Get top-notch service, food at The Spot in Madison

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By Bill Livick, special to The Gazette
Wednesday, December 4, 2013

MADISON—This has been an active year for new restaurant openings in Madison—a sign of a confident local economy.

One of the newest is a place called The Spot, and it's among our favorites of 2013. It offers quality food at affordable prices and serves beer, wine and specialty drinks at its East Johnson Street location, about a mile east of the Capitol Square.

The Spot occupies a space that for decades housed Mildred's Sandwich Shop, which closed last year.

The remodeled restaurant opened in August and features a cozy front dining room with a handful of beautiful tables and booths. Its carmine red walls are decorated with attractive art. An interior room holds a few more tables and leads to a back patio.

The Spot's menu includes 10 appetizers and more than a dozen main courses, from an assortment of burgers to tasty stews to Peruvian-flavored beef dishes. The kitchen also turns out nightly specials in the $12 to $18 range.

Perhaps because of its small size, the dining room is one of the best in terms of sound volumes. Our party of six was able to talk at a reasonable level and still hear one another—a rare commodity these days.

Besides a warm, inviting atmosphere and good food, the service we received on a Saturday night was excellent.

The list of appetizers is heavy on vegetable plates—Bibb salad, Caesar salad, roasted root vegetables, baked artichoke ramekin and a vegetable charcuterie plate—ranging from $5.50 to $10. A cheese plate ($12) offers three cheeses with figs, pickled grapes and wheat crackers.

We went in a meatier direction and sampled the albondigas: three Spanish meatballs of veal, pork and beef with a romesco and Manchego sauce ($6.50). The meatballs got a thumbs-up for their firmness and flavor.

A second appetizer, three sea scallops on cilantro pesto ($9.50), also was fine. The moist, tender scallops were complemented by the flavor of cilantro and garlic.

About half of the main courses are sandwiches or burgers, which come with a choice of sides: mustard green-potato salad, beans and rice, or mixed greens. Other side options are seared greens or polenta.

All the sandwiches feature tasty flourishes. A chicken sandwich comes with sage, prosciutto, arugula, mozzarella and caper aioli and is served on a baguette ($9.50). Although the chicken is a bit lost among stronger flavors, the overall taste is complex and successful.

The vegetarian in our party was happy with portabella stew ($11), a flavorful blend of vegetable broth and generous chunks of tasty mushroom. It comes on a plate with creamy polenta and seared greens.

The kitchen's cioppino is a medley of seafood with tomatoes in wine and clam stock ($12). Cioppino was developed in San Francisco around the turn of the last century by a fisherman with strong ties to his Italian ancestry. Usually it is made from the catch of the day or leftovers from the day: Dungeness crab, clams, shrimp, scallops, squid, mussels and fish. This kitchen's version is served with a baguette and aioli.

A salmon Caesar salad ($12) featured large pieces of grilled salmon over a bed of romaine lettuce and croutons dressed with Parmesan cheese, lemon juice and olive oil. Some of the other ingredients of a classic Caesar were missing, but the salmon itself was tender and flavorful.

One in our group opted for the nightly special: pan-fried Canadian walleye with seared greens and polenta ($16). This was a heaping plate of food, dominated by a tender, flaky filet that all agreed was exquisitely flavored.

The Spot's bar is stocked with liquors and wine; it also has a half-dozen craft beers on tap. You can choose a liquid dessert at the bar or a more typical dessert, including dense chocolate cake with raspberry sauce, yogurt lemon cake with blueberry sauce, panna cotta with mango and ginger, a salted caramel sundae or a sorbet.

Our party appreciated the staff's wonderful service, which included moving us to a less-crowded booth once it opened up and replacing at no charge a specialty drink that wasn't to a friend's liking.

With reasonable prices, terrific food and thoughtful service, The Spot likely will win the devoted following its predecessor enjoyed.

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