Delaney's reputation as Madison's best steakhouse seems dated

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By Bill Livick, Special to The Gazette
Thursday, August 28, 2014

MADISON—Delaney's Charcoal Steaks has a reputation for serving mouth-watering cuts of beef. It's been doing so for more than 40 years on the city's west side.

Delaney's is a classic Wisconsin supper club and steak house in every way—from the Rat Pack soundtrack playing on the in-house sound system to the menu's heavy emphasis on meat and potatoes to the high prices. Our bill totaled $93—without the tip—for two beers, an appetizer and two entrees with side salads.

A friend and I recently visited the large restaurant and came away agreeing that Delaney's seemed a little out of date. That impression was reinforced by the décor and several “Best Steakhouse” awards that were displayed near the foyer—all from newspaper reader polls from the 1980s or early '90s.

The restaurant consists of a large bar room with several large flat-screen TVs and a handsome dark wood bar. A hallway connects several other smaller dining areas.

The smaller areas are a nice idea. They offer privacy and keep the overall volume of the restaurant to a reasonable level.

We arrived without reservations, were greeted warmly and seated quickly. A trio of servers waited on us. We had the impression that one of the three was an experienced waitress, and the other two were learning the job. That was fine, yet they all struck us as a bit uncomfortable and impersonal.

A server brought a basket of warm sourdough bread and butter, and we began with an order of crab cakes ($13) as an appetizer. Crab cakes can be flavorful and delicious when done right, but these suffered from too much filling and not enough crab. A sure sign was the way they fell apart when we tried to move them from the serving dish to our plates.

The cakes came with a tasty caper aioli sauce and a Japanese seaweed salad. Both added to the presentation but did little to improve the crab cakes themselves.

My companion and I each ordered what sounded from the menu description like an inviting option: a spinach salad with Gorgonzola, prosciutto and a strawberry vinaigrette ($6).

Unfortunately, the spinach was not very fresh, and the prosciutto, if present, was not apparent. The dressing was a tad too sweet, and there was a bit too much applied to the salads.

We looked for things to improve with the main courses, but that happened only partially.

A 10-ounce, French-cut Iowa pork chop ($29) with roasted potatoes, herbed vegetables and tangy mustard sauce helped alleviate some of our disappointment. The chop looked great—a couple of inches thick, with a hard-seared exterior and medium rare inside. The first bite was a little tough, but the rest of the loin cut was tender and succulent.

I did enjoy the nicely grilled and seasoned red potatoes that came with the entree.

My friend Lia had a similar experience with an order of chicken with shrimp ($29). It was advertised as a free-range chicken breast with four grilled shrimp and fresh vegetables, but the first bite of chicken was tough. It got better, though, giving way to a mostly tender and tasty cut of meat. The shrimp, on the other hand, lacked flavor and were too long on the grill.

It's always difficult—and probably unfair—to judge a restaurant from a single visit. Admittedly, we did not sample the kitchen's signature steak entrée, the certified Piedmontese Top Sirloin, which the menu indicates is grass-fed beef from Nebraska ($31). But based on our experience, we thought we paid a lot for food that has been better prepared for less elsewhere.

If I'm paying more than $100 for a meal for two, without desserts, I expect better results than what we got.

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