The unfinished boutique hotel across from Camp Randall Stadium, its windows covered with paper after work stopped in 2009 for financial reasons, stood as a monument to the recession.
This fall, though, HotelRED finally opened. In its dramatic red, white and black lobby is The Wise Restaurant and Bar, a lounge with a small number of tables and a large bar that's edgy yet comfortable — the antithesis of the typical stodgy hotel dining room. More attention could be paid to the exterior: a diagonal and ice-covered concrete step seems to come out of nowhere, promising pratfalls.
The menu is small, a la carte and well-suited for drinks and light food. Many items are meant for sharing, and the "snacks" category includes platters with cheeses and nuts. Meatloaf sliders ($10 for three) are among them, and the old-fashioned mixture of veal, beef and pork was nicely updated with smoked paprika aioli and feathery greens.
An excellent hearts of palm salad ($7) had a piquant citrus dressing with baby lettuce, bell pepper, cilantro and a generous scattering of palm hearts.
On our first visit, things came to an abrupt halt after the snack and salad arrived. After a wait of a half-hour, we asked our server when we might expect the small plates we meant to have as entrees. She told us she forgot to put in the order but was gracious and apologetic.
The wait was worth it. Seared scallops ($11 for a small plate) were perfectly seared and dressed with a curried cranberry oil, and served on mashed Yukon Gold potatoes. The grilled Kahlbi short ribs ($14 for a small plate) with Chinese spices were moist and tender but salty.
On a second visit, an order for two small plates and a side dish was not forgotten, but it still took almost a half-hour for it to arrive. The wait wasn't the only problem. Pot roast ($12) with celeriac mash had a pleasant if slightly salty red wine sauce with onions and carrots, but unevenly-sized cubes of beef were almost fossilized. The steamed butternut squash ($7) was both odd and disappointing. It was served whole and undercooked, with a roasted root vegetable squash the identical shade of orange, and sinewy wilted greens.
Much better was a small piece of grilled Atlantic salmon ($11) on an earthy, creamy wild mushroom risotto with bright green stripes of basil vinaigrette which brought out and balanced the flavors of the fish and the rice.
The olive oil cake ($7), despite the rather unappetizing name, was a good finale due to its lovely blueberry sauce and mascarpone.