Regional food is the star at L'Etoile

Email|Print| Text size + By Ellen Albanese
Globe Staff / November 22, 2004

MADISON, Wis. -- It's no accident that L'Etoile overlooks the sprawling four-block Dane County Farmers' Market, held every Saturday in season outside the state Capitol. Regional ingredients produced by family farms are at the heart of this acclaimed restaurant's cuisine.

L'Etoile was founded in 1976 by Odessa Piper, who hitchhiked from New Hampshire to Madison to pursue organic farming and cooking. She worked at Ovens of Brittany with JoAnna Guthrie, whom she calls her mentor, and at 23 she found herself the owner of a restaurant on Madison's Capitol Square.

''Back then," Piper said, ''fine dining was defined as how exotic" the food was.

Piper was excited by the agricultural wealth of south-central Wisconsin and the abundance of family farms. She set about designing a menu she calls ''regionally reliant" -- that is, nearly all the meat, freshwater fish, poultry, dairy products, and produce come from local farms, including cellared root crops and greens harvested from solar ''hoop houses" through the winter.

Piper also brings in fish from the North Atlantic and Alaska and other products not native to the area, such as Meyer lemons from California. To the whole, she adds a French influence, calling French the ''mother tongue" of cuisine. She notes that Madison is on the same latitude as Normandy, and that growing cycles for many fruits, vegetables, and dairy products are similar.

Piper and L'Etoile have been widely recognized. Gourmet magazine named the restaurant one of the nation's top 50 in 2001, and it consistently ranks among the most popular dining rooms in regional polls.

Piper was honored by the James Beard Foundation as Best Chef/Midwest in 2001 and was a 2004 nominee for outstanding chef.

L'Etoile's menu is a veritable Russian novel of names, listing the producers of each item. For example, one entre is frittered polenta with Heck's sweet corn, Creekside sun gold tomatoes, and Garden To Be basil shoots. Several artisan cheeses are offered, produced by local cheesemakers such as Carr Valley, Uplands, and Hooks. And if you were to visit the farmers' market on a Saturday morning, you would see many of these names -- and perhaps Piper herself, shopping for the restaurant.

Piper has assembled a staff that shares her passion for food and the land. The chef de cuisine, Tory Miller, told us he not only closes and opens the restaurant but also might very well spend his day off visiting local farms; he considers the farmers who supply the restaurant his friends. Miller spent seven years cooking in New York and said moving to Madison was the best decision he ever made.

Surrounded by so much expertise and enthusiasm during our visit, we did the only sensible thing: We turned all culinary decisions over to our waiter, Frank Perez, who has been with the restaurant for 10 years. We followed his advice to the letter.

To begin, every guest at L'Etoile receives what Piper calls ''a greeting from the land" -- a canap centered with a wild hickory nut indigenous to south-central Wisconsin. ''These nuts are exquisite," Piper said. ''They are an example of everything I want to give our customers."

A ''BBT" amuse bouche -- bacon, basil, and tomato on bakery toast with a little olive oil -- exploded in a burst of flavors.

A tomato sampler appetizer from Shooting Star Farm was a colorful display of several varieties of local tomatoes -- yellow, green, red, and dark burgundy -- served with a warm chevre and garnished with marigold petals. A signature salad of wild mushrooms with just-sprouted legumes, peanuts, and almonds was literally earthy and crunchy (and delicious).

A Willow Creek Farm pork chop with Gravenstein apple rings was thick, tender, and juicy. Piper said she likes to combine rich foods with fruit and fruit sauces. A tenderloin of grass-fed beef from Fountain Prairie Farm was also excellent; it was served with mashed potatoes with Amish blue cheese compound butter and rainbow chard from Blue Moon Farm.

We sampled three cheeses, a 27-month and a 10-year cheddar and an unusual goat's milk cocoa cardona, which had a cocoa-dusted rind that gave the creamy cheese just a hint of chocolate flavor. The cheese was served with wonderful, cakelike biscotti studded with raisins and pistachios.

Desserts feature local fruits and berries, including Ruth Lefever's blueberries and apples from Weston Orchard.

We left L'Etoile not only happily full but also with a sense that we were supporting something worthwhile -- family farms practicing sustainable agriculture. It's no longer the radical idea it was when Piper opened her restaurant almost 30 years ago. But there are still not many that carry it off as well as L'Etoile.

L'Etoile, 25 North Pinckney St., Madison, 608-251-0500, Dinner Tuesday-Thursday 6-8 p.m., Friday 5:30-9 p.m., Saturday 5-9 p.m.; entrees $24.50-$30, three-course prix fixe Tuesday-Friday $42; Cafe Tuesday-Friday 7-11 a.m., Saturday 7 a.m.-1 p.m.

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