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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Overcast
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A trip through time on the last night of the old L'Etoile
Eras end and begin on Pinckney Street
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Credit:Kyle Nabilcy

At various points during Saturday night's bacchanalian dinner at L'Etoile, my wife and I heard diners asking each other, "So, where were you in '76?" We were forced to remark, sub rosa, that both of us were firmly ensconced as theoretical concepts at the time. But thanks to the menu at Chef Tory Miller's heartfelt au revoir to 25 N. Pinckney, we felt a little bit of the wonder of decades past in the greatest restaurant in Madison.

It was back in January that the news broke: L'Etoile would make a summer move to 1 S. Pinckney, expanding in both size and scope in the process. Seating for L'Etoile will expand, and Chef Miller's new gastropub -- Graze -- will share the new space. But there still remained the issue of closing out the old L'Etoile with an appropriately grand event.

Enter: The Four-Decade Dinner (PDF). As it turned out, L'Etoile's last night of service would be the day before my first wedding anniversary. With only two weeks to go, I made our reservation for a truly momentous meal.

The menu was created by Chef Miller with consultation and inspiration from Odessa Piper, founder of L'Etoile. It was meant as a reflection of the four decades of cuisine that have whisked their way through L'Etoile's kitchen. Each course would represent a decade, plus an amuse bouche and a dessert-homage to the future at 1 S. Pinckney. For the oenophiles and history buffs, a vintage wine pairing course would also be offered.

Our seating was delayed by about 20 minutes, but who could blame the people dining before us for lingering? The air was thick with chatter, people laughing and reminiscing. Every table was full, and the sparse waiting area was packed. We were seated in the back-bar area, in perhaps the coziest and most private corner of the restaurant. Let the journey begin.

But first, a word about the wine pairings. There are some wines specified on the online menu for the Four-Decade meal, but I assure you, they do not reflect the fullness of reality. Bottles flowed and emptied, and the sommeliers were given free reign to open more as they saw fit. We enjoyed a number of ad hoc replacements, and even had a fresh split uncorked at our table. There were some rieslings, a pinot noir or two, a sav blanc. Some were bottled five years ago, others were closer to thirty-five; it was a jubilee of wine, and there was never a single off-note.

L'Etoile's signature canapes will not be making the move, we were told, so we savored the bite of walnut and chèvre before the true amuse bouche arrived. A one-bite BLT of house bacon, sungold tomato, and a basil leaf was set atop a small pool of basil aioli. I suspect we'll see these flavors shining through to the menu at Graze. A rich, true Champagne accompanied the BLT.

Each of the subsequent courses was a veritable Solomon's dilemma, and we solved each one just like the old king: we split it all, more or less down the middle. The 1970's were a bison carpaccio and Kumamoto oyster "surf and turf," and a trio of chicken liver pté and cornichon-topped croutons. The wines for this bright, clean course were the most impressive; the riesling with the pté evoked dilly acidity with remarkable accuracy.

The 1980's, a decade in which we were at least both alive, were summed up by a Bloody Mary-style gazpacho with rock shrimp, and a piece of perfectly blackened trout with lemon beurre blanc. The menu indicates that L'Etoile was the first to serve beurre blanc in Madison. This course walked the fine line between honest inspiration and theme park-y Cajun Chef imitation; Miller crafted a menu that was truly both evocative and respectful.

The farm-to-table aspect of the meal came fully to the fore in the 1990's, and our plates were adorned with either a roasted mushroom salad with sprouted legumes, or a sumptuous chèvre gnocchi with sage brown butter and caramelized cauliflower. My wife wanted to curl up and go to sleep in the gnocchi, pillowy soft and gloriously rich. The mushroom salad was a bit unremarkable, but the wine course highlighted fungal muskiness and the bitterness of the field greens quite nicely.

If any of these generous courses could be called the main course, it was the 2000's; my wife and I shared a perfectly cooked rib-eye atop mashed potatoes and finished with blue cheese and bone marrow compound butter, and a duck breast with tart cherry compote and sweet and sour cabbage. The wines, a Barolo and a zinfandel/syrah blend, wisely settled down for this course, letting the complex flavors of the food take the lead. We both agreed that the steak was hands-down the best dish of the night.

We were going a little googly-eyed from all the food and drink at this point, but dessert snapped us back to attention. The "Old School" dish was a classed-up chocolate lava cake with red raspberry coulis, vanilla crème anglaise, hazelnuts and golden raspberries -- a wonderful palette of flavors. But for me, the sticky toffee pudding with blueberry swirl ice cream and maple-glazed blueberries called "New Jack Swing" was the star dessert, and second only to the rib-eye overall. A tawny port and a honey-fortified dessert wine provided just enough alcohol burn to keep our palates alive.

By the time the check -- and the French press coffee -- came and went, it was officially our first wedding anniversary. I wouldn't say that I was on the clock, exactly, for this meal; the lack of photography should attest to that. As should the chef's signature on our menu, which our server got for us when she learned it was our anniversary. This exemplary, artistically brilliant meal wasn't an assignment -- it was a pleasure, and for everyone who was there it will be a cherished memory. When Miller reopens later this month in the US Bank building, I imagine his meals will be wonderful in their own way. But the glow of 34 years of history will always be visible no matter where L'Etoile sets.

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