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In a word: The biggest jewel in the crown of restaurants surrounding our capitol.

The specs: #0312
Address, hours & details via Isthmus; Madison Originals profile; reviews and mentions at The Other Side of the Ocean, Nutritilicious, OnWisconsin, Yelp, Christopher Robin's Fresh Foods, food608, Dane101, Madison Dining Online, Badger Herald, Foodbuzz, Boston Globe, Jeremy Freese's Weblog, Madison Food Review, the Culinary Adventures of Jahboh & Tossy, magscanner, Dane101 again; Isthmus on Second Tuesdays, JSOnline; official web site, L'Etoile on Urbanspoon

Latest L'Etoile news and reviews

L'EtoileJM 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.

Amuse #1: cracker, butter, nutThe 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.

Amuse #2: root vegetable soupTo 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.

RollsTwo rolls, perfect in crust and crumb, came next. Even the butter was sweeter than usual.

Goose prosciuttoProsciutto, 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!

Onion soupThe 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.

RavioliThree 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 Lemon curd tartfluidity, 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. 

Berry crispJM'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.

After dinnerBut 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. 


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I'm so glad to hear you both enjoyed it! Madison has a few very good restaurants, but of all the places in town, L'Etoile is in a league of its own.

Be careful, though. It's addictive.

One of you is from Osseo? Uh oh. I lived in Eleva for a spell.

Someday I'll eat at L'Etoile...

Brian, I did catch myself thinking, "I could see eating here every week. The prix fixe isn't too expensive, all things considered..." then I woke up.

Skip, ever since I read your post about the Cards' football victory, I wondered if you and JM would get along if the truth were out. But there is hope. For instance, JM's family mostly identifies as Norwegian and mine is definitively Swedish, yet we seem to get along fine. Yet - "your kids," we were once told by a 100% Swedish friend, "will hate themselves."

Thanks for such a wonderful review. You may not think you have the technical foodie chops to review such a place, but you definitely made me feel like I knew what your meal tasted like and how it made you feel.


What is it with your reviews, fancy restaurants, and just missing Restaurant Week?

Huh. That should read "...and just missing Restaurant Week?" Musta screwed up the HTML.

I would eat here but I'm homeless.

Reading your reviews always makes me wish I was still in the midwest and not here in Seattle! Especially this review for some reason.

What an excellent review! Thanks so much for sharing. I haven't been there yet (too worried about spending too much money on hype), but now I will plan it for our next big celebration.

I appreciate your sense of glee and thrill of discovery, but it wouldn't hurt to take, at least, a slightly critical glance at the menu. You've made it clear you're fond of pork, for example, but can you imagine how mono-thematic L'Etoile's menu might look to someone who doesn't eat pork? It's not so much a matter of a chef's personal preference as it is a matter of a chef leaning on the trend-du-jour because she or he isn't artistically comfortable in a range of modes.

I've worked with a number of excellent meat-centric chefs, and the best of them were thrilled by the challenge of creating transcendant vegetarian (even vegan) dishes. That's because they worked on principles of flavor and weren't dependent on culinary tropes. I don't know that this is *not* the case for L'Etoile, but I do get the sense there is a certain redundancy that probably couldn't excuse itself in a more cosmopolitan setting. When even seafood dishes look to bacon (lardons) to as a supplement, it seems one should be wary. Fusion isn't the same as confusion.

I should hasten to add that L'Etoile displays a more deliberate embrace of local producers and growers that may not easily occur elsewhere. I'm thankful for that, and I think it adds remarkable depth to what l'Etoile would otherwise have to offer. That's no small thing.

As a vegetarian diner, I'm happy to respond to Pascal's concern: L'Etoile is one of my favorite restaurants.

At many of the nicer restaurants in Madison, the vegetarian options are an afterthought and the quality is inconsistent. An excellent example is Harvest, where there seems to be a "take it or leave it" attitude to vegetarian dining.

At L'Etoile, the chefs clearly direct some of their passion into the vegetarian selections. Nobody extracts and blends the flavors of local produce with the same creativity. It is marvelous.

In addition, the service at L'Etoile is second to none and the atmosphere is enchanting. It is an exceptional experience.

Wow, to be linked to such a respected blog! I am floored. Thank you. :)

I also would like to respond to the vegetarian concerns posted above. L'Etoile is my favorite restaurant in town not only for their consistently delicious food but also for their food ethics and the head chef's involvement in local programs that promote food education. All of that aside, one of my co-workers and her girlfriend, both vegetarians, had made plans to go to L'Etoile for their first time right before Christmas. In their excitement, they looked up the menu online and found no vegetarian dishes. My friend called the restaurant and whoever they spoke to said that they'd make sure to have vegetarian options for them. Sure enough, they were true to their word and my two friends had a lovely dinner. I had never heard of such an offer from a restaurant before and thought it was worth noting.

No one can drop a turd in a punchbowl better than a vegetarian in a discussion about good meat. This is coming from a former. Sheesh!

Anyway, we made our first trip to L'Etoile with friends last night (closing out Restaurant Week with a bang), and it was great. I didn't know entirely what to expect of the atmosphere, but it was exactly what I would have wanted it to be.

Highlight was easily the salt cod fritter, although the bread soup, rabbit tagliatelle, and fried risotto were also delicious. Would have liked a little more moisture on the rabbit dish, but if you're into the oiliness of game meats, then you've found a dish that embraces it.

We'd love to go back again and again, but will try to settle for a couple visits a year.

In a word: yummyslurpgobblechewmoreslurpyumtastydelishyummyagain.

That's one big word for one GREAT place. We love going there, but we live an hour away in dining Siberia(no good place to eat within 20 miles),so we don't get there often. Now I'm hungry...

Went here for my birthday dinner last night and was not disappointed. This really is the jewel in Madison's culinary crown. Not only was the food fantastic, but the wait staff was wonderful. I have been to fine dining locations in Paris and England and I have to say - this by far was the best meal I have ever had. My boyfriend is still raving about the amus bouche which was a squash soup with creme fresche and some kind of cheek bacon. Worth every penny.
Everthing impressed me - including printing menu's for me that said "Happy Birthday Heather". Definitely will be back again, may not be able to wait until the next birthday though. : )

It was pretty exciting to be at L'Etoile when the clock chimed midnight on the last day.

Here's to continued success at the new location.

The comments to this entry are closed.


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