Saturday, September 12, 2009

Wisconsin: L'Etoile Restaurant

Madison, Wisconsin...

I'm a cheese lover but that wasn't the reason why I was in Wisconsin. I was there on business visiting one of our business units to discuss market research (my day job). Madison is about a two hour drive from Chicago. I know this because I had to drive my rental car from O'Hare to Madison. It was an interesting drive since I witnessed a diesel truck blow up in flames (no one was hurt btw). Luckily, it was on the other side of the freeway so it didn't delay my commute to Madison. Here's a glimpse of my commute. Lots of greenery and views of large rustic barns along the way.

I had to get to Madison within two hours or I would have missed my dinner reservation at L'Etoile. Could you ever imagine a fine dining place in Madison? L'Etoile is known to be the Chez Panisse of the Mid-West. Gourmet Magazine named it on its Top 50 Best Restaurants. That says a lot.

Anyways, L'Etoile is located in downtown Madison across the street from the Wisconsin Capital building. I had 15 minutes to spare so I walked around and took a few photos of the capital building and surrounding area.

I walked across the street to find this quaint little place. As I open the door, a staircase is in front of you which leads you to the second floor. Unfortunately, the photos stop here. The restaurant was very small and I didn't have the guts to take out my camera. Besides, after a 5 hour flight then another 2 hour drive, I was ready to eat.

As I was seated, my server presented a fairly large, single-page menu. He goes off to explain that L'Etoile takes pride in supporting Wisconsin farmers and uses local ingredients all season long in their menus. My server also noted that the owner of MacFarlane in Janesville was dining at the restaurant that night.

Fortunately, I was able to take home a menu. Here is what I had.

Canapé: Hickory Nut Crackers topped with Herbed Goat Cheese, and Hickory Nuts from Ray's Hickory Nuts

First Course: Fantome Farm Fresh Chevre, Nettle & Wild Watercress Risotto with Shaved SarVecchio and Black Truffle Oil - $14

Main Course: Pan-Seared MacFarlane Pheasant Breast and Crispy Pheasant Confit with Driftless Organics Mash Potatoes, Braised Plant Farm Baby Bok Choi and Cognac Jus - $37
*This entree was a nod to the entree that President Obama had during his inauguration luncheon.

Instead of dessert, I decided to go with a cheese plate. Why not! We're in Wisconsin where cheese is king. OMG, there was a selection of 30 cheeses to choose from. I had my server personally select four cheeses.

The selection of Wisconsin Artisan Cheeses were served with Toasted Honey-Walnut Bread and Future Fruit Cox Orange Pippin & Fuji Apples. Delish!
  • Carr Valley Benedictine (Cow, Goat, Sheep)
  • Hooks 10-Year Cheddar (Cow)
  • Bleu Mont Dairy Bleu (Cow)
  • Capri Govarti (Goat)
Lastly I was presented with Mignardises (tiny, bite-sized desserts) which consisted of homemade fiddle-faddle and chocolate-covered bacon.

After a long flight and drive, it was well-worth the extra trip to dine at L'Etoile. With fresh local ingredients and a pursuit for top-quality dining, I highly recommend this place if you are ever in the Madison area. It's the crown jewel of restaurants in Madison.

Things to know:
  • Valet parking is not available. Your best bet is to park on the street near the capital building. Free after 6pm.
  • You must order the cheese plate. Go with the 3 selection plate for $12. A complete cheese tasting is $53.
  • If you call in advance, request to be seated near the windows which has a fabulous view of the capital building.
  • The menu changes periodically.
  • On Tuesdays, L'Etoile and Cafe Soleil offers a family-style comfort food dinner for $22. Seating is limited.
  • A prix fixe menu is also available for $39. Available Tuesday through Thursday.
25 N Pinckney St
Madison, WI 53703-2871

Monday, September 7, 2009

West Hollywood: XIV at Michael Mina

This weekend we celebrated another anniversary. In August, we celebrated our wedding anniversary but last Saturday we celebrated being together for five years. I admit, I almost forgot so I was scrambling to make a last minute reservation at 2am Friday morning. San Diego simply does not have anything to offer to its local foodies so I decided to look beyond our borders. From places like Lawry's The Prime Rib to Urasawa. I had many choices but I knew it had to be somewhere special. I narrowed it down to two places, Providence and XIV at Michael Mina. All of a sudden I realized that XIV stands for 14 and broken down further 1+4=5 for 5 years. Perfect!

