Hungry in Oregon? Small downtown welcomes another fine restaurant
OREGON--The small village of Oregon, seven miles south of Madison on Highway 14, is becoming a surprising draw for discerning diners in southern Dane and northern Rock counties.
With a population of not quite 10,000 people, you wouldn't think the place could support many restaurants. But a couple of good Italian-American eateries are co-existing with a fine Mexican restaurant and an old-fashioned diner in the community's tiny downtown.
Add to the list Mason's on Main, a 2,800-square-foot restaurant that opened in mid-May.
Mason's features two dining rooms. One is a casual bistro that includes a bar and tables with seating for about 50, and the other is a more formal, upscale room that seats about 60, with white linen tablecloths and a cut-flower arrangement at each table.
Owners Jerry and Bonnie Thiel renovated two neighboring historical buildings on South Main Street in the past couple of years, not intending to open a restaurant. At some point along the way, the Thiels decided the best use for the beautifully restored buildings would be to create the business that they now manage jointly with their son, Hans, and executive chef Jonathan Cross.
So they made an opening in the walls separating the buildings and built their restaurant.
Jerry Thiel said in the six weeks it has been open, the restaurant has "exceeded expectations."
"Between restoring these beautiful buildings and Jonathan's talent, we thought if we build it, people will come-and they have," Thiel said. "People are really impressed with the dining room and the bar."
After a couple of visits, we found the food to be exceptional but the service a bit lacking. No doubt some of the service snafus are related to inexperienced servers and the newness of the operation.
Thiel acknowledged as much and said the most difficult part about starting a restaurant of this size is getting the staff trained and working together efficiently.
The food, however, exhibits the touch of an experienced hand.
The restaurant serves lunch and dinner seven days a week. On Friday nights, a special menu replaces the regular options, with an emphasis on fish and other seafood.
Vegetarians are out of luck Fridays unless they want to settle for a side salad or cole slaw. Even the regular menu offers few meals without meat.
Carnivores will find lots of entrees built around steak, chicken, pork and seafood. The kitchen also turns out a host of good sandwiches, pasta dishes, about a dozen tapas (appetizers) and some nice soups and salads. Mason's on Main also has a kids' menu with a half-dozen or so options.
The bar offers a long list of fancy cocktails, along with dozens of bottled beers and 14 on tap. The wine list is also impressive.
We began a recent meal with something from the tapas list-blackened pork tenderloin medallions with chardonnay shiitake cream sauce ($9). The sauce was a perfect complement to six tender medallions. Beneath a seared crust, the meat was juicy and succulent, with just a tinge of pink at the center.
From the pub appetizers list, we selected the flash-fried calamari with marinara sauce ($7). This was a plate of the most delicious squid we've tasted locally-firm and flavorful without the rubbery quality that often plagues calamari.
An order of pan-fried Canadian bluegills ($18) was a tad salty and seemed overpriced until it arrived. The fish came in such a large quantity that it provided a filling lunch the next day.
Fillets of Lake Michigan perch ($15.95) and Lake Erie walleye ($15.95) pleased my dining companions. The broiled walleye was firm, tender and substantial, while the pan-fried perch was moist yet flaky.
The restaurant's Friday fish specials include cole slaw, rye bread and a choice of potato-baked, French fries or potato pancake. The kitchen's slaw is terrific-fresh, crisp and not too sweet.
From the butcher's block section of the menu, we ordered a half rack of barbecued ribs ($16). The hickory-smoked barbecue sauce was excellent, but the ribs might have been on the grill a bit too long and were a little tough, if flavorful.
A shaved Angus prime rib sandwich was a winner. Tender slices of meat came topped with sautéed mushrooms, onions and provolone cheese on a grilled Telera roll ($10).
We looked at a half-dozen desserts our server brought to display but picked only one-crème brulee ($7). It was superb, with a crispy glaze atop creamy custard. The flan fanatic in our group declared it one of the best she's had in the Madison area.
As mentioned, the food was quite good, but the service had some problems. Our young server had trouble keeping orders straight, had to be reminded more than once to bring another beverage from the bar and significantly overcharged an item on the final bill.
She was friendly and hard working and, given time, will probably get the hang of an admittedly difficult job.
Like most busy restaurants these days, the noise level can be something to contend with during prime dining hours on a Friday or Saturday night. But the quality of the food, its preparation and the elegance of the main dining room cannot be denied.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.