Belly up to bar food: The 608 presents another option for good tavern fare

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Bill Livick, Special to the Gazette
Wednesday, August 14, 2013

MADISON—Call it comfort food or traditional Wisconsin tavern fare. However you choose to label the menu at the new 608 Restaurant and Bar on State Street, it's part of an apparent trend in the Madison dining scene, where restaurant/bar combos focusing on upscale bar food have been opening at a high rate.

The 608 opened in May in the space that used to be Paul's Club. The new owners have transformed the room, which features a full bar on one side and a row of tables and chairs next to an exposed brick wall on the other.

Some black-and-white framed photos of downtown Madison are about the only art on the spare walls. Several flat-screen TVs mounted throughout the place will be an asset once the Packers' season begins.

Everything in the spacious room seems shiny and new compared to the menu, which offers all the things you've come to expect from a Wisconsin tavern: burgers and sandwiches, appetizers such as fried cheese curds and onion rings, soups and salads.

The kitchen also turns out a handful of entrees, including pasta and a mustard chicken dish.

A server said the most popular items are the paninis and burgers, which are grilled to perfection and piled high with a host of condiments: caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms, alfalfa sprouts, Granny Smith apples, pickled beets. The 608 Burger ($11) is topped with an egg fried over easy and served with a choice of sides, including sweet potato fries, regular french fries or a salad of mixed greens, to name just a few.

Business was steady on the night of our visit, a Thursday. The place seemed to cater to a college crowd. The music was a bit too loud, although youthful patrons didn't have a problem raising their voices over the upbeat tunes.

We took a seat in front, close to a big picture window, where it was a little quieter and gave us a full view of State Street.

We started with a couple of salads. A refreshing Sweet 'n' Spicy Thai Salad ($9) included shredded green cabbage and carrots, crispy wonton strips, pea pods, peanuts and cucumbers. This kitchen's version doesn't quite compare to some we've had at Thai restaurants, but it was tasty and came in a large portion, enough for two to share.

A grain salad ($7) uses couscous and features cherry tomatoes, pine nuts, zucchini, arugula and feta cheese. We thought it was a fine summer salad—light with nicely balanced flavors—and one that we would order again.

We also shared the beer-battered onion rings ($6), which were exceptional. Made of sweet Vidalia onions, these rings were light, crisp and not overly greasy.

The 608's burgers are a messy handful. The blue cheese burger ($11) featured a thick patty grilled medium rare and topped with caramelized onions, mushrooms, mixed greens and blue cheese. The burger itself was quite good, and all those toppings gave it lots of flavor, but I couldn't detect any flavor from the blue cheese, which is usually pungent and savory.

My friend's chicken and watercress panini ($11) was a success. She liked the contrast between the toppings—sweet caramelized onions and spicy watercress—and the meat was tender. An order of sweet potato fries also hit the spot, crispy yet not overly greasy.

For dessert, 608 offers a half-dozen spiked milkshakes. The cappuccino ($8) is made with Kahlua and topped with maraschino cherries and pizzelle cookies, which are traditional Italian waffle cookies. We liked the flavors, but the milkshake itself was thin and not very satisfying.

Service at 608 is mostly good. On the night of our visit, two young female bartenders doubled as servers, which meant there were some long waits for food order. But it's asking a lot of a person to prepare drinks and serve customers at the bar while also trying to wait on tables.

Overall, 608 offers a nice atmosphere and friendly staff, but it feels a bit unsteady and unsure of itself. It would be interesting to return in a few months to see if a little more time and experience helps to smooth some of the rough edges.

Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.

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