Tory Miller and company took over L'Etoile in 2005, and if this were a bigger journalism market -- or one with a bigger newspaper -- you'd have seen another review of the foremost restaurant in Madison dining since then. The New York Times (and no, I'm not comparing Madison to New York, not directly) has reviewed chef Daniel Boulud's Daniel four times since it opened in 1999, including twice in the last four years. Go ahead and read: 1999, 2001, 2009, and 2013.
This is not a proper review of L'Etoile, though that has nothing to do with the corner of the internet on which it is parked. Where a true review would see me visit a restaurant three or four times in a few weeks, I have visited L'Etoile five times in the last three years. This is, rather, a review of a personal experience, one that I'm excited to share with my wife every year.
It started with a reservation for the last night at the old L'Etoile that happened to coincide with the day before our first wedding anniversary. We've made it a tradition since then, an annual splurge that actually needn't be that splurgey. The bar at L'Etoile is charming, the service is great, and the smaller plates are completely approachable for a casual meal.
The crispy glazed pork belly, for example, is a lovely little plate perfect for sharing. Beans, cucumber and basil are bright and summery, though it's the sungold tomatoes that provide the essential burst of flavor. The pork belly came out cooler than I expected, but it was as crispy as billed, and rich. Duck confit rillette was the other small plate on our order, served on a surfboard of grilled baguette. Another balanced dish, the pickled tart cherry mustard sauce evened out the silky shredded duck.
Midcourses begin to tip the scales toward slightly heavier fare. A duo of eggplant -- roasted and loaded into delicate ravioli, and little fried coins of Japanese eggplant -- is dotted with a gazpacho vinaigrette and chevre foam. Nothing that needs explaining here; this is just about the best mutation of eggplant parm you'll ever encounter.
A "steak" of cauliflower (and yes, there are quotation marks on the menu, too) is even more remarkable, crisply browned and seasoned like a cut of beef. The accompanying broccoli raab needed to be a bit more tender, but its bitterness worked against more sungolds, baby bell peppers, and an amazing crispy duck egg. I won't lie, my brain told me this was some kind of jalapeño popper, even as the golden yolk spread under my fork.
You'll find the big daddies on the list of main courses (L'Etoile still calls them entrees, bucking the menu vocabulary trend), and this is where your evening becomes something more like an event. Trumpet fanfare might as well announce the arrival of any product of the sea, a style of protein that Tory Miller really knows how to handle.
Our favorite L'Etoile team member, the inimitable Nancy Sorenson, told us with a grimace that there are still people who dine at L'Etoile and balk at the crispy skin of fish such as the glorious branzino currently on the menu. There was just nothing wrong with that dish, from the buttery fish to the roasted vegetables (more cauliflower and sungolds!) to the amazing pea purée underneath it all. Little hints of preserved lemon, basil, and mint informed the depth of flavor.
Kristine ended up choosing the dish that had been my second choice (lucky me, that meant I still got a bite or two). Though the menu had been rewritten to sturgeon, Nancy told us a couple portions of monkfish were still in the kitchen. Kristine snapped it up. Lacquered with a miso-mirin glaze, it had an almost velveted texture, moist and luxurious. Bok choy and mushrooms played their parts, but what really made this dish run was the crispy cake of sushi rise. Similar to the rice batons in the bibimbap at Graze, this little wedge of the essence of texture will make you shake your head, sure that you've never had anything quite so perfect in its place.
L'Etoile's desserts, I think, shift with more fluidity than the rest of the menu, market-driven as it is. I was torn between a crème brûlée with market-fresh apricots, and honey-drenched berries atop a meringue-y pavlova type thing, with a mixed fruit sorbet of some sort. (Turns out the latter dessert was in a bit of flux.) I couldn't decide, and Nancy said she'd have pastry chef Melinda Dorn pick. The berries won out, but a few slices of apricot made it in for good measure. Kristine chose a lemon almond polenta cake with sour cream sorbet and blueberry gelée. It was perfect for her tastes, delicate and sweet.
Some things don't change about the modern L'Etoile. There will always be some sort of edible flower. Beef carpaccio is as permanent a fixture as the wine walk-in. And whatever dishes come and go, Tory Miller's confident display of taste and technique doesn't seem to fade.