Tim Thompson has a knack for scouting out good locations outside of Downtown Madison for his restaurant/pubs, and Bear & Bottle is no exception.
The North Side establishment is similar to three of the other popular ventures he runs with his business partner and former wife, Stephani Dalbesio: The Free House Pub in Middleton, the Flying Hound in Fitchburg, and Waypoint Public House in Monona.
This one — which Thompson and Dalbesio own with two partners — sits in the village of Maple Bluff in the same shopping center as Manna Cafe, with which it shares a parking lot. That lot has been filled regularly since Bear & Bottle opened May 8.
Thompson’s intent was a menu with a West Coast sensibility, and that can be seen in the large number of salad options and unique greens. But, a Caesar salad ($9) suffered because it featured the bitter core of a butterhead lettuce presented like a wedge salad, with four separate chunks. The lettuce had a light drizzle of dressing applied more for style than taste.
If California-style food is characterized by healthfulness and the use of fresh vegetables, only a few of the appetizers here apply. When we talked in early May, Thompson said to expect some Asian and Latin flavors, and the appetizers we chose fell into both categories.
I was surprised when my friends gushed over the crab rangoon nachos ($13). The giant wontons were mostly thick, fried pillows of air with a hint of cream cheese and a whiff of crab. They were sprinkled with a sweet chili sauce and topped by a lightly-dressed coleslaw dominated by red-cabbage that didn’t have much taste. I guess they’re called nachos because their shape resembles a tortilla chip and because they have a topping, even though the topping is cabbage.
I much preferred the street corn ($6), two mini ears slathered in spicy mayo, with cotija cheese and salty tajin Mexican seasoning. The grilled cobs were served room temperature with cilantro on top and lime on the side.
A California chicken club sandwich ($11) was notable because it was served on toasted Madison Sourdough rosemary sandwich bread, which added a bonus flavor. Inside was a thin, smoked chicken breast, bacon, scallion crema, Swiss cheese, avocado, lettuce and tomato. With all that going on, it still managed to taste pretty basic.
Sandwiches come with a choice of french fries or tossed greens. For an extra $1.50, customers can substitute sweet potato fries or couscous salad. The couscous salad is worth the up charge. It got most of its flavor from pockets of goat cheese, but also had tomato, chives, cucumber, and raw mushrooms.
The highlight of our Friday night meal was the grilled cod ($12.95) because it was nicely cooked and seasoned. The moist, tender fish was served with tartar sauce, but didn’t need it. The house coleslaw, same as on the rangoon, mostly went uneaten.
The four Friday fish options come with the same side choices as the sandwiches. We went with the elegant tossed greens and appreciated the red wine vinaigrette served on the side.
For dessert, it’s hard to beat the giant, homemade chocolate chip cookie ($6) and its accompanying glass of Sassy Cow whole milk.
My experience with Bear & Bottles cocktails was mixed. The West Coast margarita ($8.50) with tequila, raspberry liqueur, passion fruit syrup, lime and habanero tincture was a strong-tasting muddle. My friend, though, loved it and its hint of pepper and was more than happy to take it off my hands.
The North Side punch ($7.50), meanwhile, was a joy. Its coconut rum, extra dry rum, ginger-honey simple syrup, pineapple and lime combining for a fruity summer sipper.
My other friend was delighted to find a glass of wine, a red blend from Washington state, for $6.50. (We arrived at 5:45 p.m. to beat the crowds and got the happy hour price, which was $1 off.)
Bear & Bottle’s general ambiance is going to attract people, especially at this time of year, because not only is there a front patio, which sits — not so idyllically — next to traffic on busy North Sherman Avenue, but customers can experience the outdoors from the main dining area. It gets an open-air feel when the weather cooperates, thanks to five large, garage-style doors that can be rolled up.
On Fridays, because of all the openness, the smell of fish wafts down the street, giving fish lovers a preview of the deliciousness in store.