For most of its history, L'Etoile has been under the shadow of its ideological sibling out in California. Since its very first days in the mid-1970s, the Madison, Wisconsin, restaurant has worked closely with local farms and then-fledgling farmers markets, improbably sustaining its dynamism through four decades of operation — a remarkable feat, one that echoes the success of Alice Waters’ icon, Chez Panisse. I found a hint to the secret of that longevity on a recent visit, in a shallow bowl of flawlessly smooth corn soup. This pool of sunshine, made from a hybrid corn variety called Ambrosia, grown for the restaurant by a woman named Mary Celley who also tends bee hives, tasted like joy distilled into sustenance. Its nutty, fruity sweetness trumpeted the relief of warm days after the struggle of Wisconsin's Snow Belt winters.
The purity of the soup honored the philosophy of Etoile's founder, Odessa Piper, who ran the restaurant for 29 years before selling it in 2005 to her chef de cuisine, Tory Miller. Piper's finessed cooking showed a knack for soulful combinations (squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese and garlic scape pesto; whitefish with cabbage and apples) that conveyed a sophisticated hominess.
Miller is more of a fine-dining devotee who trades in modernism. The corn soup, created under his direction, also included a half-dozen artfully strewn garnishes. Whole blueberries and dots of blueberry puree accentuated the season. Popcorn and candied violets brought to mind childhood binges on salty and sweet snacks at the movie theater on long summer afternoons. Scattered hunks of glossy langoustine cast some spoonfuls out to sea; the grassy crunch of micro-chard reeled others back to shore. There was a whole lot happening in this dish, but the corn's prevailing flavor kept any one other element from spinning too far into its own orbit.
Over and over I had this experience, through all my meals at the restaurant. The food had the sculptural qualities embraced by upscale restaurant kitchens across America: meats and vegetables and herbs arranged in military-precise rectangles, or formed into a crescent moon angled across one curve of a plate, or scattered in a pleasing abstract pattern. But the ingredients themselves brimmed with such life, such barefaced freshness, that they transcended the fussy presentations and simply radiated goodness.
This is Piper's enduring legacy. She opened L'Etoile in 1976, and soon acquired a reputation as an Alice Waters-type evangelist of the Great Lakes region. We may all be jaded now by the cheerleading around seasonal-local-sustainable food practices, and awake to the misappropriations of these ideals. But in the '70s, choosing to rely on local growers to supply a restaurant really was radical, and Piper was hell-bent on making it work. On Saturday mornings, she was an omnipresent figure at the then-four-year-old Dane County Farmers' Market — now the country's largest producers-only farmers market — pulling a teetering mountain of produce in the child's red wagon she tugged behind her.
Piper spent decades encouraging and cultivating relationships with Wisconsin producers; an in with L'Etoile was pay dirt for foragers seeking out wild mushrooms or farmers who'd mastered aged goat cheese. By the time Piper sold the business to Miller, 80 percent of the vegetables and fruits on her winter menu were grown nearby (aided by innovations like heated hoop houses), and all of the meats were raised locally. In California, similar efforts made for a camera-ready revolution; in the Midwest, Piper's tenacity perhaps didn't win her outsize fame, but it did galvanize a community.
The ingredients brim with such life, such barefaced freshness, that they transcend the fussy presentations and radiate goodness.
For Miller, rooting himself in Madison's capital was a homecoming. He was born in Seoul, South Korea, and adopted by a German-American couple in Racine, Wisconsin; his mother's family ran a diner until he was 16. He graduated from New York's French Culinary Institute in 2000, and he cooked at Manhattan restaurants like Judson Grill, Jean-Georges, and Eleven Madison Park before moving to Madison. In taking the baton from Piper, Miller has upheld L'Etoile's intense sense of place: He's now the one navigating the wagon through the Saturday morning farmers market.
But he's also veered into an even more ambitious entrepreneurial role. Miller and his business partners have opened three additional restaurants in the last decade: Graze, in the same building, a comfort food hangout (burgers, schnitzel, mac and cheese); Sujeo, a pan-Asian restaurant (love the Wisconsin cheese curds with kimchi and gochujang mayo, a wink to Miller's background); and the latest, Estrellon, a glam tapas bar where the bartenders make a killer G&T. They all measure up in Madison's kinetic, diverse, college-town dining scene, but L'Etoile still clearly stands as Miller's showpiece — and a place he's very much made his own.
