Can you bear to share? Deviled eggs, probably yes; entrees, diners may wish to hoard.
Dan Fox's Heritage Tavern is far and away Madison's most anticipated restaurant opening this year. Fox -- late of the Madison Club, Chicago's celebrated Everest and local pork celebration SloPig -- piqued Madison diners' anticipation with his headlong devotion to local ingredients, including his self-raised heritage-breed pigs. With a pedigreed young chef, a storied location and all the local press a restaurateur could hope for, the one remaining question is, does Heritage live up to its hype?
Let's start with the space. Heritage's version of the former Cafe Montmartre/Underground Kitchen location is both cozy and elegant. Smart architectural updates include enclosing the front door in a foyer and turning the bar so the patrons face Webster Street, which takes better advantage of the sidewalk-level windows. Vintage details like ceiling rosettes, white hex tile and retro serving pieces add nostalgic charm.
The narrow U-shaped layout can pose seating challenges. On one visit my table was buffeted by foot traffic and cold drafts. On another evening I occupied a cramped space near the front window, prevented from a comfortable posture by the fat pedestal of the table and with no room to move.
Heritage's menu is heavily tilted toward sharing, due both to the first courses' overall heaviness and the generously sized portions. In keeping with chef Fox's reputation as a pork connoisseur, meat eaters will find lots to love, from bacon-wrapped tempura cheese curds to a mild-mannered charcuterie plate. Candied bacon adorns roasted nuts and dried cranberries, while pork trotters sit alongside escargot. Skip the fried mangalitsa and wagyu meatballs -- they tasted mostly of deep-fried crust.
Vegetarians may have the best of things in the starters. An heirloom tomato salad was ethereal in composition but earthy in flavor, with purple basil dotting slices of gold, green and red tomato. You can also get six or a dozen flavored deviled eggs, but unless you're Cool Hand Luke or sharing with friends, six deviled eggs make for a weighty beginning to dinner.
Entrees are where Heritage shines. Asian flavors make a strong showing, especially in the fish dishes, but there are also French and German touches on these pride-of-the-Midwest ingredients. Heritage offers a couple of family-style entrees, either a snapper and lobster combo or an interesting pairing of two proteins (a fried baby goat leg with albacore tuna sashimi, to name a recent example).
The strength of the main courses is in their skillful preparation and satisfying simplicity. A skin-on Great Lakes whitefish filet was perfectly seared and beautifully presented atop creamed grits, greens and piquant artichokes. Pork schnitzel was moist, delicious and generously portioned. While the hickory nut soba noodles, the menu's only vegetarian main dish, were both oversalted and lacking in oomph, the beef rib loin, dripping in dark gravy, was everything you'd want a piece of beef to be: tender, full of umami richness and accompanied by silky mashed potatoes.
Desserts are tightly focused and thoughtfully composed. The gianduja chocolate tart is a chocolate lover's dream, dark and smooth and satisfying. The dessert that will excite you, your server and everyone around you is the Heritage sundae, a 15-scoop sorbet and ice cream behemoth that comes in a pedestal bowl made of ice atop a slab of wood adorned with lavender flowers. Sadly, the combo of tart raspberry, sugary grape, bitter espresso and every other available flavor was not compelling flavor-wise. Still, the looks on the faces of nearby diners when this showstopper arrives at the table make it almost worth it.
When I dined there, Heritage Tavern had been open around a month and a half. Business is already brisk; if you want a reservation in the usual dinner wheelhouse (as opposed to, say, 9:45 p.m.), it's advisable to call a week or two in advance. The place has a happy feel. Perhaps it's the welcoming retro touches, but already it seems right at home tucked there off the Capitol Square.
Returning now to the question of hype, chef Fox and his crew are already doing many things well. Despite the ever-shorter time in most media outlets between opening night and critical review, restaurants -- especially fine dining restaurants -- need time to develop. Heritage may not be perfect yet, but it is good, and brimming with potential.