The Harvey House (Madison, WI)

I’ve always loved Madison, Wisconsin. It’s a very scenic city, with a downtown located on the isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, and for a city of it’s size, it has always packed a good punch when it comes to good restaurants, bars, and other watering holes. I don’t actually get to Wisconsin very often (I did drive through it a few times on 2021’s trip to Minnesota, stopping at the excellent Ru Yi Hand-Pulled Noodle), but a week-long business trip for a conference gave me a good opportunity to explore a bit more. Several people I know had recommended Madison’s The Harvey House for dinner, and then a week before I left for Madison, The Harvey House was the location of one of the challenges on Top Chef. I decided it was worth a visit.

First, lets get one thing out of the way… I’m not visiting a Harvey House of classic railroad fame; I’d love to, but Harvey Houses never came as far north as Wisconsin (they were a partnership with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway), and the Fred Harvey company closed the last of the original Harvey Houses way back in 1968 (although a handful of the former Harvey Houses remain restaurants under new owners, some of them particularly well-regarded like La Posada in Winslow, AZ). So that’s what The Harvey House isn’t. It is, however, a fine-dining American restaurant aimed at paying tribute to the grand era of railroads and rail station dining (the restaurant is located in a converted Milwaukee Road railroad depot), good cocktails, and a modernized take of one of Wisconsin’s fine dining traditions, the “supper club”.

It’s hard to put an exact definition on a “supper club”, but it’s a combination of a semi-casual dinner restaurant and night club focusing on from-scratch American cuisine (with fish fries on Friday nights), a cocktail list (with it being all but mandatory to offer at least one rendition of the official Wisconsin state cocktail, the Brandy Old Fashioned), lavish bread and pickle plates, and usually more than a little dark wood paneling and the occasional taxidermy. While certainly not exclusive to Wisconsin (I’ve seen qualifying Supper Clubs by that title and style as far away as California), they certainly have density: Wisconsin has over 250 of them (with more than a third of these in Calumet County). The Harvey House isn’t really a Supper Club, but an homage to modern Supper Club cuisine.

In general, one really should have a reservation before trying to dine at The Harvey House (it’s definitely one of the most popular spots in town), but in most of my business traveling I was dining solo on my visit, and my experience is that even really popular places will be happy to seat me at the bar. That was definitely the case here, and I soon found myself at the end of the bar in the main dining room with a good view of the kitchen. As I was considering the dinner menu, a quick discussion with the bartender had me ordering up one of their house specialty cocktails, the Penny Whistle. a cocktail of gin, Cappelletti (one of the softer Italian appertivos), St. Germain, and lemon juice, served up, this was a nicely-composed cocktail.

But as I mentioned above, Wisconsin is well known for having Old Fashioned cocktails, and The Harvey House is no slouch, having two custom ones on the menu (and the ability to mix up a fair number of renditions on the brandy Old Fashioned to order if needed). I opted for the “Red Corn Old Fashioned” which is a bit non-traditional, building up J. Henry Bourbon as the base, and sweetening it with demerara simple syrup. This was a really nice, flavorful take on an Old Fashioned: some nice corn and rye notes from the bourbon, and the demerara adding some nice caramel notes. So yeah, The Harvey House has a solid cocktail program.

One interesting quirk at The Harvey House is that they believe in whole meal service and pacing, so they highly encourage you to place your entire appetizer and main course order up front (versus considering the mains while working on your appetizer). I can definitely see how that grooves with both the overall meal pacing and helps keep the kitchen squared up. So I placed my order, and was quickly delivered a dinner roll while waiting for my appetizers to arrive. And many of you are thinking “Wait, Rich is posting another picture of a dinner roll?” as you roll your eyes, but this was a seriously good dinner roll: a nice, warm roll, tender interior, just enough of a crust to give it some firmness, and topped with Maldon sea salt crystals. I’m very happy to see more places taking the simple bread roll a bit more seriously.

First to arrive was the shrimp cocktail. The shrimp itself were large and perfectly cooked, but the star here was a really solid cocktail sauce: a nice, bold preserved horseradish cocktail sauce, the preserved horseradish both concentrating the horseradish flavor while mellowing it a bit. Overall, a great appetizer.

