Dinner and Drinks: Natt Spil

13 Sep

You do know the secret password, right?

What was once “that strange , dark little place next to the Great Dane without a sign” has become one of my favorite places in Madison to grab a bite or a couple drinks, but usually both. I’m not sure how many times I walked by the narrow street frontage, half-noticing the frosted glass windows with warm light glowing through and the faint beat of a DJ. It just didn’t sink in that there was this quirky, hip little restaurant and bar tucked behind the Great Dane on King Street that I had never heard of. They don’t have a sign. They don’t have a website. They don’t have a phone. They don’t take credit. What was this place? Who do they think they are? This is Madison, not Wicker Park. Once I got past the air of pretense, I discovered one of the real gems of Downtown Madison.

Natt Spil is a dark, moody little space – a typical long, narrow space with a bar and small kitchen (with wood oven) hugging one side, with tables hugging the other. Lit by Chinese paper lanterns and adorned with carved wooden walls and strange symbols that combine the aesthetics of steampunk and Lord of the Rings, it’s hard to know what to expect from the menu for an uninitiated newcomer. As you make your way to the back of the house, going up a ramp and passing a makeshift DJ booth, you pass through a hobbit-like round doorway and find a couple small tables surrounded by tree stumps for stools and completely overshadowed by a full-wall photograph of an elderly woman indulging in some sort of pipe. Asian hobbits. That’s the vibe I got from this place the first time I walked in.

Drinks: a single menu pulls double-duty for their extensive drink list as well as food. On the drinks front, Natt Spil offers an impressive list of wines, spirits, specialty cocktails, and local tap beers. A beer man fist and foremost, I must admit to more experience from that end of the bar. The selection, while certainly limited, is rotated routinely and generally offers 4 to 5 taps including a couple Lake Louie and Great Dane beers and a small bottle list of both local and the odd import. My most recent trip allowed me to sample the Great Dane’s new Imperial IPA on tap. The Hilldale location has offered an Imperial IPA as a permanent offering for some time now, but I was not aware of its presence downtown. It may very well be the same recipe and it certainly shared many of the pine and citrus hop notes and sweet-yet-light apricot body of its Hilldale incarnation which I have enjoyed on many occasions.

The specialty cocktails are another area where the creativity of the bar shines through. A few visits ago I tried their High Tea, a light, refreshing drink made with both green tea and house-infused ginger-lemongrass vodkas. They also offer classic if not exactly commonly-offered drinks like the Sazerac, a cocktail based on rye whiskey, absinthe and Peychaud’s bitters.

Dinner: not surprisingly, the menu at Natt Spil is as eclectic as its decor. A traditional appetizer menu is largely replaced here with a selection of dim sum ($3-5), featuring items such as spicy pork and water chestnut shu mai, Thai chicken “lollipops”, Mongolian beef dumplings, as well as mussels by the half ($5) or full pound ($9) served in a wonderful spicy broth, and Mediterranean and Mexican snack plates featuring various tasty spreads and dips. A fine meal can be made mixing and matching from the diverse array of small plates or shared as starters among a larger group.

The selection of main courses is small and no less eclectic than the starters. The standout for me is their intensely flavorful Three Cup Chicken (or Tofu), cooked with generous amounts of fresh ginger, garlic, sesame oil and rice wine, served with jasmine rice and an intensely piquant pickled tomato and cucumber salad. I have ordered this dish enough times to research the recipe (it is actually a fairly traditional Taiwanese dish) and make it for myself at home several times. I’ll be sure to post my recipe here in the near future. Their pulled pork sandwich is a safer choice, but flavorful and served on great French bread. The aforementioned wood-fired oven is put to good use preparing their selection of delicious thin-crust pizzas. The Braeburn apple and Brie is lightly sweet and not everyone’s cup of tea, the Greek Goddess Love Nest is a melange of Mediterranean classics (feta, olives, artichoke, red pepper) and they often have specials that you won’t find on the menu. The crust is so thin that it has a tendency to soak up the liquid in the toppings and get soggy, but the pizza is good enough to scarf down before it gets to that point.

I’ll made an admission here: I want to hate Natt Spil. Its eccentricity can come off as contrived. The layout is cramped; the bench and log seating are more at home around a campfire than an upscale-ish restaurant. It’s dark, it’s loud (especially when the DJs really crank it up). Service is hit and miss. It’s pretty close to the perfect restaurantifiation of your typical Madison hipster. So why don’t I hate it? Well, I love the food and I know I’ll always be able to find a good local beer on-tap; but there are lots of places like that in Madison that offer those things in a much less obnoxious setting. I guess there’s that part of me deep down that wants to hang out with the cool kids. It’s hard work to be hip and Natt Spil never makes it easy on you. I guess the fact that I keep coming back means I’ve passed the test. But you? I’m not so sure you have it in you. So you might just want to head back up the street and put your name in at the Dane. It’s already pretty packed in here.

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5 Responses to “Dinner and Drinks: Natt Spil”

  1. Ellen September 13, 2009 at 4:02 PM #

    I would tell you that this is awesome and you should submit it to the Natt Spil. But they are a bit to cool for that. ūüôā

    Great writing, loved it!

  2. Kathy September 17, 2009 at 8:53 AM #

    Hip, schmip. It’s funner not to try.

    I love Natt Spil – and I have loved the place since Robin introduced me to it three years ago – for the food and drink first, and the atmosphere second. It’s ridiculously good food, especially for the price; if I need lunch the next day, I order the bahn mi, three-cup chicken, or a pizza and try VERY hard not to eat too much.

    The atmosphere, like so many other places, is what one makes of it. I have never sensed the hipster/trendy vibe, but then, any place that has that (in my opinion) is a place I don’t frequent anyhow. To me, Natt Spil has always felt like a place where people who know what Good Food is (and who know what’s good for their pocketbooks) go to eat. It’s a bonus that there’s a warm, inviting brick oven and soul on the turntables.

    (On a side note, anyone who thinks I am “hip” [Homerbag, I’m looking at you] needs to get to know me. A farmer’s daughter living downtown on a shoestring is not exactly “hip”. I think.)

  3. Amy September 20, 2009 at 6:20 PM #

    I’ve always wanted to try this place! It comes up in Urban Spoon a lot, but I never knew where it was. That’s in walking distance for me. Thanks to your review, I hope to get myself over there soon.

    And the apple & brie pizza sounds delicious. I had brie & strawberry jam crostini at a wedding this weekend. I planted myself by one of the doors to get them when the servers came in and out.

    • 43north89west September 20, 2009 at 9:07 PM #

      Yeah, like I said, I’m not sure how many times I walked by on the way to the Essen Haus or Come Back before I stopped to see exactly what it was. Now I’m there a couple times a month. Enjoy!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Obsession: Three Cup Chicken « 43north/89west - May 5, 2010

    […] I mentioned in my early piece on Natt Spil, their Three Cup Chicken (or San bei ji) is one of those dishes that worms its way into your head […]

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