If you believe that the famous aviator Amelia Erhardt was flying solo at the time of her demise, you have been fed a line. According to those in the know at Johnny Delmonico’s, their mysterious namesake accompanied Ms. Erhardt on her final flight. This fresh, new steak and seafood restaurant on the corner of Pinckney and Doty Streets — right off Capitol Square — has much more to offer than just an intriguing name.
While Delmonico’s has barely been open a week, proprietor Joe Sandretti says that he and his staff are still “trying to get our sea legs.” For over 20 years, Sandretti has been honing his skills as a restaurateur in Madison, taking part in four prior restaurant openings around the city. His experience in the business shows up in the sleek design of the interior, which makes a strong first impression. Olive-gray and combinations of black and off-white produce a shaded effect. Huge, round, off-white fixtures inset in the ceiling cast a cool and elegant light.
As for the food, Sandretti is quick to boast of his head chef, Tallard Jude, whose experience from the school-of-hard-knocks has earned him a real “personality with the food.” Indeed, from the look of Johnny Delmonico’s introductory menu, the entrees are all based on familiar, meaty main courses. Still, nothing is too over the top here. Jude expresses his creativity by combining commonplace ingredients in new and exciting ways. “Grilled prawns served with petite star shaped pasta, folded with fire-roasted sweet peppers into a saffron seafood cream sauce” may not be the only menu item to raise a few curious eyebrows.
The same careful thought that goes into the meat dishes is also evident in the two vegetarian menu items. Their signature vegetarian dish, Mediterranean Strudel, sounds amazingly tempting. Here, Phyllo dough is wrapped around roasted red peppers, spinach, Nicoise olives, yogurt cheese, red lentil daal and cucumber coulis.
While the menu makes the dishes sound exciting, the execution is just as skillful as the advertising. As an appetizer, grilled chunks of wild game sausages (boar, pheasant and venison) are skewered along with slices of mango and sweet onion. Brought in from Denver, each of the different sausages has a unique flavor and texture. When sampled alongside the crisp onion and ripe mango, it makes for an incredible, sensual experience.
East Coast Chowder is made in-house at Johnny Delmonico’s. Fresh fish are combined in a heavy, gravy-like cream base. This is a chunky and savory warm soup. Crusty, round loaves of white bread are also made on premises. Though a little chewy, hot fresh bread from the kitchen is hard to beat.
Along with the complimentary homemade bread that comes with every meal, all entrees come with a house salad. This leafy green house salad is garnished with mandarin orange sections and topped with agreeable citrus vinaigrette. The roasted vegetable salad features chilled, marinated and grilled summer veggies surrounded by fresh greens drizzled with a sharper balsamic vinaigrette.
Johnny Delmonico’s is proud of its steaks. So proud, in fact, that they brag, “We believe you’ll notice the difference,” on the menu. They serve only USDA Choice Angus beef, hand-cut and aged for 14 to 21 days.
Though not a steak connoisseur, I can tell a good steak when I taste one, and I had a good steak at Delmonico’s. My “petite” tenderloin had a sweet and salty crust that perfectly sealed in its juices. The steak was so well prepared and flavorful that the steak sauces I had wanted to try were unnecessary. Of these, wild mushroom gravy has more of a thin, broth-like sauce than most gravy. It provides a delicate and delicious portion of wild mushrooms with a slightly salty marinade. The other available sauce, crab and basil hollandaise, is a beautiful garnish — heavy on the basil and skimpy on crab.
Unbelievably rich and decadent, this sauce was not only superfluous, but took away from the simple beauty of the well-grilled steak. Supplementing their superior steaks, Johnny Delmonico’s has some of the best yellow fin tuna available in Madison. For this dish, two impressive slabs of sushi-grade yellow fin are crusted on one side in sesame seeds and seared rare. With the tiniest bite of chili and a mild pleasing saltiness, the sesame breading provides a perfect base-note flavor as well as a bit of a crunch to the exquisite, seared tuna.
Just as the rest of the menu is short but full of tempting tastes, so is the dessert list. The list consists of apple tart with ice cream, a malted milk creme brule, strudel and opera cake. Delmonico’s rendition of the créme brule is more of a pudding than other takes on the classic French dessert, which tend to have the consistency of custard. The malted milk taste is pleasing and the sugary crust is an unexpected delight.
Perhaps Johnny Delmonico’s only weakness is its service. The dining staff is well meaning and ambitious but, as of yet, not well seasoned. With the combination of attractive, elegant surroundings and creative, delicious food this is one place to consider visiting — after the staff has gotten their sea legs.