Wookiee Hut Cuisine presents:Harvest is one of the few high end restaurants in town. Highly praised as one of the best dining experiences in Madison, during my recent visit I found it thoroughly disappointing. l went to Harvest with a fellow cook. He shared my sentiments. Harvest's food has little to recommend it. In fact, the only reason to visit the restaurant is if you wish to encounter the finest service in town.
Pinckney Street, Madison, WI
Review by GornPod (LoveCherub of the Ghetto)
Our meal began, as it so often does, with bread. Made in a cast iron skillet, it had a wonderful crust and a surprisingly chewy texture. It was undoubtedly the best course of the evening. Yet it was plagued by a problem that recurred throughout our meal: it was inappropriately salted. I LOVE salt. More so than is healthy for me; perhaps more so than is healthy for an elephant. Yet the bread was over-salted. Rather than bring out the flavor, in many bites it was the flavor. And while I appreciated the high quality grey salt, I didn't appreciate how it dominated the dish. The bread was served with a very disappointing butter. Given that we live in "America's Dairyland" and there are many many farmers around Madison who make fantastic butter, I'm not sure how or why Harvest served us the bland butter they did.
Next we were treated to an "amuse busche": something that is meant to amuse the palate before a meal. Really it's just stuff they give you in pricey restaurants so that you don't think you're paying too much (after all, you got something for free!). Ideally, this should have come before our bread, but no bother. It was a celeriac soup with black truffles. It was fine. Boring, the kind of thing anyone could make at home if they were willing to put that much butter and cream in a soup (trust me, you wouldn't be willing to do it). The "truffles" did nothing for the dish. Three little drops of truffle oil at the top provided extra fat and little else. I found no black truffles in the soup. I couldn't detect their flavor. Since Harvest is part of the trend to use local seasonal ingredients, someone may want to tell them that the truffles they used are well out of season. This is perhaps why they didn't taste like anything. "Black truffles" come into season in late December through March (the high season being January). Perhaps they used the summer truffle, but even so, the season is in May-August. Put simply, they added no taste, only cost, and made little sense this time of year.
For appetizers we ordered the Foie Gras and the Sweetbreads. Yes, Foie Gras is immoral. And yes, Sweetbreads are organ meat (thymus gland). Deal. Sweetbreads are usually delicious. Like other "worked" parts of animals, they have flavor, unlike, say, filet mignon, because they have blood flowing through them (they're working!). The blood carries the flavors of what the animal eats (where it lives) and makes for tastier food. Yet both dishes were incredibly disappointing.
The Foie Gras was not proper cleaned. The liver comes in two lobes, with a vein running through the two. The kitchen had (probably) removed then main vein, but had left several of the secondary veins. And we got a piece of Foie Gras with plenty of these. This means that rather than being smooth and silky, it was chewy and veiny. Doesn't sound pleasant? It wasn't.
The Sweetbreads, on the other hand, were well prepared. Perfectly cooked, of good quality, they pointed toward optimism. But they soon disappointed. Like the initial bread course, they were incredibly over-salted. So much so that they were only just edible.
Both courses were missing something on the high end. In other words, they were rich, heavy, and full bodied. What they needed: acid. Something to cut through the dish, if only slightly, to provide a little spark on the palate (ideally, vinegar or citric acid in any of the sauces). I suspect the chef tried to provide this spark with the salt. But it couldn't do it. And I was disappointed that the chefs wouldn't know that.
For the next course I had veal two ways (belly and shank), my fellow diner had Hanger steak. The veal bordered on edible. The Hanger steak was nowhere near it. Hanger steak should be chewy. Again, it's a worked part of the cow, from the underbelly. This makes it super flavorful, and if cooked well, chewy yet tender and delicious. It was far from cooked well. It was pretty much a plate of gristle, a cut that should not have been served. When the chef cut the meat (it is usually cut against the grain before served so that it presents as tender), (s)he should have sighed, and gotten another cut out of the fridge and made it anew. Instead, it was served to my fellow diner, and it was terrible. Further, to continue with the salting problems, the steak was completely devoid of salt (a crime!). What came out was a plate full of beef connective tissue. And no amount of the reasonably good sides could save the dish.
