Dinner out and about

Many months ago, Cafe Montmartre and its Sidecar closed unexpectedly. At least it was unexpected for me. Montmartre had been somewhat of an institution and an anomaly. A somewhat gritty wine bar. It had sometimes decent food and frequently decent music. Positioned on the ground floor of an older brick apartment building on the corner of East Mifflin and Webster, Montmartre was a small, dark, intimate spot for wine and conversation, drinks and music or a special event. My rehearsal dinner was held there in October 2003, and I saw my cousin’s band play there to a large crowd in August 2007. But, alas, its time with us was finite and it closed its doors sometime in 2009. RIP Cafe Montmartre.

Enter Kitchen. Or Underground Kitchen. But I think it’s really just Kitchen, brought to you by Madison’s esteemed Underground Food Collective.


As we were walking towards the place, I opined, “I think this is going to be a really good restaurant that I’ll never really want to go to again.” [Spoiler alert: I was way wrong on one of these two posits.] In walking through the front door, it is clear that this place used to be Montmartre — the steps down seem the same, the bar is in the same place, the kitchen is in the same place…but everything is different. It is bright and clean and bright and clean. Where Montmartre was dusty and felt like I imagine a jazz club in a seedy part of Paris in the 1940s may have felt, this place is white and well-lit and feels more like a movie set of a restaurant. And I mean that in a good way. You know those restaurants in some movies that you always want to go to? They’re bright and loud and filled with activity — all in a really good way? Well, that was what I felt when walking into Kitchen. It feels like someone who really loves to make people feel welcome and at home designed it. I mean, there are mason jars as light fixtures, for crying out loud.


I know there are probably people who feel design is irrelevant to a restaurant and that good food = a good restaurant and that is the end of the story. I am not one of those people. I’ll eat in a poorly designed restaurant, but it’s not the same to me as eating somewhere that is truly kind and exciting on the eyes. Good design like this is exciting to me. After taking in the decor, I modified my previous opinion to the following, “I bet this will be a really good restaurant that looks stunning that I’ll never want to go to again.” [Spoiler alert: I was still wrong about one of these things.]

After a few minutes of wait, we were seated — four of us — at a communal table that could hold up to ten. For a short time, we shared the table with a couple who hesitated to even sit down with us. After perusing the menu, they left without a word. A short time after that, another couple sat with us, but left upon realizing that they could sit outside. Or that they really would rather take any other option than sit with us. Fine by me; I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the idea of sitting by strangers (though I admit to getting a wee bit insulted when they appeared to reject me).

Jody & Sachin

Anyway, the four of us ordered drinks. Aaron had a canned beer ($2.75, which made him giddy), Jody had a white wine, Sachin had a shandy cocktail, and I had a tasty French 75 that came with a couple of sprigs of thyme.

Wine & French 75

Next up, appetizers. We ordered bread with butter and with lardo. We also ordered a cheese plate with Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese and a quince jelly. I tried neither the quince nor the lardo, but Aaron tells me both were excellent. The butter was quite tasty and the breads were nice — airy and just the right softness to firm ratio.

Breads and cheese and quince

Sach and Jody split an asparagus panzanella, which they said was good and looked to be so.

Asparagus panzanella

Ok. Now onto the featured part of the show! Dinner. I studied the menu carefully. I wanted the cavatelli, but it came with mushrooms. The tilapia sounded really good, but the pasta was calling me. I decided to ask if I could get the cavatelli without the monstrous ‘shrooms and, if not, I’d hit up the tilapia to see if it would have me. I was nervous that asking for the cavatelli senza funghi would be an insult, but I thought if I put a lot of humility into my voice I might not cause a scene. It worked! Voila! No scene and no funghi in my pasta. Everyone’s a winner at Kitchen!


The pasta came with baby onions, asparagus, confit, fromage blanc and radish pesto. I don’t really know how to describe it except to say I really, really loved it. I mean, love. I fully anticipate writing an Ode to Cavatelli ala Kitchen in the next month. And I am sure I will have many a dream about this heavenly meal. And probably write at least four love songs to sing its praises. It. Was. Awesome. The radish pesto gave it a little kick and the fromage blanc added a really nice texture. I would describe the white cheese as goat cheese-like in texture, but it didn’t have the same flavor; it was more bland (and I don’t mean that in a bad way). The asparagus was nicely cooked and the pasta was perfect. I’m not sure it really needed the confit, but it was a special treat. I highly recommend this plate of total yumsville.

Jody had the cavatelli but went for the ‘shrooms. She’s a dentist so, of course, she’s a lot braver than I.

Cavatelli con funghi

Sachin had the tilapia, which came on a bed of lentils and smelled really good.


Aaron went off the rails and ordered the special, pig’s foot with a fried egg on lentils. Yikes! But, obv, he loved it. And I admit, I tried some foot and it was lovely.

Foot + egg

We just had a great night. A great restaurant with great friends. Thanks, (Underground) Kitchen. In conclusion, I must amend my preopinion to an actual opinoin: I think this place is a great restaurant with great design to which I can’t wait to return.

One small caveat: this is not a place my mom would like. Not because of the food or the design, but because of the noise. The place is loud, which is a repeated complaint she has about many of the places I love. Usually, I don’t really see her point, but if I don’t see it so much at, say, Sardine, I know she will really notice it at a place like Kitchen because I definitely noticed it. It’s just a very loud, small space. I admit, though, that I kind of loved that about it. It made me feel like I was in a place where everyone was having fun, celebrating good food and company and spending money and time at small, local businesses in downtown Madison. As we drove to Kitchen on this Wednesday night, we passed a packed Graze and an overflowing Old Fashioned. The crowds made me feel happy and hopeful, even if I don’t really want them sitting at my table.


7 Responses to “Dinner out and about”

  1. 1 Raoser June 23, 2011 at 1:06 am

    Ha- your description of Montmartre is brilliant. Oh the memories. Sure, I miss Monmartre because of those many memories (including being able to drink there when we were still in high school, which made me feel very cool) but your post makes me super excited about Kitchen. The photos of the food are beautiful! In my bartending days, I used to make French 75’s! Although, just the thought of one gives me a hangover now.

    I’ll have plenty of wine though!

  2. 2 Sara H June 23, 2011 at 8:40 am

    Thanks for writing this up! Kitchen sounds very intriguing to me because of the food, but I have to admit I’ve avoided it as a dinner suggestion because of the communal dining aspect (we’re antisocial like that). But it sounds like the communal dining thing wasn’t quite so…. communal?

    RADISH PESTO – must google immediately. That plate looked amazing!

  3. 3 kateandgracie June 23, 2011 at 9:44 am

    Yeah, communal scares me, too, but we didn’t have to commune! And there were several tables that were set for just two or four so if you get one of those, you don’t even have to worry about possibly communing.

  4. 4 kateandgracie June 23, 2011 at 9:45 am

    Oh, and radish pesto was totally new to me, too! Had no idea. It was so delicious.

  5. 5 Sara H June 23, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    Must be radish leaves? Drat! I bought radishes yesterday, but the lady offered to cut the greens off for me for ease of carrying around, and I took her up on it!

  6. 6 Mary Lloyd June 24, 2011 at 10:23 am

    What a superb review. I hope you give Kitchen a copy! And because I am old and my hearing is troubled, I can’t hear conversation clearly in noisy places. Makes me anxious. So there. Hope this clarifies the situation!

  7. 7 kateandgracie June 24, 2011 at 11:20 am

    I understood the situation. No clarification was needed.

    And Sara, yes, I think it’s the greens. Maybe the lady offered to cut off your greens because she was going to make radish pesto with them!

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June 2011

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