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A Report from L'Etoile: UW Commencement Prix Fixe

kevin h May 23, 2009 06:11 AM

I'd come to Wisconsin for the very first to visit my former college roommate from Berkeley, who was graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. I'd inquired about having a nice dinner while I was in town, and without much hesitation, he avowed that L'Etoile was the best that Madison had to offer, and so off we went.

L'Etoile was founded over 30 years ago, in 1976, by a then 23-year old Odessa Piper. Odessa's focus for L'Etoile was to engender a tight network of local artisanal farmers to supply her nascent eatery, an attitude that pervaded nearly every aspect of the restaurant. In 2005, Odessa sold ownership of L'Etoile and its vast supplier network to her Chef de Cuisine at the time, Tory Miller, and his sister, Traci Miller. Tory, for his part, was formally trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York, and after graduation, worked at a number of establishments, including Eleven Madison Park and Judson Grill, before coming to L'Etoile.

Tory and Traci have arguably expanded Odessa's way of thinking even further. Their passionate support of Wisconsin farmers is evident even before stepping into the restaurant. Local, organic, and naturally-raised ingredients are absolutely key, and the staff at L'Etoile follows a philosophy that celebrates the concept of farm to plate. With this comes a deep, profound respect for the land, the terroir, and its relationship with people, leading to the creation of a burgeoning Wisconsin "slow food" culture that embraces local, seasonal cuisine. However, L'Etoile is not regionally exclusive; although the menu is primarily composed of local ingredients, the restaurant sources products from all over the world when doing so makes sense.

For University commencement, the restaurant offered up a $70, four-course prix fixe menu. L'Etoile's menus are inspired by the bounty of small, local farmers, paired with classical French technique. This commitment to quality is evident just by reading the menu: Tory is keen to spell out the supplier for nearly every component of every dish on the carte (resulting in some of the most prolix menu descriptions I've ever seen!).

Now the food:

Canapé: Hickory Nut Crackers
Shortly after being seated, we were presented with plates of Hickory Nut Crackers, topped with Herbed Goat Cheese and Walnuts. A simple way to kick things off, the strong initial nuttiness of the bites was nicely tempered by the tangy cheese.

Amuse Bouche: Blue Valley Gardens Asparagus
With Murphy's Organic Cottage Cheese, Pumpkin Seed Oil and Toasted Pepitas. I really enjoyed this, finding the sharp, vegetal flavor of the asparagus tempered expertly by the creamy cottage cheese. The toasted pepitas (basically pumpkin seeds), meanwhile, added a fantastic crunch to the amalgam, as well as a smoky flavor element.

1a: Warm Blue Valley Gardens Asparagus
With Sautéed Shiitake Mushrooms, La Quercia Prosciutto and Shaved SarVecchio Cheese, topped with a Sunnyside up New Century Farm Egg. Although this was an asparagus dish, the vegetable didn't take center stage. Rather, the key here was the interplay between the crisp, bitter asparagus, the rich, creamy egg, and soft, salty ham. All the elements were superbly balanced, leading to a very satisfying experience.

1b: Cherokee Farm Bison Carpaccio
With Creamy Canopy Gardens Cucumbers, Julienne Primrose Radishes, Mammoth Kohlrabi, Wild Watercress and SarVecchio Cheese topped with Red Wine Vinaigrette. I've had countless carpaccios in my time, but I believe this was the first bison version I've tried; it actually wasn't much different than beef, with a mild flavor that didn't stand out on its own. Instead, the buffalo acted as a canvas on which bracing, biting flavor of the various veggies--cucumbers, radishes, kohlrabi, watercress--interacted with the salty, nutty cheese. The end result was delicious.

1c: Tuscan Style Bread Soup
With Sweet Italian Sausage, Braised JenEhr Tokyo Bekana and Primrose Tatsoi, Black Earth Valley Mushrooms, Brantmeier Spring Garlic, SarVecchio Cheese and Smoky Ramp Broth. The bread provided most of the body of the soup, but the flavor resided in the other elements. I really liked the sweet, savory sausage and how that factor complemented the crisp, sharp vegetables. That interaction drew most of my attention, but the addition of cheese and mushrooms did add even more gravity to the hearty dish.

