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Field Table - Madison, Wis.

Madison’s Field Table offers fresh approach

It’s difficult to drop a fork in Madison without hitting someone anointing the latest and greatest new restaurant trend — hot spots critics say will define dining’s direction.

Generally, those claims are more hyperbole than they are fact, but occasionally someplace special appears. Field Table, which opened quietly in April on Capitol Square, could someday be the exception that proves the rule.

The creation of owner Patricia Davis and consultant Andre Darlington, former food and cocktail writer for Isthmus, Field Table is a hybrid. Part restaurant, part cocktail bar, part bakery, part retail store, it offers a little of every gustatory experience one might crave.

Credit chef Shannon Berry — with her locavore-centric, vegetable-driven menu — and the sweets and breads of pastry chef Megan Belle, formerly of Batch Bakehouse, for raising the bar of what constitutes creative cooking.

We stopped for breakfast on a recent hot and steamy Farmers’ Market Saturday in Madison, happy that Field Table’s fold-open front windows were closed and its air-conditioned interior beckoned.

Field Table’s dimly lit décor is industrial chic, with exposed brick, concrete columns, black tabletops and creative light fixtures that are definitely more cocktail party than breakfast hour. But the juxtaposition enhanced our morning experience.

We wandered in early — Saturday brunch starts at 10 a.m. — and shared a large glazed doughnut ($2) and a cup of coffee, served in enameled tin cups with handles almost too hot to hold.

Although we’re not normally doughnut eaters, this one was so good we ended up sharing a second, a lemon poppy-seed doughnut even better than the first. Our waitress arrived tableside promptly at 10.

Given the crowd outside — the Farmers Market attracts an average of 15,000 shoppers every Saturday morning through September, traffic inside the restaurant was unexpectedly light. For our purposes, that was a good thing.

The 12-item brunch menu struck us as truly odd. There’s the Farmer’s Market Salad, a blend of farm greens, roasted eggplant, charred kohlrabi, chickpeas, freekeh (the latest super grain) and flax dressing ($12).

There is the Macrobiotic Bowl, which combines spinach, sea vegetable (kelp and its many highly nutritious friends), quinoa, black barley, sunflower, pickled beet and pepita (Spanish for pumpkin seeds.) You can also order six Island Creek, Massachusetts, oysters on the half shell ($16).

Still, the emphasis on nutrition and creativity was evident, and we started warming up to what we hoped would be interesting or at least palatable entrées.

The menu included several types of “toast,” and I picked the Avocado Toast ($10), which I was told would be a thick slice of Texas-style toast that would be baked with its ingredients. Those included an interesting mix of pickled watermelon rind, jalapeno jam and queso fresco — a sweet, soft Mexican cheese. I added the optional fried egg ($1) to bring more protein to the proceedings.

The dish that arrived was similar to what had been described, but different in some key areas. The bread, a soft, flavorful whole grain variety, provided an inch-thick pedestal for the tasty rind, the all-but-absent jam and crumbly cheese. If there was any thought of baking, it was all in the server’s imagination.

The flavors were very good and included the occasional unexpected splash of cilantro, but the bulk of the dish was cold. Topped with a well-fried egg, it created an incongruous temperature mix that did the entrée no favors.

Mad about the ‘rice’

Our second selection fared much better, clearly showing Berry’s potential.

The menu promised a forest mushroom congee (a type of Asian rice porridge) featuring canoe-harvested wild rice, rica rica (an Indonesian hot spice mixture) and a poached egg. This time the whole exceeded the parts.

A half-dozen, fair-sized wood ear mushrooms with an almost fleshy texture simmered in the piping hot congee. The waitress confirmed our guess that this was Wisconsin-grown wild rice.

Wild rice — which is not rice at all but the seeds of the Zizania, an aquatic grass — can legally only be harvested in the traditional Native American way. The harvest generally involves two people in a “muscular-powered” canoe that cannot exceed 17 feet in length, according to Wisconsin DNR regulations.

One person pulls or paddles the canoe, while the other uses a wooden flail to bend over the grassy stems and knock the rice into the canoe bottom. A certain amount ends up in the water, which helps seed the rice bed for future harvests.

That grain served as a nice foundation for the blend, with the rica rica adding spice and the egg adding substance.

Field Table clearly has some talent in the kitchen and behind the bar, but after almost four months in business, they are still working out the kinks. That’s to be expected, however, and the restaurant’s approach may truly influence new directions in dining.

At this point, at least, it’s a direction worth watching.

THE QUICK BITE

Name: Field Table

What: Restaurant, cocktail bar, bakery, retail store

Address: 10 W. Mifflin St., Madison’s Capitol Square

Menu samples: Macrobiotic bowl, Asian porridge, flank steak, farm chicken, charred salmon

Bite-size review: It’s a locavore-centric, vegetable-driven menu in an industrial chic setting. Offerings also include baked goods, specialty cocktails and retail products.

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