Scanning the dinner options at chef Dave Heide’s latest project, a contemporary comfort food spot called Charlie’s on Main in Oregon, I recalled something I heard recently about restaurant menus.
In general, expensive restaurants have short menus and cheaper restaurants have longer ones. While the high-end spots present a tightly curated list of small plates (aren’t they all small plates?), the descriptions, even the individual words, are significantly longer.
Take the burger at Charlie’s ($12). This is its narrative: “Grilled Highland Spring Farm ground beef, crispy shallots, Carr Valley Cranberry Chipotle Cheddar, pickled Alsum Farms onions and roasted garlic aioli on a Clasen’s Kaiser roll.”
It’s a solid restaurant burger, with juicy ground beef balanced by the snap of pickled onion and made richer with creamy aioli. But my instinct is to say it doesn’t need the résumé.
Then again, taking pub food “farm to table,” what chef Heide says he’s looking to do here, is still more fashionable in the city than in Madison’s sleepy environs. To convince Oregon to pay $16 for chicken or pulled pork pasta (prices that are standard on the Capitol Square), Heide may need to give his dishes a pedigree.
After all, a cheeseburger next door at Ace’s Main Tap only costs $4.75.
Heide is the chef and owner of Liliana’s Restaurant in Fitchburg, opened in 2008 and named after his daughter. Charlie’s, open since mid-October, is named for his son.
Heide is a smart, media-savvy chef, deeply involved in community projects (Badger Prairie Needs Network, Verona Public Library and REAP’s Pie Palooza, among others) as well as the Madison Area Chefs Network.
And he has an eye for trends. Everything at Charlie’s can be made gluten-free, even out of the fryer. The craft cocktail menu could play with any on the Square, including a refreshing brown derby (bourbon, grapefruit and honey, $9) and a well-balanced negroni made with Great Northern gin ($7).
Craft beer is well-represented and well-chosen. Options on tap recently included Ale Asylum’s Mad Town Nut Brown, Tyranena’s Bitter Woman IPA and a tasty sour wheat beer from O’so in Plover called “Infectious Groove.”
Any northerly restaurant knows it can be tough to get affordable local greens in the dead of winter, which may be why no fewer than six dishes at Charlie’s had microgreens arrayed daintily on top.
The excessive deployment of these little sprouts lessened their appeal (was the kitchen just flinging green stuff around?), but they did give a pop of color to soups, including a deeply savory wild mushroom bisque ($8), a rich, but not heavy, starter.
The heavier choice turned out to be whiskey onion soup ($8), where the fat in the bourbon broth doubled as a lip gloss.
Charlie’s did a reasonably sized, decent charcuterie board ($9), with a few Carr Valley cheeses, some salami and fruit compote. A barbecue pork sandwich ($12), sweet molasses pork shoulder piled on triangles of foccacia, made a solid case for slow-cooking, balanced by pickles and served with a gingery cabbage slaw.
Some dishes were better in theory than in execution. Date bruschetta ($7) was one, with burnt toast and overwhelming sugar from the fruit compote. Dry tilapia fish fry, tossed in a gluten-free batter, ($15) had an unfortunate kiddie chicken tender quality.
The caveman-sized pork chop also missed ($17). Sides, among them creamy polenta, sweet apple and onion, veered too sweet, and the chop itself was sadly overcooked. Something gritty, with the consistency of corn starch, sunk an otherwise passable beet salad with walnuts and goat cheese ($8).
Still, there were successes. A greatest hits list of cold weather comfort food would surely include shepherd’s pie ($16). Charlie’s wide oval of savory stew hit the spot, rows of piped potatoes covering a base of lamb and vegetables.
A year ago, the ABC daytime show “The Chew” stopped by to get a gander at Liliana’s macaroni and cheese, each served in a Wisconsin-shaped skillet. At Charlie’s, the sauce was creamy and bland, though Nueske’s bacon and breadcrumbs offered a little contrast. For $11, the portion was easily enough for two meals.
At all visits, service at Charlie’s dragged. But it’s a pretty big restaurant, with, literally, more than meets the eye. Pull the correct book on a shelf as you pass the kitchen, and you’ll find a stairway into Charlie’s dark and cozy speakeasy, open to the public Thursday through Saturday (Wednesday is “ladies only”).
Bar manager Hudson Doolittle developed a different menu for Charlie’s Underground, with classic Sazeracs ($8) and a few new creations, like a lovely, light little number called the Red Fox ($9, bourbon, campari, egg white, lemon and maple syrup).
And there’s more. Heide and his team were out at a big bridal show a few weeks ago, repping The Main Event, a space big enough for a wedding ceremony, dinner and dancing for some 150 people. There’s even a bridal suite.
Heide clearly believes that Oregon is ready for a restaurant like this, and he has the personality and business savvy to make it happen. I’m already interested in what a summer menu will look like at Charlie’s.
Until then, I’m likely to head to the speakeasy, swap gin for bourbon in my Bee’s Knees ($8) to make it a Gold Rush, and wait out the winter in style. ￼