The new King & Mane calls itself a "gastro-cantina." Googling gastro-cantina netted at least one other such establishment, in San Diego. Do such terms evolve because the world has way too many bistros? Here, the definition is elusive.
The name King & Mane refers to its location at the intersection of Main and King Streets, once the epicenter of Madison's red light district before its gentrification. Its ownership is another Madison cross-pollination, with Lombardino's owner Patrick O'Halloran among its partners. The intriguing menu, too, is all over the place, borrowing primarily from Spanish and Mexican cuisine, with Italian and French thrown in.
The starters on the menu cover a wide range, from standards like chips and salsa to much more substantial items. The aforementioned spicy chips ($2) tasted baked rather than fried, and were served with a pureed red pepper salsa so hot it required frequent sips of water.
A server, when asked if the steep price of the sauteed mussels and shrimp appetizer ($15) was due to the Gulf oil spill, replied that lots of appetizers are entree size. This unlikely appetizer contained a half-dozen each of medium shrimp and mussels, with no extra plate offered to collect the shells. The sauce - chipotle with thyme, cream and dry sherry - smoldered with rich aromas and flavors.
The roasted beet salad ($7) was also entree size, and outstanding. Plenty of tender cubed beets topped a nice amount of mixed greens. An appealing contrast in texture came from a sprinkling of pistachios. The salad's goat cheese created a creamy dressing when emulsified by the red wine vinaigrette.
A skinny white plate with a neat row of mission figs ($9) is another appetizer worth ordering. The sublime nuggets were stuffed with Spanish blue cheese, toasted pistachios and smoked paprika and set on paper-thin slices of salami.
Sea scallops ($18) were fresh-tasting and perfectly seared, served with surprising plate mates: shredded pork in a short rib reduction with chili, tarragon and green onion mashed potatoes. The combination, however unlikely, was successful.
Some of the other entrees were less so. The walleye, $15, should be avoided. Riddled with little bones, the breaded and seared fish was greasy and bland. The plate also contained spinach with chili, garlic, brown butter, lemon and parsley which added color, but nothing else.
The 12-ounce ribeye steak (overpriced at $28) contained so much fat and gristle that about half of the meat was inedible, though what remained was juicy and flavorful. It was topped with one grilled green onion, guacamole, salsa and limes that enhanced the meat.
A mushroom crepe ($12) drew big differences of opinion from those who tried it. With the mushrooms were salted jack cheese, Swiss chard, garlic and poblano cream, an unorthodox but potentially effective combo that might have worked better as a team if they'd spent more time interacting in a saute pan.
The dessert list shouldn't be overlooked. The buttermilk brown sugar panna cotta, a cloud of barely jelled cream, melted in the mouth, leaving behind subtle notes of pineapple, ginger syrup and tarragon. Also wonderful was a chocolate espresso cake ($5) which didn't taste much like coffee, but had an dark, intense and lightly salted cajeta caramel sauce.