Kyle Nabilcy is, among other things, a food writer. Jenni Dye is, among other things, a Dane County Board member. We'll be visiting a restaurant, cafe, or bar in each of the county's 37 board districts in a feature we're calling...
The Hunger Danes.
When Jenni and I started this project, we set out to highlight the little guy, the overlooked, the local secret. Frankly, Smoky's Club -- the venerated Madison classic located in District 11 -- seems like none of those things. But what it is , is a great place to take our friend John Kovalic as a thank you for the great Hunger Danes logo you see at the top of every post, which is his terrific creation.
Funny thing, though: between the three of us, we'd made a combined total of two visits to Smoky's. Ever. So maybe "overlooked' is appropriate enough.
District 11 encompasses the Hilldale area of Madison's near-west side, and it's an old neighborhood full of new development. Smoky's is just old; old-school, anyway. Its history goes all the way back to 1953, and it occupies a cultural niche somewhere between steakhouse and supper club -- no salad bar, but a respectable relish crock with carrots, celery, radishes, and green onions on ice. I could have used more radishes; they were good.
I'd been thinking about steakhouse burgers recently, so it was tough to look past Smoky's version to the steaks, but as Jenni reminded me, the steaks are what Smoky's is all about. For John, the hangup was a reticence to order a big heap of any red meat; a rough experience once upon a time gives him pause whenever beef's what's for dinner.
He needn't have worried. His modest filet (even accompanied as it was by two truly immodest breaded shrimp-beasts) was just the right size, a pleasant little fist of tender meat. Jenni's 14-ounce New York strip resulted in some leftovers, as one would expect. No, the portion that would have given anyone pause was the 18-ounce behemoth of a ribeye that arrived on my sizzlingly hot plate.
I think everyone came away pretty happy with the red meat cookery on display. Nothing makes me happier than well-cooked fat, buttery and smooth. (Alternately, nothing makes me sadder than having to re-trim a piece of meat, which I didn't have to do here.) Seasoning levels were right on, and prices were fair for quality and quantity.
We were tipped off by our friend Elliot to make sure to order our hashed browns extra-crispy. We did, and when they arrived, they were family-style (which is fine), quite buttery (also fine), more chopped than shredded (sure, okay), and actually not super crispy (hm.) As Jenni put it, it turns out she prefers her hashed browns extra, extra, extra crispy by Smoky's standards, apparently.
Which is exactly how she made them when cooking up her leftovers for breakfast the next day. Both browns and steak were almost better the second day, she reports. (My wife intended to do the same with my leftovers for my birthday breakfast that next day, except I couldn't keep myself from eating them the night before, after she'd fallen asleep.)
Smoky's is a big damn restaurant. It's easy to whiz by on University and not get an appreciation for how deep it runs. "Seat them in the West Room," the hostess said. There were a couple parties back there (a smaller crowd than we'd expected, given it was graduation day), but they left in short order and it was a little lonely. The way Jenni sees it, she'd sit at the bar for future Smoky's visits. The supper club atmosphere is at its peak up there, and it's a nice bar. You've got to wonder, though, how much the bartenders hate the overwrought ice cream drinks that populate the menu. An old fashioned is the way to go. With the throwback atmosphere at Smoky's, it's damn near eponymous.