Exploring the Culinary Culture of Madison, Wisconsin and Surrounding Area

An Evening at L’Etoile

By on September 10, 2007 in Dinner, food porn!, Reviews with 0 Comments

L’Etoile truly represents the elitist of Madison.  Oh, not in the way that Flemings, or Delmonico’s, or Tornado Club do.  No, L’Etoile is old world Madison.  It’s for those old time Madisonians who remember the day when fine dining didn’t have choices, and L’Etoile was out of the reach of most… yet a shining star on the landscape which was Madison Dining.  The reputation was so far reaching that the former owner, Odessa Piper, became a nationally renowned entity.

Recently, I took part in a Madison foodie panel, during which there was surprising sentiment expressed that “Foodie” was a bad thing to be.  I’m pleased to say that L’Etoile caters to foodies.  More on why that is, sprinkled throughout this tale.

I called for reservations several days in advance.  I was counseled, upon request, that if I wanted a window table, we needed to be amongst the first in the restaurant.  And so I made reservations for 6 PM.  As I went to hang up the phone, I heard the voice at the other end question whether or not we were celebrating a special event.  Because, you know, it is that sort of special event place, in a very non-TGIF sort of way.

I’m somewhat embarrassed and yet still defiant enough to admit to the fact that I confirmed a special event celebration – an anniversary.  Now, reality is, it was not an anniversary.  Yet, I wanted to see what they did to honor that sort of event.  Additionally, after 18 years or so of co-habitating with another with nary an anniversary celebration observed, I didn’t see anything wrong with confirming that there was indeed an anniversary celebration to be had.

Blue Cheese Hand-Stuffed Olive

Blue Cheese Hand-Stuffed Olive

We arrived slightly early.  During the week dinner seatings begin at 6PM, yet one can sit in the very small bar starting at 5:30.  The bartender took very good care of us, disappearing for quite some time to fulfill my request of blue cheese stuffed olives to go with my martini.  As he came back from the kitchen, hand stuffing the olives with the cheese, he reverently pointed out the fact that he was using Hook’s Blue Paradise Cheese.  Hook’s cheese is a passion of ours, and so we appreciated the hushed confession.  Few places in Madison will hand stuff an olive with Blue Cheese upon request.  Even fewer will use Hook’s Artisinal Cheese.  Exhibit One as to why L’Etoile is a place for foodies.

The bartender served my martini with a flourish, and poured my companion his Lake Louie Scotch Ale.  He then called us by name as he wished us a Happy Anniversary.  To top off his attention to detail, I watched as he subtly inched a candle closer to the patrons next to us who were struggling to read the drink list in the dark recesses of the bar area.  I can not think of many bartenders who would even notice the need.

We were seated, eventually, at a prime table with the most amazing view of the Capital that one can find while dining.  There are not many scenes in the city that are as breathtaking.  We also noted that the staff had printed out a special menu for us, wishing us a personalized Happy Anniversary.  It was a nice touch.

Amuse Bouche

Amuse Bouche

Our server approached with an Amuse Bouche – a very small hors d’œuvre meant to literally entertain the mouth.  In all the years that we’ve been going to L’Etoile, the Amuse Bouche has seldom changed dramatically.  It is a bite sized, wafer-thin cracker with herbed cheese and a nut on top.  And this is another reason that L’Etoile is a haven for foodies – the small attention to detail provided one very small bite of flavor to be savored.

Taste of the Season

Taste of the Season

Unexpectedly, we were served yet another small favor – the Taste of the Season.  This consisted of a very small tea cup filled with intense tomato flavor – clear tomato water infused with oregano with a skinless cherry tomato dropped into the liquid.  If you love tomatoes, this was simply amazing, and I am desperate to know how they infused such flavor into a clear water.  Now, having gone to L’Etoile at this particular time of year in hopes of finding the menu brimming with Heirloom Tomato based dishes, and discovering none to be found, this went a very long way in making up for the disappointment.  I suspect we scheduled our visit a week too late to partake in the heirloom tomato adventures.

