Every now and then, I revisit my fondest memories of dining in Wisconsin. I’m not talking about squeaky cheese curds, or brandy Old Fashioneds, cranberries and booyahs, either.

No, I’m talking about dishes and restaurants that are forever welded into my culinary brain matter.

In Milwaukee, at the iconic KARL RATZSCH’S RESTAURANT, I feasted on the Platonic ideal of WEINER SCHNITZEL: a Viennese veal cutlet, pounded thin and lightly breaded, pan-fried ‘til crispy and golden, and served with several fresh lemon wedges (which, btw, are not ornamental; they’re for squeezing all over the cutlet). It spilled over the plate and into my gaping maw.

Among the supper clubs throughout the state, I think of the Wisconsin Dells and ISHNALA SUPPER CLUB, where I devoured a serious bathmat-sized hunk of incredibly flavored ROAST PRIME RIB with fantastic marbling and just the right amount of fat for taste, texture and big beefy flavor. Oh, and a sinus-clearing side of horseradish.

And speaking of big, beefy flavor…I don’t think you can beat a CULVER’S BUTTER BURGER, a fresh meaty treat with a butter-coated soft bun. It’s juicy, steaming hot and perfectly grilled to order on a searing-hot flattop. It’s a burger that makes you smile.

Finally, I remember ELSA’S in downtown Milwaukee. After all, how often do you eat a boneless, thick-cut PORK CHOP SANDWICH? Especially a country spice-rubbed half-pounder that’s simultaneously juicy, tender and smoky.

So it was that on a road trip to South Bend, Indiana to attend our grandson’s commencement a couple of weeks ago, we were routed through the heart of Wisconsin.

On the way, we spent the night in Madison…and, of course, dined (not just ate) at L’ETOILE, an icon of fine dining in the Midwest, situated across the street from the Wisconsin Capitol with a sweeping view of its white granite dome through floor-to-ceiling 30-foot-high windows.

Now, Joanne and I have immensely enjoyed dining at L’ ETOILE on several occasions, but this time we had the advantage of being joined by our friend Tim, riding “shotgun” with us, therefore enabling us all to see more plates of stunning food.

The menu is French-inspired American fare….and it is Michelin Star worthy. L’Etoile is helmed by its chef, Tori Miller, and his wife, Katherine, who is the pastry chef. Tori has a pedigree that includes a James Beard Award winner as well as a stint at 11 Madison Park in New York. The two are impassioned about supporting a tight network of local artisan farmers.


Our friend Tim began with a LALO SOUR cocktail: meticulously prepared with Lalo white tequila, orgeat (don’t ask), almond, lime, star anise and orange bitters……which he dubbed as MAGICAL.

Sommelier Michael Kwas guided Joanne and me toward a bottle of FAILA Chardonnay 2021, from the Sonoma coast. Citrus driven and crispy, it ran $75.

Then we began with a PRE-AMUSE BOUCHE: 3 tiny French almond cakes (Financiers) topped with a dollop of intense whipped local goat cheese.

And then…the MAIN AMUSE BOUCHE: Honey Greek yogurt, grilled rhubarb, cucumber salatim sauce and a spicy SHUG – a kind of hot sauce.

PAIN D’EPI was offered next. Here’s where Katherine struts her stuff. Housemade epi – wheat sheaf-shaped, pull-apart French rolls – were airy yet substantial, with a golden crispy crust, and served with sweet local butter.

Lamb is not particularly popular in the U.S. and especially in the Midwest. Some say it’s because sheep do not do as well as cattle in our climate. Others say that because sheep are basically helpless, they are easy victims for rogue dogs, foxes and, in some parts, wolves. Not-so-hot memories from post-World War II still remain of eating mutton from tough, grizzled old sheep….much stronger, fattier and gamier than lamb.

And finally, lamb is a staple in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. And there just aren’t a lot of Middle Easterners in much of the Midwest.

However, when our Greek friend, Tim, spotted LAMB TARTARE as an appetizer on the menu, he couldn’t resist. And thank God he ordered it. Featuring lamb from Wisconsin’s Pinn-Oak Ridge Farms, Tony Yang’s rhubarb, egg yolk, crispy baguette, and Bleu Mont Dairy bandaged cheddar, it would make Paul Bocuse proud…$27.

I couldn’t resist the FOIE GRAS TORCHON…creamy duck liver spread over toasted brioche with toasted pistachios, wild fennel and sorrel.

Joanne’s choice was fine art on a plate: MI-CUIT OF SEA SCALLOPS. Three mighty sea scallops, grilled rare with charred spring ramps, chanterelle mushroom conserva and fennel-saffron emulsion. BTW: Chefs sometimes use TURMERIC instead of SAFFRON to achieve that precious golden yellow on the plate because it’s cheaper, but economy comes at the expense of flavor. THIS WAS SAFFRON…..$ 27.

Now for our MAIN COURSES.

It’s called KING SALMON for a reason. A true Alaska delicacy, this majestic fish boasts a bright red color, rich flavor and a unique texture. L’Etoile crowns it with local Black Earth Valley asparagus barigoule (a Provençale white wine sauce), Castelvetrano olives and green garlic…$52, which today sounds like a bargain.

