Strange Brouhaha

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


It's our wedding anniversary today. Since your tenth anniversary doesn't come around every day, we decided that we would treat ourselves to dinner at L'Etoile, which is probably the best restaurant in Madison. It certainly has the best reputation; its founder and former owner, Odessa Piper, is a regional Beard award winner and, I think, was one of the first chefs in Wisconsin to embrace the idea of a "local" cuisine, using primarily seasonal ingredients supplied by local farms. The current executive chef was Chef de Cuisine under Piper.

It's a nice place, and I have mostly the same things to say about the ambience that I had to say about the ambience in my review of 12th Ave Grill in Hawaii: no gewgaws and you can focus on the food. L'Etoile is a small place--they probably have about a dozen tables on a regular night. Unfortunately for us, this wasn't a regular night, or at least I don't think it was. There were two large parties there tonight, each one at least a 12- or 14-top. As a result, it was pretty loud in there and it was difficult to have a conversation, especially since the table right next to us was having a tasting menu and wine expert (I heard "we at Gourmet Magazine" mentioned, I think), and so had to be even louder.

After we were seated, the server brought each of us a tiny dollop of herbed chevre with hazelnut on a cracker. As soon as we tasted it, we knew we had come to the right spot. After we ordered, we were given a couple of pieces of Epi bread--basically, a baguette roll--with a dish of butter, as well as an "amuse" of goat cheese, tomatoes, and something else. (Like a fool, I forgot my notebook, so I'm really going to fail to remember a lot.)

For starters, Savannah had an onion soup and I had a pulled duck confit salad. The soup looked beautiful and was served very nicely, poured from a small teapot at the table. In the center of the bowl was a cracker or shortbread topped with a rich, yellow tower of something--Savannah couldn't remember and I didn't taste it--that looked gorgeous floating in the middle of the light-brown broth. My salad was great--it had a variety of greens, a few slices of extremely fresh, tender strawberries, and shreds of duck that added a great almost-smoky flavor to the whole thing.

My entree was slices of expertly-trimmed grass-fed (and grain-finished) beef on a bed of spinach served with some excellent mashed potatoes on a red-wine reduction. It was fantastic. The beef--this was cut from a New York strip steak--was fork-tender and perfectly medium-rare. The potatoes were smooth and creamy, complemented well by the sauce and the beef. Savannah had a pan-seared chicken with a wild mushroom sauce over diced potatoes and chard. I found it to be a touch salty at first, but it was actually nicely done, the skin crisp and flavorful, the meat tender.

Along with our dinner, we had a half-bottle of D'Arenberg "Dead Arm" shiraz. (It's the exact one in the link, the 375ml '02.) I'm not usually a wine guy, but this was a good wine. When I asked the server about it to make sure that it would go with what we had ordered, she perked up and said "Oh, no, that's a lovely bottle." And it was. It was the perfect amount for us, too, as neither of us is really a wine drinker. Given my inexpertise, you can take my recommendation of this wine for whatever you think it's worth; it was very smooth and had a nice finish.

Then came the cheese course. Frankly, I think every restaurant should have a cheese course, even if it's just a couple of slices of Kraft cheddar or something. We made an error in judgement here by each ordering a cheese course, when we could easily have split one and been fine. I had the Bleu Mont Irish Gem cheddar, the 11-month Uplands Pleasant Ridge Reserve, and the Carr Valley Virgin Pine Native Blue. I swear I've had the Uplands cheese before; the taste and smell were familiar (and fantastic). The Irish Gem wasn't special, although it was just fine. The real surprise for me was the blue; I'm not a big fan of blue cheese, and I'm not a big fan of goat cheese, but the server got me intrigued when she called the cheese "interesting". I like interesting cheeses, and this one sure was interesting. The difference, she explained, was that the blue cheese mold was naturally-occuring, rather than induced. Whatever it was, it had a strong blue-cheese flavor that mixed very well with the goat cheese--the whole was definitely greater than the sum of the parts. It paired absolutely stunningly with the Pinot Gris that they recommended on the menu. In the short time I've been around, I've had very, very few foods that pair so perfectly with drinks the way these went together. (Savannah had the same Uplands cheese, as well as a fairly-standard 10-year cheddar and an uninspired blue that was nice and creamy but way too strong.)

For dessert, I had a slice of poundcake with vanilla ice cream and more of those gorgeous, tender strawberries. It was fine. Savannah's dessert, though, was absolutely incredible: small, warm doughnuts with a chocolate dipping sauce and a Door County cherry dipping sauce. The doughnuts were amazing: crisp on the outside, meltingly light on the inside. I wanted to hit her over the head and steal her dessert. I refrained, because it was our anniversary.

All in all, it was very good. It exceeded my expectations. We'll definitely go again.


  • I saw your step on my blog.I am not sure you can read Chinese or not,but want to be friend any way.:)

    By Blogger Noel, at 12:11 AM  

  • Silly Cheeseheads - don't they know Minnesota is L'Etoile du Nord?

    But a big congrats on your anniversary. I had such a great time at your wedding and it gives me joy to see you guys still having so much fun ten years later.

    By Anonymous Josh, at 4:48 PM  

  • (Savannah) Thank you, Josh. That's very kind. You are and always have been such a good friend, and we wish we could see you and Penny and your daughter more often.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:56 PM  

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