Big Sky Restaurant brings Madison-quality flavors to Stoughton

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Bill Livick/Special to the Gazette
Thursday, July 18, 2013

You no longer have drive to Madison to enjoy the quality of meals found in the capital city's finest restaurants.

Big Sky Restaurant opened on Main Street in downtown Stoughton on May 10. Based on a couple of visits we're convinced that, generally speaking, you're unlikely to find a better meal anywhere in Dane County.

Big Sky is the creation of Sean and Nancy Crowley. Sean, the executive chef, trained in San Francisco under a renowned French chef and has more than 20 years experience in the business. He's worked in Italy and he opened and ran several restaurants in Aspen, Colo., before moving to Wisconsin about 10 years ago.

Crowley describes his menu as "new American cuisine with a European flair."

"We take bits and pieces from around the country-the South, the Northeast, the West-and this is a representation of American cuisine but with an infusion of French-based European sauces," Crowley explained.

"It's 'new American' because I've taken old standby recipes and added a European infusion."

Crowley's approach is quickly evident in such small-plate dishes as shrimp and ricotta ravioli tossed in basil pesto and toasted pine nuts, or jumbo Gulf shrimp stuffed with Wisconsin white cheddar, wrapped in apple wood smoked bacon and served with sun-dried tomato cream and ribbon zucchini.

Those and a couple of other "small plates" we sampled were impressive, but main courses like herb-roasted chicken and Southern fried catfish really stole the show.

The Crowleys began building their restaurant shortly after the first of the year but had been planning it for about a year. They bought the building, which used to house a coffee shop and continues to have rental apartments above, and completely reinvented the space.

That included investing about $100,000 in the kitchen alone, Crowley said. They also rehabbed the hardwood floors and painted the entire space buttercup yellow. Original paintings adorn the walls.

The dining room has seating for about 40, so it's not a very large space. But tables, with white linen tablecloths and napkins, are placed far enough apart that you don't feel at all crowded.

Crowley said he opted for "a soft opening" and decided not to advertise the new business right away because he wanted to train and educate a young waitstaff. He wanted the service to match the food.

Our servers were clearly inexperienced-but also charming. They couldn't answer all our questions right away but seemed happy to check with the boss.

A small plate of crab cakes ($13) is Crowley's signature dish, and our party of four agreed they were superb. Two steamed jumbo-lump cakes were served with avocado and citrus beurre blanc on a plate also filled with greens and steamed asparagus.

Key to the plate's success is the chef's decision to use lots of crab meat, very little filler to hold them together, and go easy on salt, pepper and other spices. It is often difficult to detect crab flavor in most of the cakes I've tasted, and too often they're deep-fried, destroying the meat's natural sweetness.

Another absolute winner was a small plate of sea scallops ($13). The kitchen does not use anything that's been frozen, Crowley said, and the freshness of these scallops was apparent in very clean flavors.

The lightly grilled scallops come with sun-ripe tomato vinaigrette underneath and a bit of fresh basil on top. The scallops were served on a very large bed of fresh greens with pieces of grapefruit, red pepper and steamed asparagus.

We weren't as thrilled with the shrimp ravioli plate ($11). As mentioned, the ricotta-filled pasta came in a deliciously light sauce, and the shrimp was fresh and flavorful. But the homemade pasta was a bit too soft, which brought the entire plate down just a notch.

The vegetable antipasti plate ($11)-baby bell peppers stuffed with roasted shallots, marinated grilled zucchini, eggplant, roasted peppers and baked goat cheese-was simple and straightforward, but not particularly memorable.

The Big Sky menu is succinct, offering only nine entrees, a couple of salads, and five small plate items. Crowley is in the process of creating a new menu that will feature more seasonal options with some locally grown produce. The new menu will continue to include some of the more popular main courses, such as herb-roasted chicken ($17.50), Crowley said.

Bursting with flavor, the tender chicken breast is stuffed with goat cheese and roasted peppers, and served on a mound of garlic mashed potatoes.

In fact, a plate of grilled Atlantic salmon, a New York strip steak and a grilled beef tenderloin were all served atop the mashed potatoes-and in very large portions.

My friend Bob was happy enough with the firm, flakey salmon ($19.50), which came with fried onions, a light toasted mustard sauce and mashed potatoes. But he said the filet didn't rise to the level of the fish he'd had several years ago at Madison's Harvest Restaurant.

A 12-ounce New York strip au poivre ($25) was served in a brandy peppercorn sauce with the mashed potatoes and crispy potato straws. It featured a thick, caramelized crust that was seared evenly on both sides and enveloped a juicy inside cooked a little past rare.

Likewise, the grilled beef tenderloin ($28) that was wrapped in prosciutto was fork-tender, with a rich beefy flavor and medium rare interior. Drizzled with natural juices and an aged balsamic reduction sauce, this was about as much flavor in a cut of meat as you'll ever experience.

A final entrée, Southern fried catfish ($17.50), did not disappoint. Beer-battered and deep-fried, the tender fish was moist, flaky and richly flavored with a mild green chili sauce that provided a very slight burn. It was served on a very tasty bed of red beans and long grain rice, and topped with crispy potato straws. I'd have to say it ranked among the best plate of fish I've tasted anywhere.

Big Sky obviously does a lot of things very well, including offering a nice selection of wines and beer. The dining room service is not quite up to par with the kitchen, and we would like to see the restaurant source more of its food locally. We'd also prefer that it not use the white Styrofoam containers for leftovers.

But all things considered, the opening of the restaurant is a great thing for the small town of Stoughton-as well as for folks from the Janesville area who appreciate truly fine dining.

Last updated: 9:22 am Thursday, July 25, 2013

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