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Underground Kitchen

In a word: What food could a man consume in a single lifetime?

The specs: #0693  
Address, hours & details via Isthmus; reviews at The Mad Samplers, Chicago Reader, Yelp, Evening Chef and again, Isthmus, A.V. Club, Wisconsin in Still, 77 Square, Chicago Hardcourt Bike Polo, Jesse Marsh, Heavy Table, Green and Indie; listing at Eat Drink Madison; official web site, Underground Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Latest Underground Kitchen news and reviews

JM ate the pretzel dogs with a lemonade.
Nichole ate the asparagus soup with a #41.
We split the cheese plate (house fromage blanc marinated with oil & olives) and each had a caramel chocolate tart with sea salt.
The bill was $50, or $25/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole both gave Underground Kitchen an A (see our grading rubric).

Underground Kitchen closed after a fire on June 30, 2011. We ate our first and only meal there on May 31. This post is not about the fire, or that unrepeatable meal, so much as a self-indulgent look back at the times we've crossed paths with Underground Food Collective in the last seven years. To skip the navel-gazing, you can jump to the regular-style meal report.

Underground Food Collective (UFC) and Eating in Madison A to Z have something in common: you might come to this blog looking for a restaurant review and won't find one. Sometimes you might look for certain things from UFC and won't find them, either, but what you get is always its own thing.

Taking an admittedly bold comparison further, in some ways UFC and EiMAtZ are cut from the same cloth, that "painfully typical Madisonian" cloth. That's probably too presumptuous. Maybe it's better to think of us as having grown up in parallel. Forgive us the venture backwards, but there's not much alphabet left, so we're feeling reflective.

We try to be pretty ecumenical in our view of food. We generally don't take as much joy in the expensive, the exclusive, or the ephemeral as in the shared, the common, and the local. UFC is somehow all six of those things at once. As hands-in-the-dirt as it was, their restaurant, Underground Kitchen, had a certain air of gnosticism about it - warm, yet inscrutable by design. After seven years and many meals, we're still not sure we "get" UFC. But over the last few years, we've eaten their food every chance we get.

Catacombs, 2004-2005

From Nichole's old blog, 2/19/2004:

How did I not know about this for over a year? I finally went last week and again today.

Catacombs [Coffeehouse, 731 State St.] has been serving lunch specials for $2.50 for over a year and uses locally grown organic produce in most of its offerings.

"It's not a business model-we do it because it's right," said Ben Hunter, head of the kitchen and manager at Catacombs.
All the dishes are made from scratch and most are made with ingredients from local farms and cooperatives. Catacombs buys its coffee from Just Coffee, a Madison fair-trade organization, and its flour and garlic come from Brantmeier Farm in Monroe.

From a recent campus newspaper story at the Daily Cardinal (registration req'd).

Ben Hunter often puts on the Dane County Winter Market breakfast, another foodie delight at $5/plate. It changed my life. For example, I will never fry bacon again: from now on, it's a brush of maple syrup and bake at 400°F for 15 minutes. And no Oscar Mayer either (as if) - just try Pecatonica once, man, and you'll be convinced.

Another post from Nichole from 11/9/2004, six months into EiMAtZ (no excuse for the Oscar Meyer fixation):

If reading about what bloggers eat bores you, don't bother reading on. The gist is I can't resist eating lunch at Catacombs every dang day. It's $3, it's hot, it's heavy on the vegetables, and I am so not tired of it. But inevitably I come home to eat a dinner that counteracts all the health benefits of eating organic local food. Oscar Meyer's local, though, innit?

Shortly thereafter, Catacombs closed in the Pres House renovation and the space became a Subway.

Pres HouseRevisit

Left, Catacombs, 2005; right, Subway, 2010 (with Sabores Latinos in foreground).

UFC member Jonny Hunter was part of a food panel on May 21, 2007, put together by the short-lived MadInteractive media collaboration. We remember him getting a laugh from the audience by asking "where's the foam?" Well, foam's finally here, at 43 North and Steenbock's.

On September 27, 2008, the second Bike the Barns, a benefit for MACSAC Partner Shares catered by UFC, marked the first time Nichole had ever cycled that far in one day. The previous year had marked a huge shift in how we take care of ourselves, and the ride was proof that writing about food had changed the way we eat. UFC had no small part in showing us how goddam good food can be, which makes it easier to forgo junk.