Beyond the two restaurants' common dedication to culinary hyper-regionalism, over the years the Chez Panisse comparison has staled. "Odessa never really intended for L'Etoile to be a fine dining destination," Miller told me over the phone. "But the food she was purchasing cost so much that making the restaurant work financially meant that it had to become this experience. When I took over I embraced the fine-dining reputation. I wanted to push that aspect of the place even further."
He cemented that intent by relocating the restaurant in 2010, moving it away from its intimate, 47-seat nook and into a nine-story, 303,000-square-foot office building that locals refer to as "the glass bank." Outfitted with a horseshoe-shaped bar, teardrop pendant light fixtures, brown and neutral tones, and durable gray carpet patterned with vine-like squiggles, the vast space, to me, conjures all the anodyne corporate pleasantness of a J.W. Marriott lobby.
But the room has one tremendous selling point: a sweeping view, through floor-to-ceiling windows, of the city's Capitol Square, the white granite-domed state building visible through clusters of trees. Sitting at a front-row table, the world outside the restaurant becomes a theater. One night, the entertainment with my meal was an evening concert on the square, where I watched through soundproof glass as a trombonist on the stage played music I surreally couldn't hear, as the gathered throngs wandered through vendor tents selling kettle corn, sandwiches, and pork belly buns.Thunder rumbled through the room the night of my second meal, as the full house sat rapt, watching lightning bolts crackle through the dusk like it was the Fourth of July.
I relished the tasting menu's balance of technical dazzle, gratifyingly interspersed with simpler pleasures.
Not that dinner at L'Etoile needs a show to make it enthralling. Miller and his chef de cuisine Itaru Nagano write the menu daily; their imaginations greet the bounty that appears at the kitchen's back door. Select from a la carte dishes or sail through a seven-course tasting option. The former yields mosaics like a pork chop — brined, sous vided, seared, and sliced — set on a tableau of avocado cream, green beans sauteed in bacon, flowering coriander, halved cherry tomatoes, and piles of rye berries puffed and crisped to the texture of corn nuts. Also: an eye-popping diorama of quail, compressed watermelon, pickled watermelon rind, crumbled feta, and five perfect arugula leaves. (The a la carte section is also home to my one overt disappointment, a nicely grilled piece of snapper laid over a moat of flat-tasting prawn jus in which shishito peppers were disintegrating to mush.)
But if I were you, I'd lean toward the tasting menu. I relished its balance of technical dazzle, gratifyingly interspersed with simpler pleasures. The most wizardly effort came first: a multi-component tomato number including clear gazpacho (created by filtering the mixture overnight), a translucent terrine of tomato slices arranged in a gorgeous ombré from golden pale to deep scarlet, and one glorious round finished with Tamworth prosciutto from Iowa. All stunning to behold — but more importantly, glorious to savor.
That ray-of-sunlight corn soup followed; so did duck with eggplant and basil agnolotti sauced with a tomato butter that tasted like tomato-cream soup boiled down to its richest essence. I should return to L'Etoile in the winter to see how Miller and his crew make the best of it in the leaner months. But I probably won't. The summer riches spoiled me.
I know from great blackberries — I live in the South — but the berries L'Etoile served for dessert were something else, something from a higher plane. Their sourness was subtle, a flickering ache against the sweet, like flashing back to your great lost love on the morning of your wedding day. I'm serious, the fruit was that profound. And it wasn't only the blackberries that reached such height. Apricots served with foie gras made my eyes roll back in pleasure. The poached cherries over torrijas (a Spanish variation on French toast) were atomic flavor bombs, every single one.
The truth is, the only other restaurant in America I've had fruit so ridiculously otherworldly is at the upstairs cafe at Chez Panisse. But don't let that comparison keep you from making a summertime beeline to Madison. The players and the setting may have changed over its four decades, but L'Etoile remains in a class of its own.
1 South Pinckney Street, Madison, (608) 251-0500, letoile-restaurant.com