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Fish Type: Lake Perch (AYCE)     Price: $14.00

Overall, I would recommend this Fish Fry.

Fish Score: Excellent
Potato Score: Good
Tartar Score: Fair
Bread Score: Poor
Miscellaneous Score: Good

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Comment: As much as I would like to say that these are Fish Fry reviews and nothing more, that fact remains that they are basically becoming chronicles of my life. While I pretty much remember elements of each and every Fish Fry, there are times when I’ll read an old review and it will trigger a more poignant memory of the experience. Usually it is something funny uttered by a friend, or whatever happened to be on the TV in the bar, rarely, if ever, is it about the actual food. After all, eating is a necessity, but spending time with your friends is the true spice of life. Hell, that is how we happened to fall into this racket in the first place - relaxing on Friday night with our friend Gabe, and hitting up the supper club for a good Fish Fry after a long week at work.

It just so happened that some of Gabe and I’s friends were in town, and when this crew blows in they like to spend extended hours in the Union Terrace/State Street area. Since they were downtown anyway, and I recently heard the Orpheum had changed up their fish offering, I knew what needed to be done. Before I could even get a hold of the gang, Gabe sent me a text, and set the plan in motion: Orpheum ASAP, it said.

Since the crew was already on State, I busted ass to get down there as quickly as possible. It just so happened that my haste was unnecessary as the wait at the Orpheum (san-reservation) easily gave me enough time to join them and enjoy a Spotted Cow before the meal. As we all stood around the bar we kept noticing that a large table had opened up and been setup for more diners. This had to be us, we all thought. The wait staff was running around like a bunch of chickens with their heads cut off, so we had no idea if it was indeed ours or not, but waited patiently for the girl to come over and confirm it. Roughly 30 minutes after I showed up (and 1.25 hours after the “reservation” was made) we were finally seated. At this point we were all drenched in hunger and more than ready to get this AYCE rolling.

As the waitress made her way around the table it was clear that most of these good ol’ Wisco folks had shown up for the $14 AYCE lake perch. Out of the 12 in the group, almost everyone put in for the special which made her job a bit easier. A couple of the Fish Fry faithful also ordered the potato pancakes which are served as an appetizer, but are not available as a side option for the Fish Fry (boo). Once the orders went in, about 15 minutes or so passed before the first belt of fish hit the table. Luckily for me, mine was in this clique.

Usually if I am in a big group like this I will wait until everyone has their food before imbibing, but this is a Fish Fry, and time must not be wasted. I dove right in, grabbed a hunk of perch, and plunged it waist deep into the tartar. At first bite it was clear, this lake perch is great. It was extremely delicate and flaky while being coated in a flavorful, crispy batter. The first plateful of six fillets was nowhere near enough to handle my appetite and I quickly re-upped. The second helping contained three more of the freshwater beauties, which were equally good, if not even a little better than their predecessors.

While the perch was plentiful and delicious, its pal the tartar sauce was equally plentiful, but not equally delicious. For some reason (perhaps popular demand, but I doubt it) they have reverted to the ultra-dilly sauce of yesteryear. While it doesn’t taste awful per se, the ranch-y mix does little to help the fish which actually probably tasted better without it.

As far as sides go, the Orpheum is apparently pro-America and doesn’t give a French fry option. The American fries they do serve were surprisingly good, especially since I am not a huge fan of the home-style potatoes. The potato pancakes, which I also got to try, were much better and would be a phenomenal addition as a side choice. As it is, they are a standalone appetizer, which is nice, but when I’m already spending $14 on the AYCE Fish Fry I don’t really want to add on a $6 appetizer, you know?

You figure that since you are dropping a decent amount of coin they would at least throw a slice or two of bread in there, but for some reason the Orpheum has neglected this very basic Fish Fry staple. The raw cabbage coleslaw certainly didn’t make up any ground, as the stuff was flat out not tasty. I did eat a good portion of it, but almost begrudgingly as I waited for more of the AYCE fish to appear.

In general, the service at the Orpheum is spot-on, but for whatever reason, they were out of their element on this visit. I mentioned the excruciating wait above, but once we were seated things didn’t get much better. Sure we had a large party, but that is no excuse for bringing the kid’s food last (we had two little ones with us) AND forgetting the veggie dish on the plate warmer altogether. She did do an admirable job of making sure the AYCErs were satisfied, so I will give her credit there, but by and large, the service was below average.

A graph of this Fish Fry would look something like the stock market circa 2008. The fish itself was above reproach, and would constitute the peak of the curve. The negative slope would then begin as you move down the x-axis to the potatoes which were not bad, but certainly not on the same level of the perch. From here, a precipitous decline would ensue as the dilly tartar sauce would indicate the collapse in the market. This free fall would be followed by the raw slaw further down the curve which would finally bottom out with the complete lack of bread. The hit-and-miss service would be finishing touch and signify the depth of the recession and how bad it has really gotten.

Even with all the shortcomings this is still a recommendable Fish Fry, and I have to imagine if we had a group of two instead of 12 things would have gone much smoother service-wise. The Orpheum is a great place and they are really trying to step-up the Fish Fry game, which I can totally appreciate, even if there is a misstep here and there. Thankfully, we had enough people around to keep the night lively and interesting, even with some delays in the action. Overall, we still had a pleasant experience and enjoyed some good fish in the company of some good friends, which is really what the Fish Fry experience is all about when all is said and done.
216 State Street
Madison, WI 53703

(608) 255-6005