The motto "Follow your nose to the Garlic Rose" is printed on the menu at this fragrant restaurant in the middle of Madison, and with good reason. The pavement itself seems permeated with the smell of what writer/restaurateur Alice Waters lovingly called "the stinking rose of the kitchen."
Garlic Rose Bistro has been open for three years, and it is still almost impossible to get a weekend reservation without calling several weeks in advance. Inside the bi-level restaurant, guests wait in a small entrance hall while their table is prepared. The dining area is so cramped that guests at adjoining tables could probably share a menu. The overall atmosphere, though, is pleasant, charming, and lively. Glass tabletops cover black cloths dressed with burgundy napkins, and the walls are faux-painted to create the look of crumbling mortar and brick. Service is casual but very good.
Remember that everything on the menu here includes garlic--even the ice cream. Specials, which rarely change, are listed with their prices on a separate menu. The garlic dining experience starts with a vengeance. A complimentary bowl of Garlic Rose Bread Dip, available as a take-out item, is served with decent bread. Never have I tasted so much garlic in one scoopful of dip, and as a confirmed garlic lover, I think it's wonderful. The appetizers pale by comparison.
The calamari sauté with basil, garlic cloves, and tomatoes is chewy but tasty, and the grilled Portobello mushrooms topped with mozzarella, roasted red peppers, and roasted garlic are drizzled with a tangy roasted-garlic-and-red-wine vinaigrette that offsets the richness of this dish. A pool of garlic-and-white-balsamic-lemon vinaigrette surrounds artichoke hearts stuffed with chopped clams, sun-dried tomatoes, and roasted garlic. Though the dish is a bit messy and the clams overpowered by the seasonings, it's quite good.
West Coast Garlic Chowder is thick, luscious, creamy, and probably my favorite way to start a meal here. Littleneck clams in a white-wine-chili-pepper broth are fine, as is the standard grilled eggplant with tomato sauce and mozzarella. Roasted garlic cloves and French-bread croutons surround Brie and roasted garlic baked in a hollow round of multigrain bread; once we figure out how to tackle it, the person who ordered it has to fight to keep it from the rest of us.
There is a long list of pastas to choose from. Try the capellini with garlic, kalamata olives, tomatoes, roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts, and feta cheese--very good. Other main courses that stand out are the tasty special of tilapia stuffed with lump crabmeat and roasted garlic; a simple broiled salmon fillet topped with fennel, capers, roasted red peppers, and a champagne sauce; and the Garlic Rose boneless breast of chicken stuffed with roasted red peppers, prosciutto, spinach, and mozzarella. The latter is served with Gilroy Potatoes, a.k.a. garlic-flavored scalloped potatoes, which are named for Gilroy, California, the garlic capital of America.
Some main dishes are rather heavy. The Veal Corlea, for instance, is dipped in egg batter, then sautéwith fresh sage and topped with Fontina cheese and roasted-garlic veloutésauce. The pair of Garlic Rose crab cakes bathed in a roasted-garlic résauce are well flavored but seem to have a lot of filler. Filet mignon, marinated, pan-seared, and topped with blue cheese and a mushroom ragoût, is overcooked but pleasantly replaced with a perfectly cooked version; the meat, however, is tough and seems to come from the thick end of the tenderloin rather than the center.
Desserts are less interesting. Tiramisù is fine, almond-cream cake even better. But the garlic ice cream is probably an acquired taste. --V. S.
41 Main Street, Madison (973-822-1178). Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11:30 am to 3 pm. Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 pm; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 pm; Sunday, 4 to 9 pm. No wheelchair access. American Express, MasterCard, Visa. Dinner for two averages $60