Next up was a small bowl of French Onion Bouillon. The staff actually brought this out to me after, in discussion of the menu, I had decided not to order this. I adore a good French onion soup, but entirely too often I find that the secret ingredient is “salt”. This makes French onion soup a pretty good barometer of quality, albeit with a high risk of disappointment, and I ended up deciding not to order it. Apparently the service staff wanted to change my mind, since a small bowl arrived after my shrimp cocktail. This one was a delightful surprise, since this was substantially better than any other onion soup I had. The soup itself was a very, very rich bouillon, quite thick with gelatin like a consommé, and having an extremely concentrated but not overly salted caramelized onion flavor. And instead of being covered with a layer of of a bread crouton and melted cheese, it was served topped with a whipped bechamel with a lot of Roth Alpine Grand Cru Swiss cheese folded into it, and sprinkled with fresh thyme. The result was sublime, and a star of the meal. In fact, this was probably the best single dish I’ve had in the last few years.

For my main course, I got the bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin. Served up with two types of asparagus over a bed of asparagus cream with tarragon-infused oil. This was really an interesting dish, since the tenderloin had been moderately brined, so the final result was halfway between “pork” and “ham”. But it was perfectly tender, not overly salty, and the asparagus (both the stalks and cream) were cooked to perfection. This was a relatively simple dish, but very, very nicely executed.

For dessert, I opted for a fairly simple item: chocolate pudding. An extremely rich and smooth dark chocolate pudding, not overly sweet, and topped with a perfect spiral of whipped cream. Served up with a shot of Amaro Nonino, this was a great way to finish the meal.

I do have a pretty major principle when I’m traveling; I’m highly reluctant to revisit a restaurant, even a spectacularly good one, on a single trip. I’m way more likely to want to continue to explore and try other places (I was particularly eyeing L’Etoile right on Capitol Square). But when a few business colleagues were looking for a good dinner before we left Madison, I decided to break this principle by going back to Thee Harvey House a second time, since I figured it would be ideal for a large group (it was, although the upstairs dining room isn’t as charming as the downstairs), and I had two things I wanted to try on a second visit: another bowl of the French Onion Bouillon, and the walleye. I don’t need to revisit the bouillon, my second (larger) bowl of it was every bit as good as the first (and my dining colleagues that also ordered it agreed, it is uniquely good).

But the real star of my return visit was the Superior walleye. Walleye is one of my favorite freshwater fishes, especially when prepared well (see, for example, my review of Angry Trout Café). It’s always a flavorful and tender fish, but the preparation at The Harvey House is pretty notable: it is served breaded with rye. But that’s not rye breadcrumbs, but instead a wafer-thin[1] veneer slice of rye that has been layered onto the fish. That doesn’t make for the best photography, but it does make for each bite having a perfect, crunchy bit of rye with it, and that’s a great accompaniment to the walleye itself, which was tender, flaky, and perfectly cooked. Add in a nice horseradish sabayon and a good jumble of mixed cabbage and spaetzle, and this was a great dish. (And, for the record, the schnitzel ordered by two of my colleagues was an impressive affair, even if I didn’t get pictures of it.

Rounding out my return visit was a dessert of affogato, a very rich house-made ice cream, rich with Tahitian vanilla and topped with fresh espresso. Another simple dessert, but well-executed and a great way to close out the meal.

Overall, I adored The Harvey House. The food was excellent, the service exquisite, and while the menu is small, it had enough variety to draw me back a second time. Really, this was the best place I’ve eaten in almost a year. And that French Onion Bouillon? That’s going to remain a soup benchmark that’s going to be hard to beat.

[1] Always wanted to use this phrase in a review, thanks Monty Python.

One Response

  1. Jim 13 Jul 2024 at 11:11 #

    Accompanying book recommendation: “Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club” by J. Ryan Stradal.

    (A college friend of mine who was getting married in Dubuque, Iowa, had the rehearsal dinner at a supper club over the border in Wisconsin, so that’s how I’ve gotten the supper club experience.)

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