Wookiee Hut Cuisine presents:
L'Etoile
North Pinckney Street, Madison, WI
608-251-0500
Review by GornPod (LoveCherub of the Ghetto)

Friday I had dinner at L’Etoile — long considered the top restaurant in Madison. There were some very high points (our amuse bouche), and some low ones (our service and wine). The experience was a mixed one. Overall, I'd have to say I was disappointed. While the food was well prepared, it lacked vision and was, in many cases, quite boring.

I began my meal with a Kir Royale — a hackneyed drink that I nonetheless really like. It was fantastic. Put me in the mood to eat a good meal. Being at L'Etoile, I knew such a meal was in reach. Only a couple years ago I had one of the finest lamb dishes I've ever eaten: a lamb belly, rolled like a roulade with lamb fat. Sounds gross (if only because lamb fat often tastes rancid); it was fantastic. Yet Friday night was one of my first experiences with the "new" kitchen of the restaurant. I was excited that the place might be heading in a more exciting direction (the "old" kitchen I felt was a little constrained by L'Etoile's history).

Rather unfortunately, the place felt like the same old L'Etoile (in a bad way). Few of the dishes were inventive, and the food, while well prepared, did not shine. The meal began, as it always has (this was my seventh visit in about six years) with cheese and crackers. I honestly like this appeal to L'Etoile's origins, and the snack was lovely. Next came our amuse busche — what would prove to be the finest part of the meal. An apple soup with bacon, it was more than I could have hoped for. Sweet (apple), salty (bacon), with a clean acid (apple) and smooth fat (bacon), it created a huge range of flavor with two basic ingredients. Brilliant! The prefect amuse insofar as the dish's serving (small) was perfect for its presentation. A bowl may have been sickening; a small shot excited the mouth for the food to come. Unfortunately, such food never did.

Next was one of our low points of the evening: negotiating the wine with our waiter. We decided to begin with a 1995 Foreau Vouvray. Made from Chenin Blanc, Vouvrays can have power and acidity and are one of the great wines of the Loire valley. Our bottle had clearly turned. The nose presented so strongly of sherry that I hardly wanted to taste it. And tasting the wine confirmed that in fact the bottle was off. The couple I was eating with had spent a year living near Tours (where Vouvray is made) and also confirmed that the wine was not right.

Our waiter, however, was rather difficult. He said, "I think this is how the wine tastes when it turns ... Yes, this is how it presents later on. I agree, it smells strongly of sherry and I hardly want to taste it, but that's the way it is." In short, he said, "Yes, the wine tastes bad. That's because it's beyond its ideal presentation." Question: Why would you serve a wine that was beyond its presentation? But more importantly, this was NOT an aspect of the 1995 vintage (which is actually a very good one), but rather it was a problem with our bottle. Now I can understand a waiter not wanting to serve another bottle of a wine that a patron has sent back, but when the patrons clearly KNOW wine (hell, two of us lived in the Loire valley!), I find it a little condescending. We asked that he take the wine to the wine captain, who instantly confirmed that the bottle had, in fact, gone off. The experience was a disconcerting one if only because it began the kind of smug contempt that I would feel for the rest of the evening.

We decided to turn elsewhere on the wine list for our first course. This revealed one of the weaknesses of the "new" L'Etoile: an extremely limited wine list. While I certainly don't mind a small wine list (in fact I often prefer fewer, well selected options), the wines were very limited in terms of providing available directions. We decided to remain conservative with our wine choices for the rest of the evening.

For appetizers two of us had the beef carpaccio, and one had a salad with lardons and a poached egg. The salad was lovely. The tartness of the Frisée, Sylvetta, and Arugla was a nice complement to the lardons and egg. The carpaccio was another story. While the beef was fantastic and the salad an adequate compliment, it was covered with a "vinaigrette" that was really more of a mayonnaise. Someone in the kitchen had decided to go crazy with a squeeze bottle. And the result made the dish taste more like mayo with beef (with the beef secondary). Given the quality of the beef, this was a crime. Adding to my frustration at this point was that we had to ask twice for bread. A simple annoyance that shouldn't happen at a restaurant like this (some day I will write a post on how Madison has, quite possibly, the worst service of any place I've ever lived).

For the main course I must say I made a mistake in my ordering. Our waiter pushed the rib eye "the best rib eye you'll ever eat" and I yielded. I must first say that the beef — from Fountain Prairie farm — was fantastic. I love their highland cattle. And the preparation was nice; I was glad I ordered it rare as the beef flavor really came through. However, the dish itself would bore you to tears. Guess what it was? You guessed it, beef with mashed potatoes, seared greens, and a Red Wine demi-glace. While I didn't scream (as I said I would in my review for Harvest), I was saddened. You would think L'Etoile could think of a more interesting way to present this fantastic cut of meet. Either they couldn't or they were too lazy to try. Either way, it was disappointing.

The highlight of the maincourses was my friend's Walleye. Served with potato ribbons, clams, spinach, and a shallot broth, it was quite a nice dish. Whoever is cooking fish in that kitchen knows (1) how to put a dish together, and (2) what they're doing. While the beef was well made, it lacked vision. I think this would be my general complaint with the place. The food had none of the problems that I found with Harvest (where the kitchen seemed not to know what to do with ingredients, only that they should buy expensive ones and hope they did the work for them), the food at L'Etoile was, well, boring. Well made, but dull. Sure, adding a lot of mayo to beef makes it taste good, but it doesn't really highlight the carpaccio. It doesn't make you think of beef in any new way (we can eat a roast beef and mayo sandwich any day). The same could be said for the steak. Good, but at the end of the dish you just want to shrug your shoulders and say, "Was that it?"

After our dinner was put on our table with wait staff pretty much disappeared for the night. This was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it was slightly annoying to have to wait for them to recall that, in fact, we were still there. On the other hand, I was a little sick of being made to feel that it was my great pleasure to be sitting in their restaurant. Just because the restaurant is lauded as the best restaurant in town doesn't mean that the wait staff can smugly treat you in such a way as to say, "aren't you lucky to be here?" So with our rough abandonment we were better able to enjoy each others' company without being continually reminded of our great privilege to pay a lot of money for well prepared but dull food. (As a side note: while I'm a smug bastard in my reviews, I'm actually quite nice to waiters in restaurants. I used to be one. I know the shit they put up with. So we weren't abandoned because we were pretentious assholes).

Finally, the desserts were fine. The apple beignets were tasty doughnuts with a great fruit flavor from the apple rings. The Espresso chocolate mousse was smooth and rich — but somehow a little hallow. The bread pudding was an interest take (quite dry instead of moist) that lacked any real depth of flavor. But they were fine. And the Calvados I had (a healthy pour!) was a nice accompaniment.

So, overall? Well, overall the food was well prepared (the only real disappointment being the excessive mayo on the carpaccio — and yes, the kitchen would be mad for calling their stravecchio vinaigrette a mayo, but that's what it was). But it lacked vision and in general was quite boring. The service was smug and generally absent (as I said, a mixed blessing). My only hope is that the "new" kitchen has felt a little constrained by L'Etoile's legacy and is trying to find ways to break out of it. Yet I fear that the place is merely replicating a vision that was unique back in 1976 when L'Etoile first opened, but by 2005 it feels a little tired.

Want a better L'Etoile experience? Grab a croissant (or market bun) from the Café and save yourself $200.


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