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Review: Foodies Appreciate Top Chef Treatment at L'Etoile

Capitol Square Restaurant Sets the Standard for Fine Dining

About.com Rating 5 Star Rating

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l'etoile-state-capitol

A wall of glass provides L'Etoile diners with a magnificent State Capitol view.

Photo by Samantha Egelhoff
Two James Beard Foundation awards separate L'Etoile from other fine dining restaurants in Madison. The most recent came seven years after an ownership change and two years after L'Etoile was moved from an intimate upstairs location to more spacious quarters downtown.

The Bottom Line

No Madison restaurateur is a bigger supporter of local farmers and foods than L'Etoile co-owner Tory Miller, who won the 2012 Best Chef: Midwest award from the James Beard Foundation. His adventurous approach to fine dining uses marrow to meats in elegant, creative ways.

    Pros
  • Nationally acclaimed
  • Menu showcases local foods
  • Capitol Square location

    Cons
  • High-end dining
  • Dinner-only menu

The Basics
L'Etoile
1 S. Pinckney St.
608-251-0500
Phone reservations advised.
Dining begins at 5:30 p.m. weekdays, 5 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Cost: At least $100 for two people.

Guide Review - L'Etoile

Many worthy chefs compete for consumer attention in Madison and prefer to cook with locally produced foods, but few showcase farms by name on the menu. Tory Miller's mentor, L'Etoile founder Odessa Piper, began this tradition after opening the restaurant in 1976. She earned a James Beard award 11 years before her successor.

Other Madison chefs have accepted invitations to cook at Manhattan's James Beard House, but only L'Etoile has earned a James Beard award. A one-block move in 2010 increased the size of L'Etoile (French for "star") by 75%.

Diners see the softly lit State Capitol through a wall of glass (the setting is a former bank building). Restaurant décor is sleek, uncluttered and edgy. The food doubles as art, stylishly plated and garnished.

Tory goes whole hog, literally, by buying animals from local farms instead of just prime cuts of meat. His staff also preserves locally grown fruits and vegetables, so strawberries and sweet corn might appear on menus in winter.

Menu Favors Local Farmers, Artisans

l'etoile-graze-signs

L'Etoile and its sister business, the more casual Graze gastropub, are next to each other on Madison's Capitol Square.

Photo by Samantha Egelhoff
Ingredients are purchased from more than 200 local vendors. This entrée description, one of five recent choices, shows off the chef's ambition and priorities:

"John & Dorothy Priske's Fountain Prairie Farm Scottish Highland dry-aged, grass-fed steak with gruyère-potato latkes, Blue Valley Gardens asparagus, copra onion confit & mushroom ragoût, blue cheese & bone marrow compound butter with Cabernet jus."

This beef ensemble comes in two sizes: $56 for the 13-ounce rib eye and $54 for the 9-ounce New York strip. Fish and vegetarian entrées always make it onto the menu, too. Meal portions are delicate in appearance but filling.

The pace of dining is leisurely and spacious, especially when compared to the cozy, dimly lit and romantic upstairs quarters of the original L'Etoile, which also overlooked Capitol Square.

Odessa sold L'Etoile to Tory and his sister, Traci Miller, in 2005. Dianne Christensen was added as a co-owner before the restaurant location changed and expanded. Besides more space, the move made it easier for the chef to establish his own culinary identity.

Specialty Dinners, Pairings, Gastropub Fare

In addition to the often-changing dinner menu, specialty dinners with celebrity guests occasionally are scheduled. My favorite was a five-course bacon dinner and talk by Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Mich. It ended with maple-bacon-bourbon custard and salted caramel sauce, plus a 15-year-cheddar and apple brown betty.

Proceeds from the $105 meal defrayed gardening costs at Sherman Middle School, where Tory helps teach students about growing food, cooking and eating nutritious food.

Wisconsin cheeses are star players in occasional wine-cheese tastings, which are five-round and two-hour events. Michael Kwas, longtime wine director, favors artisan wineries with sustainable practices in latitudes that are comparable to Madison's (43rd parallel).

Living on a leaner budget? The more casual counterpart to L'Etoile is Graze, an adjacent gastropub. Tory describes the cuisine as "modern American comfort food."

That means familiar foods with unpredictable twists. Example: Springtime rhubarb ceviche, instead of rhubarb pie.

Look for the beet and walnut burger on The Sandwich King on the Food Network.

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