XIV is coincidentally Michael Mina's fourteenth restaurant. He has a long list of well-known establishments and I hope to visit them soon. XIV is located in West Hollywood down a few blocks from the Laugh Factory. If you haven't been to this area, parking is extremely difficult to find. You're better off parking valet which is located on site.

When you walk inside the restaurant, you are taken by the interior design of Philippe Starck. From the bar area to the dining room, it reminisces a library of a European chateau with a club-like vibe. I also noticed the lack of tablecloth.

This is a place to be seen. If you have ever watched an episode of the MTV show The Hills, Heidi was in charge of the opening of XIV and gets fired while drinking on the job. Yup, same place.

There is also a covered Terrace area toward the back of the dining area.

After we were seated, the hostess gave us a black envelope which contained a personal note from the staff and GM of XIV. I thought it was a nice gesture to start off the night. I always appreciate the little things be it a card, additional attention, etc.

We started the night with cocktails and wine. I got the first cocktail on their list which was called the Perfect Pair for $13. Unfortunately, I didn't write down what was in it but it was quite good.

Naan was served instead of bread along with a dipping sauce. The combo just reminded me of a buttery pretzel. Absolutely delicious! One of the best pieces of naan I've had.

Until recently, the restaurant only served small tapas for the entire table but the menu has evolved to include ala carte items, full-size entrees and tasting menus. I think we were probably the only table to order entree items. We decided not to do a tasting since we had a long drive back to San Diego. I do recommend doing the tasting because you get the option to taste everything on the menu or have the chef select the courses for you. A separate vegan menu is also available.

Here is what we ordered:

Sweet Corn Soup - $15
Pork Belly, Apple Cider, Cilantro, Sea Salt

Heirloom Tomato & Peach - $16
Watercress, Manchego Cheese

10 oz Prime N.Y. Strip Steak - $42
Kobe Shortrib, Figs, Arugula, Horseradish, Hazelnuts

Kobe Burger - $27
Farmhouse Cheddar and "Secret Sauce"

Trio of French Fries - Paprika, Sea Salt and Rosemary
Sauces: BBQ, Ranch and Ketchup

Dark Chocolate Cake - $12
Coffee Cream, Coconut Sorbet, Crunchy Peanut

At the end of the night, I requested a copy of the menu and our server went above and beyond and got Michael Mina and Executive Chef Steven Fretz to sign our menus. I'm always ecstatic when "the" chef is in the house working in the kitchen.

Overall, XIV wasn't what I expected and I'm glad we took the trip up north. It is a fine establishment and I hope to see the menu evolve each season. I most definitely would like to take my girlfriends here since it has such a great vibe to hang out and enjoy cocktails. This place is going on my list of foodie favs.

Things to know:
  • Hours of operation: Monday-Saturday 6-11pm. Bar and limited Terrace menu available late night.
  • Valet parking is available on-site for $11. The entrance to the valet is located on Selma Dr. off of Sunset.
  • Ala carte selections range from $10 to $59, while the 8,11 and 14 tasting menus are $64, $88 and $98. The full menu can be found here.
  • You can book a reservation on OpenTable. If you are celebrating an occasion, note it on the reservation.
  • If you're lucky, Michael Mina might be in town working in the kitchen. You can follow him on Twitter @chefmichaelmina.
  • Specials: 50% off Bottles of Wine Mondays. Valid on bottles $100+ from XIV's wine list.
  • Not feeling the formal dining room, step into the Terrance for Mina's take on classic food and signature burgers. Terrace menu found here.
  • The Terrace at XIV: 6 on Sunset. $6 cocktails, $6 menu items, $6 valet* from Monday-Saturday 5-8pm. *$6 valet from 6-7pm. $10 valet from 7pm until close. 6IX menu found here.
  • Food Photography: Very low lighting. My photos didn't come out as well as I hoped.
XIV at Michael Mina
8117 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90046