Nothing happier

The following spring, some personal setbacks amounted to existential pulverization, more or less - so complete that eventually each episode became instant comedy ("he hates these cans!") but somehow we kept eating. We shouldn't admit this lest we raise expectations, but full disclosure and all: UFC let Nichole barter backyard berry futures (which were paid in full, if frozen) for a ticket to the Preindustrial Pig Dinner on March 7, 2009, and she was very grateful.  Small things like lunch at Ironworks on April 12, 2009 also helped. Summer brought another painfully typical Madison moment in a missed connection over a catering job, but it ultimately turned out OK.

The best food I have ever eatenSix ripe berries

Bike the Barns rolled around again on September 12, 2009. The route was hilly, but the ride with friends was its own reward. The afterparty was a bonus: UFC's grilled pizza by the slice, eaten standing up, water bottles full of well-earned Furthermore beer.

Pizza finale

By the next Bike the Barns, September 11, 2010, our life had become more stable. We decided that EiMAtZ, admittedly an experiment in conspicuous consumption, ought to be an example of conspicuous giving too (despite our ambivalent feelings about that kind of thing). So we co-sponsored the ride and departed from our regular alphabetical posts to do a writeup of what was another great event.

We're sponsoring 2011's ride. This time we're joining up with more friends and we're both biking it (and for those who know JM, that's saying something). If you'd pledge Team A to Z, we'd appreciate it.


In fall 2010, Underground Kitchen opened. We were torn. We wanted so badly to eat ahead. Reports rolled in from journalists and bloggers on how good everything was. Meanwhile we plowed through some wretched S's and mixed make-ups, hoping that the rest of Madison would get out there and eat at Kitchen.

We splurged on a signup to their meat CSA in spring 2011. Is it a coincidence that their twelve weeks of meat overlapped with Lent? Or that there was a rabbit dinner at Kitchen the Sunday after the last pickup? Sassy.

We did horrible things to some of the meat, which came in pretty packages of all shapes and sizes. We crushed the chicharrones on top of Velveeta-based macaroni and cheese. We topped Boboli crust with canned pineapple and bacon. We stopped to take a picture of almost everything before we ate it, as is our wont.

But we had some wonderful things, too, like a snow day lunch of cheese, sausage, grapefruit and buttered naan and a midsummer breakfast of plum clafouti and bacon, and there's still some sausage in the freezer.

Mac n chicharronesPizzaPink and brown butcher paperLunchBreakfast

It took us eating all that CSA meat to figure out that that certain mineral-rich funk common to UFC pork products, from head cheese to peperone to ham steak, is probably us tasting what the pigs eat.

When we finally got to eat at Underground Kitchen, the food was everything we'd hoped. The service was perfect. Jonny recognized us and stopped to say hi, which was cool, but confirmed that this post would have to be unique - no one better dare call this one a "review." We got two drinks, two appetizers, a cheese plate and two desserts.

The #41 cocktail: lovage (a plant in the parsley family), rum, rhubarb, and lime, with pink peppercorns balanced tart, sweet, and herbal flavors. The lemonade was alive and sour-sweet in the best way.

The cheese plate had crackers, sourdough and multi-seeded bread, a variety of olives and young, soft cheese, drowning in such good olive oil that we wanted to lick the little pewter bowl. The asparagus cream soup with yogurt had a generous "garnish" of that funky pig again, as pork confit.

Bread and cocktailAsparagus soup

The pretzel hotdog with mustard and mornay sauce was filling. The pretzel was perfectly baked all the way through, nary a soggy spot. The mustards were top-notch.  The yellow was a dijon, or was that the other way around?  Whichever way, it was tasty and added zing to an already good dog.

Pretzel dog

Caramel tartThe caramel tart was familiar, and just one of four desserts on offer, but this was a special meal so we broke our own rule and got two of the same dish. We are glad we did.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

That was a wonderful read. Thank you.

Indeed. I actually never got to the restaurant, but I loved their Farmers' Market breakfasts, which I not only enjoyed eating, but which I also helped to make. I hope they find another place to start over, because they had a great thing going.

Was that Nichole of EiMAtZ that just wrote on my blog!? Oh my! I had actually just spent some time reading through your blog tonight after following Jonny Hunter's Facebook link to this post (I am also seriously mourning the Underground Kitchen...), which is either an enormous coincidence or you have some sneaky ways of keeping track of who visits your blog. In either case, I often refer to your blog when scoping out restaurants, and would love to have you as readers of Dining and Opining! (Restaurant reviews this week...)

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