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Steenbock's on Orchard

Amuse-boucheIn a word: Dinners on someone else's dime never tasted so good.

The specs: #0704  
Address, hours & details via Isthmus; reviews at Brava, 105 Triple M, Yelp, Isthmus, 77 Square; listing at Eat Drink Madison; chef interview at Wisconsin State Journal; official web site, Steenbock's on Orchard on Urbanspoon

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JM ate the papardelle with short rib ragout and the tenderloin.
John ate the organic greens salad, the halibut, and a glass of riesling.
Nichole ate the poached egg and hamachi.
Rose ate the lobster bisque and the pork loin.
We split a S'mores and a carrot cake.
The bill was $160, or $40/person, plus tip.
JM and John gave Steenbock's on Orchard an A; Rose gave Steenbock's on Orchard an A-; Nichole gave Steenbock's on Orchard a B (see our grading rubric).

When one orders an organic field greens salad in Madison, one does not expect it to arrive in a basket woven of fried shoestring potatoes topped with tiny white mushrooms and yuzu foam. That's Steenbock's in a nutshell. Here the food is unabashedly geeky and skill-driven. This is one of the only places in town that you can find techniques like sous vide and foam in action. There's also foie gras on the menu, but it's from Au Bon Canard, so it's OK.

The chef is from LA and the management is by Food Fight. The vision is grand and nerdy: they've held theme dinners in barns and with beer, and recreations of meals on the Titanic, the Avignon papacy, and ancient Sparta. If you have access to an expense account, we think Steenbock's is a good way to use it. And, of course, this all makes it the perfect fit for the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery.

Green saladLobster bisque

The beers on tap are excellent, hyperlocal microbrews, but it's revealing that the bottles are things like Sam Adams that we suspect are there for visitors. The wine list we can't judge, but the table water was flavored with orange. Three kinds of sliced bread - sourdough, olive, and whole wheat - were served freely from roving, tong-wielding tray-bearers.

There was an amuse-bouche: tiny, buttered crostini with osso bucco and very salty mushrooms. They've got a fragrant lobster bisque that rivals 43 North's (43N wins, in our opinion). The papardelle with short rib ragout jousts with Nostrano's rabbit version (and Nostrano wins out here too). But there the comparisons stop.

HamachiPoached egg

Nichole went the "2-apps-and-steal-bites-from-everyone-else" route. For starters, there was a ghostly pale plate of hamachi sliced thin with dill, citrus, and jalapeño. She also got the sous vide poached egg with parmesan, polenta, and truffles. There was some musky foam on top of it, which she ate first to get it out of the way. The texture of the egg was uniform and somewhere between loosely-set gelatin and things best not discussed at the dinner table - it would take a scientist to explain it, and she's from the humanities. But at any rate, by poaching bites of JM's Swiss chard she was able to assemble a version of the Southern idea of cheese grits and greens.

TenderloinPapardelle and short rib ragout

Speaking of JM's Swiss chard, it was mere garnish for the sous vide tenderloin, which was exquisitely tender and flavorful. There were also beets, which he gave away, and fricasseed mushrooms, whipped potatoes, and horseradish sauce (Raifort?) that was astoundingly subtle and not at all nosey.

Pork loin

Rose's pork loin, described simply as Fountain Prairie pork loin with celeriac puree and madeira sauce, must have included at least three preparations of pig meat. The loin itself was wrapped in something bacony, and was accompanied by something like breaded meatballs. John's halibut was moist, firm, and satisfying, and he found it paired well with a riesling.

The desserts were fun. Instead of a churro or a "mature and refined" cheese plate, which we figured (insufferably arrogantly) could be assembled from our cheese stash at home, we got some deconstructions that we knew we'd never replicate. We picked the carrot cake with "candied nut crumble, crispy carrot, sweetened mascarpone, caramel, carrot reduction, vanilla ice cream," which was a spicy delight, and the showy S’more with "house made marshmallow, brownie, coffee gelato, chocolate paint, graham cracker crumble." It came with a live ember on the plate (and a warning from our server not to eat fire).

Rose said that homemade marshmallows always make her think of Martha Stewart's fussier moments, and Nichole remembers that episode with the two kids, though we can't find it on YouTube.

Carrot cakeS'more

Some other minor details: the music left something to be desired. We heard the same 35-minute loop of Bollywood-accented light techno too many times (~3). On the other hand, the dining room has great acoustics. Though it was full, we didn't have to shout to converse. A neighboring table held 15 or so nattily dressed geeks who were undoubtedly being courted by UW for something, and we wagered the total IQ at the table was easily 2500+. And the service was personable, deft, expert and knowledgeable all at once.

The WID building itself, with its prehistoric flora, singing floors, and interactive video screens, is really neat; even if you stop for a malt at Rennie's and not a full-out feedbag at Steenbock's, it's worth a look.

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