The Clarion

Diane’s Delicious Diner delivers delight

Pete Zenz / Clarion

Pete Zenz / Clarion

Pete Zenz, Contributor

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I don’t normally spend $25 for lunch, so my expectations were pretty high going into the simulated restaurant experience at Diane’s Delicious Diner (formerly the Gourmet Dining Room), located at Madison College’s Truax campus. Fortunately, I was not disappointed.

The meal consisted of three courses, with two options for each course and an additional vegetarian option for the main course.

My meal started with a steaming caramel macchiato from the full-service barista, followed by fresh baked ciabatta bread with a side of lemon-parsley butter. Both were perfect.

While waiting for the first course, I took in the surroundings – a strange mix of classy table settings, moderate décor of lake and farm paintings on canvas, and a full-length wall consisting of glass overlooking the plethora of students in the main cafeteria dining area. It wasn’t unpleasant, and I quickly got over feeling like an animal at the zoo.

Another interesting feature was two large-screen monitors hanging from the ceiling, where you could watch the action in the kitchen, without sound. It looked a lot calmer and cleaner than the kitchens I’ve worked in. A trip to the facilities affords one a mini tour of the large kitchen, which was immaculate.

From the salad options, I chose the endive and arugula salad with pears and Marcona almonds. Marcona almonds are “A plumper, sweeter almond from Spain,” according to the description on the placemat-style menu. I’ll have to take their word for it, as the almonds were finely chopped in the salad, which was served naked. This seemed a little odd initially; however, the salad had plenty of flavor in its natural state and was not dry in the least.

The pan-fried and braised pork sounded wonderful, and I have no doubt its accompanying mushroom bread pudding was fabulous; but, as I am not a big mushroom fan, I opted for the pomegranate-glazed quail, with butter-braised radish and kohlrabi and a scallion “potato cake.”

The pomegranate gave the quail a sweet flavor without being overly fruity. The quail appeared to be a full quarter. It was not at all gamey, and was moist and tender, if lacking a bit in substance. If I was at home, I would have picked it up and gnawed the bones clean – but it just didn’t seem proper in the rather elegant setting of the dining room. The radish was sliced thin and looked like pink, pickled ginger; the kohlrabi was cut into small cubes.

Not being a fan of many cooked vegetables, I was a little leery. It turned out to be quite good, the radish giving it a mild peppery flavor. The potato cake was really the only lackluster part of the meal. I was expecting something like a potato pancake. It turned out to be hash browns; not bad, but nothing to get excited about.

For dessert, I ordered the panna cotta, another item defined on the menu: “An Italian dessert of sweetened cream thickened with gelatin and molded.” This was topped with a fresh blueberry compote and Linzer cookie crumbs.

The panna cotta itself turned out to be frozen (ice cream, more or less), a pleasant surprise. The flavors were perfectly complimentary, and just the right amount – although I could easily have been talked into a second helping.

The student server was friendly and efficient. The students of the culinary program rotate between waiting tables and cooking on different days.

Chef Paul Short, the Culinary Arts Department Chair, began his tenure in food service at age 14. He was privileged to hone his craft through an apprenticeship at Hyatt Regency hotels, including 12 years at their flagship facility in Chicago. He has been teaching at Madison College for 24 years. His favorite thing to cook is anything using fresh local in gredients, which he makes a point to purchase as much as possible.

The menu varies considerably, though it is somewhat confined in order to cover the scheduled curriculum; hence, there was no soup option during this visit, which I would very much have liked.

While the name “Diane’s Delicious Diner” strikes me as a little “cheesy,” the simulated restaurant was named for Diane Ballweg, who visits regularly. According to Short, Ballweg’s generous contributions have enabled the program to expand and be more versatile.

My check came with a tasty little surprise: a dark chocolate truffle – as good as I’ve had anywhere – from the Madison College bakery. It came in a classy gold-lined (colored) box that looked like a mini Chinese takeout container; a very nice touch. The servers do not keep tips, but tips are welcome and are used for program scholarships and other pertinent events.

Overall, I was more than satisfied. Not a cheap lunch, but worth every penny.

The diner is open, by reservation only, Tuesday through Thursday, from Sept. 26 to Nov. 22. Service starts at 12 p.m. and lasts about an hour and a half. $25 plus tax is the standard fee. Items can also be purchased ala carte for $8.50 apiece.

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Diane’s Delicious Diner delivers delight