When Tami Lax jumped from foraging at L'Etoile to co-founding her own Harvest restaurant virtually next door eight years ago, Madison's reputation for seasonal, locally sourced, almost reverentially cooked contemporary cuisine seemed cemented. Suddenly there were two nationally recognized Capitol Square restaurants sitting almost side by side and overlooking, symbolically, the Dane County Farmers' Market - itself an epic ode to the bulging local harvest and maybe the best metaphor for a movement that had come of age.
The movement has only gained momentum since then, as more and more diners turn to their own regional larders, and Harvest, eight years later, looks like the classic it has become. In fact, the simple, effortlessly elegant dining room, painted a soft yellow and punctuated by nouveau-esque chandeliers, seems to glow with a burnished patina, the kind you see in old Dutch Masters paintings.
That doesn't mean, though, that things are standing still. Executive chef Justin Carlisle recently left, and his replacement, Derek Rowe, comes with an impressive pedigree. He has cooked at Babbo, Craft and Del Posto, which is pretty much New York's version of a very serious culinary trinity.
If that has meant some changes to the menu, the most notable change is the addition of a pasta section, which clearly draws on Rowe's background at Babbo. Admittedly, this is a cautious addition to Harvest's menu, since the pasta section only includes two dishes, but if it's the sign of the restaurant's more global future, the future looks promising.
In fact, the most exuberant dishes we had on a recent, crowded Friday night were the two pastas (you can get half portions of both as an appetizer). The tagliatelle in a ragu bolognese, perfectly al dente, didn't suffer the overdressed fate of so many local pastas. Instead the minced pork and beef lent a subtle, meaty, authentically rich flavor to the pasta. Just as good - okay, maybe even better - was a pumpkin ravioli that rivaled anything Babbo produces. Wrapped around sweet pumpkin puree and shining with sage butter, the fat ravioli were, simply, perfect.
And if perfection is a hard goal to maintain, most of the dishes that followed made an honest effort. Returning firmly to the heartland, the roasted beets with toasted hazelnuts and Wisconsin blue cheese offered a fall-out of juicy beets, though their somewhat muted flavor was occasionally drowned out by oversized chunks of blue cheese. I'd also delete one ingredient from the squid salad, a wonderful, brightly flavored tangle of crunchy fennel, cured olives and grilled squid (that could have been a bit more tender), plus too many red onions that didn't need to be there at all.
The winter minestrone, on the other hand, was a harmonic vegetarian homage to carrots, kale, Lina Cisco beans and roasted garlic, and a good prelude to the kind of clean, simple, seriously sourced dishes that Harvest is known for. Those were epitomized by a pan-roasted wild Alaskan halibut, nuzzling mushrooms and sunchokes, that was as sweet as lobster. Braised beef short ribs, a shade dry, were still meaty and tender, and won some drama from a bed of white corn polenta and a crunchy crown of celery and apple strips.
The Lange Family Farm pork loin, on the other hand, was sweet and smoky but came paired with bland borlotti beans and spinach, which made for an oddly wilted, austere plate that was soft and chewy and begged for more texture. It also needed more of a flourish, more of a sense of fun, and that's something Rowe, once he adds more of his own touches and hits his stride, should be able to provide. A respect for ingredients doesn't have to be too literal-minded or restrained, and Harvest knows that.
But even given the momentary note of caution, the restaurant's haute heartland cuisine is well worth the money. Harvest's devotion to the freshest, glossiest local produce is the kind of commitment that is especially praiseworthy now, as too many recent local restaurants seem content to chase already passing trends without any real sense of authenticity, or any real feel for food.
And if you're looking for a bit more drama, the desserts do match those pastas for a sense of flamboyance and surprise. Best of the bunch: a banana upside-down cake that is all moist, almost gooey, sweetness, and a vanilla panna cotta roused by a blood orange compote that should put the last nail in the coffin of the omnipresent crème brûlée.