After only a month in business, Doolittles Woodfire Grill exudes a professionalism that is usually reserved for certain big-box chain restaurants.
Doolittles, which opened May 20 on the edge of East Towne Mall, planted itself not far from other boxy restaurants like the Olive Garden, and my favorite guilty pleasure: Red Lobster.
The spacious three-room restaurant was full on a recent Saturday night at 6:30 when the wait for a table was about 30 minutes.
It has that sure-footed feel because it is part of a small, regional chain that started 15 years ago in Eagan, Minnesota. There are now two others in Minnesota and a fourth in neighboring Fargo, North Dakota. Madison now has the fifth.
Because wood-fired rotisserie cooking is the concept, we started with grilled tenderloin skewers ($11.50). Two arrived, one much chubbier than the other. I wound up with the beefier of the two and found the bites I took lacking in tenderness. (The menu promoted them as “choice cut,” and I think my dining partner got the choicer cut).
The skewers showed up late, much to the consternation of our server, so I only got in a couple of tough bites before our entrees arrived. The flavor was fine, but two sauces served with the skewers, a gorgonzola & peppercorn, and a demi-glaze, did help enhance the meat. The skewers were served with onion straws that we kind of treated as a garnish not an edible — mainly because of the timing.
Our other appetizer showed up quickly. The walleye fingers ($10.50) contained fresh, almost sweet fish, but the Parmesan crust was a shade too thick. The tartar sauce proved indispensable.
It should be noted that while I had some criticisms of the meal, my dining companion, and one-time Martha’s Vineyard short-order cook, liked everything we tried.
Under “signature woodfire cooking,” we chose the spit-roasted chicken ($17.50). The gigantic half chicken was a bit imposing, and the flavor, while slightly smoky, didn’t compare to good grocery store rotisserie chicken. Parts of the skin were blackened, while inside, the flesh was kinda pinkish, as the menu noted. The mashed potatoes were standard issue and a light-colored gravy improved them slightly. Some al dente green beans and red pepper strips were also merely serviceable. My dining partner rejoiced in all of it.
He also approved of the crab & shrimp stuffed tilapia ($16.95), particularly the stuffing part. I found the oven-baked fish a little dry on top, the crab and shrimp undefined, and the lemon caper butter sauce sounded more enticing than it was. The kale was blah, and some quartered baby red potatoes also lacked flavor.
One of the meal’s highlights was the vaguely-named “raspberry & fresh pear” ($6.95), under a three-item category separate from appetizers, called starters, that was listed above salads. It turned out to be a perfectly-dressed mixture of greens topped with crumbled feta, toasted almonds, a couple of raspberries and firm but ripe pear slices.
Also noteworthy was the soft, fresh bread that accompanied our meals. It had a crisp crust highlighted by rosemary.
The other big standout was the chevre cheesecake ($5.50), which we almost didn’t order because of my companion’s distaste for goat cheese.
After trying the fluffy slice, he proclaimed it “not too sweet, not too heavy, not too rich,” and added, “people who like cheesecake shouldn’t be put off by the chevre.”
The cheesecake had beautifully textured whipped cream on top and a buttery graham cracker crust on the bottom. It was served with honey-glazed blueberries, minced pear and dried cherries.
That the restaurant, with its aviation theme, was doing such a brisk business so shortly after opening, made me wonder how so many Madison-area diners even knew about it.
It’s not a name brand like Applebee’s or something (although it’s aiming a lot higher obviously), and this is the restaurant’s first foray into Wisconsin. Were our fellow diners all Minnesota transplants?
Partners John Sheehan and Lynn Reimer had been scouting for a Madison site for seven years, Sheehan told me. Looks like the slow, cautious approach netted them the right location.
Sheehan and Reimer also have a second similar restaurant concept, Porter Creek Hardwood Grill, which they opened in Burnsville, Minnesota. They recently broke ground on a second one in Fargo.
In terms of doing a Porter Creek here, Sheehan told me they are going to wait and see how Doolittles does first.
After my initial experience, I think it’s safe to say the coast is clear.