I found out that I got a ridiculously nice job in Chicago today so I figured that since I’d be leaving Madison soon I should go do that thing I’d been putting off for 3 years. I paid a visit to L’Etoile, the most highly regarded restaurant in Madison.
I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get a reservation but it turned out not to be a problem. L’Etoile is located adjacent to Graze, run by the same people, but unlike Graze (spoiler alert) it is not mediocre. Step through the doors opposite the entrance to Graze and suddenly the noise level goes from raucous to muted, and suddenly I feel incredibly under dressed. However, this being Madison, and people being inordinately nice here, no one sneered at my goofy plaid shirt and jeans.
I ate too much. We both ordered three courses and of course I can never pass up a charcuterie plate. This was the first charcuterie plate I’ve had anywhere that wasn’t disappointing. Rillettes tend to let me down, but today’s pork and lavender offering was decent. Bresaola was the surprise winner, with the generous serving of paté coming in second. Between the canape, amuse-bouche (a lovely slice of smoked ham wedged between two savory biscuits and set off quite well by a Shiraz plum jam) and charcuterie I was already 40% full, but I was starting to feel like this might just be the first place since Rosemary’s Restaurant to justify the existence of fine dining.
My first course was a Vietnamese shrimp salad, with toasted sushi rice tossed with various fresh vegetables, thai basil, and a nuoc cham dressing. The rice was perfectly toasted with a lovely golden brown crust, and the dressing was better than most nuoc cham dressings I’ve had in the past. Our other first course was a mediocre Petit Frere cheese (apparently a Wisconsin creation), melted and served with slivers of cherries, pears, almonds, and mango-honey vinaigrette. For a dish that relied on cheese, the cheese just wasn’t good enough.
Second courses were a chevre mushroom risotto with matchsticks of pear and aged balsamic; short rib goulash. The risotto was excellent, great texture and creaminess. The balsamic was very fine stuff, and I gotta get me some of these Moonglow pears they use for everything because they are fantastic. The short rib goulash was disappointing, and not JUST because our bar is set incredibly high after having had goulash in Vienna. This just wasn’t a goulash, it was a goulash soup at best. The broth had too much paprika, there was no meat to speak of, and the “crème fraîche-chive dumpling” was just a lump of crème fraîche. Why would you call that a dumpling? That’s just misleading.
Main courses were a seared sturgeon with bratwurst, beer braised cabbage, salsify puree and mustard sauce; pheasant with dried fruit couscous, veggies, currywurst, Garam Masala date jus. These were both excellent. Must say, the chefs at L’Etoile excel at technique. The pheasant was so perfect, in seasoning and execution. The dried fruits in the couscous were reconstituted just the right way, and complemented the pheasant so well. The date jus was spectacular. I just didn’t understand why there was a currywurst on the plate. Or why the veggies consisted of bok choy and cauliflower. I mean, they were delicious … but why? The other dish was much the same, with individual components being perfectly cooked and seasoned … but why have a bratwurst, braised cabbage and … seared fish. Really well seared fish, but still. Clearly I must be a philistine.
We would have liked to try some dessert but our stomachs wouldn’t allow it. They gave us some complimentary sweets anyway, and those were wonderful. The caramel hickory popcorn had the best texture of any popcorn I have ever had, with a lovely flavor. The bittersweet chocolate truffle was delicious but I could not taste the ginger they claimed was in it. Pate de fruit of apricot had an unpleasant texture like a thick grainy jam, could have used some more pectin or something.
Summary: The chefs there really, really know how to cook food. Flavors were almost all fantastic. Textures were fantastic. Component combinations were sometimes questionable. Goulash soup does not equal goulash.