In a word: The biggest jewel in the crown of restaurants surrounding our capitol.
The specs: #0312
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JM ate the prix fixe: Krinke's goose breast prosciutto with cox orange pippin apple & frisee salad tossed in rice wine honey vinaigrette; perciatelli with Willow Creek Farm pork shoulder ragout, fried sage leaves and romano cheese; and Ela Orchard apple and wild black berry crisp with oat streusel and creme de mure ice cream, with a Sprecher root beer.
Nichole ate the Willow Creek Farm bacon and caramelized Black Earth Valley onion soup with 20-month Aged Pleasant Ridge Reserve croutons in a sherry broth; Hidden Springs sheep's milk cheese ravioli with roasted primrose beets & Harmony Valley crosnes, shallot confit, Snug Haven spinach and a hickory nut-sage brown butter sauce; and the Meyer lemon curd tart with dark chocolate layer and Crave Brothers mascarpone, with an elderflower sparkler and an espresso.
The bill was $100, or $50/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole gave L'Etoile an A (see our grading rubric).
So this is it. Here we are reviewing the most famous Madison locale. L'Etoile makes the list of national top 50 restaurants and garners many awards, and has been a cornerstone in the larger "slow food" movement. Despite having been to 311 Madison restaurants in the last 4 years - and writing about them at more and more length lately - we're still just a couple of crazy kids: one from the northwest side of Milwaukee with a window on that city's ethnic cooking, and the other from whiter-than-Wonder-Bread Osseo via Hudson. We're in over our heads big time here.
And yet... here's the L'Etoile staff taking our reservations and coats with elan, seating us with personalized menus, explaining dishes using easy-to-digest terms. We were not treated as what we were but as what we could be, people who enjoy eating well-prepared, chef-selected cuisine, with a capital Q.
So, what you already know: L'Etoile is Madison's foremost restaurant, at least from a national perspective. The cuisine changes as ingredients and the chef's whim change. Here today, gone tomorrow. Well, we were here today and here's what we got.
The meal began with a plate of diamond-shaped crackers topped with herb butter and a hickory nut. Downed in one bite or several, they were wonderful - the crackers crackled under our stern chompers. JM foolishly thought this was the amuse bouche, but of course this was the pre-amuse bouche amuse bouche. Which is fun to say.
To our surprise and delight, the actual amuse bouche arrived at our table a minute later. It was a small cup of root vegetable soup with carrots, parsnips, and salsify with a tiny meatball at the bottom, finished with white truffle oil. The overall flavor of this was the essence of a woodfire on a cold night: musty and smoky but with the vegetables adding to the overall essence.
Prosciutto, of the pig variety (see below), is one of JM's favorite meats. Light, with just a hint of sweetness. This goose variety met or exceeded whatever his ideal goose meat idea would have been. The small accompanying salad was flavorful and crunchy in stark contrast to wonderfully tender and nicely squishy cold goose meat. The only downside was that the flesh left his lips coated in a slick of grease. Reporting this aloud led to a kiss from Nichole, so all's well that ends well!
The onion soup was prepared with a little bit of tableside vaudeville (an authentic touch that seemed light-years away from the hammy KBC show). The soup bowl arrived with croutons, cheese, bacon lardons, and onions arranged in the center, and the sherry broth was poured into the side of the bowl from a small white teapot only after the bowl was settled firmly (and silently) on the table. This maximized the time the croutons stayed crispy in the aromatic broth. Nichole's first bite made her think of church: the smoky bacon invoked incense. Some use incense to hone their spiritual focus and to transport themselves to another plane of reality. We'd recommend this bacon for that purpose. The broth was subtly sweet, the cheese sharp yet mellow.
Three half-moon cheese ravioli on a brown-butter-glazed plate came next. The pasta dough was tender and tinted pink in places from the primrose beets, which were settled in the nest the ravioli made for them, along with their friends the spinach, crosnes (aka chorogi, a kind of artichoke), and shallots. The cheese inside the ravioli was mellow and velvety. When the artfully piled entree was gone to the last bite, Nichole had a hard time not picking up the plate and licking it clean, the brown butter sauce was that good.
Of course, JM's meal would be a simpler and closer to home event. The handmade perciatelli with pork shoulder, swimming as it was in butter and oil, was a wonderful departure from the traditional Italian cuisine. While he only had the courage to eat one fried sage leaf, he did note that the cheese flavor was exceptional and he was heartened to know that this tasty pig who laid down his life for such a fabulous dish was treated humanely. Hooray for pig!
The Meyer lemon curd tart balanced its flavors perfectly. The lemon curd was thick yet almost graceful in its fluidity, and very tart, but the thin layer of dark chocolate atop the crust provided contrast. Likewise a sweet, creamy mascarpone cleared the slate between forkfuls. The crust was firm and Nichole's fork snapped onto the plate more than once, as if it were a bell tolling for the imminent end of the meal.
JM's Apple and Black Berry Crisp was quite tasty too, even though he doesn't much care for blackberries. These, however, lacked any acerbic overtones or unfortunately crunchy seeds. The balance between fruits was great and the ice cream added a nice composition of flavor.
But wait... there's more! When the dessert plates had been cleared, our server arrived once more with a final lagniappe: a tiny bite of homemade fiddle-faddle and a die-sized cube of dense, chili-pepper cocoa. It was a characteristically playful finale to a memorable meal.
Sometimes when it's time to go to a restaurant that's more special than average, we look for an event to commemorate. Kennedy Manor, Greenbush Bar and Dining Room have marked anniversaries; Johnny Delmonico's, Fleming's, and Deininger's made birthdays memorable (with a little stretching on the schedule - to be honest, we more often land somewhere like Boston Market and Copper Top). There was no need for such an event for this big night out. L'Etoile is a celebration in and of itself. L'Etoile is and will remain the rest of the world's choice for Madison's best restaurant.
So, you don't have to take our word for it. Whether you take in a full meal from wine flight to cheese plate, or just pick a quiet Tuesday to be surprised by the prix fixe, you will leave satisfied.