Dining & Drinking Down Under
No, I don’t have Australian cuisine on my mind. I’m not even sure I know what that is; surely not what they serve at Outback Steakhouse. I’ve been thinking about basement restaurants and why inexplicably they can be appealing. It flies in the face of logic that anyone over the age of 12 would relish the idea of dining, or even drinking for that matter, in a cellar! What makes for atmosphere, however, cannot easily be defined.
My first experience of dining below street level was in Greenwich Village. I was in high school and with a friend and her rather eccentric aunt who lived there. She reminded me of Aunty Mame and took us to a little Italian restaurant, obviously her favorite. Just like in the movies, the tables had red checkered cloths and candles stuck in Chianti bottles. It would have been impossible not to fall in love with the place.
Over the years, Madison has had its share of cellar cafes and cabarets. In 1972, Ovens of Brittany was one of the first of the new wave restaurants—those that offered something beyond standard supper club fare. The original—before it ran its course, there were many others scattered around town—was where Tutto Pasta on State Street is currently. Upstairs was the informal bakery and café called the Baker’s Room, but downstairs was the venue for the serious with a French-inspired gourmet menu.
In the 1980s, the Washington Hotel—an entertainment complex—was home to several popular bars including the Barber’s Closet and Rod’s, both situated below ground level. Both were enormously popular with an atmosphere unique to any other in town. The Barber’s Closet styled itself after a Prohibition-Era speakeasy with a secret entrance located next to what had once been the hotel’s barber shop. The threadbare, but appropriately dated décor was endearing nonetheless. Rod’s, named after the hotel’s owner Rodney Scheel, was a gay bar with unapologetic stark and dark basement ambiance, complete with exposed pipes and underwear hanging from the low ceiling. The Washington Hotel burned in 1996 and now a gas station and convenience store occupies its site.
At about the same time, Paisan’s, one of Madison’s oldest pizza parlors moved to the basement of Porta Bella. Interestingly, even after relocating to the University Square mall and subsequently to its current lakeside digs, Paisan’s has always favored the same intimate and windowless look it had when downstairs.
Certainly the most exotic underground dining experience was at the recently closed Casbah (now The Rigby) on Main Street. Beneath its hookah bar was the King Tut Room, a fanciful rendition of the interior of an Egyptian tomb with curtained booths hiding diners from view.
Today, there’re several establishments that may be downstairs, but shouldn’t be looked down upon or overlooked.
Kennedy Manor, one of Madison’s premier apartment buildings, has always had a restaurant in the basement. Back in the day it was built, mostly singles, especially retirees, took to this previously big-city form of habitation. Kitchens were intentionally small, designed for breakfast and light meals, with lunch and dinner served on premises. Taste and customs change, and the dining room closed, though the bar remained a popular neighborhood rendezvous. Refurbished and revitalized, Kennedy Manor Dining Room & Bar reopened in the early 90s, keeping its original Art Deco detailing. This personable bistro is very much the product of its current owners Dawn and Mike Theisen. The modern dinner menu changes frequently and makes good use of the best of local and organic ingredients.
I can’t imagine the being located in any other place than where it is, underneath the Italian Workmen’s Club. Knotty pine paneling, butcher block tables, bright blue chairs and omnipresent Christmas tree lights make it a cheerful den. Really more a trattoria than a rathskeller, the Greenbush serves some of the best thin crust pizza in town and Sicilian dishes that taste of the fabled Italian neighborhood that was once here.
Several African restaurants have come and gone, but lives on. It’s a simple place, down a flight of steps off State Street, specializing in East African food. Students flock here for out-of-the-ordinarily food at clearly a bargain price. For the claustrophobic, in fair weather it also has a sidewalk café upstairs and a much beloved food cart on the Library Mall.
It may not be a courtyard in the Vieux Carré, but snug in its subterranean suburban hideaway Louisianne, Etc. exudes Creole hospitality and charm. The menu abounds with contemporary New Orleans favorites like crawfish cheesecake, crab cakes, etouffée and jambalaya. A loyal following repeatedly votes Louisianne “Best of Madison.”
Our city’s newest venture into the underworld is Sotto, a sleek new club catering to downtown hipsters that bills itself as gay-friendly. It’s a dramatic transformation for a space on Henry Street that’s housed a parade of college beer bars.
Other than its iconic morning bun, this rich chocolate cake was probably the most popular item on Ovens of Brittany’s menu.
6 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/3 cup dried currants
3 tablespoons brandy
12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter (at room temperature)
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
¼ teaspoon almond extract
5 eggs, separated
¼ cup sliced blanched almonds, finely chopped
¼ cup walnuts, finely chopped
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter (at room temperature
6 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
Sliced almonds (optional)
Butter and flour a 9-inch round springform pan at least 2 inches deep.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Melt 6 ounces of the chocolate in the top of a double boiler set over barely simmering water. Set the melted chocolate aside to cool slightly.
Combine currants and brandy in a small bowl and let stand for 10 minutes.
In the large bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle, cream 12 tablespoons of the softened butter with 1 cup sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in almond extract.
Add the egg yolks to the butter-sugar mixture one at a time, beating after each addition. Stir in cooled chocolate, currants and brandy, and finely chopped almonds and walnuts.
In another bowl, beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Add remaining 1 tablespoon sugar and continue to beat until stiff but not dry. Stir a small portion of the whites into cake batter; then gently and fold in the remaining beaten egg whites alternately with the flour (about 1/3 at a time).
Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake in the preheated oven 25 to 35 minutes. The cake is done when it jiggles slightly in the very center starts to shrink from the side of the pan.
Remove from oven and cool 20 minutes, then remove sides from pan and cool completely.
Meanwhile, make the glaze: melt the 4 tablespoons of butter and 6 ounces of chocolate in the top of a double boiler set over barely simmering water. Stir until completely smooth, the remove from the water bath and cool to room temperature.
When cake has completely cooled, spread the sides and top with the glaze. Garnish with sliced almonds, if desired.
Serves 12 or more.