2a: Coriander Crusted Wild Alaskan King Salmon
With Wild Foraged Morel and Half Free Mushroom Hash, Ying Yeng Green Onions, Grilled Blue Valley Gardens Asparagus and Sauce Maltaise. Texture-wise, the salmon was done just about perfectly--moist, flavorful on the inside, crispy on the outside. I enjoyed the fish on its own, though I felt that its accoutrements did overpower it somewhat, the mushrooms especially. FYI: Sauce Maltaise is a French sauce commonly served with asparagus--think Hollandaise tarted up with blood orange.

2b: Pan-Seared MacFarlane Pheasant
Served with a Brantmeier Spring Garlic Polenta, Blue Skies Black Tuscan Kale and Wild Foraged Morel and Chanterelle Mushroom Ragôut and Cognac Jus. I found the bird here quite delicious, with an absolutely lovely crisp, flavorful skin. Unfortunately, the flesh was a bit dry, and didn't have the juiciness I was looking for. I could've done without the polenta, as I'm not a fan of it in general, but the application of the slightly bitter kale was welcomed.

2c: Dry-Aged Fountain Prairie Farm New York Strip
Served with Driftless Organics Butterball Mashed Potatoes, Blue Valley Gardens Asparagus, Caramelized Harmony Valley Cipollini Onions, Black Earth Valley Mushrooms, finished with Bone Marrow, Beauty Heart Radish and Horseradish Compound Butter and Cabernet Jus. Cut from grass-fed Scottish Highland beef, the strip steak wasn't terribly fatty, though its flavor was definitely there. The accompaniments provided here weren't particularly creative, but they did their job, adding subtle sweet and peppery overtones to the meat.

3a: Selection of Wisconsin Artisan Cheeses
With Toasted Honey-Walnut Bread and Future Fruit Antique Apples. Being in Wisconsin (a state that makes more cheese than any other in the Union), I had to try the fromage course right? Starting from the right, the first cheese was the Benedictine from Carr Valley Cheese Company (a Wisconsin producer with over 100 years of history). Made from sheep, goat, and cow milk, its flavor was mild, tangy, yet so focused. Next up was Fayette Creamery's Little Darling cow's milk cheese. This was harder in consistency, and more rustic, with some earthy undertones and more complexity. Finally, we have a blue cheese from Bleu Mont Dairy. Produced using unpasteurized cow's milk, the cheese was fairly mild for a blue and a bit nutty--very good.

3b: Flourless Chocolate Cake
With Café du Monde Coffee Anglaise. This was a somewhat pedestrian chocolate cake, with a pleasant bitterness nicely set off by the coffee Anglaise. Unexciting, but tasty.

Mignardises
To finish up, we were given plates of caramel corn, which our server referred to as Fiddle Faddle. We also got a plate consisting of tangy miniature passion fruit icebox cakes and bits of candied and chocolate-covered bacon. The bacon was obviously the most interesting item here, with a pronounced sweetness that more than offset its naturally saltiness (taking a page from the Alinea playbook perhaps?).

Despite a few minor missteps, I really relished my time here. L'Etoile is all about top-quality, local, seasonal ingredients, deftly prepared, and in that regard, it succeeds with flying colors. The restaurant's imperative to maintaining its philosophy is apparent in the food, the ambiance, the staff, just about everything--there's something I can definitely appreciate about holding steadfast on such a commitment. L'Etoile seems to be just about the perfect restaurant for a place like Madison, and is definitely worth a try if you're ever in the area.

Full review with photos: http://www.kevineats.com/2009/05/leto...

  1. Fritter Jun 1, 2009 02:51 PM

    Nice review. This has been on our list to visit for a long time. Thanks for the reminder.
    BTW Very nice shots from that little Sony! ;)

    1 Reply
    1. re: Fritter
      kevin h Jun 1, 2009 05:56 PM

      Thanks! I wouldn't call it "little" though. ;)

    2. Cookiefiend Jun 1, 2009 01:39 PM

      Thanks for the report kevin h - we're heading to Madison next week and will be taking clients to dinner. We were thinking L'Etoile or Sardine - you may have made our minds up for us!
      Thanks!

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