In a word: Somewhat enjoyable, somewhat expensive, somewhat Cajun.
The specs: #0330
Address, hours & details via Isthmus; reviews at Madison Dining Online and chef's response and again later, WiSJ, Yelp, Ruppert Food Blog, up on the waterfront, Fringe Foods, 77 Square, Down 2 Eat, Mad City Eats; Madison Originals profile; more on their official web site;
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JM ate the cheddar-stuffed hush puppies and the crawfish etouffe with a root beer.
Nichole ate the tomato soup with creme fraiche and lime sauce and the ribeye.
We split the beignets.
The bill was $61, or $30.50/person, plus tip.
JM gave Liliana's a B; Nichole gave Liliana's a C (see our grading rubric).
Liliana's, set as it is along the "Main Street" of Fitchburg, feels about as far from the French Quarter as you can imagine. Yet, upon entry to this establishment we see a balcony too near the ceiling for anyone to stand on. One call can almost hear the rattle of beads. It was all a very strange artifice. Also, the person taking our reservations indicated that they were full at the time we requested, and asked to move our time 15 minutes later. But when we arrived, they were only full if one considers "couples" lepers that have to sit at obnoxiously small tables while four-tops sit vacant all 'round. We tried to make the best of it.
We couldn't resist a try at the cheddar-filled hush puppies. Sadly, they were large and gummy corn-batter-balls wrapped around a small dollop of decent, sharp-ish cheese. We asked what kind of cheddar it was, and while our waiter didn't know off the top of his head, he was happy to ask for us (but he said the chef had thrown out the packaging (?), so it remains a mystery). The appetizer came with a side of horseradish tomato sauce that had its charms. Nothing about the bread basket recommended itself, though - not the "meh" rounds of white bread, and definitely not the olive oil, which, while not necessarily off, was certainly not good enough to be used on bread alone.
JM's entree looked like a still from a Burt I. Gordon movie. Flummoxed by the three whole crawfish, he asked our waiter the protocol for dealing with them; again, he didn't know right away but asked for us, by which time JM had fumbled through a couple exoskeletons. Despite its dramatic presentation, this dish won the dubious distinction of being the first Cajun meal JM has ever tried to improve by adding more seasoning because it needed it - it was basically a big bowl of bland bell peppers and rice with a few tender shrimp.
Nichole's not a frequent eater of steak, so she was surprised at the fattiness of this ribeye. It was very heavily marbled, nicely charred, and the pickled red onion garnish was a fine touch. She passed on the plain mashed potatoes, but JM enjoyed them. The "Cajun" tomato salad was very oily and otherwise not noteworthy.
We're not sure Liliana's was the best place to lose our beignet virginity (take that, Googlers!). These were nicely puffed up and served warm, but were gummy inside, with powdered sugar piled on rather than sprinkled. These and the gooey hush puppies seem to indicate that Liliana's fry oil needs to be cranked a little hotter.
A couple other odds and ends helped Liliana's fail to distinguish itself - while it's forgivable that they don't have chicory coffee, it's not so OK that they have no espresso drinks of any kind (even we know cafe au lait goes with beignets). To be fair, they serve their coffee in individual French presses, and some say you can make cafe au lait that way. But they don't have lemonade. Maybe a choice of 7 kinds of hurricanes makes up for this, but not in our book.
If Babs and Liliana had a kid with Babs' flavor infused into Liliana's menu, maybe Madison would have another good Cajun restaurant. But for now we still have to pin our hopes on NOTO and mourn the loss of Gaston's.