Tim, a dedicated red meat eater, chose the BEEF RIBEYE STEAK from Andrew and Lisa’s family-owned Son of a Beach farms in Monroe, Wisconsin. It came with smoked Maitake mushrooms, Sue Vang’s local fresh spinach, short ribs and spring onion…$62. I think steak always feels good and tastes like a winner. This preparation was dazzlingly complex, with unending nuances of flavor that never obstructed the primal pleasure of a ribeye. Every steak lover should be lucky enough to enjoy such a dish.

Lastly, I opted for the STURGEON ($52), a fish that’s something of a mystery to me. I know it’s found in Wisconsin lakes and is usually speared. Tori serves his version with a ration of fatty pork belly, escargot, fennel, mussels, clams and green tomatoes. It had a rich, buttery flavor and a firm meaty texture. In all? Flavors were precise and potent – a fat-and-protein party in my mouth. (BTW, FAT is the most misunderstood and maligned of ingredients. FAT IS FLAVOR. It’s also worth mentioning that many seafood dishes improve when socked with some kind of meat.)

L’Etoile had a VEGETARIAN MAIN DISH on the menu consisting of kale shoots, wood sorrel, yogurt, pickled ramps, poblano emulsion and breakfast radishes.  “NO FRIGGIN’ WAY,” I said to myself. I’ve heard somewhere that vegetarian cooking is like Casablanca without Bogart.

And now….DESSERT.

I love a pure, classic FRENCH CRÈME BRULEE made with nothing but heavy cream, egg yolks, vanilla bean and sugar. But I also like ‘em “tricked-up” a bit. L’ Etoile gives this elemental dessert a springtime kick in the pants with the addition of rhubarb compote and bourbon cream, and then tops it with a rosemary cookie…$15. Joanne is a crème brulée connoisseur and she loved it.

Tim, who believes that the only appropriate follow-up to a ribeye is chocolate, chose a dessert called – wait for it – “Chocolate.” This showstopper paired a chocolate-peanut butter caramel bar with three dulce de leche profiteroles crowned with hot fudge, fresh blackberry sauce and salted peanuts. I can’t tell you how it tasted; he refused to share.

Poor me: I had to make do with Wisconsin Artisan Cheeses – three different wedges…probably all made by hand in small batches. But I’ve been to the mountain top. And I have had the mother of all blue cheeses…SOCIÉTÉ from the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in France.  Made from unpasteurized sheep’s milk, it’s creamy and moist with emerald-green veining. And I have yet to find a blue cheese in the states that rivals its taste…BUT WAIT….WAIT.

The blue cheese wedge on my cheese board was spectacular – different than Société, but equally as good in its own right. Although our server undoubtedly told us, I don’t remember what dairy farm produced it.

At the meal’s end and after dessert, a plate of three deep, dark chocolate truffles were presented: the perfect finale to a delightful meal.

And as we were getting ready to leave, our server showed up with a warm, soft and gooey cellophane-wrapped OATMEAL COOKIE for each of us to take home. NICE TOUCH. I ate mine (and perhaps Joanne’s) before going to sleep. It was that kind of night.

A word about the prices: L’Etoile’s six-course tasting menu is $175 (more with wine pairings). Dine à la carte as we did and three courses will run about $100-120 before alcohol, tax and tip). To be on the safe side, budget maybe $175 per person and probably two-and-a-half hours minimum for dinner. That isn’t everyday dining for most folks, but it’s a bargain nevertheless. L’Etoile (which in French means “the star”) is indeed shooting for the stars. From the quality of ingredients and caliber of cooking to the standard of service and appointments (widely spaced tables in front of those amazing windows), this restaurant is aiming for perfection. Being on the receiving end of such an effort is a privilege that’s hard to assign a price to. All I can say is that we walked out of there feeling like our dinner was a bargain – and that L’ ETOILE is one of our very favorite spots in America.

I ain’t lying.




Here are a few more images of L’Etoile’s magic cooking that Joanne and I have enjoyed over the years….

1…..In the late summer, I remember the smooth, buttery and silky CORN SOUP made with a rare hybrid corn and especially the garnish on the rim of the bowl…..a mix of blackberries, popcorn kernels and candied violets.

2……MEATY PORK BELLY and CRISPY RICE PUFF….salty and yummy.

3……CHAR-GRILLED OCTOPUS with Japanese eggplant, pearl onions and cilantro.

4……BELLE FARMS FOIE GRAS, with sweet corn and wild chanterelles.

5……In the fall, I had RABBIT TERRINE EN CROUTE with brown butter-braised carrots and sauce gribiche (a cold hardboiled egg-based sauce with mustard, cucumbers, capers and tarragon).

6……FOUNTAIN PRAIRIE FARMS’ dry aged Scottish Beef New York strip steak with green and yellow beans, mushrooms and spring onion confit.

7……As a petit four, we once had house-made CARAMEL POPCORN with two chocolate truffles on the side.

8……Oh yes, from time to time, they also make their own salty and sweet FIDDLE FADDLE.

L’ ETOILE has dishes that you or I will probably never, ever make at home.

It’s FRISKY and FUN.

And it’s HEAD, SHOULDERS and GENITALS above most any restaurant that you’ll find in the Midwest (or most anywhere else).



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