“Fine dining” has more than once been pronounced close to death’s door. Despite those claims, there’s still life in the concept. But what constitutes fine dining has changed, in keeping with broader lifestyle trends of the last 15 years or so. Today, à la carte dining, “shareable” and small plates – when enveloped in a refined style of service – still lead to a fine bill.
This evolution comes to mind on my first visit to the nothing-if-not refined Hotel Madrid. The 107-year-old Walker’s Point building houses Bodegón, whose dining room includes upholstered seating, antler chandeliers and ornate bullfighter jackets displayed along a wall, meant to conjure a modern Ernest Hemingway hunting lodge theme. That plays out through the presentation of the bill, tucked inside an old Hemingway paperback. To enter the dining room, you must pass through the stylish, whimsical Vermuteria 600, a bar whose $10-$25 drinks are inspired by the Bates Cocktail Index of 1934. There’s also a wine cellar/private dining room, a patio in the works, and the hotel part of this business – two suites that will operate like short-term Airbnb lodging. At press time, these units were not complete. Building the patio had taken priority.
Madrid’s owners – also founders of Stand Eat Drink Hospitality Group (the papa of tapas place Movida and sometime-to-open ramen joint Yokohama 1910, as well as a recent partner in seminal Jake’s Deli on 16th and North) seem to be paying attention to the details. By that, I mean a more formal service style in the dining room, with its attractive and luxe-looking table settings. Even at the bar, the style is the antithesis of drink-slinging. One evening, the bartender – who also artfully slung my mezcal-dominant “Seventy-five” cocktail ($15), which comes with a slate plate of house-smoked manchego, candied nuts and apricot preserves – comped a round of drinks because they weren’t served at the same time as the food. The reasonably priced bar food menu ranges from very tasty, savory potato churros to a nothing-special BBQ suckling pig sandwich.
In the dining room – where the dramatic open kitchen seems eager to fill orders of beef (wet and house dry-aged steaks $42-$95) and four-person feasts of rack of lamb or a hind leg of suckling pig ($65-$125) – the food has some catching up to do. The one really bright spot was the dry-aged rib eye, as juicy, tender and flavorful as a 32-ounce, $95 steak should be. Ordered à la carte with the steak, the ample barley-asparagus risotto ($9) offered creamy, rich and still-chewy grains and crisp-tender vegetables. The salmon fillet ($32) was a little too rare; the parsnip puree, pesto and winter vegetables were acceptable, but not mind-blowing. The barley risotto was the base for Bodegón’s seared scallops with beurre blanc and cranberry jam ($32) – a winning flavor pairing, but the scallops were chewy. From the vegetarian menu came a goblet of handmade pasta in vegetable cream sauce, which went through an unannounced change from tagliatelle to macaroni. That didn’t affect its creamy deliciousness.
The owners chose the restaurant name for its definition as a “pantry” or “tavern” serving a high quality of food. There’s no questioning the investment of time and capital. I only hope that as more parts of this operation open, the kitchen finds its balance. It certainly shows the level of ambition attached to Walker’s Point, a development mecca. ◆
Bodegón at Hotel Madrid
600 S. Sixth St., 414-488-9146.
Hours: Dinner Tues-Sun.
Prices: Entrées/steaks $28-$95.
Service: Trying to be “polished.”
‘From Madrid to Milwaukee’ appears in the April 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
Find it on newsstands beginning April 3, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.
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