The new Regent Street restaurant Sweet Home Wisconsin’s name is a spin on “Sweet Home Chicago,” and one of the first things that greets customers is a painting of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in their personas as Jake and Elwood Blues.
The food is a mostly successful mix of Wisconsin and Chicago.
Local artist Dan Fransee drew and then painted the Blues Brothers, said Brett Best, 39, who opened the comfortable, intimate restaurant and bar March 15 with Lexy Frautschy, 35. The men met while working at Ian’s Pizza. Incidentally, Fransee was behind most of the art at both Madison Ian’s locations.
“Our name, Sweet Home Wisconsin, is a play off of Sweet Home Chicago, so we had to have the Blues Brothers up there,” said Best, who has been a restaurant consultant for the past five years.
The menu also pays tribute to Chicago food in the form of a Chicago dog, as well as an “Abe Froman’s Polish sausage.” Abe Froman is an inside joke referencing the mythical sausage king of Chicago whom Ferris impersonates in the classic 1986 movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
Never fear, Wisconsin, there’s also a Wisco dog, which is an Angus beef frank served on a poppy seed bun. There’s also the “big ol’ brat” and a ballpark chili dog.
Unfortunately, there was nothing fancy about the “fancy francheezie dog” ($11), but at least the plump frank was made with quality Angus beef. The menu said the supposedly decadent dog would be wrapped in bacon and deep fried, but the bacon was so insignificant we had to pull the whole thing apart to make sure it was there.
There was also no indication the hot dog had been deep fried, which was fine with me. But we were left wondering what a deep-fried hot dog would taste like. Maybe it should be battered for full deep-fried effect. The hot dog was smothered in queso blanco, topped with shredded cheddar, and served on a poppy seed bun.
“An $11 hot dog? I could do better at home,” said my friend, whose idea it was to order the francheezie.
“We have to order the most over-the-top thing,” he said before ordering, but the francheezie really wasn’t over the top. It was more of a whimper than a bang.
From the burger section, the garlic guitar lick burger ($10) — music is a big theme on the menu — turned out to be the more enjoyable meal, made with the best of what Madison has to offer: a third-pound beef patty from Knoche’s butcher shop and a brioche bun made by Madison Sourdough. The burger also sported whiskey-braised onions, Muenster cheese and garlic aioli. The flavors were somewhat subtle, so I added ketchup and mustard, a move that was met with scorn by my companion, who didn’t think the burger needed an extra boost.
He, meanwhile, went crazy for the Wisconsin cheese curds ($7), which get top billing on the menu for good reason. The white cheddar curds come from Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery in northwestern Wisconsin, and they are hand-battered with a very light touch. My friend called them the best he’s ever had. They came with a wonderful Sriracha ranch dipping sauce, but there are eight other dipping sauces to choose from.
We tried the cilantro lime sour cream sauce with an order of crisp, hand-cut fries ($5), and it mainly tasted like sour cream. The other flavors were extremely faint. A roasted red pepper aioli ($1.50 for extra sauce) had much more flavor. The fries themselves came with a choice of seasoning, including garlic Parm, where both ingredients were nearly undetectable. The red pepper aioli for dipping made all the difference.
The pub chips that came with both the hot dog and burger, however, were not worth the bother. They were nice and crisp, but would’ve tasted better heated up.
Adding ginger to tomato soup ($4/$6) was an inspired idea and distinguished Sweet Home Wisconsin’s tomato soup from so many others. Its Parmesan cheese topping further distinguished it. But temperature was also a problem here; it was barely lukewarm.
When the sausage restaurant OSS, in the same spot until late last year, closed, one of its owners said it suffered from too narrow a focus. Sweet Home Wisconsin expands on what OSS did with a more wide-ranging concept and menu.
“We have branded ourselves as a craft casual public house,” Best said. “We serve craft cocktails, craft beers, and craft pub food. But we provide a casual and fun ambiance. Upscale but not uptight.”
Best and Frautschy kept two of OSS’ TVs and added three. All were tuned to sports on our visit, as the restaurant is also positioning itself as a place to watch sports. When you’re on Regent Street, you need to get with the program.
The partners have also kept a cool, industrial, steam punk art installation from OSS between the bathrooms, which was good to see.
Besides its creative sausage sandwiches, OSS was known for its curds. Sweet Home Wisconsin will soon be known for them, too.