L’Etoile (French meaning “The Star”) is situated in center of Madison. Restaurant occupies the ground floor of the modern building with glass walls and a spectacular view of Wisconsin State Capitol which is only 3 feet shorter than the nation’s capitol in Washington D.C. The restaurant is run by executive chef and co-proprietor Tory Miller who was named, along with 4 other chefs, the finalist for Best Chef of Midwest region 2012 James Beard Foundation Award. Midwest region (in definition of James Beard Foundation) includes Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. As a matter of fact, Chicago restaurants are not competing in this region. We were intrigued by nomination of Chef Tory Miller and made a reservation for Saturday evening. The interior of L’Etoile, a spacey hall with modern décor, resembles luxury New York style restaurant. The bar with a friendly barman is in the center of the hall, tables for small companies are in the front and tables for bigger groups are located at the back on some kind of mezzanine. That is where the table was prepared for our party of 10 (ranging in age from 11 to 57), which was fine. Both exterior and interior of the restaurant are impressive and receive highest marks.
In L’Etoile you are given a menu with the name of the party printed on it. It is a nice personal touch which I have not seen in any other restaurant. Good idea!
The meal began with canapés, small decorative food. And there occurred the first serious slip allowed by the restaurant team. As it common in high top food establishments, we were contacted in advance to inquire about possible allergies or food restrictions. We duly warned that one member of the party has a severe allergy to nuts. Nevertheless, everybody was served with the same type of canapé with nuts as one of the components. It is a serious oversight, since, if it would not be caught in time, it could very well ruin the whole evening. When we attracted waiter’s attention to this matter, canapé was quickly replaced. But what is the point of inquiring in advance about allergies, if you do not inform the waiter about it?
Canapés were followed by Amuse Bushe with asparagus (must be from Priske’s Asparagus farm) and cheese as main elements. Amuse Bushe were very delicate and enjoyable. Was it creamy cottage cheese? Anyway, the presentation was excellent; the food was unusual and tasty.
Next the first courses came.
Fountain Prairie beef carpaccio, grilled asparagus, hard boiled hen egg, pickled mushrooms, maple brioche croutons, truffled shoestring potatoes, Bleu Mount Dairy Havarti, pea shoots ($14). Carpaccio was very gentle, the flavor of vegetables added to the balance of the dish and display was nice. However hard boiled eggs did not work for me in this set up and seemed to be out of place.
L’Etoile emphasizes its enthusiastic support for local farms and even includes the farm names in menu, adding originality to the already quite sophisticated menu. It was our first time in this restaurant, but it appears that there are obligatory seasonal changes and the menu is continuously transforming. I personally do not share the passion for local organic and naturally-raised ingredients, but many people do.
House-smoked sturgeon, oyster mushroom-green garlic bread gallette, Jones Valley Farm mache, Meyer lemon-herb crème fraiche, fried capers ($15) The dish was nicely arranged and, according to those members of our part who ordered it, the sturgeon was excellent.
This was followed by Midcourses.
Stinging nettle risotto, Wild Alaskan King crab, rock shrimp, mushrooms, asparagus, SarVecchio, lemon zest ($17). Risotto was stunning.
Braised Fox Valley Beerkshire pork belly, corn bread puree, spring vegetables, bourbon jus, blackberry gastrique ($17)
Black Earth Valley baby lettuce soup, smoked ham, spring garlic, 15-yr cheddar cheese, buttermilk fried chicken, dill, tarragon ($16). The soup looked very nice and tasted amazing. As you see the majority of the dishes in L’Etoile are rather complex with multiple top drawer local ingredients. In this case it all contributed nicely to impressive flavor.
