Madison restaurateur raises, cures his own pigs

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By Bill Livick, Special to The Gazette
Thursday, January 2, 2014

MADISON—Madison media buzzed with excitement last year when Heritage Tavern opened in the building that used to house Cafe Monmartre and Underground Kitchen, which met its demise in a June 2011 fire.

Early in 2013, chef Dan Fox announced his intention to open a new, upscale restaurant at the East Mifflin Street location, a block or two east of Capitol Square.

Fox is well known among Madison-area foodies for his devotion to local ingredients and raising heritage-breed pigs. His resume includes running the kitchen at Madison Club for several years, as well as cooking in Europe and Chicago.

Heritage Tavern was an all-encompassing effort for Fox—from designing and building the new kitchen and dining room, to creating a menu, to staffing the restaurant and hiring a bar manager.

The result is a beautiful restaurant that serves outstanding food with a nod to Asian flavors.

Fox's tavern is divided into two narrow rooms. On the left side, visitors encounter a handsome new bar that runs the length of the room to an open kitchen. Tables and booths occupy the other half of that room. A similar room on the right side serves as a larger dining room, which is dimly lit with music playing softly in the background. It was packed on the Friday night we visited, yet it didn't feel crowded. The vibe is friendly and casual, yet elegant.

Heritage Tavern's menu is pricey and comprises items served in large portions, making them ideal for sharing, in such categories as meat and cheese, appetizers, snacks and entrees. The dessert menu is a feat all its own.

We passed up the meat and cheese options, which include a charcuterie plate ($18), a cheese plate ($16), a plate of truffled pig with Yorkshire pudding ($18) and a plate of Wagyu beef tartare ($12).

Instead, we sampled a few amazing appetizers. A plate of grilled octopus and Mangalitsa lomo salad ($13) somehow managed to combine all of the taste sensations other than sweet—sour, salty, bitter and umami—onto a single plate.

Lomo is a dry-cured tenderloin of pork that's popular in Spain. The kitchen uses lomo from Fox's own Mangalitsa pigs and combines it with octopus tentacles that have been cooked for 18 hours, our server explained, rendering them tender and delicious without being dry or rubbery. The rest of the plate included red oak lettuce, fried potatoes, Spanish olives, shaved fennel and tuna-chive aioli.

Tasting that appetizer alone would have been worth the trip to Heritage Tavern. But it was only the start of impressive things to come, including a roasted beet salad ($12) that included bits of slow-roasted pears, aged goat cheese, macadamia nut butter, marinated figs and market greens with a drizzle of dark chocolate amid generous chunks of roasted beets. Simply delicious.

We were just as pleased with a bowl of coconut-squash-poblano pepper soup ($9). Served in a portion designed for sharing, the rich soup contained small pieces of Jonagold apple, fried chickpeas and toasted pumpkin seeds in base of pureed squash and coconut-riesling cream.

As a side to go with the soup, we took our server's advice and ordered a plate of candied bacon with slow-roasted nuts and dried, spiced cranberries ($4.50). Thick chunks of sweet bacon complemented the sweet flavor of nuts and cranberries, although we agreed this was the least remarkable of the things we ordered.

We shared one entree: Wagyu chuck roast ($29), which included braised Wagyu beef, buttered baby carrots, mushrooms and wilted kale with roasted garlic-potato puree and a red-wine reduction sauce.

The meat was so tender we could have eaten it with a spoon, and the stew of ingredients that accompanied it was ideal.

The restaurant also offers an extensive list of wines, along with a host of fancy mixed drinks put together by a talented mixologist.

And then there's the list of desserts, which are also on the expensive side.

We opted for the Gianduja chocolate tart with maple-candied hazelnuts, caramel sauce, cocoa nibs and chocolate espresso ice cream ($11). Gianduja, a sweet chocolate from Italy containing about 30 percent hazelnut paste, is made for a rich, decadent chocolate tart. The melted caramel and chocolate espresso ice cream pushed the dessert to the limits of decadence, yet it felt like a fitting way to conclude the most remarkable meal we've had in a long time.

Service was very good, as well. Our server was knowledgeable and friendly, if a bit overworked. He occasionally disappeared for what seemed like a long time, which slowed down what proved to be quite a slow meal. With food this good, slow and deliberate is definitely the right course to take.

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