In my recent review of Graze, I regaled about my utter smittenness with Chef Tory Miller, my “culinary idol and locavore hero,” as I described him. His cooking principles very closely resemble my own in respect to championing local organic products from small artisan farmers, thus supporting a method of eating infinitely more sustainable for our planet than pesticide-laden factory farms and the influx of corn, soybean, and wheat crops, most of which serve as feed for livestock rather than human sustenance. Chef Tory and his dual restaurant team (from both L’Etoile and Graze) describe their admirable philosophy as such:
We believe supporting our local farmers and artisan producers has a direct impact on our community: it strengthens local economies; it encourages variety and enriches our food traditions; it promotes health and wellness by offering menus made from natural and wholesome ingredients.
I personally couldn’t agree more, and apparantly, neither can the James Beard Foundation, Gourmet Magazine, or Saveur, who awarded Chef Tory a nomination for Best Chef-Midwest, a slot on “America’s Top 50 Restaurants,” and a place on the “Top 100,” respectively.
Needless to say, I relish any opportunity to dine at L’Etoile, especially because while the menu boasts astonishingly well-composed and mouthwatering dishes, it also boasts staggering prices (can you say $56 for a steak? Another benefit to veganism!), rendering Chef Tory’s elegant restaurant a truly special occasion dinner destination. Thus, when my father revealed my (slightly belated) Christmas present of a meal at any eatery of my choice, no fiscal considerations involved, I immediately opted for L’Etoile. Upon telephoning for the reservation, I specified that our party would have one vegan diner, to which the maitre’d graciously replied “No problem.”
Currently in the Winter season of potatoes, mushrooms, radishes, hearty greens, parsnips, and winter squash, Chef Tory’s reliably seasonal menu paid gorgeous homage to these ingredients and their respective local farmers, all of whom he lists on the back of the menu. My mother and I amused ourselves identifying the producers from whom we buy our own groceries at the farmers market every week, feeling unbelievably fortunate to have access to the same high quality of fruits and veggies with which Chef Tory works his culinary magic.
One of my favorite aspects of L’Etoile is their trio of complimentary meal accompaniments: a tiny canape brought out before ordering, a slightly larger amuse bouche brought just after ordering, and a dessert snack plate with the bill at the end of the meal. Chef Tory even accommodated me with these lovely little bites, offering vegan versions alongside my parents’ dairy-based hors d’oeurves. For my first little bite, I recieved three crisp, sweet apple slices soaked in truffle oil and topped with microgreens next to a dusting of black pepper. The truffling imparted an astonishingly savory flavor into the otherwise fruity apples, complemented by the hint of pepper.
For my second taste of the meal, a crunchy lavash triangle jutted artfully from a bowl of citrus-marinated cucumbers and blood oranges, garnished with a small sprig of parsley. Refreshing, simple, and clean. Though I assume that the lavash did contain gluten, I concluded that such a small amount of the substance wouldn’t bother me too much, especially since I had gone without it for a little over five months now. I only experienced the slightest stomach twinge a couple hours after the meal and remained otherwise perfectly comfortable.
I’d certainly consider my first course the highlight of the meal. Veganized by omitting the chevre, a bed of thinly sliced roasted beets in deep magenta and goldenrod yellow provided a sweet, earthy base for tangy segments of blood organge, crunchy pickled crosnes, amazingly decadent spiced hickory nuts, and peppery watercress all drizzled in a white balsamic vinaigrette. Normally, I scoff at beet salads as tired commonplaces of winter restaurant menus, but Chef Tory handled each ingredient with such integrity and allowed all of their true flavors to playfully bounce off one another that I completely forgave his almost-cliché.
Since I couldn’t order straight off the menu for lack of vegan items and thus rested in the hands of Chef Tory’s imagination to decide my dinner’s fate, I eagerly awaited my surprise entree. Lo and behold when the waiter bestowed upon me what he deemed a “farinata chickpea pancake over spinach and radishes drizzled with a balsamic reduction.” May I translate farinata for you? Farinata=socca. Whether Chef Tory read my mind or my blog, I cannot fathom how he knew of my deep socca love. Psychic or not, Chef Tory has earned an even more coveted spot in my culinary heart. The socca, with its crispy crust and fluffy interior, sat atop a bed of frost-sweetened spinach and braised beauty heart radishes drizzled with an unctuous balsamic reduction. Again, Chef Tory casts magical culinary spells on radishes, transforming them from unpleasantly sharply flavored roots into subtely bitter yet pleasingly toothsome veggies, forcing me to rethink my loathsome outlook on the humble plant.
Meal Checklist: Protein—chickpea flour, hickory nuts. Whole Grain—whole wheat in lavash (and hopefully the last wheat for a good long while!). Vegetables—cucumber, beets, crosnes, radishes. Leafy Greens—microgreens, watercress, spinach.
Obviously, I have nothing but praises to sing about my idol, Chef Tory Miller, but can you blame me? Every plate of food I’ve recieved at both L’Etoile or Graze, both vegan and not, have left my tastebuds utterly satisfied and inspired me to further hone my own cooking skills. My family has enjoyed a number of special occasions at this longstanding Madison establishment (my parents have been patronizing L’Etoile for over 20 years now!), and this particular belated Christmas dinner will certainly not be our last visit, especially considering the restaurant’s gracious and thoughtful accommodations for vegans.
Until next time, Ali.