L’Etoile has an extensive wine list, but it is where the second slip happened. We ordered a bottle of Barbarescu 2006 from Giuseppe Nada Winery ($62) and were not impressed. The second bottle however was amazing. It was 2006 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Spelt ($51) and everybody loved it. It is a delicious wine coming to maturity in 2012 (91 points in Parker scale). So we ordered one more bottle and were told that we bought the last one. Not good, but it happens sometimes. In this case the restaurant should offer another wine of similar type for the price of first one, even if it is more expensive. We made our selection, the order was taken and everything was fine. However, five minutes later our order was refused on the ground that the ordered wine was too expensive. Well, that should not happen. Surely, the restaurant suffers some loss in this case, but they need to think about saving the face, not the bank account. Anyway, the bottle of 2006 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Spelt can be purchased for $15-20 on the internet, the profits are remarkable for wine serving, and therefore restaurant would not lose too much by meeting our request. Our party paid more than $2,000 this evening and the restaurant was trying to save $20. L’Etoile is positioning itself as a high-end restaurant worthy of comparison with the best ones, but in this case they behaved like newcomers to the restaurant business. We were taken care of and got another wine (Mascarini Barolo La Serra 2007) which was actually very good (wine list price $82, sold to us for $51). By denying us our first choice the restaurant at the end saved $20 and spoiled its reputation. Astonishingly, it was not the end of it. Few days later, looking through the itemized receipt we discovered that the restaurant still charged us the full cost for the Mascarini. It took two phone calls to convince them to retract this decision.
Next came entrees
Pan roasted MacFarlane lamb-rack, marcona almond, dried fruit & pine nut couscous, Priske’s saparagus, Garam Masala date jus ($39). Couscous prepared with dried fruit and pine nuts was delicious, probably the best couscous I ever tasted. Lamb was nothing special. I am not a big fun of lamb rack, and this entree did nothing to change my mind.
Wild Alascan halibut, truffled Butter Mountain purple Viking potato puree, house-cured bacon lardons, grilled Egypian walking onion, wild ramp & mushromm ragout, herb salad, beurre rouge ($38). Halibut was served without the sauce and beurre rouge (butter based emulsified sauce) was added already at the table. The dish was pleasant and ingredients were of good quality (as in all dishes) but it was nothing extraordinary.
Grilled Dayboat scallops, Sprouting Acres cranberry beans, spicy Italian sausage, Canopy garden cherry tomatoes, red onions, braised baby kale, endive salad, pistou ($39)
John & Dorothy Priske Fountain Praire Farm dry-aged, grass-fed steak, gruyere-potato latkes, Snug Haven spinach, copra onion confit & mushroom ragout, blue cheese & bone marrow compound butter and Cabernet jus. 9 oz NY Strip ($54) was of good quality.
Deserts menu offered a number of interesting possibilities ($9 each). Lemongrass crème brulee, sesame lace cookie, polvoron. Crème brulee was quite ordinary and I did not like sesame lace cookie at all in this combination. Maybe it was supposed to contrast with its salty taste the sweetness of crème brulee, but it did not work for me.
Raspberry stuffed crepes, peach saffron sauce, apricot frozen yogurt. Again it was a nice desert, but nothing extraordinary. You can get similar desert in less ambitious places.
Port Flight was a collection of three high quality ports (1 ounce each): Quinta do Infantado 20-year tawny, 2005 Quinta do Noval Late Bottled Vintage Port and 1994 Dows Vintage Port ($16) served with some Wisconsin blue cheese.
With the check came caramel corn and the last slip. For some reason the dish which was $39 in menu was billed $45. How that could happen in a good place –beyond me. When mentioned to the waiter, it was immediately corrected, but still it shows the lack of attention to details (presumably the reason was the confusion with seasonal change of the menu), which should not happen in the restaurant aiming to be at the top.
In summary, L’Etoile is seeking the status of top restaurant and thus has high standards to meet. It is not there yet. The food is solid and ingredients are high quality, but the dishes are not breathtaking. Prices are high. L’Etoile is not eligible to Michelin rating (since Michelin currently is not looking at this region), but in any case it probably does not deserve it yet. The food preparation is inferior to such one star Michelin Chicago restaurants as Blackbird and Vie. The service and management are really second-rate. The interior and exterior are great. The wine list is excellent, but is downgraded by poor management.
In May the news came that Tory Miller was awarded the Best Chef of Midwest region 2012 James Beard Foundation Award. We congratulate the Chef and wish him to take the restaurant to new higher level.