There is, apparently, a big untapped appetite in Madison for sweetbreads, foie gras and eating entire pigs’ heads.
In the weeks since it opened to the public on Sept. 3, Heritage Tavern has been the darling of social media, garnering praise at every scroll. It was featured on the covers of Isthmus and Madison Magazine before it ever served meal one. The place is bulletproof.
Customers can start making reservations when the first staff members come in at 3 p.m., and sometimes chef/owner Dan Fox, 33, handles the calls himself, asking if diners have food allergies or if they are celebrating anything special.
I called on a Saturday afternoon to see if I could get a reservation for that night. The only times left were 5:15 p.m. and 9 p.m. I took the latter and was seated by 9:20 p.m.
Oddly, the space somehow is lacking in character. A friend said it reminded her of a chain restaurant, and there’s some truth to that. A long brick wall in the main dining room, lighted from beneath, is in desperate need of art, something to draw the eye.
The personality from the Underground Kitchen space has been drained out, and any vestiges of the venerable Cafe Montmartre before that are now gone.
There are a few nice touches, too, not least of which are the small pink and white pig plates for bread and complimentary pickled crudités. The fox head logo, probably left over from Fox’s original plan to name the restaurant Fox & Bird, is distinctive and elegant. And the washrooms are simply gorgeous.
Where Heritage really shines is with its service. For such a new restaurant, the waitstaff are incredibly knowledgeable about the ever-changing menu and seem to buy into the whole snout-to-tail movement.
Our server told us that the night’s special, whole pig’s head, had sold out every night that week. (“Selling out” meaning two to five servings per night, she said, when we seemed incredulous.) On two occasions, our waitresses were attentive but never obtrusive.
It must be said that I am not Heritage’s target customer. I am not going to be eating the thymus gland or pancreas of any animal — goose liver either. Growing up, I did eat my share of chopped liver, but I’m just not into eating offal as an adult.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing on the menu for someone like me, it’s just that everything — even items with no organ meat — seems so involved, so over-the-top, with so many ingredients and flavors.
The menu is funny, though, in that there’s an entree of suckling porchetta and seared foie gras in an apple-bacon-truffle reduction, and then in the “snacks” section you’ll find an “old fashioned” ham sandwich.
Another surprise is that the menu is littered with pan-Asian touches. Kimchee, wasabi, miso and Thai eggplant are but a few.
The chili-glazed tempura ($9) under “snacks” was rock solid, particularly the bacon-wrapped cheese curds that were part of it. Just when you thought you knew where to go for the best fried cheese curds in Madison, Fox wraps these babies in bacon! The dish also featured vegetables and nori-wrapped shrimp. The truffled fish sauce that came in a small cup wasn’t helpful, but the chili aioli at the bottom of the plate worked well.
The peanut oil-fried snapper ($28) was excellent, with thinly sliced vegetables in what the menu called a Szechuan peppercorn slaw. The plate also held sticky rice, bacon and adorable beech mushrooms. The creamy lobster curry sauce had a nice amount of spice, but the fish tasted rather dried out around the edges.
The hickory nut soba noodle ($24) was a bit of a muddle, however, with baby bok choy, delicious hen of the woods mushrooms and other vegetables in a sake-mushroom broth. The soy-poached duck egg on top didn’t seem real appetizing with all the rest going on.
Two appetizers didn’t quite work for me. The crisp pork belly & seared sashimi ($14) featured “star anise-crusted marlin,” which was good-quality fish that tasted like someone poured cough syrup over it. I was hoping the fat in the pork belly would have been rendered out, but it was still maybe half fat.
The Wagyu beef & crispy shrimp ($16) featured fried shrimp with the tails on. There’s no problem with that if they’re not completely fried, but once they are, you can’t eat them with confidence. And these were not finger foods. A few slivers of the beef, which were well marinated and had great flavor, were lost amid a heap of dry ramen noodles on top. The “Riesling-macerated cucumbers, summer melon compote,” again, seemed overinvolved.
The heirloom tomato salad ($12) was beautiful with three different colors and sizes of sliced tomato. On top of the tomatoes were salad greens, lemony couscous, green beans, and Parmesan cheese. The “cashew-olive” vinaigrette was ineffectual.
Best, by a county mile, was the Gianduja chocolate tart ($11) with a small scoop of chocolate espresso ice cream. The soft chocolate filling was joined by maple candied hazelnut and caramel sauce.
It worked because it was so simple, so straightforward.