There are a handful of places in Madison that make you feel like you’re not in the middle of a city of a quarter of a million people — picnic point, the UW Arboretum, Wingra Park and the docks on the north side of Lake Mendota. Luckily for us, the Von Rutenberg family put a very nice Wisconsin supper club right on the north shore so we could enjoy some good food with that great view.
The Mariner’s Inn really is a classic steak and seafood restaurant, but what makes it special is the outdoor patio and the view. I went on a beautiful Sunday night with a friend for Restaurant Week in July. The patio was the perfect spot to enjoy our three-course meal.
Their clam chowder was the perfect starter. It was creamy and peppery, and had big chunks of potatoes and clams. I’ve had clam chowder that tastes fishy, but this one had the right amount of saltiness without being fishy.
For entrees they had surf and turf, shrimp, salmon and a tenderloin dish. The tenderloin of romance, as they called it, was a tenderloin, three scallops and crab meat served with a béarnaise sauce and asparagus. The tenderloin was perfectly cooked and it paired really well with the sauce. I thought the crab meat might be too much with the bearnaise sauce, but it was pretty good. The asparagus was also really good with the crab meat and sauce. I’m not a huge fan of scallops, but these were perfectly cooked, which means they were buttery and delicious. We also got an order of hasbrowns, which were hot and crispy, but a little salty.
For dessert we got the cheesecake and the key lime pie. The key lime pie was fantastic. It was sweet and tart, but not too tart and the crust was buttery and crumbly. The cheesecake was also very good. I don’t like cherry desserts, but the sauce was the perfect combo of sweet and tart.
FOOD NOTES: The food at the Mariner’s Inn is classic supper club food. It’s good, but the view from the patio is what makes the experience at the Mariner’s Inn special. The clam chowder was the best I’ve ever had, and the rest of the meal followed suit, but I would highly suggest all Mariner’s Inn dining experiences be out on the patio.
Disclaimer: Due to the generous martinis Smoky’s Supper Club serves, this rave review may be slightly clouded by the very strong martini I started drinking before dinner.
Whenever I talk with someone in Madison about the topic of steaks, inevitably Smoky’s on University Avenue is mentioned. I had heard two things about Smoky’s before visiting it with my mom for her birthday: the steaks are amazing and the martinis are strong. And both of those things turned out to be extremely accurate.
If you don’t know where Smoky’s is, it’s probably because you’ve driven by and it not noticed it. It is tucked in between newer buildings on University Avenue. And aside from it’s neon sign, it doesn’t look like an upscale supper club. There are multiple dining rooms. I saw four but there may have been more tucked around corners, and a huge oval bar that sticks out in the main room when you walk in. It’s pretty dark inside, which may be part of the ambience or a sneaky way to hide that the building could use some updates.
We got to Smoky’s a little bit before our reservations so we were asked to wait at the bar. After paying our $20 bill for two martinis, we realized that the price tag and the rumors proved true and that neither of us had ever had such a strong drink. I got the Razzputini, which from what I can remember had raspberry vodka, some other type of liquor and then grapefruit juice. That grapefruit juice was my saving grace. Thanks to the juice my martini actually tasted good and wasn’t 100 percent alcohol. My mom got the pomegranate martini, which was made with three different types of alcohol, and again from what I remember, didn’t have any juice in it. That one didn’t taste as good as mine, and had a stronger kick. I’m not a big drinker, so I preferred the one with the juice in it, but others might prefer no juice! Either way, they were both extremely well-made drinks.
My one complaint about Smoky’s is that about 20 minutes after our reservation time we went up to ask the host why we weren’t being seated (because there were open tables and everyone else had been seated). Basically he told us he forgot about us, which was kind of annoying but nothing too bad to overshadow the great food we eventually got.
For starters, we had a traditional supper club bread basket and relish tray on our table. Neither were spectacular or original, but there is something special about those traditions and I wish more places offered them with dinners. We decided to skip ordering an appetizer because we asked our waiter about the fried mushrooms and he said they were not homemade. Plus, dinners come with soup and a salad, so ordering an additional appetizer didn’t seem necessary.
The salad was exactly what I was expecting. A small, perfectly fresh salad with cucumbers, red onions, croutons and multiple homemade dressing options. As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one dressing option when getting a salad at a supper club, and that’s French…but my grandparents would disagree with that and say blue cheese is the only option. I went with French, but I can only imagine their homemade blue cheese would have been just as good.
