180927FOOD_51SOUTH

During a recent visit to 51 South Restaurant in Stoughton, Gazette restaurant reviewer Bill Livick ordered this cheesesteak sandwich and bowl of cowboy soup. Livick came away impressed by the flavors and textures of both.

STOUGHTON

We have a new favorite restaurant in Stoughton, which has more than its share of good eateries for a city of about 13,000 residents.

51 South opened June 1 on West Main Street with an emphasis on made-from-scratch recipes featuring local produce, healthy ingredients and thoughtful presentations.

Co-owners Trisha Brown and Ariya Yellow Bird spent five months planning their first restaurant and giving the cozy dining room a new coat of sunflower-yellow paint, making it a bright, energetic space. They also painted and reupholstered chairs and essentially made their own tabletops.

Dining room walls also display the work of local artists, and the restaurant’s owners plan to use the walls as a “rotating gallery.”

The result is down-to-earth and comfortable—a vibe that’s matched by tasty fare and fresh, pure flavors.

“The whole place—the atmosphere, food and environment—kind of reflects our personality,” Brown observed.

Yellow Bird describes the menu as “new American” and says it will change with the seasons.

“Everything we have is really classic, but then we throw in something that’s interesting and different,” she explained. “You can come here and get a French dip, but we put in a lot of thought to how we prepare it. We marinate the meat and use good steak, and the au jus is kind of special.”

The business partners hired a California-trained chef and old friend, Chris Ault, to run the kitchen, but said they all contribute there and collaborated on the concise menu, which includes a few appetizers, some tasty salads and eight to 10 main courses with sides. They also offer some of the area’s best homemade cheesecake for dessert.

In fact, everything here is homemade, and it shows in generous portions at reasonable prices. The most expensive item, the blue arugula burger, is $13 and comes with a choice of sides.

Customers order at a counter and food is served at your table. A chalkboard above the counter lists the menu and daily specials, and the dining room has large windows in front that allow in natural light and a view of the vibrant downtown.

I recently ordered the chef’s “cowboy soup” as a side to go with a cheese-steak sandwich ($11) and was impressed with both.

The soup was a hodgepodge of items the chef said he “threw together”—several varieties of beans and loads of veggies such as carrots, mushrooms, onions and peppers—and its flavor was pretty amazing. The sandwich—grilled steak with melted provolone and sautéed bell peppers and onions on a baguette—could not have been better. The meat was tender and delicious, while the vegetables retained their texture and flavor.

The owners say one of their most popular items is the berry goat salad ($10), a large serving of mixed greens with assorted berries (blueberries and strawberries in my salad), goat cheese and walnuts that are candied in-house. It is served with a homemade, multi-berry balsamic vinaigrette and makes a delicious light lunch or complement to a healthy dinner.

Yellow Bird and Brown said they buy much of their produce from Vitruvian Farms near McFarland.

The restaurant’s most popular item, the zoodle bowl ($11), takes advantage of Vitruvian’s fresh produce. The zoodle bowl consists of zucchini noodles cooked in butter with added ingredients such as chicken, Brussels sprouts, walnuts, cranberries and red onion.

Yellow Bird explained the dish—like most things at 51 South—can be made vegan or vegetarian upon request.

“A lot of our things can be modified to be that way, but we don’t have a special vegan or vegetarian menu,” she said. “With the zoodle bowl, to make it vegan, we double the zucchini portion and, instead of cooking it in butter, we substitute oil, and then use no chicken or cheese, but it’s got more Brussels sprouts and berries and walnuts.”

The gluten-free zucchini noodles are part of the restaurant’s seasonal menu this summer, and the owners plan to extend the dish into fall because of its popularity.

The kitchen’s blue arugula burger ($13) is a definite winner. It first appeared as an order of sliders on the appetizer menu, but the chef elevated it to a “main event” item.

“It’s grown up and is now a burger,” Yellow Bird quipped.

Along with blue cheese, the sandwich features quality meat and lots of spicy arugula with sautéed onions and garlic aioli.

For dessert, be sure to check out the restaurant’s cheesecake. Co-owner Brown makes several versions, including the unusual but decadently rich s’mores cheesecake that was offered last week.

Among other menu items, I’d recommend the restaurant’s BLAST sandwich ($10), which is bacon, lettuce, avocado, Swiss cheese, tomato and mayo on sourdough; the ultimate grilled cheese sandwich ($9), which combines six types of cheese between slices of garlic Parmesan-crusted sourdough, and the homemade mac and cheese ($10).

Even side items such as the homemade applesauce tend to exceed expectations, which is how the owners described their restaurant’s reception in Stoughton. I suspect that’s because 51 South’s service is friendly and professional—matching its approach to real food that is affordable and delicious.

51 South’s business might be stronger if the owners acquire a license to sell beer and wine, which is something they are considering. And I’ve never liked the order-at-the counter policy because it almost forces customers to decide what to order while standing in line, potentially.

That said, 51 South has many fine qualities that clearly outweigh the drawbacks.

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

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