It's a waste of energy to get snarky about any reality show (except maybe The Real Housewives of Orange County). But I did recently devote one of my crankier Epicurious blog posts to an episode of Top Chef, because it suggested that Wisconsin was good for nothing but venison and cheddar cheese.
As I politely (sort of) and patriotically pointed out, if the Top Chef judges ever actually made it to Wisconsin, they'd see a bulging culinary harvest, and if they stopped at L'Etoile or Harvest, across from the best farmers' market in the country, period, they'd find out what serious chefs can do with that bounty.
So I was feeling very self-righteous when I recently had lunch at L'Etoile's ground-floor sister kitchen, Cafe Soleil. There the devotion to the local larder isn't quite as inventive as the formal dining room's, but it's devoted nonetheless.
You can see the heartland pride on one of the walls, where a map of Wisconsin is posted, and the sites of the kitchen's suppliers are called out. You can see it too in the general sunny Midwestern charm of the dining room: in the buttercup yellow walls, the photos of blooming flowers, the marble-topped tables and the pressed-tin ceiling, painted a barnyard red. And then there is the long counter filled with fresh baked goods - as in honestly fresh baked - where you order your lunch.
Plus, you can taste the Wisconsin pride in most of the food, or at least the kitchen's best dishes, some of which are new additions to the menu. Start with one of the best Reubens in town. The toasted caraway rye is sliced thick, the house-made Thousand Island dressing isn't too sweet, the Hook's Swiss cheese is silky, and the sweet-and-sour cabbage adds a subtle flavor that trumps the usual puckeringly sour sauerkraut.
But it's the quality of the Fountain Prairie corned beef that makes this better than just about any corned beef sandwich in town, because the meat is meltingly tender, shaved fresh off the brisket, and fully flavored enough to stand on its own.
When the Cafe follows through on that focused attention to detail and zealous local sourcing, it can't lose. I also like the simpler cheese sandwich, which stacks Farmer John's provolone, sweet/tart slices of Ela Orchard Ida Red apples and Snug Haven spinach, plus house-made pesto mayo (more of that, please), on a baguette that would be better with a bit more of a crust.
And the new Italian Job sandwich is a little showcase of meat, a high-rise of Willow Creek ham, house-cured mortadella and salami.
Follow that up with one of the Cafe's stellar marzipan stuffed croissants, or an Asian pear Danish, or - the best of the bunch - a very nutty peanut butter sandwich cookie, and you have an unimpeachable lunch.
That doesn't mean you can't go a bit wrong at the Cafe. Oddly, the salads, where all that fresh produce should shine, can seem underwhelming. Certainly the chunks of chicken confit in my chicken salad were too tough, almost muscular. And the crispy potato croquette salad is, unfortunately, just what it promises to be; you get these uninspired potato boulders rolling around on a bed of market greens. The pizzas, another new item on the menu, also need a bit of finessing, especially now that there are so many really inspired and serious pizzas being tossed in town. I tried the soppressata, Snug Haven arugula and chèvre pizza (the pies change weekly), and the passable crust was overloaded with slightly bitter arugula that clashed with the sharp chèvre, and drowned out the soppressata.
But that's something that can be tweaked, and most likely will be. In a kitchen this devoted to the purest cooking, and serious sourcing, they're probably not going to stop until they're turning out one of the top, Naples-by-way-of-Mazomanie pies in town.