A wise man once told us all to love our neighbors. But man, sometimes your neighbors are weird. Chef Tory Miller of L'Etoile has found an easy solution: prepare a meal that everyone loves, and get 'em all around the same table. Step back, and watch the magic happen.
The magic officially kicked off on Feb. 10, as Miller introduced Second Tuesdays (PDF). $22 (and a reservation, naturally) will get you a fine meal of comfort food standards. The monthly meal is served to diners sitting at communal tables in the space normally belonging to Cafe Soleil. Have no fear of double-dipping from family-style bowls; the meals are still plated in individual servings.
A gorgeously mild February evening accompanied me to the entrance to L'Etoile and Cafe Soleil. The sonorous buzz of guests from the sold-out early seatings was welcoming and augured a pleasant social event. A few minutes early, I sat at the front counter and waited with a Tyranena porter.
It shouldn't be unexpected or surprising when a group-seating meal ends and begins with fluidity and promptness, but such small successes are nonetheless a happy reminder when one is dealing with seasoned professionals. For the timeliness of the changeover from the previous seating to my own, a bell could very well have rung, speed-dating style. Lili Miller and her crew are running a seamless and smooth operation.
We were in our seats and settled comfortably in short order, and our server came around to describe the menu's offerings prior to their arrival. Lili, wife of the chef, informed me after the meal that Tory is the sole presence in the kitchen. This is worth pointing out, as there were up to 50 hungry souls dining at any one time. Not once did the pace slacken, nor were we rushed from the main course of the meal: the slowest of slow foods, barbecued pork.
The barbecue owed its quality to the dedicated farmers at Willow Creek of Loganville and Blue Moon of Stoughton, and of course to the wonderful pigs they raise. A duo of pulled pork, lightly sauced, and a dry-rubbed and sauced pork rib sat atop a square of jalapeño cornbread. Tangy and light cole slaw from Driftless Organics and crumb-topped Hook's cheddar mac and cheese rounded out a perfect plate. Afterwards, nothing remained beside the single rib bone, clean of all tender meat and adorned with no unsightly gristle. The cornbread, with just the right flourish of green heat, was a sneaky masterpiece beneath all that pork.
I went in expecting blueberry cobbler with vanilla ice cream -- a lovely dessert, and fitting, but perhaps not my favorite fruit. It was just my luck, then, that a last minute substitution was made. Instead of blueberry, we were served strawberry and rhubarb oat crisp (hat tip to Morren Farm) with whipped cream and a touch of caramel. I'm sorry to say, I didn't do a very good job of savoring this treat slowly. Suffice it to say, it was simple and delicious.
A special note needs to be made concerning the house blend of coffee, made especially for L'Etoile by Just Coffee. Our server claimed responsibility in designing the blend of light and dark roasts, but he might have been just showing off. I for one believe him, but regardless of the origin of the recipe, the resulting cup is smooth and almost creamy even when black. It was a perfect accompaniment to dessert.
I feel extremely fortunate to have shared in this opening Second Tuesday event. Spots are booking up fast for the three scheduled Tuesdays to come; these meals are "St. Paddy's Day Classics," "Southern Fried Chicken," and "Rustic Italian." Additional seatings may be created, but I'd recommend calling soon. The quality of this meal might inspire the first Second Tuesday's diners to fill any remaining vacancies.
At the end of the meal, I was sated but not stuffed, and happy for the company during the meal. My table neighbors, husband and wife and former Peace Corps members, were a hoot and allowed for the spirit of the occasion to shine through. L'Etoile's Second Tuesdays might not inspire everyone to love their neighbors, but in addition to feeding us well, they might be making us all slightly better neighbors.