Restaurant Review: Food, drinks and view make Fresco a delight

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By Bill Livick/Special to The Gazette
June 11, 2015

MADISON—The rooftop of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Madison is a remarkable place to catch panoramic views of the city. The Capitol dome dominates the skyline, of course, but old church steeples and other historic structures also take on new life when viewed from that height.

The rooftop is also where you'll find Fresco, a restaurant and lounge that offers one of the city's finest and most relaxed dining experiences. Menu prices are on the high side, but the quality of the food and drink makes it a destination for special occasions or simply to turn an average night out into one.

Fresco offers outside dining on the rooftop patio as well as a dining room inside the restaurant that is enclosed by floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides. There's an elevator to transport you to the top of the building, or you can try the glass-enclosed stairway that's sure to leave you short of breath.

One of the real pleasures of al fresco dining—especially atop the museum—is that the noise level that's often a problem in many other dining rooms is eliminated. It's such a simple pleasure to dine and converse at a normal volume.

Although the restaurant/lounge combo has been around for almost a decade, a friend and I dined there for the first time last week. Our server mentioned the menu soon would undergo major changes and, sure enough, Fresco's website and menu were revamped over the weekend.

That's a shame because the first thing I noticed is the seared halibut entrée I'd had Thursday night is no longer on the menu—and it was outstanding. The seared scallops we had as an appetizer also are gone, but there is a new main course listing for seared scallops.

The scallops we had as a first course were very good—three smoky, tender scallops with a crispy cap surrounded by mascarpone polenta, bits of Nueske's bacon and an aged balsamic reduction sauce ($12). The scallops themselves were not as plump as some I've had, but their flavor was spot on.

The scallops listed as an entrée on the new menu come with beluga lentils, cumin, summer vegetables, orange sabayon sauce and sunflower sprouts for $26.

As mentioned, the seared halibut ($27) is no longer an option, but it was terrific. The fish came as two small, impossibly light and flaky filets resting on a bed of black lentils with steamed asparagus. The portion of lentils was a bit much for the rest of the plate, but the combination of flavors and textures as a whole worked brilliantly.

My companion was almost as enthusiastic with her order of ricotta gnocchi ($18), which featured fresh vegetables and gnocchi in a creamy, brown butter herb sauce. Again, lots of flavor and, in this case, a serving generous enough for a satisfying lunch the next day.

The gnocchi made the cut and appear on the kitchen's new menu, albeit in an altered recipe. Now they are pan-seared and served with sweet corn, arugula and pesto.

In perusing the new menu, I noticed dessert items have not changed. That's good news for diners who appreciate a creamy mousse with a deep chocolate flavor ($7).

The dish we shared was billed as being topped with chili whipped cream. While we couldn't detect the chili element, we weren't complaining. The mousse itself was airy and light with a rich mouth feel.

Fresco is also popular for its short cocktail menu. This includes my favorite: the Madison Mule—kombucha with ginger, a touch of lime and mint, and 44° North vodka ($8).

Dining on the roof of the art museum under a sunny sky—or while watching the sunset—almost inevitably puts people in a good mood. That seemed to carry over to Fresco's wait staff, as well, as we were served by a few people, and each was friendly and professional.

If you've never visited Fresco, the next few months offer plenty of opportunities to create a special dining experience.

Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.

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