There were two soup options the night we went. I got the clam chowder, which was a good choice. It was the perfect balance of creamy and savory while not being too heavy and thick. The vegetables in the soup were chunky, and both the vegetables and the clams were plentiful.
We both went with the 12 0z ribeye, which did not disappoint. It came out on a sizzling platter with a great charred exterior and perfectly pink inside. It was also seasoned with the right amount of salt and pepper that added that simple, classic savory flavor to the charred exterior. It was definitely one of the best steaks I have ever had, and because of the size I got to take another serving home.
The hash browns come on a separate plate and must have been cooked in a cast-iron pan because they were round, extremely hot and perfectly crispy. I loved that they weren’t greasy at all, but we did add some additional salt on top.
FOOD NOTES: The rumors about Smoky’s Supper Club are true. The steaks are amazing and the martinis will knock you on your ass. Everything about Smoky’s screams quality, expertly-executed, traditional supper club, and I love it. I also love the location. It’s kind of hidden, but perfectly accessible in the middle of Madison. The prices at Smoky’s are a bit steep at first glance, but the quality and quantity of the food proves it to be 100 percent worth it. I hope someone someday soon will put a little TLC into the building so Smoky’s and it’s great menu will be around for many more years.
There are dozens of restaurants in Madison that offer quaint and relaxing atmospheres, but in my experience none offer a place that makes you forget you’re in Wisconsin’s capital city of 240,000 people quite like Nau-Ti-Gal (pronounced like “naughty gal” TEEHEE!). The best part of Nau-Ti-Gal is its outside eating areas. There’s the area on the covered back deck and then tables in the back yard, both face a small inlet waterway on the north end of Lake Mendota. The casual seating on the back deck features colorful plastic chairs and nautical-like ropes as the railings. Even though it was warm that night, the shade of the back deck and the breeze off the water kept us comfortable.
For restaurant week we got to choose an appetizer, entree and dessert. For entrees we could choose between clam chowder, firecracker shrimp or a summer strawberry salad. I got the clam chowder, which was served in a big Nau-Ti-Gal mug and topped with crunchy croutons. The chowder itself was creamy, but not too heavy and had oversized, perfectly cooked chunks of potatoes and celery. Compared to other clam chowders I’ve had, Nau-Ti-Gal’s had more clams in it and a perfectly salty flavor that cut through the creaminess of the soup. My mom got the summer strawberry salad, and loved the fresh ingredients and that the kitchen was willing to substitute feta cheese for the blue cheese that was supposed to come on top.
For entrees we could choose between shrimp and grits, salmon, or a surf and turf. Both of us got the surf and turf, which also came with a side. We chose the garlic mashed potatoes, which were definitely mass produced but still featured red potato skins, a savory garlic flavor and had unassuming lumps – which I loved. The lobster was good, but not as good as everyone always makes lobster sound. This was my first lobster tail (I’ve had lobster in dishes, but never a full lobster tail), and I’m assuming because it was served in south central Wisconsin, it wasn’t as fresh and good as you would get on the coast. The steak was perfectly cooked, was seasoned well but not too salty, and was big enough to take half of it home for lunch the next day.
For dessert we could choose between key lime pie, strawberry shortcake or a rocky road brownie sundae. I got the rocky road brownie sundae, which came out in a massive serving. It was extremely simple, but that made it even better. It was an extremely well-done classic dessert with vanilla bean ice cream on top of a brownie, topped with chocolate chips, peanuts, chocolate sauce and marshmallow cream. It was an awesome end to a great meal. My mom got the key lime pie, and said it was refreshing and tasty.
FOOD NOTES: Other than being slightly disappointed with lobster in general, the meal I got at Nau-Ti-Gal was great. I loved the presentation of the clam chowder, and the soup itself was made with quality ingredients, and was perfectly creamy and salty. The surf and turf entree was a good choice. The steak was seasoned and cooked well, and the mashed potatoes were quality even though they seemed like they were made ahead of time. The rocky road brownie sundae was surprisingly simple, but extremely good. The seating was odd because you had to go inside to check in, but then also check in with someone outside to be seated, but the servers were extremely nice and helpful. I also loved the carefree, relaxing atmosphere and the casual outdoor seating. My first meal of Madison Magazine’s Summer 2014 Restaurant Week at Nau-Ti-Gal was a success!