The specs: #0628
Address, hours & details via Isthmus; reviews at Eat Drink Madison, 105.5 WMMM, Isthmus, The Mad Samplers, foodskop, at first taste, 77 Square, Madison Magazine, Yelp; chef profile at 77 Square; opening annoucement at Isthmus; official web site and blog,
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Ann ate the bisque, canneloni, lamb, wine.
JM ate the soup, cheek, loin, lemonade.
Meade and Nichole ate the fish tasting menu, water.
The bill was $217, or about $54/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole gave 43 North an A-; Ann and Meade gave 43 North a B+ (see our grading rubric).
Nothing we put on the internet is going to do justice to reality. We suspect this is true of everything, but let's just use our dinner at 43 North as analogy, and say that it really should be experienced in person. The price of a full meal may give pause, but you can get a bowl of soup at the bar and for $10 plus tax and tip you'll know more about 43 North than you'd ever learn from some words online. On the other hand, we put an awful lot of words in this post.
Part of the reason for this affectation and caginess is that 43 North is so complex, or possibly conflicted. We visited after some reviews had appeared but still within a few weeks of opening. It was a slow, snowy night, and the front was overstaffed, which didn't lead to hovering, just earnest attentiveness. Ann said she was almost distracted feeling sorry for the staff. She got the feeling 43 North was still finding its feet, stiffly straddling the gap between posh and casual - to paraphrase her, they shouldn't expect foodies to flock here just for foam.
As for the food, in our experience, each dish set off associations that may not make sense to anyone but the eater. The same is true of many meals, but we're pounding the point home so that when we get to the part where we compare dessert to a custard stand burger we won't appear to have entered a fugue state. Too late.
There was an amuse bouche. It was a tiny dollop of parsnip puree stiffened to a springy gelatin consistency and sprinkled with toasted hazelnuts.
There were rolls served with butter and oil in three square glass dishes. The rolls were also squarish, with a very airy crumb and a shiny, leathery crust that was especially hard on the bottom. The butter was from Wolf Ridge (if we recall correctly) and came in two forms: slightly chilled and set, or powdered with tapioca flour. The oil was also served as a powder. Ann nailed it: the lipids were the Dippin' Dots of bread toppings.
There were soups. JM got the French onion, deconstructed and full of umami with a toasted wafer of gruyère and fontina balanced on the edge of the bowl. The rest of us got the lobster bisque. A cracklin boat (think krupuk) was beached on a large island of lobster in a rich orange broth, keeping the tarragon marshmallows dry. The slash of green herb puree down the inside of the bowl and the faint sweetness of the marshmallows made one eater think of Halloween candy corn pumpkins.
There was salad as part of Meade and Nichole's fish tasting menu. Dense, shredded, wet Jonah crab left a slightly fishy aftertaste. The plate was garnished with daubs of bubbly lemon oil (which our server took pains to tell us were for eating) and a precise band of sunchoke puree. We caught what we thought were chips of dehydrated onion skulking in the greens and flower petals on top.
There was a theme to JM's choices, namely beef. His second course was the braised cheek atop a raviolo filled with fontina. Tender, delicate greens added bitterness and a pond of jus balanced it.
There was foam. Ann's hazelnut cannelloni with mustard greens and shiitake and oyster mushrooms was dressed in an emulsion of port. The crepe was light green, tender, and topped with greens and more toasted nuts. There was enough sauce that she wished the rolls had been replenished.
There was more beef for JM. Slices of beef strip loin lolled over spinach leaves and a garlic-potato puree. A snow-white bolster of horseradish foam and golden fried potato balls accented the plate like throw pillows. Ann had taken a mix-and-match approach, and for a main course, her choice was the very good first-course braised lamb with green lentils and cauliflower puree.
Around that time we came to fully appreciate the staff's balance of reserve and playful professionalism. Earlier our server had encouraged us to ask questions, had known every answer, and had not been dogmatic about the order of the courses. When the steak knives appeared and fascinated Nichole with their resemblance to switchblades (gleaming black handles and an irresistible finger-rest that was a tiny 2D representation of a globe) they were accompanied by a "that is not a toy, my dear."
There was a mysterious and sinister theme to the main fish course. The use of the loup de mer turned our thoughts to wolves and made us wonder what aliases this fish had travelled under. Three buttery, skin-on, angular pieces of sea bass leaned on each other and gave the illusion of shelter to a pile of soft cubes of persimmon simmered in vanilla. A heart-shaped smear of the same persimmon, pureed, decorated the plate and read like a love letter from a stranger. Slices of chorizo that can best be described as shards had been dried to a challenging and distinctly non-sausagelike state. Three lavish spoonfuls of cream cheese, almond milk, and almond extract offered up heavenly marcona almonds but also smuggled poppy seeds into every bite.
At this point we were all nearly full but there was more. Two cheese plates brought eight-month Holland's Family Farm Marieke Gouda Burning Melange with lightly spiced walnuts and a sticky caramel made of onion. Though the edible burning nettle was encased with other herbs in the waxy cheese, even the idea of eating something baneful, after a meal so full of sharp, hidden edges, added up to a crescendo of artfully restrained violence.
Even the wall decoration of a world map made of nails is beautiful and severe. Perhaps the imagined peril was all coincidence, or specific to the fish tasting menu - after all, JM and Ann's choices evoked nothing sinister, only soft sensuality, pastoral scenes and fluffy clouds.
There was still dessert. It brought us gently back to land with soothing goat's milk panna cotta. Each custard-like round was paired with a sweet oat cookie and splashed with yellow mango, red raspberry, and green candied celery garnishes. The dish had nothing to do with a Kopp's hamburger with hot celery relish, but that's what it inspired us to talk about. Packaged crumb cakes came home with us.
Our dinner was an embarrassment of riches: good food, service, ambiance and company. The whole experience was engaging and multifaceted. Back out on frosty King Street, we observed that the end of the alphabet is less than 100 meals away and Ann asked us what we'd do next. Not even we know for sure, but we left 43 North sated, reinvigorated, and ready to retrench.