Saturday, June 18, 2005

l'Etoile, Madison: still one of the best

Dinner last night at l'Etoile, that first-rate restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin. In fact l'Etoile was the reason for making the sizable detour between Chicago and Fond du Lac, where we're headed.

Odessa Piper started l'Etoile perhaps twenty years ago -- I'm writing this without checking facts, since it's so easy for the interested reader to do his own fact-checking these days (and I'll comment on that separately one of these days) -- inspired, I believe, by Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. There are differences, especially two: l'Etoile is a bit bigger (and has a hard-liquor bar), and it's in Madison, home of a very large university campus, rather as if UC Berkeley, Davis, and Los Angeles were all put in one city, the only city for miles around.

The two restaurants agree on food ethics, buying seasonal produce from local growers and preparing it with intelligence, cultural and historical awareness, and that unique taste that relies on the natural flavor of the raw material. And Odessa Piper, like Alice Waters, has extended this taste to her loyal clientele, who go on to look for it elsewhere, and so the ripples gradually extend.

And by supporting the farmers and gardeners and stockmen and dairy producers in her area Piper gave them a degree of assurance, of hope and perhaps confidence that since their work was appreciated an honored it would ultimately be supported.

Lindsey and I came through this way a couple of years ago -- almost the exact same trip: Chicago; Madison; Detroit. Last night and the night before duplicated a pair of nights in October 2003, when we ate at North Pond in Chicago and l'Etoile. Since then there have been changes at both restaurants, to judge by only these single experiences -- admittedly, not at all a fair basis from which to make a judgment. North Pond seems to have moved further in the direction of complicating its dishes, adding extra flavors as foils against their basic structure, accepting the prevailing taste for overly complex invention. Lindsey's salmon, for example, wild salmon with really nice flavor, poached gently to just the right texture, was oddly garnished with a scatter of shredded Parmesan cheese.

I don't want to overdo this criticism. North Pond is an excellent restaurant. The reception and service, the wine list, the selection of organic and local material -- all that is exemplary, in the tradition of Chez Panisse and l'Etoile. It's just that this one dinner suggested the chef may be losing confidence in the sufficiency of those virtues; may feel -- for all I know, justifiably -- that his clientele wants or needs something beyond them.

L'Etoile has undergone an even more radical change: Odessa Piper has sold the restaurant. But she sold it to Tory Miller, who had been her chef for over two years, and his sister Traci Miller; and it seems clear that he has no intention of compromising either the vision or the execution that had so distinguished her restaurant.

This morning we visited the Madison Farmer's Market, which completely rings the handsome State Capitol at the center of town, on the ridge above the resplendent Frank Lloyd Wright convention center. The market is perhaps awkwardly laid out, forcing shoppers into a tightly packed passeggiata circulating counter-clockwise on the narrow sidewalk around the Capitol. But it is immensely successful, with stands offering produce, bakery items, jams and jellies, honey and beeswax, smoked and frozen meats and fish, all apparently from relatively small local producers, much of it organic. There's Scottish beef and farmed venison, spring onions and asparagus, cut flowers and starter plants, ramps and mushrooms and wild greens, delicious strawberries, early tomatos -- all of it displayed beautifully, abundantly stacked up and moderately priced. It all makes you want to rent a kitchen and get to work.

We breakfasted at l'Etoile's bakery-cafe, on fine croissants slightly salty with their fresh delicious butter, and caffe-lattes whose froth was properly decorated in the Italian style, not dried and powdery in Starbuck's manner. And then we drove northeast through the green green rolling Wisconsin pastures, still thinking of the unforgettable twelve-year-old cheddar we'd had last night at l'Etoile, and could have bought at this morning's market, but which would have gone all oily and sullied in the car in this warm climate.

  • l'Etoile menu

  • North Pond menu
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