To get to the hidden bar and lounge beneath Charlie’s on Main, you need to pull a book on the bookshelf between the restaurant and its special event room.
Tug on the book, and the bookshelf becomes a door, yielding to a secret staircase down to the restaurant’s speakeasy, which is open Thursday through Saturday.
The book is “The Long Thirst: Prohibition in America 1920-1933.” Cute, right?
Charlie’s Underground has an enticing list of Depression-era cocktails, mostly different from the shorter list upstairs. At the main Charlie’s, a good choice is the dewdropper ($8) with house-infused rosemary vodka, pomegranate, grapefruit and lime. Refreshingly sweet and tart, this was an inspired cocktail.
A lot about Charlie’s is inspired, and that’s because the chef/owner is Dave Heide of the successful New Orleans’ restaurant, Liliana’s in Fitchburg.
Charlie’s isn’t Cajun, but a straightforward, local food-focused restaurant where you can have an upscale burger, ribeye sandwich on foccacia, or opt for a fine dining-type experience with a $17 pork chop or the $16 bacon-wrapped chicken.
Small plates include the must-have pomme frites ($4), hand-cut, medium-thick and crispy fries served with two extraordinary sauces, a horseradish aioli and a curried ketchup.
Also worthwhile was the wild mushroom bisque ($8), made with three types of mushrooms and roasted leeks. It arrived with unappealing pools of oil on top, but when thoroughly stirred, everything came together.
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“This is just like heaven,” said my companion, who argued, at first, for the whiskey onion soup.
In the beet salad ($8), chunks of golden beets hid amid a tangle of gorgeous greens. Red beets were absent, as were the candied walnuts mentioned on the menu, and goat cheese made up for the lack of dressing. The salad was supposed to be dressed with a champagne vinaigrette, but if it was, we didn’t detect any. We used some of the leftover aioli that came with the frites on the lettuce.
Entrées were delicious, but flawed. The kitchen pulled off its bacon-wrapped chicken ($16) with crisp Nueske’s bacon wrapped around tenderized rolls of chicken breast. The chicken was stuffed with Carr Valley’s mellage, a cheese made with sheep, goat and cow milk.
The chicken sat on a frilly bed of garlic mashed potatoes, and although I knew they weren’t powdered, they had an unpleasant texture. The plate also held delicious wilted spinach. A balsamic reduction made with a 10-year Vom Fass vinegar enhanced all the elements.
The pulled pork pasta ($16) featured RP’s wonderful linguine, a subtle white wine cream sauce, tomato confit, spinach, and Sartori SarVecchio cheese. All that was wonderful, but the pork was too salty, and there was almost as much fat as there was tender meat. Maybe some people like it that way. I don’t.
The night we dined, our server described three desserts. We went with the chocolate truffle cake ($6), a dense slice of cake with a funky and unexpected orange flavor. My tablemate ate most of it, appreciating it more than I did.
As an overall experience, there’s a lot to appreciate about Charlie’s. The food presentation was beautiful. The service was excellent. My friend adored a beer neither of us had seen before, Hollywood nights ($5): A gluten-free and citrusy IPA from Alt Brew, a small Madison startup.
Charlie’s on Main opened last October, where Mason’s on Main used to be. The space was attractive then and it’s attractive now. Where Liliana’s is named for Heide’s 9-year-old daughter, Charlie’s is named after his 6-year-old son.
Heide recently announced that he and his wife Tiffany are expecting their third child. I can’t wait to see the restaurant he names after No. 3.