New restaurants in the Madison area seem to open and close at an alarming rate. But a friend and I recently visited one that got started last October, and we are betting it will have a long and prosperous presence near the corner of Allen and Regent streets on the city’s near west side.
The Heights is the latest endeavor of Underground Food Collective, a group of chefs and restaurateurs that has been active in the food scene for more than a decade. On its website, the collective says its mission is “thoughtful and approachable preparations of the finest ingredients.”
That certainly seems to be the case at The Heights, which features simple recipes served in a clean, sleek dining room that is modern and minimalist. The long, narrow room has many large windows providing natural light that illuminates blond wood tables and floors, beige walls and a white banquette along one side.
Recorded music plays softly in the background both in the dining room and on a dining patio that is almost as attractive as the restaurant’s interior.
Customers place orders at a counter, and the food is served at your table by a wait staff that is both friendly and knowledgeable. Each table is set with a flower in a vase, cotton napkins and unusual gold silverware.
That kind of attention to detail also goes into the artful presentation of plates. A pork chop with asparagus and polenta, for example, came topped with violet petals.
Another key to the kitchen’s appeal is its use of high-quality ingredients, most locally produced.
For instance, a basic breakfast sandwich—meat and cheese on a bun—is outstanding because it includes Hook’s aged cheddar and soppressata (Italian dry salami) from Madison’s Underground Butcher, a member of the Underground Food Collective. Owners bill the restaurant as a neighborhood café and named it for the University Heights neighborhood where it is located.
The Heights is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday, and from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays. Dinner entrees run from about $15 to $30, while breakfast and lunch plates are a bit more affordable, in the $8 to $12 range.
The restaurant offers a full range of coffee and tea options, along with beer (on tap and in the bottle) and wine.
A friend and I began our dinner with a salad of arugula and ham ($10) that included “foraged” garlic mustard and Prussian ham and was dressed with olive oil and 12-year Modena balsamic from Italy. It’s a terrific example of what The Heights does well—employing simple ingredients that are high quality, complementary and delicious.
That was true of the kitchen’s matzo ball soup ($5), as well. It featured a rich, savory broth with homemade matzo balls enhanced with ginger and rosemary. Tiny bits of crunchy carrot and celery added texture and flavor, complementing a generous amount of chicken.
A bone-in pork chop ($21) included a thick cut of locally sourced pork resting on a bed of creamy Hooks 1-year cheddar polenta. The flavors of these two items alone would have set it apart, but adding fresh steamed asparagus and a rhubarb sauce to the plate elevated it to another level.
The pork chop was expertly prepared—tender and juicy—and the polenta was so tasty I would return for it alone.
My companion was pleased with an order of blackened catfish served with braised lentils, yogurt and peas ($16). The fish was firm and tasty, and the lentils retained a certain crunch that we found especially appealing.
The restaurant offered two desserts on the night of our visit (both pies), and a plate of Rhuby rose pie ($6) did not disappoint. Featuring rhubarb and rosewater with brown-oat streusel topped with whipped cream, it came on two plates (though we had asked for only a single order), and it was so richly flavored that my companion swore it was the best piece of pie she had ever tasted.
The Heights is an elegant restaurant that doesn’t come off as showy or pretentious. My companion commented that it reminded her of some of the nicer restaurants she had visited during a recent trip to Europe.
So if you’re someone who is fond of Europe and its culinary traditions, The Heights might serve as a proxy until you can actually make the trip across the Atlantic.