Heritage Tavern can be a dangerous place for a party of two.
Sit at the bar any night of the week and sip a Malort Thing ($10, trust the bartender — it's always good).
Then watch platters sail through the dining room heaped with roast chicken and crispy pork ribs, suckling pig leg impaled with a knife and whole fried snapper draped with lobster and edible flowers.
It's enough to make any mortal diner phone a friend, or five.
Heritage Tavern, open since early September at 131 E. Mifflin St., marks a new stage in the evolution of Madison fine dining. Out: white tablecloths and six styles of stemware. In: '90s pop music and vintage pig-themed plates.
There are the usual market vegetables and sweet Wisconsin butter, but here the pork belly and trotters come from the chef's own pig farm in Rio.
Chef Dan Fox's flavors are global — Korean chili paste, sake-ginseng broth, jicama salsa, aronia berry jam — served in hearty Midwestern portions. These are shared plates, but they're bigger, more gastropub than tapas bar.
While it's certainly possible to order excellent individual meals, family style feels like Heritage at its best. On a platter meant for "two to four" ($85; two is only accurate if one of you is a competitive eater), blackfin tuna drapes alluringly like a beach wrap over a leg of Swabian Hall suckling pig, fresh out of the fryer and surrounded by market veg.
On the side, a rustic wooden plank offers a miniature crock of fingerling potatoes roasted with cured ham, bibb lettuce for wraps, with a heady reduction sauce and sweet chili paste for dressing.
For dessert, the Heritage Sundae, a $25 tower of decadence, is to ice cream what a wedding cake is to a cupcake.
One simply cannot do it alone.
Fox makes daily tweaks to the menu, which balances foie gras and pork belly with pickled baby vegetables ($3), fresh herbs and chilis.
Tuna and escolar poke ($13) is crunchy with cucumbers, studded with wasabi and served with lighter-than-air rice paper and chicharrones (fried pork rinds). Chili-glazed tempura ($9) includes — no kidding — bacon-wrapped cheese curds among thin green beans and shrimp wrapped in seaweed.
Fox is a master of textures, on display in a wonderful Lao-inspired appetizer ($16) of triple-fried wagyu beef, shrimp, green papaya and fried rice noodles. It's sophisticated, fresh and filling — enough, with a glass of Lioco chardonnay ($10), for a satisfying meal at the bar.
Almost everything on a hedonistic plate of crispy pork belly, tuna sashimi and foie gras ($18) melts in the mouth, set off by a bright yellow tropical fruit salsa with pickled mango and fresh melon.
For once, "truffled" on a dish of roast chicken and truffled spinach tortellini ($23) means not oil but actual, honest-to-god black truffles. They are shaved paper-thin over spinach wilted with pancetta, potato "chips" and a perfect amount of horseradish cream.
Chef Fox, formerly of the Madison Club, debuted Heritage Tavern in early September amid a flurry of publicity. Madison Magazine named him "Chef of the Year 2013" before the restaurant opened for business. For Isthmus, food writer Andre Darlington trailed Fox for the better part of a year, resulting in a 2,700 word profile and the cover spot in mid-August.
So while Fox is setting a high bar, he also knows the city's food paparazzi are watching. He makes frequent trips into the dining room, pausing to explain a dish or present a sundae.
His attention has paid off. Front of house staff are friendly and well-trained; the vibe is at once celebratory and comfortable.
And when there are missteps, they're minor. The nuts weren't crunchy in a bacon-and-nuts snack ($4.50). Occasionally dishes have a touch too much salt. Order incautiously and even vegetarian dishes, like a small crock of creamy, cheesy cauliflower-beet gratin ($18), can prove too heavy to finish.
But what Wisconsinite could resist Heritage's sweet corn and beer cheese soup ($8), so silky and rich?
Fox's ingredients may be rare, but they're also fun. Enjoy the surprise of crispy trotters (pig's feet) and escargots — not slimy in the least — served over creamy grits with a citrusy herb salad ($11).
Bar manager Grant Hurless echoes the kitchen's sense of balance with an ambitious cocktail menu, featuring variations on a Manhattan made with Templeton Rye ($10) and a bracing, bitter Angostura Sour ($10).
It's difficult to save room (but you should) for the gloriously gluttonous drink/dessert mash-up Heritage calls the "Don't Call Me Alexander" ($8). Modestly called a "dessert cocktail," this riff on the Brandy Alexander involves Cognac ice cream, shaved dark chocolate and housemade wafer cookies filled with sweet buttercream.
Get at least two spoons — or four. It, like the gianduja chocolate tart with bittersweet chocolate-espresso ice cream ($11), is really best for sharing.