A gem of fine dining located right on Capitol Square in Madison, Wisconsin, L’Etoile is not only a bastion of high-quality food and service; it is a neighborhood institution.
Congresspeople mingle with university faculty and staff, as well as those few well-heeled townies unconnected to either the capitol or the college. But L’Etoile is more than just the go-to spot for Madison denizens’ fancy food needs.
L’Etoile was founded in 1976 by Odessa Piper with an emphasis on local, seasonable food that substantially predated the current “locavore chic.” Long before it was fashionable to do so, Piper cultivated strong ties with small regional farmers and their products, from heirloom vegetables and sustainably raised meats to local cheeses, nuts and other artisan products. Executive chef Tory Miller explained to Madison Originals, “We look at every item that we buy, every ingredient, to make sure that the providers are not mass-producing, not using up resources—whether that means crowding animals or using excessive fuel to transport products.” L’Etoile works closely with the vendors of the Dane County Farmer’s Market, a weekly event that takes place right outside the restaurant’s doors. The Dane County Farmer’s Market is recognized as one of the finest regional farmer’s markets in the country, attracting 150 vendors every Saturday year-round.
In 2005, Miller and his sister Traci assumed full ownership of L’Etoile. In recent years, Dianne Christensen and Tracey Solverson have also joined the Millers as owners. The team has garnered recognition from the former Gourmet magazine as one of “America’s Top 50 Restaurants” and a spot in Saveur’s annual “Top 100” roundup. Santé, a magazine for restaurant professionals, named it the Most Sustainable Restaurant in the Midwest in 2007.
L’Etoile’s menu changes daily and always showcases fresh regional produce and meats, most of them from small farms. Traci notes, “The menu is completely dictated by what’s available”—and what’s not. If something’s not growing—if there’s no rain or a late frost, for example—the chef has no choice but to change his plans. Miller lists key sources for each of his ingredients right on the menu, which states at the bottom, “L’Etoile passionately supports Wisconsin farmers.” The chef prefers to buy and utilize whole animals rather than precut meat, which helps reduce waste.
How does the restaurant handle the long, harsh Wisconsin winter and still maintain its commitment to local foods? It takes some creative strategizing, but by now L’Etoile is an old hand at it. The restaurant staff “puts-by” (cans and preserves) throughout the year, and Miller has also taken to preparing house-cured charcuterie. Root vegetables are cellared. Winter greens such as spinach and kale are grown in unheated hoop houses that keep the wind and snow at bay.
One of the highlights of the menu is the cheese list, which is as extensive as some restaurants’ wine lists. A recent menu showcased 33 cheeses from 11 different local cheesemakers, including the award-winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Dairy and Bleu Mont’s Bandaged Cheddar Reserve, an unusual style of aged cheddar made with organic milk and produced in a facility run by wind and solar power.
In 2010, L’Etoile moved from its cozy two-story dining space into a bank building with glass front and side walls. The owners also took the opportunity to open a more casual restaurant called Graze in the same building. On Fridays, Graze serves up time-honored Wisconsin tradition in the form of a fish fry using seasonal certified sustainable fish. Graze is helping to fulfill Miller’s dream of making sustainable eating more accessible to everyone, not just fine dining patrons. Leading both Graze and L’Etoile lets Miller have his cake and eat it, too.
photo credit: Samantha Egelhoff