Nostalgia is a powerful thing. I can’t part with my mom’s recipe cards from the 1970s, even though I confess that I never make the bygone creations like the creamed egg on toast she served on Lenten Friday nights. You could argue that the food memory is more potent than the draw of the food itself. I have that sort of relationship with supper clubs. I love the memory of going to them as a child, sipping Shirley Temples and nibbling on sesame breadsticks dipped in spread cheese while my parents had their martinis and deviled eggs.
Nostalgia has helped put the supper club in the spotlight these last few years, and I really want Buckatabon – the supper club and tavern operated by Lowlands Group – to have a magnetic pull. From the standpoint of ambiance, like its Lowlands siblings, it does. The aesthetic is of a midcentury Northwoods lodge transported to Tosa Village: stained red-oak paneling, wood and carpet flooring, tasteful Wisconsin-themed bric-a-brac, crushed red velvet booths.
The food is just a bit uneven.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Buckatabon – named after a chain of lakes in Vilas County pronounced Bucket-AH-bun – excels at casual comfort foods. The cheese curds (half-order $11; full $18), served with herbed ranch dressing, are crispy with an addictively squishy-chewy interior. They pair much more deliciously with the tavern burger – two quarter-pound smash patties topped with melted cheddar, pickles and caramelized onions on a brioche bun ($14) – than with the soft, thick, uninspiring steak fries that come with them. The burger is juicy with crispy edges and the sweetness of those onions. Smothered in spicy ground beef and a whole lot of cheese comes the pile of supper club nachos ($16; $20 for prime rib instead of ground beef ). This is a tasty mashup of flavors, including the blend of fontina and cheddar, a three-cheese sauce, poblano corn relish, hot pepper salsa and horseradish smoked sour cream. My quibble here is that the horseradish in sour cream is a bit overpowering.
The better of my two entrées was the crab- and brie-stuffed salmon with hash of wild rice, asparagus and red peppers ($29), the fish sprinkled with a pistachio crumble. Like the nachos, the combo was a bit complicated, a little salty, but the flavors melded without being too cacophonic.
I had high hopes for a supper club steak – the pièce de résistance of supper club fare – so I went for the 16-ounce New York strip ($44) over the bacon-wrapped filet mignon ($39). I couldn’t knock the strip for its tenderness or crust-edged bite. But here again, this dish could have benefited from simplicity by forgoing the too-strong chili-coffee rub on top. And while the crispy fried Brussels sprout “petals” were a nice touch on the mashed potatoes, the spuds had a little too much horseradish in them. Now I’m thinking about that bacon-wrapped filet with more than regret.
I will need to return – for the filet, the perch fry and other dishes that hold such an esteemed place here in Wisconsin. But along with nostalgia, I have a deep affinity for simplicity. With more of the latter, Buckatabon could be the supper club we’re all craving right now.