From coppa and skirt steak to sausage with sauerkraut, Forequarter is the house that meat built.
Forequarter — also a name for pork shoulder, and the place on the cow where the best steaks come from — is the much-anticipated new venture from Underground Food Collective. The restaurant first opened its doors in mid-June.
Between pop-up rabbit dinners and jaunts to Brooklyn, the collective has passed the time since its first restaurant, Underground Kitchen, burned last summer with catering, classes on butchering and bacon, and a meat CSA.
A nod to this carnivorous activity, Forequarter’s 30-seat space on East Johnson Street feels like a citified hunting lodge. Walls sprout antlers. A duck decoy perches at the edge of the wooden bar. And a stuffed bear — his name is Canape — lunges, mid-growl, near the entrance to the bathrooms.
Madison has been waiting for this place. Now, during the restaurant’s heated early days, the noise and temperatures inside can reach a fever pitch. On weeknights, young professionals crowd in for a strong, smooth Manhattan made with Wild Turkey 101 ($8) or a bracing housemade rootbeer amaro ($6) made with a single large cube of ice hand-cut behind the bar.
Forequarter deserves to be popular. Go, order a Southside (gin, mint, lime, soda: $7), and wait for a table. Forequarter is small, but it is very good, and the Underground co-op knows it.
The menu consists of 17 constantly changing dishes, a mix of seasonal vegetables and Wisconsin-born protein prepared with strong spices and deceptive simplicity.
To start, there is no better bread board in the city than this one ($9). Slivers of cipollini onion draped over softball-size chunks of Madison Sourdough sesame fennel bread, charred and chewy and brushed with herbed oil.
On the side, get both the warm, creamy ricotta and “potted meat.” No relation to the mechanically separated stuff, this was juicy, slow-cooked pork shoulder with herbs. What’s in the pot will change, but it will always be good.
Forequarter’s plates, most larger than appetizers but smaller than typical hunter’s fare, are ideal to share. Dishes cost between $7 (finger-width wedges of summer squash dressed with housemade Worcestershire) and $15 for juicy strips of Fountain Prairie Farms skirt steak, drizzled with chimichurri and served over charred corn amid a tangle of sprouts and flat-leaf Italian parsley.
The prep kitchen’s skill with a cleaver and grinder are in full evidence at Forequarter. Sweet little cherry tomatoes and crisp green beans set off dense, spiced nuggets of ground veal, each slightly bigger than a SuperBall ($13).
White-edged curls of coppa ham (also known as capicola, $12) loved their garnish of ground cherries, tiny strawberries, pickles and coarse mustard, also made in-house. Pork sausage over sauerkraut ($13) tasted like bratwurst that went to finishing school. (If the waitress asks if she can bring you some bread to sop up the juice at the bottom of the bowl, say yes.)
For years, Underground has held a hard line on those “local/sustainable” buzzwords many restaurants pay lip service to. But the kitchen’s dedication to Eating Local is not so stringent that it doesn’t allow for sweet, toasted pecans on roasted spring carrots ($9) or a healthy splash of citrus on shaved fennel.
Vegetables at Forequarter sing. There are tiny fingerling potatoes, no bigger than the tip of your thumb. There are long tendrils of shoots and sprouts that dangle embarrassingly as you wrangle them into your mouth.
Alongside midsummer dishes, the chefs heap spicy pickled spring onions and fried squash blossoms. Spicy “cobblettes” ($8), wedges of roasted corn done Mexican-style, were a perfect marriage of chili heat cut by cool cilantro cream. Heating heirloom tomatoes for a vivid caprese salad ($8) transformed it, ho-hum mozzarella replaced by tangy, pleasantly gritty sheep’s milk Brebis from Butler Farms.
The kitchen’s technique faltered only occasionally. “Roasted” pencil-thin carrots crunched, more raw than cooked. Delicate squash blossoms got lost among batter and frying oil.
Paper thin-sliced pork loin ($12), pink and tender as carpaccio, appeared to be cooked sous vide — in a water bath at a constant, low temperature. The texture was lovely, but everything else on the board, including a roasted eggplant escabeche (pickled peppers), was either too strong or too acidic for the mild pork. The flavors didn’t marry so much as overpower one another.
It’s quite easy (and enjoyable) to rack up a bar tab as high as your food bill. An adventurous wine list crafted by Bob Hemauer bubbles with sparkling Szigeti gruner veltliner ($8, simply fantastic), soave and orange wine (an obscure type made from white grapes).
Bar manager Hasting Cameron crafts creative, aggressively strong cocktails. One blogger called him a mad scientist, but Cameron is playful, too — try the Paloma ($8), made with reposado tequila, grapefruit and smoky mezcal, or a strawberry “slushie” ($8), a blend of overproof rum, white balsamic vinegar and hand-chipped ice.
Forequarter can require a little patience. The font on the menu is squintingly small. With so few seats, they don’t take reservations. And just like at Kitchen, you may get cozy with your neighbor whether you know her or not.
After a few of those pre-Prohibition cocktails, a bill that arrives on an iPod Touch feels jarringly modern. (The app, which some businesses use on iPads, offers a choice of a 15 to 25 percent tip and can send a receipt to your phone or email.)
Dessert at Forequarter was simple and homey — chocolate ice cream topped with fresh whipped cream and tiny currants ($7), a pretty peach blueberry crisp ($8). They’re fine, but they’re not the focus.
Instead, close the meal with strong dark and stormy, made with overproof rum and allspice ($8) or a small glass of 2001 Boal Madeira ($9), ripe as a candied raisin. If you’re already planning your next visit, you’re doing it right.