Kyle Ate Here - The second anniversary edition

Two years ago, July turned into perhaps the most important month of my year. My birthday's in May, and October holds a lot of value for Kristine and I (her birthday, and our dating anniversary). But July 18th, 2009, was the day July trumped them all. We married after 11 years of dating, and suddenly July was anchored in our own little firmament as a Big Deal.

This July's dining calendar was dominated in one respect by Jimmy's American Tavern, my most recent review for Isthmus--it's linked in the sidebar to the right. But while some new experiences in Madison and beyond certainly made July noteworthy, there was one dining experience that quite simply destroys the curve.


L'Etoile

Five years ago, there's no way I'd have guessed that Kristine and I would be one of the couples who returns to L'Etoile for an anniversary dinner each year. But after last year's amazing experience at the end of 25 North Pinckney, we couldn't resist. Four courses later, we're hooked for sure.

An amuse bouche of slightly deconstructed gazpacho was playful and vibrant--it's always nice to start a meal with a laugh. Salade Lyonnaise for her (the smoked mushrooms a pleasant surprise), beef carpaccio with pea vine and equally outspoken pickled mushrooms for me. The midcourse was an easy choice for Kristine; a delicious reprise of her favorite dish from our honeymoon, tempura-battered squash blossoms. I loved the drunken Gulf shrimp in a Tyranena Three Beaches Blonde Ale and XO butter sauce; the hunk of soft pretzel was an absurdly glorious addition.

The fruits of the seas/oceans/lakes were the order of the day on this particular menu. Corvina done in a Mediterranean style and a bucatini di mare both sounded tremendous, but Kristine chose the rockfish with two treatments of cauliflower (truffled purée and caramelized); it was lovely, atop garlic-braised collards. I continued my roughly Asian through-line with a Chinese takeout-style feast: rare seared duck breast, radish pods, broccoli, snow peas, sweet onion fried rice topped with a hen egg, braised bok choy, and a tart cherry sweet-and-sour sauce. It was unparalleled in the world of Column A/Column B Chinese food, and yet entirely reminiscent. Every bite was another little celebration of Chef Miller's imagination.

Three courses of professionally unimpeachable wine pairings were the icing on the cake, and the desserts, coffee, and complimentary petit fours wound the meal down in all the right ways. Whenever we think of this meal, we wonder if it would cheapen the anniversary experience to find other reasons to treat ourselves. We're beginning to think it'd be a shame not to.


The rest of July

Barbecue at Papa Bear's on Independence Day (glad to discover they were open on maybe the perfect holiday for BBQ), and first visits to Bea's Bonnet (holy sandwich cookie!), Harold's Chicken Shack (an over-cooked letdown), Restaurant El Pastor (acceptable), Habanero's (will likely replace 60-80% of my Chipotle trips), and China Inn (forgettable but for the fried sweet biscuits) made for a very educational July. The pulled pork at Brickhouse was an imposing mountain of meat; it generated three meals. The Old Fashioned has a couple new burgers since our last visit; the spicy burger is indeed hot, and any burger from the Old Fashioned kitchen will satisfy, ultimately.

Venturing out of state for the first time in a long while, Kristine and I visited friends and took in a couple meals in the Windy City. Sunday brunch at Kitsch'n was crowded (though not as much as previous visits to Toast were); the bloody Mary was far blander than a chipotle bloody Mary has any right to be, and my chicken and waffles (appropriate for a diner on Roscoe) were okay, but that's about it. Dinner at the recently-reviewed Owen & Engine (three stars from the Tribune's Phil Vettel) was much more successful. Reminiscent of the charms of Underground Kitchen, O&E's British-tinged pub fare was dark and hearty, the ginger beered house Pimm's Cup bright and enlivening. There was a funeral home next door with a truly gorgeous front door; I wanted to open a lounge in there just to sop off Owen & Engine's happy excesses.


The best thing I ate

This is a little unfair. Pitting China Inn's sweet fried biscuits--simple, but the Platonic ideal of fairgrounds-style fried bread, served at 10 for $4--against anything from one of the country's 50 best restaurants would be a challenge to even the judges at Westminster. And what of the No. 6 lazy Susan at The Old Fashioned? Braunschweiger, pickles, two Widmer's cheese spreads, smoked trout, creamed herring, and sausage? Ye gods, yes. Even the sausages from Brickhouse hold some electors in their sway. The compromise inherent in marriage tells me that I should choose L'Etoile's zucchini blossoms; Kristine loved them, and truthfully so did I. But dangit, I'm still my own man! I choose beer and pretzels! The drunken shrimp were rich, hot and even though there were no heads to suck, they were still a little naughty. Sopping one's plate with a piece of bread feels more than a little gauche at such a fine restaurant, but damned if I didn't do it anyway.