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Small plates in nice places: Forequarter

Small plates in nice places: Forequarter

Keeping the tab in check at one of Madison's culinary landmarks. (Photo: Beef carpaccio. All photos by Adam Powell.)

 Madison has wonderful fine-dining restaurants, but they mostly come with hefty price tags. In this column Tone Madison will explore ways to get you into the better restaurants and get you out without breaking your bank. Of course, even when eating light, remember to tip heavy.

In the last few years Madison has been banging the gong of the nation's restaurant consciousness (as adjudicated by national awards) with real force, and the "New American" cuisine at Forequarter is a big part of that. With all that in mind, ambling into this much-hyped near East side lair is pleasantly surprising: It's pretty goddamn chill for such a big deal.

Forequarter, established in 2012, has an unpretentious ambiance and a relaxed vibe. Downtempo music gently bounces off a rustic northwoods theme, with a stuffed bear on the wall, only eight tables and a bar, a gold-hued ceiling, whirring fans on this culinary anchor of a rapidly-changing stretch of East Johnson.

The menu changes as often as weekly and is nicely varied, with lots of vegetarian options but a  consistent focus on meat, as the restaurant is one arm of a butchery octopus. Jonny Hunter founded Underground Food Collective  originally as a meat supplier for restaurants, eventually opening a storefront on Willy Street and along the way surviving a catastrophic fire that destroyed the excellent Underground Kitchen downtown in 2011. The resilient crew has since hardened into the backbone of Madison's culinary scene with a James Beard nomination for best chef in the Midwest along with three other nominations from that prestigious national arbiter of excellence in dining.

Pull up a chair at the bar or one of the small tables, then order a basket of bread and a beverage. Bread is rich in an old-country style, flanked with a tub of butter dusted with coarse salt. A martini in an old-style glass is a good starter, but can be vermouth-heavy, so make your preferences known when ordering.

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Forequarter's beef carpaccio is a study in textural and taste contrasts: refreshing, light, summery, drizzled with dill, dotted with roasted fresh apricots—so tangy and vivacious it's magic—with salted crackers.

Charcuterie boards come with your choice of meat; we chose the Calabrian salami. This is Spanish-style pork salami with paprika, red wine, cayenne pepper, ancho chile powder, habanero, red pepper, sugar, ghost chili powder, and beef casing. The meat itself comes in a small ramekin topped with cooled fat for dipping. Surrounding the salami: pickled vegetables (snap peas, radish, parsnip, red onions, haricot verts), olives, a spicy whole grain mustard and a smooth yellow mustard, all singing crisply.

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Our tab: One Hibiscus gingerade, one martini, one charcuterie board, one beef carpaccio, one bread & butter: $44.75 before tip.

Planning notes: There's no longer a mad scramble at 5 p.m. to get seating at Forequarter on Friday nights, as was the case for quite some time after opening, because it's a small room. Forequarter takes reservations now, so you no longer have to deploy the strategy of beers at the Caribou and then a dash across the street to claim a table (though that's still fun). In warm weather there's outdoor seating on the sidewalk, but traffic is heavy and near and you'll miss out on the intangible allure of Forequarter's appealingly  relaxed interior.

Also within reach: Happy hour starts at 4:30 p.m. and goes until 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. The double cheeseburger ($5) is decent enough and garnished with tangy pickled cucumbers, though surprisingly non-spectacular, a bit of a puzzlement. It's … a burger. Happy hour tacos ($5) come in a pair; a nice combo is one beef and one vegetarian taco. Here we were delighted to bite into a crisped hard shell, warm and yielding to the teeth but retaining the essential structural integrity so the tacos don't fall apart. Two year aged Hook's cheddar crackers ($4) weren't what they were cracked up to be; instead of what you would expect, the cheese is melted in, producing a kind of high-end Cheez-It. Happy hour is a good way to get the lay of the land and get out cheaply, perhaps while examining the full menu and plotting for a return visit. Cheeseburgers and tacos are also on the late night menu Monday through Saturday from 9 to 11:00 p.m.

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Stretch goals: If chilled oil-poached filet of trout with farro and fennel salad ($23) sounds like the jam, you're in the right place. Butter-basted bavette steak with seared broccoli is yours for someone else's $34. Or go easy on the tap with delightful ricotta dumplings with asparagus, shiitake, and sunflower seed pistou for a mere $18.

Calvin Johnson ignores the ogre

Calvin Johnson ignores the ogre

Daddie bear

Daddie bear

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