Minestrone Soup

Minestrone Soup

And because there were no heirloom tomato-based fist courses to be had, we settled for the Minestrone Soup ($11) and the Warm Chevre Salad ($12.50).  Each was topnotch.  The Minestrone was a rich broth brimming with seasonal vegetables and made with Willow Creek Farm Italian Sausage.  The Chevre Salad was made with Fantôme Farm cheese, and topped with Shooting Star Farm Frisée, Willow Creek Farm Bacon Lardons, and a Raspberry Vinaigrette.  It made for a fresh, light start to the meal.

Willow Creek Farm Pork Chop over a Creamy Herb Polenta

Willow Creek Farm Pork Chop over a Creamy Herb Polenta

Our entrees arrived with perfect timing.  The Willow Creek Farm Pork Chop ($35) was sliced and served over a Creamy Herb Polenta.  The pork was tender, juicy and flavorful, and the Pork Dijon Jus and Concord Grape Gastrique added an elegant finishing touch to the preparation.  Served along side were perfectly sauteed Collard Greens.


Scottish Highland Sirloin

Scottish Highland Sirloin

The Scottish Highland Sirloin ($38), from Fountain Prairie Farm, was also served sliced, atop Mashed Yukon Potatoes.  Cooked to a perfect Medium Rare, it was a very nice cut of beef.  Served along side the steak were Haricots Verts, a Spring Onion and Exotic Mushroom Ragout, some Hook’s Blue Cheese and Bone Marrow Compound Butter, and and a Red Wine Jus.

And the entrees again point out the Foodie allure at L’Etoile.  Ingredients are not only highly local and seasonal, but the originating local producers of the ingredients are proudly promoted throughout the menu and the meal.  This is what sets L’Etoile apart from many of the other upscale Madison restaurants.

L’Etoile won the 2006 Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, and it is easy to see why.  The list has excellent variety and quality wines.   We chose a Tablas Creek Vineyard 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel, a Rhone blend of Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache, and Counoise ($65), and were pleased with it’s elegance and long finish.

Wisconsin Artisan Cheese Course

Wisconsin Artisan Cheese Course

We finished our meal with a Flight of three Ports ($13), and the Wisconsin Artisan Cheese course.  We had a choice of five cheeses ($16).  We knew we wanted the Hooks Blue Paradise, and the Uplands 13-month Pleasant Ridge Reserve, as well as the Bleu Mont Dairy All-Cracked Up Gouda.  We asked our server to round out the rest of the selection, which he did very admirably.  The cheeses were served with Toasted Hazelnut and Apricot Bread and thin slices of Antique Apples.  We experienced yet another foodie moment as our server informed us that two of our cheeses, though from different cheesemakers, shared milk from the same local dairy.

We don’t go to L’Etoile often, reserving it as a special treat scheduled around our favorite points in the produce season.  And while the last few times we had gone, we had been less awed than usual, this trip to L’Etoile was a first class experience in terms of both the meal and the service.  If you consider yourself a foodie, or even if you simply enjoy creatively prepared, flavorful, seasonal food with excellent service, treat yourself to a trip to L’Etoile.  You won’t regret it!

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  1. Alex says:

    What a lovely, poetic review! My husband and I are in town on business, and I have spent the last hour perusing the internet for the best restaurants in town. Thanks to your review, we will most definitely try out L’Etoile for dinner tonight!
    We went to Fresco the other night (on the contemporary museum roof), and that, too, was a lovely and delicious “foodie” experience.

  2. Dave says:

    The lack of heirloom tomatoes was likely because of the extreme rains in August. They wiped out many of the best local growers.

  3. Chris says:

    My husband & I just celebrated our anniversary at L’Etoile as well. We had a lovely expereience as well. The subtle fine touches were appreciated- even down to the personalized menus. Our food was amazing — definately would recommend for any special occasion.

  4. Nancy says:

    I love L’Etoile. I am going tomorrow night for the Bordeaux wine tasting dinner. It is a restaurant where the wait staff really know what they are serving. They have a way of being attentive but unobtrusive. The whole experience is so much fun.

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