Small plates in nice places: Tempest Oyster Bar
Late and at the bar is the best way to tackle this question mark of a seafood joint.
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.
Tempest Oyster Bar is a swank and somewhat strange experience. Originally a funeral parlor, then converted into the legendary South American-then-Scandinavian-focused Magnus, the building housing Tempest now has a boat and a glorious specimen of a stuffed blue marlin in the atrium, a gigantic seashell one can sit inside, and a menu packed with bivalves, mollusks, and apex predators of the sea. Seafood in a storied Madison restaurant space owned by famed local executive chef Henry Doane? Of course the food-curious in Madison should drop in. But prices are daunting, ranging to the top end of local price points. Gather round for some tips on how to experience this enigmatic marine flesh estuary without rending a paycheck asunder.
Rule number one: sit up at the bar. It's very cool-looking, composed of cut-and-sanded wine bottles, which add a spectral glimmer to the already creatively lit affair. The service is excellent unless Tempest is slammed, and the bartenders are at least as knowledgeable as the floor waitstaff. And there are other reasons to choose the bar, which we'll get into shortly.
Tempest's house cocktails make for a strong start. The Riverboat is Maker's Mark, mint kombucha, lemon, seltzer, and a fresh mint sprig. The Clipper Ship—muddled lime with cucumber, sugar, and grapefruit—is a nice non-alcoholic accompaniment. Both beverages are thoroughly refreshing on a summer night.
The all-but-mandatory next step is two oysters, selected from a robust menu of options, ranged on a matrix from sweet to briny, and large to small. We tried WiAnno, from Cape Cod, served over ice, with a fat wedge of lemon, cocktail sauce, and champagne mignonette (a sauce based on minced shallot, vinegar, and black pepper)—excellent texture and salty snap.
Next up: the lobster roll with pickles, lettuce, and aioli. This update of the classic Maine sandwich adheres to the dish's humble origins nicely, soggy bread and all, perfect for a late-night snack. This one falls more on the side of "filling and delicious" than "fine dining," but it's a noble concession to the hungry belly and the slender wallet.
The fish and corn chowder is your anchor for satiety. Hunks of well-seasoned salmon (sometimes it's marlin) with whole corn kernels and chunks of potato arrive in a satisfyingly huge bowl topped with garlic croutons. Order a side of bread with this (from Madison Sourdough, plentiful, served with sea salt-dusted whipped butter in a bowl) and you are sure to go home sleek, happy, and fat.
Our tab: One Riverboat, one Clipper Ship, two oysters, one lobster roll, one seafood corn chowder: $37.98 before tip.
Planning notes: On Fridays and Saturdays Tempest serves a late-night menu beginning at 10. The Friday late night crowd seemed like regulars, a fairly young crowd, hanging out up at the bar as staff turned down the lights in the restaurant proper.
Also within reach: If wine is the preferred route, Tempest has a nice dinner wine list, and even the cheapest glasses were pretty memorable: the Tinto Negro 2016 Malbec has a nose of rose hips and a thin, austere composition with notes of flint and pomegranate; the Pont Chalet 2016 Pays D'Oc is woody, muscular, and astringent at first, so give it a few minutes as it opens up nicely with oxygen. The Pays D'Oc in particular pairs nicely with shrimp cocktail, plump gulf prawns served in a martini glass over layers of mild cream caper aioli, cocktail sauce, and horseradish with garlic.
Stretch goals: As pleasant as the late night menu experience is, our dinner proper was problematic—which is why sitting up at the bar for happy hour or after 10 is the move. In the dining room, everything is much pricier and there are no guarantees: the blue marlin entree over a pesto and lime aioli base, topped with crunchy fried leeks, could not conceal a fish that was incorrectly sized, improperly cooked, and distasteful enough that we simply couldn't finish it. At $28, that stings.
Someone else picking up the tab? The towers here are designed like Gehry architecture and arrive with a magisterial flourish. The biggest tower ($70) is for a larger party to share: twelve oysters, eight shrimp, eight clams, mussels, snow crab, and a half chilled lobster with a variety of mignonettes, and sauces for splashing on the seafood. The crab entree ($55) is also enticing—1 ½ pounds of steamed king crab. Serious. Those who prefer the flesh of land animals might get a bit giddy at the sight of the 24 ounce T-bone steak ($46).