Some may describe the James Beard Foundation Awards as one of the highest achievements in the culinary arts. Then again, others might describe them as snobbish or snooty, something like the Oscars for food, where dive bars and holes in the wall – the restaurant equivalent to romantic comedies or scary movies – never stand a chance for gold. I think of them as something in between. The awards are an achievement for chefs and restaurants to aspire to in cities known for high-class cuisine, like New York, Chicago or San Francisco. But the awards are not generally thought of in a relatively small city like Madison.
However, some culinary artists in Madison were noticed by the James Beard Foundation this year, whether they aspired to be or not. In fact, not one, but three chefs and two restaurants in Madison were listed as semifinalists this year in various categories. As I looked through the five who made the list, one stood out. Forequarter, on East Johnson Street, is named as a semifinalist under the “Best New Restaurant” category. Forequarter stood out not only because I heard great things about the restaurant but also because it is run by the Underground Food Collective.
The Underground Food Collective is a group of cooks that, among other things, believes in the underground dinner movement. This movement is hard to describe, but encompasses food trucks and pop-up restaurants. Other words or phrases that get tossed around with the movement might include low cost, locally-sourced and sustainable. The collective operates several businesses, including a catering business and Underground Meats, through which they sell a wide variety of cured meats. They feature some of these meats every night at their newest venture, Forequarter.
Forequarter started after the collective’s first restaurant burnt down a year and a half ago. It’s located in a non-descript building on East Johnson across the street from The Caribou Tavern. The only thing that catches the eye outside is a small white sign that reads “708 ½,” which is referring to something else, because Forequarter’s address is 708 ¼. Inside, the decorations are Spartan and clean – except for maybe the stuffed black bear in the corner – as if the owners wanted nothing to distract from the food.
I went on a Friday and there was a fairly long wait; their no-reservations policy, while annoying, seems to fit with the idea of the restaurant. I started with one of their featured meat boards. This one was built around finocchiona, a type of fennel-flavored salami similar to prosciutto. It was served with a small bowl of olives, pickled radishes, sourdough bread and mustard. While tasting the finocchiona, it was clear why Underground Meats is so popular. I also tried a trout filet and a cavatelli pasta dish. The trout was perfectly cooked, served skin up on a wooden board, with a small green salad on top. The cavatelli was excellent as well and must have been finished in a pan because the noodles had a thin crust.
Forequarter focuses on Wisconsin ingredients and its menu probably changes frequently as a result. It is the type of place that takes care to place every item on the plate just so. With all of the entrees under $20, it is also a place whose meals, if possible to duplicate, would cost twice as much anywhere else. The food, the atmosphere and the company made my meal at Forequarter one of the best dining experiences I have had in Madison, and I will be back soon.