Visited 12/31/2008

Primary Author – Jim

New Year’s Eve is Amy’s birthday. Although it seems like a cool date for a birthday, it is in reality kind of a pain. Birthdays are supposed to be “all about you.” When New Year’s Eve rolls around, everyone around you has other plans. Well, almost everyone. Our good friends and their 3 month old went along with us to try Amy’s choice of restaurant for the evening, Inka Heritage.

Amy tends to stay up on the new restaurant scene much more than I do. I had never heard of this place, despite her telling me about it months ago. She will attest that this happens a lot in our marriage, her telling me things I seem to forget two minutes to two months later. Inka Heritage is a Peruvian restaurant. That means a little bit to me, but not much. I try not to make assumptions about South American food. That is to say, and I know you know what that  assumption would be: “it tastes like Mexican food.”

Previewing the menu online before we went ( http://inkaheritagerestaurant.com/) was an effective appetizer. I recognized flavors and characteristics I already loved. But like any new restaurant, I don’t like to read too much of the menu unless I am actually sitting in the restaurant. Amy, on the other hand, is the queen of research, and often will make menu choices before she even arrives. Making such a planned decision is not in my nature, which in the case of choosing a menu item, is not that big of a deal.  This is a different story in other aspects of life, as Amy and I have debated many times before.

Inka Heritage is located just 2 blocks north of St. Mary’s Hospital, on Park Street. Parking is therefore sparse. We found a space only a block away, which isn’t a big deal unless its 5 degrees, which it was.

The interior of the restaurant is appealing, with mustard yellow walls, wonderful what seemed like original art on the walls, white table clothes, a small bar in the corner with walls lined in bottles of red wine, and napkins folded to resemble a candle. 

Although napkin origami usually makes me cringe, and indicates a restaurant is trying too hard, in the case of Inka Heritage, it was successful. It drew me to the table, and the boldly shaped candles on the table echoed the napkins shape. There was clearly thought out, which I appreciate.

The major flaw to the ambiance was the lack of a vestibule, which meant a constant draft blowing into the restaurant. Although this wouldn’t be a problem during the summer, on this night in meant those dining around me were still donning their coats.

The feeling entering the space was a warm welcome (draft excluded).  The staff was friendly the colors and lighting lively and appealing.  They did not bat an eye when we mentioned that a 3 month old child would be joining us in our fine dining experience.  They quickly pulled up a high chair.  Other children were dining with their families as well.  Sharing food and family was a value of this restaurant that was not only given lip service but put into easy practice.

The menu was rather large. With a rather extensive appetizer section, as well as seafood, meat, and soup and rice sections, there was plenty to choose from. Without being fully familiar with the cuisine, the menu items seemed to run together somewhat, with familiar base flavors in different combinations. This can make choosing more difficult, where it seems like you may only swap one flavor for another when choosing between two menu items. Ingredients making frequent appearances were aaji amarillo (yellow hot chili pepper),  Peruvian corn (choclo), yucca, huancaina cream, and Tacu Tacu (rice and canary beans mixture grilled).  Also making a frequent appearance was the potato. According the the menu, Peru grows over 4,000 different types of potatoes.

Following the potato theme, for the first course we chose the Causa Limena . This was an essentially finely mashed potato colored yellow by aji amarillo, layered amongst avocado and shrimp, and a sauce entitled “golf.” Not sure what a “golf” sauce is, but the dish as a whole tasted of the fancy potato salad you buy at the local deli. There was certainly a nice texture to the potato, and it didn’t weigh me down, but the flavors overall were no more bold or assertive than potato salad.

I felt it rather bland and an appetizer to skip.  I think it needed more salt and some type of acidity to balance all the creaminess.

We also ordered the highly recommended ceviche. Ceviche is certainly a trendy item on many restaurant menus these days, but if any restaurant should do ceviche, it should be Inka Heritage. The coast of peru is known as the ultimate place (like the Yucatan in Mexico) to get ceviche.  Ceviche, done well, is simple. Marinate fresh fish in a citrus, and add in a few fresh flavors. Inka Heritage makes ceviche well. It had a certain simple, yet vibrant flavor, predominantly of lime and cilantro, but with a touch of ginger. The choclo was a nice addition, adding a creamy but light texture reminiscent of a fava bean.  The garnish of onions was the only shortfall, since they over power the dish a bit if eaten in the large pieces presented.

I think perhaps tilapia was not the right seafood choice here.  There was a slightly rubberized millimeter or so on the surface of each piece, which suggests that it was marinated for too long and has started to be cooked by the acid.  I don’t know how long they marinate or if choosing tilapia is part of the equation, I just know that I found myself drawn to eating the other parts of the ceviche (sweet potato, corn etc.) more than the fish itself.

For the main course, I had the Lomo Inca Heritage, an approximately 5 oz piece of beef tenderloin, served with tacu tacu, sweet plaintain, and a fried egg. The star of the dish was the tacu tacu, an earthen mixture of beans and rice, cooked, mashed, then grilled. It’s outer thin crust with a creamy interior contrasted nicely with the beef. The beef was cooked well to my specification (medium rare, the ONLY way to ever order red meat, never rare, never medium, more on this in a later blog, maybe). The fried egg is another trendy garnish seen on many menus. This is easy to screw up, if it is cooked even 10 seconds too long, the yolk is too hard. But Inka Heritage did it well, with a molten yolk center cooked just long enough to ease, but not abolish, your worries about salmonella. The black sheep of the plate was the plantain. An intact, phallic shape on the plate, seemingly deep fried once. The raw, firm starchiness of the plantain had no chance to break down enough with this type of preparation. Overall, however, the dish was a winner.

