Nine floors above Madison, sturdy picnic blankets on the Capitol lawn looked like a sloppy checkerboard, splayed among low-slung chairs. As the sun set, I strained to hear Rodgers and Hammerstein at Concerts on the Square over the happily chatting table of 12 and the restaurant's sound system, playing softly on outdoor speakers.
They’re drinking wine down there, I thought. Bottles of rosé from a cooler, maybe.
I was drinking wine, too. But I was paying for the view in more ways than one.
At the downtown location of Eno Vino Wine Bar and Bistro on 1 North Webster St., a shaded balcony with lounge seating and a wrap-around standing bar is the best new summer spot for Capitol selfies and bruschetta glamour shots.
It’s really better to look up at the windows than down at the food. Don’t think about why the skin on the turkey leg looks that way. Don’t worry about the stale bread or how much mayo saturates the beef tartare.
See how pretty the sunset makes the Capitol look, glowing pink! Isn’t that nice?
The first Eno Vino opened on Madison’s far west side in 2004. Both locations have at least 40 options for wine by the glass, most duplicated between the two lists.
For this new location, the team of original executive chef and co-owner Jose Luis “Pepe” Granados, John Smithe and Bruce Crass signed a deal with a new Marriott brand AC Hotel to open Eno Vino Downtown in early May.
Replacing Pahl Tire Co. is now 10 stories of prime Capitol viewing with a built-in clientele for Eno Vino. A room in the AC Hotel this weekend starts at $229 before taxes and fees. Eno Vino director of operations Matt Robert called the relationship between the restaurant and the hotel “symbiotic.”
In both locations, Eno Vino serves small plates that aren’t really small from a mish-mash of global cuisines. The menu is as likely to offer heavy, salty ravioli ($12) with marinated artichokes as it is to incorporate Japanese ponzu, native gooseberries and Spanish chorizo.
Anibal Brandt, executive chef, oversees dinner daily and a late night bar menu, with 60 seats in the dining room and another 60 in the bar, which can get louder than a football stadium even on weeknights. (Robert said his team has discussed sound absorption options but “hasn’t come up with a solution.”) The full menu is available everywhere, including a bar on the ninth floor and out on the patio.
Brandt draws liberally from recent trends, sometimes with success. A big bowl of tavern-style truffle fries ($11) went easy on the oil and had the right balance of black pepper and shredded cheese, plus a trio of sauces including cheddar fondue. Because Wisconsin.
I was less impressed with salmon and tuna poké ($18), overly-sauced discs piled vertically on top of seaweed. The flavors were even muddier in an aioli-soaked beef tartare ($16), a murky mess that needed a serious revamp.
Similar to another hotel restaurant with bird’s eye views, five doll-size pork tacos ($13) came wrapped in a thin root vegetable “shell” to keep them gluten-free. Eno Vino uses malanga, similar to taro, to hold these juicy bites, which while messy had a good mix of earthy black beans and fresh pico de gallo.
I don’t know if the shrimp ceviche ($15) would sell as well if it was on the menu as “shrimp and avocado dip,” but that might be a better description of what it is.
With vinaigrette-tossed pineapple chunks and lots of crispy tortilla chips, the creamy shrimp was a perfect pair with New Zealand sauvignon blanc ($11) and a citrusy Italian white called grechetto ($8). I’d have liked it even better if I wasn’t expecting something bright and spicy.
To my mind, Disney theme parks set the standard for turkey legs: simple, a little salty and gargantuan. While Disney’s are smoked and Eno Vino’s ($14) are advertised as confit, or cooked in fat, the whole construction of the latter dish had problems. “Crispy” lentils weren’t. Neither was the flabby skin. A bed of napa cabbage and sweet cranberry sauce tasted like mom bought a pre-made Costco salad for Thanksgiving dinner. Pass something else, please.
Some dishes faltered on a single ingredient. For shredded brussels sprouts ($9) it was too much salty ponzu sauce. For a quartet of bruschetta ($15), each with a different combination of toppings, the bread had the soft, spongy texture of unbaked Texas toast.
According to Robert, Eno Vino buys much of its bread from a Middleton bakery but builds the base for its flatbreads from scratch. Sadly the result, on a heavily laden sausage version with fresh mozzarella and fennel ($22), reminded me of the ready-made pizza crust I bought when I was in college and looking for a cheaper version of Boboli.
All of this was enough to drive us back to the wine list. While it’s not terribly creative, it is long, not aggressively overpriced, and consistent for months at a time. Gordon Brown, Eno Vino’s sommelier, changes the list quarterly.
So far, Robert said, old world wines from France, Spain and Italy have proven more popular downtown than on the west side, where fruity bottles from California and South America tend to fare better.
There are no exciting wines here — but the list is accessible, classified by varietal in some cases, by region (Chianti, Bordeaux) in others, and served by the 6 ounce glass or 9 ounce carafe.
I was happy to see a 2015 Berger Gruner Veltliner ($7), a very light, refreshing white, as well as a fruity sparkling rosé of grenache, syrah and cinsault from Côté Mas in the Languedoc ($11).
Many of the reds are designed not to distract from the food, fruit-forward bottles with low tannins. It could use more lighter reds for the summer, but I liked a plummy, lightly spiced 2014 barbera ($11) made in California at Terra d’Oro.
The wine list beat Eno Vino’s sweet, overcomplicated house cocktails. Among four of these, including an Old Fashioned with house-brandied cherries ($9) and a mezcal/orange/cherry cocktail served up ($12), I wanted to either remove several ingredients or dump it into a glass twice as big and top with soda water.
During another visit, friends and I shouted at each other over a bar table while a storm rolled in. In the middle of conversation, the friend sitting across from me would gasp and whisper “Whoa!” as lightning cobwebbed across the sky and the trees below blew sideways.
I could even see cutting out of Concerts on the Square at intermission to pop up to that patio, to half-listen on a lounger with a glass of wine in my hand — after dinner, somewhere else.