HEIST, the new “modern tavern” in Sturgeon Bay, is the result of a meeting of the minds among partners Ryan Castelaz, Cait Caccio and Kindred DeGutis. Bringing their various strengths and separate visions to the table to launch the business has been an undertaking involving lots of negotiation, compromise and collective decision-making, but on opening day, the trio couldn’t have been more satisfied with how the labor of love has paid off.
The Look and Feel
Taking up residence in the old Sturgeon Bay Bank building, the atmosphere called for a specific type of presentation, marrying the old-guard marble walls and ornate tin ceiling with a fresh and energizing vibe. The three worked to fuse their two initial design ideas – one being a shiny and fun art deco-style bar space, and the other focusing on the dining experience with cloth, wood and warm design elements.
“In the end what we found is the balance point between those things,” Castelaz said. “Some fun light, bright elements and some very classy, comfortable, more fine-dining elements.”
The renovation included painting the walls from top to bottom, building and tiling an expansive bar, hunting down the right decor and finally, determining the specific way to fold the napkins. “Kindred has been the resident details man from the beginning. The space and the details coming together and it looking as good as it does – that’s on Kindred.”
As the service director, DeGutis explains, “My strong point comes from being able to alter what I can to what I consider to be a better form.” Upon entering the space, there’s no evidence of this being an infant business. Instead, it’s as if the location has been HEIST for years, which is a testament to the fine blending of old and new design.
The carved-stone entry ushers guests into a room with dark-emerald walls stretching tall to meet a tin-crusted ceiling strung with wired-mounted lights. The seating allows for three or four groups of diners to gather comfortably. A bar with a copper-fitted top and white marble front hosts guests who want to sit for a cocktail or beer and a plate or three. Behind the bar, chef Cait Caicco is in the flow of prepping her courses, carefully positioning each morsel to exude deliciousness – which she does expertly, tempting even the most camera averse to snap a quick photo to remember the moment.
Originally, the kitchen operation was to be placed in another room, but the wooden floors prevented it. Instead, all of the food preparation happens behind the bar in a small “cockpit” that’s visible to the rest of the room. “And I am so infinitely glad that this is the route we went,” Castelaz said. “I think it makes it a way more personal experience. It’s so nice for me to be able to just look at Cait and have that instant relationship between the kitchen and the bar. I think that is what makes HEIST really fun – that curtain between the two is drawn way up.”
The space comes with its culinary challenges, however: the inability to vent smoke or steam means no searing, frying, grilling or boiling. But Caccio has stepped up to the challenge and embraced it, saying, “It’s strengthened my general approach to the variety of ways to cook. It’s been an absolute exercise, but it’s been fun to see what I can come up with.”
The Tasting Menu
The tasting menu offered an interesting variety on the evening I visited, ranging from super savory to crazy fresh to refreshingly simple. Guests who want to experience the seven-course tasting menu must make reservations in advance to ensure Caccio has enough fresh ingredients to fulfill the necessary number of orders. With everything sourced locally, the dishes depend entirely on the current availability of specific items.
The tasting menu is served to the entire table and offers the option of including a beer pairing with the courses. My table opted to split the beer pairing, which was wise because many of the seven beers are higher in ABV.
The courses were interesting and traversed the globe in terms of cuisine and style. There were two vegetarian dishes to start: deviled beet – a hollowed-out beet filled with a cashew, chive and lemon mixture – and then cauliflower tartare: bits of roasted florets sprinkled with olive oil, chili, parsley and topped with a Door Karma egg yolk. From there we were introduced to labneh: a Greek variety of strained fresh yogurt cheese topped with sumac, mango, apricot and saffron. Caccio called it her favorite dish, explaining how she fell in love with the fresh cheese while cooking in a kitchen with a lot of Lebanese influence.
Next was a tropical take on whitefish: whitefish cured in citrus ceviche-style. It came with daikon, lime and an insanely delicious type of crispy corn bread that was sweet, salty and crunchy. My favorite course was the Korean-style bulgogi: a slow-roasted barbecue beef from Door Karma over rice congee outlined with a peppery oil. Then we jumped the pond to a favorite UK bar food: Welsh rarebit toast, which was deliciously warm and satisfying.
Finally, we rounded it all out with a divine layering of sweet peach custard, crème anglaise and rhubarb granita. I barely blinked, and the whole table had eaten each last spoonful.
What I enjoyed most was the element of surprise with the food: its presentation, its flavor arrangement and the stories behind the dishes all coordinated to add another level of entertainment to the dining experience. Having eaten Korean-, Mexican-, English- and Lebanese-style dishes, the experience was as flavorful for my mind as it was for my mouth.
Overcoming the Intimidation Factor
The upside at HEIST is that you’re always going to be trying something new and interesting. The potential downside is that this type of dining can be intimidating. Not being familiar with items on the ingredient list (and perhaps not even knowing how to pronounce them) can certainly give pause to diners who don’t consider themselves über adventurous. I asked the HEIST team for their response to the idea that the food and menu can seem intimidating.
“We’ve tried to really make it approachable,” Castelaz said. “We want it to be a world-class experience in a neighborhood corner bar.” His primary way of doing that is to make everyone who walks through the door feel like an old friend, with either an enthused “What’s up!” greeting or a big hug. He also maintains approachability by being both an open book and a tour guide when it comes to the food and drink.
“We want to expose people to new things,” Castelez said. “You don’t recognize most of the things on this list purposely. That’s why you came out, right? If you want things you know, you could probably make it at home pretty good and make it cheaper. To come out to our restaurant to spend time with us is to open yourself to whatever we’ve got on our minds that week, and [to] say we are going to have an experience together.”
In other words, the menu may very well look like another language, and you might have only a vague guess on what something will taste like, but that’s meant to be the fodder for a great conversation.
“We want for there to be a comfort and an understanding and some education,” DeGutis said. “This is no club – we don’t want to exclude anybody.”
“We want people to learn with us and ask those questions,” Castelaz added. “We want that conversation, and that’s really the whole point of the menu. Then you find something you love and find something you haven’t had before.”
You can visit HEIST at 108 S Madison Ave, Sturgeon Bay, WI 54235. Hours vary, but dinner service is available most Fridays and Saturdays. Visit the website, https://www.heistdoco.com/, for reservations.