Joanne and I recently drove down to Chicago to visit her brother. We stayed downtown in Madison on our first night and stayed there again on our way back to Minneapolis; a great way to break up a drive and revisit two of our favorite restaurants in Madison: L’ETOILE and RARE STEAKHOUSE, both downtown, right on Capitol Square.
L’Etoile, as the name suggests, is French. Hip, modern and grounded in a deep respect for local ingredients, it’s a highly personal reflection of Chef Tory Miller, a pioneer in locally sourced ingredients. What a talent!
When you book, ask for a window table – 101, 103, 105 or 107. The nighttime views of the gorgeously illuminated capitol are stunning. I’m including a photo of Joanne at table 4.
Dinner starts with tiny gougères, each filled with sheep’s milk cheese – a sort of pre-amuse bouche. The real one comes next: a little chunk of Gala apple poached in cider, resting in a Macadamia nut caramel with cider gelée and shaved macadamia nuts. Not that again.
Joanne’s starter was Moonglow pears topped with a thin slice of Driftless Tomme cheese scattered with cranberries and toasted pepita seeds alongside a piece of honeycomb.
My starter: Petersen beef short ribs in sweet soy with cashews, scallion and Burdock root. Thank you, Sir, may I have another?
After a small arugula salad, Joanne dined on Alaskan halibut accompanied by carrots, spinach, and mustard greens in a subtle curry sauce. She was in heaven.
I arrived right behind her with my main course of Pinn Oak rib lamb with sun chokes, spinach, Maitake mushrooms and black lentil vinaigrette.
This stuff in Madison, Wisconsin? Absolutely.
We skipped dessert, but couldn’t pass up the petit fours, including ping pong ball-sized dark chocolate truffles, that came with our coffee.
Now, let me warn you: This is not a cheap place. Dinner for two with a modest bottle of wine was about $250. But you know, this is one of those places where you’ll leave saying, “Yeah, it was expensive, but worth it.”
Our second night out was at Rare Steakhouse, a classic of the genre with some amusing and witty touches, also on Capitol Square (tagline: “Rare on the Square”). This restaurant also offers stunning views of the Capitol building – that is, if you sit in the bar at table 301 as we did.
Our server, Ryan, was good – although he gave me a shock at first. While doing introductory pitch, he turned to me and said, “You own Manny’s, don’t you?” Immediately, I cringed. Being known in the business is a double-edged thing. You receive great food and service, but at a risk of being hovered over and made to feel self-conscious. And who wants to be engaged in conversation by a parade of managers when you have food in your mouth? Fortunately, Rare provided smooth, restrained service that made dinner a delight.
Joanne started with a burrata bruschetta, but not the usual kind. This was somewhat interactive in that you built your own from a selection of both stewed and fresh tomatoes. And the cheese was super creamy.
I opted, over Joanne’s strenuous objections, for the pan-seared foie gras and pork belly with Door County gastrique and toasted hazelnuts.
Ryan tossed a tableside Caesar salad that we shared.
It was fish again for Joanne’s main course (I swear she avoids meat just to drive me crazy). This time she ordered grilled swordfish with white bean ragout, clams, sausage, wilted greens and cherry tomatoes.
I didn’t get a steak. I knew it would be good – their beef is impeccably sourced and dry aged – but instead I had brick chicken, as is often seen in Tuscany. But this was different. The accompaniments were decidedly Greek, including cucumbers, tomatoes and olives. Nice touch.
Once again, we passed on dessert – but oh boy did the Bananas Foster look good.
One last thing: I’m told Rare serves a first rate burger, accompanied by duck fat French fries – off limits for me when dining with Joanne. So I can only imagine what it would be like to dine here on a snowy night in February, gazing at the capitol building from table 301, and savoring a burger with duck fat fries and a bottle (or two) or Burgundy.