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Comfort begins at home – Isthmus


At Lola’s Hi/Lo Lounge, the sound system is constantly turning out some well-curated slice of vinyl to take your brain somewhere else, but it’s only part of the experience.  

The global menu is shaped by Madison chef and Lola’s co-owner Evan Dannells. Dannells, also chef/owner at Cadre on the near west side, says he’s spent roughly half his time at Lola’s since it opened last November. He makes all the dumplings, and facilitates the work that Cadre’s kitchen does — the more complicated components are made there, not in Lola’s smaller, more service-focused kitchen. Dannells says he’s been having “a lot of fun” unleashing “the more playful side” of his creativity. 

At Cadre, and during a previous stint at downtown’s Lucille, Dannells has shown an eye for international comfort foods. But at Lola’s, comfort begins at home. The menu starts with a quartet of “snacks,” all American. Lola’s fried cheese curds are gooey and fresh. Back in February, they were generously proportioned perhaps to a fault. They have since been reined in. The batter on the beer-battered fries is restrained; they’re as close to matchstick as battered fries can get.

I can’t say enough about the deviled eggs, among the best I’ve ever had. The garnish of bacon bits and house potato chips added just the right textural pizzazz. I had to share because I was dining with my wife, but I didn’t want to. Love is sacrifice.

The dumpling section of the menu is where it’s at. Simple and charming lamb and potato pelmeni have been replaced with a beef version with the introduction of the spring menu. Chinese pork and chive dumplings have a nice bite to them, both in texture and in spice, and seem to be positioned as the signature variety. The vegan mushroom wontons delivered delicate flavor on their own, but were amplified by an accompanying black garlic broth. All dumplings arrive in comfortably shareable portions, so it’s an ideal section of the menu for the cozy, boisterous parties filling Lola’s cushy half-moon booths.

Pizzas are tavern-style, with a crackery crust featuring a few wavy bubbles around the edge. I couldn’t resist the seasonality of the bechamel-based chicken bacon ramp pie, but it was the ranch-inflected bechamel that dominated. There are five house varieties and a pizza of the week. I’d eagerly give a red sauce recipe a try.

A little less shareable are three pasta dishes. I was happy with the first iteration of “Midnight Pasta,” heavily seasoned with lemon, capers and SarVecchio cheese (the menu shift now has it in “version 2.0,” with sun-dried tomato, basil, red pepper flakes, parmesan and ricotta). A spicy dandan noodle is still on the menu with only small changes, but I found that the current noodle choice — a very skinny ramen-esque noodle — turned sodden and clumpy with an excess of chili oil. The low light level in most of the Lola’s space makes such an oil-heavy dish a marked drip risk, especially if you eat at the bar.

Finally, sandwich-focused “tavern baskets” are a way to make sure there’s something for every appetite and solo diners, but these sometimes fall short. If you call a burger the “Royale with Cheese,” I expect it to resemble a Quarter Pounder (like the Pulp Fiction reference of the name) but it was more like a smashy Big Mac, minimally seasoned and wildly overpowered by the optional bacon. A now-retired katsu chicken sandwich was a fine enough chicken sandwich; it’s been replaced by a ‘Bama chicken sandwich with Alabama white sauce; there’s also a shrimp po’boy.

Dishes are marked vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free. Vegans will have the toughest time, as many of the vegetarian dishes include cheese. There are a couple of salads. Gluten-free pizza crust is available for a $3 upcharge. There’s also a kids’ menu, with a burger, buttered noodles and a pizza roll.

The music, the energy of the crowd, the fun drinks and eclectic menu — Lola’s is a social experience, and the best parts of the menu are those that enable that shared experience. And if you were to end the night with the delightful (and big enough for two or three) miso strawberry blondie sundae? Now you’re really getting somewhere. 


Lola’s Hi/Lo Lounge

617 N. Sherman Ave.

608-888-2023; lolasmadison.com

4 p.m.-midnight Sun.-Tues. and Wed.-Thurs., 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Fri.-Sat.

$5-$20




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