh have a concept: breakfast all day, but from Thursday morning to Sunday only. It's workable in this location if execution begins to meet their napkin-sketched dreams.

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