Two others at my table, Amy included, ordered the lamb. For about $11, this dish won best value. Although I didn’t try all components of the dish, the lamb was well seasoned, but didn’t, to my surprise, overwhelm the cilantro sauce. This was a combination of flavors I didn’t predict would meld well together, but in this case, the cilantro’s pungency seemed to subdue a strong lamb flavor that can sometimes distract you when eating this meat. I guess this shouldn’t surprise, because the overall strength of flavor of cilantro is not that far off from mint, a known classic flavor to pair with lamb.

The lamb was perfectly cooked, which is no small feat and its flavor was nicely balanced.  The cilantro was additive and not overwhelming and the lamb was not greasy or gamey.  The presentation with creamy canary beans, white rice and cilantro and yucca was an example of good simple authentic ethnic cuisine, true to itself.  The yucca although nicely crispy would have been accentuated with a light salting.  What was also worth noting was that the portion size was perfect as was the price.  Too often lamb is a costly adventure.  What was presented was a handful of perfect lamb morsels for $11.  Not a heaping mass of lamb, nor a price tag of $25.  I was greatful  for the taste it gave me and that if left me with room for dessert.

As for the wine, the list was just the right length, about 20 to choose from for each white and red. The red list of course included a fair number of south American wines. We chose a Carmenere, which paired well with my dish, and had enough tannin to cut the richness of the beef and fried egg yolk.

I was pleased to see the South American concentration.  Too often I find a wrong turn restaurants make is not having their wine list align with their theme and their food.  I don’t want to go to a Peruvian restaurant and find nothing but Fess Parker and Kendall Jackson on there simply because they have name recognition.

Inka Heritage is one of many ethnic restaurants Madison has to offer, offering earthy flavor with tempered but bold flavor. If you are looking for a semi-fine dining experience located in an area not known for semi-fine dining, give Inka Heriage a try.  Just don’t forget your wool socks.

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Jim

I began my obsession with food in 1999, when I discovered a new room in my apartment, the “kitchen.”  For the first time in my life, I had free reign over what came out of that space. I had always just eaten what others had given me. I certainly enjoyed going out, but I never really had an appreciation for food until I started working with it myself.

I have always been one to pick up a new hobby or activity, jump whole heartedly into it, obsess over it, then drop it promptly after that. Computer games, woodworking, interior decorating, reading, rock collecting, screeing (dirt skiing…yes, dirt skiing),  they all saw their 15 minutes of fame in my life, but never really stuck around. I was sloppy with a saw, and only had patience for about the first 10% of any book. Food was different. Food was something, as it turned out, I was good at. I never felt creative until I started cooking. 

I began cooking in earnest for my now wife, Amy, just after graduating from college. I started with a couple of cookbooks given to me by my mom, “Colorado Collage,” and ” Sunset Mexican” . My favorites were cooked first, such as  fajitas, chili, and chicken casserole. But then one dish dinners turned into two courses, then three, five, then 10.

Cooking throughout grad school, I managed to gain nearly 50 pounds. Granted, I went from too skinny to too fat. But I enjoyed getting there. I discovered two paths to pleasing those I cooked for:  cook a lot (of courses, that is), and use a lot of butter and cream. Amy managed to stay relatively thin and healthy, I didn’t. 

I also visited restaurants with a new point of view. I no longer ate at restaurants with “value” in mind. The buffets and huge portions no longer were most appealing, but rather the taste. I also began appreciating more than what was on the plate. The art of service, the ways that restaurants operate, how they work to appeal to the customer. Amy and I ate when we traveled, and appreciated regional differences in cuisine.

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Throughout our exploration of food, Madison was, and still is, our home base. We have come to fully appreciate the restaurant scene here in Madison. For a town of its size, it offers a multitude of tastes. And although it is certainly no New York or San Francisco (two places to which we have traveled and loved eating in), Madison spoils us.

So, we blog because we love food, we love restaurants, and we love Madison. We only hope you have the same loves we do, and that you might find what we have to say worth the time in reading.

Amy

I never really gave food any thought until I moved to Madison.  I ate to sustain myself and never thought about taste, where it came from, or how it could be better.  I grew up in a house where cooking was a burden and flavor and spices did not play a role.  No wonder I didn’t revel in food! 

Going to the Farmer’s Market here in Madison connected me with the people who grow my food.  The quality that comes from having something local and organic became real for me, as did the flavor potential.  Seriously is there anything better than local organic tomatoes at their peak?

I spend a lot of time feeling for others and existing in potenital; a lot of time in my mind.  Experiencing food and restaurants connects me with sensing and thinking parts of my personality.  I can use all my senses and hone them while critiquing the food and the establishment.  Restaurants are food theater.  They are an experience more than just a place.  Food is also more than a form of  physical nourishment.  It is a cultural expression, a celebration,  a connection to our earth, our community and each other.  It nourishes every part of me.