The veal, by contrast, was quite good (but a Big Mac might be good by contrast to the Hanger we got). The leg was well cooked (although a bit beyond medium rare), the belly fatty and tasty (as one would expect). But AGAIN, the salting was completely off. While the belly was vastly oversalted (I didn't mind that much), the leg had hardly seen any salt. The sign of a good kitchen is often that it knows how to salt its food. This one clearly does not. And AGAIN the kitchen had difficulty bringing in any high end anything that could cut through the richness of the dish, provide a hint of contrast, and bring out the full flavors of each meat. If I were ever to return to Harvest I might bring the chef a present a bottle of red wine vinegar, say and tell him/her, "This is acid. It is your friend. It cuts through heavy dishes, provides a spark to many sauces, and allows people who eat your food to appreciate a wider variety of flavors within your dishes".
Two final notes about the main course. First, what somewhat saved it was our wine. We ordered the Chateau La Fleur Peyrabon (1999 a Bordeaux from Pauillac). It was reasonably priced, still a little young, but it opened quickly and was tasty. It was someone harsh with low acidity, but the harshness cut through the food. my fellow diner said to me in the middle of the meal, "well, at least the food makes the wine taste great." I agreed. It was too bad the reverse wasn't the case. Second, could a restaurant in town PLEASE cooking with some interesting combinations? Let me sum out the main dishes: meat, starch, veggie. Sound familiar? Yeah, that's cause it's something you eat every day. At home, out, etc. But as it turns out, you don't have to eat that way! Restaurants could introduce not only new flavors, but new ways of looking at eating food. But I guess restaurants in Madison won't do that. Still, if I see steak, potato, and seared greens on another "high end" menu in town I'm going to scream.
Finally, the dessert. my fellow diner's apple cake was like what you'd get in any good coffeeshop. Which is fine. But not when you're at what's supposed to be a very good restaurant. Fine doesn't cut it. The ice cream (made in house, I suspect) was quite good. But Haagen Daaz makes good Ice Cream. And at $3/pint it's a real bargain by comparison. One doesn't order dessert that is only good ice cream. Again, it should be a dish that pushes you to think of food in new ways (or causes you to rethink a classic). My dessert, however, was the finest dish of the night. A pumpkin cake topped with a pumpkin cheesecake topping, it was, I must say, delicious. The cake had a nice crust and a spongy inner texture. The pumpkin cheese top was smooth creamy, and full of pumpkin flavor (it was the only dish that reminded me that I was eating during Fall!). Did it make the meal worthwhile? Certainly not. But I was appreciative that our waitress steered me in its direction. I was further appreciative that she gave is a fine dessert wine that paired well with the desserts. The course made me realize that the baker (bread, desserts) was by far the most talented person in the kitchen.
The only thing that did make the meal worthwhile was our waitress (in fact, the entire wait staff, with the exception of the maitre d'). She was attentive, friendly, and seemed to know exactly what kind of dining experience my fellow diner and I wanted. While the food didn't provide it, she certainly did. In fact, the only reason I'm not filled with rage given the amount I paid for the meal is that out waitress made the experience a pleasant one. My fellow diner had his 16 month old daughter with him (not ideal for a high end restaurant), and the entire staff was responsive to her, us, and seemed relatively unbothered by her presence. In fact, many seemed pleased to see her. While bringing a child to a fine restaurant would normally put one on edge, the Harvest staff (again, except for the maitre d') put us at complete ease. This was not small task, and it was greatly appreciated. And I must say, having an adorable girl with you during an otherwise bad meal makes you somehow forget how bad things are.
So, overall, what did I think?
Price: Very Expensive (want pricey ingredients butchred by a kitchen? Go to Harvest)
I wouldn't recommend the place.
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