This post might sound a little familiar if you were here this time last year; July means my wedding anniversary, and that in turn means our annual indulgence at L'Etoile. With a year's passing came a boost to the already-high profile of Madison's most famed restaurant. Chef Tory Miller took top honors as the James Beard Foundation named him the Midwest region's Best Chef, 11 years after his predecessor and L'Etoile's founder, Odessa Piper, won the same award.
So yes, a dining roundup that attempts to balance a meal worthy of a Beard Award with much more modest and approachable fare is perhaps doomed to imbalance. That said, a couple folks in the Tory Miller restaurant lineage have opened a modest and approachable little cafe called 4 & 20 Bakery and Cafe, and my review published in July. 4 & 20 excluded, the rest of the month's highlights follow.
A hearty "welcome back" goes out to the Underground Food Collective team, who opened their new restaurant in mid-June. Forequarter isn't exactly Underground Kitchen (nor is it meant to be), but there are familiar notes. Shareable plates abound, along with sensible and well-crafted cocktails. Spicy corn coblettes and veal meatballs were among the favorites, but the humble ripped bread stole all its scenes as far as I'm concerned. Warm, oily, and fragrant with fennel, the bread paired exquisitely with both warm ricotta and potted pork shoulder. Plaka Taverna impressed with simple but sturdy breakfast plates (I'll take the Plaka platter, but the Rock the Casbah's spiced chicken certainly satisfies). A #13 at Gino's Deli -- capicola, salami, provolone -- was a fine sandwich but the jocular staff was even more enjoyable. My long-delayed first trip to New Orleans Take-Out revealed that I've only myself to blame for not trying the red beans and rice with smoked sausage sooner; it is filling, inexpensive, and delicious.
Pork belly, watermelon kimchee, fried peanuts. Chèvre gnudi, prosciutto, Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Roasted pheasant, Italian sausage, polenta, black cherry-fennel relish. Blackberry crème brûlée with raspberry chocolate mini scone. I'm not gonna lie to you, Marge, I was beyond sated after this meal. But how do you say no to just a little more, when one more wine pairing is only four bucks more?
The pork belly was perfectly crispy, and with the bite of frisee, the watermelon "kimchee" was just funky enough to bring to mind the real cabbagey deal. The gnudi (the name means "nude" and refers to ravioli filling with only a thin skin of flour) were creamy and soft, soaking up the accompanying lemon-caper brown butter. And I don't even know how to reduce the pan roasted pheasant dish to a bon mot; suffice it to say, the slices of tender pheasant facilitated piling a little bit of each flavor of the dish onto every bite -- sweet, salty, tart, rich.
Oh, and a SarVecchio cracker canapé with blue cheese and a blob of jam. And the amuse of cold melon soup with crispy prosciutto. And then Kristine's selections... I'll leave it at this: as I'm writing this post, she just re-read the menu and realized her squash blossoms come from Creekside Farms, cultivator of her favorite succulent arrangements. It's kind of a perfect confluence, and part of a meal that truly earns its place at the top of our annual to-do list.
The best thing I ate
There's good stuff, even really good stuff -- Capital Creamery's salted caramel shake, NOTO's smoked sausage -- and then there's great stuff. For July, I'm talking about a couple of game birds. L'Etoile's roasted pheasant, and the roasted duck curry at Fitchburg's Curry in the Box. I've been happy with Curry in the Box's offerings in the past, but this bowl really impressed. The skin was crispy, the meat tender, and the sauce nutty and vibrant. A bargain at $11, the dish provided two meals worth of deliciousness.
But just like last year, there's just no way I can put the best dish from a meal at L'Etoile anywhere but in first place. Alongside the juicy pheasant, the smoky grilled radicchio and caramelized chunks of sausage stood in perfect contrast to the sweetness of cherry-fennel relish and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. All laying atop grains of creamy polenta as innumerable as the stars in the sky, this was the greatest dish of a stellar meal.