The final fall drives are always the most haunting, as all the colors start to fade. And the drive from Madison through Mazo and Black Earth to Spring Green, one of our regular country runs (actually our only country run), is a gorgeous ride under the last of the season's brittle leaves. In the wind they sound like a hundred death rattles.
As often as we've taken this route, though, we'd never turned left at the Shoe Box to drive down Black Earth's Mills Street. So it was something of a little discovery when we finally made the turn with some friends, on a recent October Saturday, and discovered Heiney's, parked in the middle of the pretty main street.
Like a lot of discoveries, this one was a mixed find. The restaurant itself is a little regional history lesson. Started as a turn-of-the-century meat market, Heiney's is lovingly preserved, and the lower section of the bi-level dining room is glorious - all original tiled floors and big wooden carved doors that opened up to the original cooler. The upper section of the dining room, originally part of the neighboring house, feels claustrophobic, and downright homely in comparison to the airy converted meat market below.
That weirdly bipolar effect haunts the food as well. There are some memorable dishes here, and some you'll try hard to forget. The current owners of Heiney's spent time in Texas, so there is a dose of Cajun and Creole flavor mixed into the down-home supper-club menu, and that helps.
Among appetizers the best are the slightly more exotic, like the Jamaican ribs, featuring six mostly meaty bones (though the meat turns leathery around the edges) dressed with a honey and habanero sauce that could have been cloying but wasn't; the habanero added a complex undertone. Homemade potato chips were fine, and the huge fried chicken wings, like something plucked off a small turkey, were lightly breaded, very meaty, and blue-ribbon worthy.
The two big crab cakes, on the other hand, were abandoned by everyone at our table. They were undermined by an oddly synthetic taste (someone compared it to processed stuffing) and that sharp, jarring, abiding flavor, whatever it was, obliterated any crabby accent. Also disappointing were the dry, spongy dinner rolls, a very watery pea soup and a standard-issue salad.
Entrees fell along the same fault line. I liked the lyrically named Devils on Horseback - big sweet shrimp wrapped up in Nueske's bacon, plopped on dirty rice, and dressed with hollandaise sauce. While the dish could easily do without the fatty, undercooked bacon, and a lighter hollandaise would help (the house hollandaise is too gelatinous, and tastes more of oil than egg), this is the kind of throwback fancy food you don't see on locavore menus, and the rich mash of flavors seemed almost exotic. And very satisfying.
Just as good was another overdressed (but who cares?) Steak Wisconsin - a tender, perfectly cooked hunk of center-cut sirloin wearing a fantastic char and crowned with sautéed mushrooms and a wedge of Maytag blue cheese. The whole thing was supremely tasty. The steak and mushrooms held their own, and even complemented, the strident cheese.
Less successful, though still worth its $20 price, was the plate of two huge (the running theme here) catfish filets rolled in crushed pecans, served with Wisconsin maple syrup. They bested the catfish Atchafalaya, in which the catfish filet was blackened, topped with andouille sausage, and then doused with a very acidic, one-note, angry red tomato sauce that bullied every other flavor.
Don't, if you want to leave with fond memories, follow that up with dessert, especially if dessert is the sweet potato pie. What looked fluffy on the dessert tray wound up being a dense, uncouth wedge of tasteless starch.
End instead with another round of those sweet Jamaican ribs, which are delicate enough to eat, one by one, in the car, on the way back to Madison, driving under the last of the leaves.