Big Sky Restaurant opened more than five years ago with the idea of bringing a fine-dining option to downtown Stoughton.
We had a favorable impression at the time and decided to see what, if anything, had changed since early 2013. So a friend and I made a reservation and returned for a pricey dinner on a recent Saturday night.
From outward appearances, not much has changed other than the aging that happens with the passing of time. Big Sky has the same bright-yellow dining room and is still doing a brisk business—particularly on nights when the Stoughton Opera House hosts a popular concert.
Ultimately, you’re going for the food and a dining experience. From that perspective, the kitchen’s performance seems to have dropped a notch. Big Sky’s service is still first-rate, and it is still fairly expensive with three main courses priced over $30, but we were a little disappointed with the quality of a couple of entrées.
Our evening got off to a good start thanks to the restaurant’s personal service. In fact, it is much better than what I remember from 2013, when the staff consisted of inexperienced servers who were friendly but not proficient at their jobs.
My dining companion—a finicky eater with high standards and some food allergies—appreciated co-owner Nancy Crowley’s service and attention. Nancy took extra care to make sure her husband, chef Sean Crowley, used ingredients that met my friend’s needs and requirements. That meant, among other things, avoiding the use of soy, which is commonly employed in commercial kitchens. But Big Sky is a small operation with a concise menu, and the Crowleys were happy to accommodate us.
Big Sky’s menu includes a half-dozen small-plate options, a soup of the day and eight main courses served with a green salad that is dressed lightly with balsamic vinaigrette. Vegetarians have three options among the appetizers and one—a wild mushroom strudel—in the entrée category. The kitchen also makes three desserts fresh daily.
With seating for about 40, the dining room features white linen tablecloths and napkins on tables placed far enough apart that you don’t feel crowded. The restaurant doesn’t have full bar service, but it offers lots of choices for wine, beer and cocktails.
We enjoyed one of the kitchen’s most popular starters—two steamed jumbo-lump crab cakes served with avocado and citrus beurre blanc ($22)—but felt they were overpriced. Cost factor aside, we liked the flavor combination and the meaty texture. But paying that much for a few bites of crab cake seemed sort of extravagant.
The Big Sky salad ($7 small, $12 large) is a tasty plate of mixed greens tossed with balsamic vinaigrette, feta cheese, toasted pecans and sliced apple. The other salad option, the Caesar ($7 small, $12 large), offered a traditional preparation of romaine lettuce with croutons, lemon, olive oil, egg, Worcestershire sauce, anchovies, garlic, Dijon mustard and Parmesan cheese.
Either salad can be turned into a meal with the addition of grilled chicken breast ($6), two grilled jumbo shrimp ($14) or eight ounces of grilled salmon ($10).
The kitchen’s Caprese salad is the standard variety with tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil pesto, pine nuts and a drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette. But again, it seemed overpriced at $13.
When considering main courses, we decided to conduct a little experiment by ordering the same (or very similar) dishes we’d had a few weeks earlier at a Madison restaurant with comparable prices. For my friend, that meant ordering the shrimp and sea scallops ($32), which paired mostly tender scallops with jumbo shrimp on a plate with sautéed spinach and angel hair pasta.
The kitchen got the flavors right. Unfortunately, some of the scallops (or parts of them) were tough and chewy—just the opposite of what you expect and desire in sea scallops.
An order of fettuccine bolognaise ($18) was also a bit of a letdown. It featured a classic meat sauce of ground beef and pork with a touch of cream over pasta. While it was tasty enough, the plate was too watery, and the pasta paled in comparison to a similar dish I’d had the previous month.
The other minor problem we had with Big Sky is its atmosphere. When you’re dissatisfied with the food, you start to notice other things such as fading paint, an ugly dropped ceiling and imperfections such as an electrical outlet in a bathroom left dangling from the wall by an exposed wire. Those kinds of flaws are easier to overlook when you’re paying $12 or $15 for an entrée. When the cost is double, your expectations also are elevated.
An order of crème brulee ($8) for dessert helped, as its rich vanilla custard contrasted with a top layer of caramelized sugar. But my friend was less impressed with a chocolate torte ($8), a flourless, layered cake with whipped cream she felt was too sweet.
Our dinner at Big Sky almost six years after its opening was a mixed experience. With the exception of an off scallop or two, nothing really left a bad taste except the prices.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.