L’Etoile, Madison, expands ‘go local’ mission

Chef Tory Miller buys not steaks and chops but whole cows and pigs from local farms, using as much of the animals as possible in his fine dining menus.

Such practices are not uncommon for a well-trained chef who truly wants to lessen unnecessary waste while supporting the work of local farmers. Tory is among the best in Wisconsin who do this, and now he is about to dramatically expand his business location, scope and audience.

Tory and sister Traci Miller since 2005 have co-owned L’Etoile, routinely lauded as one of the best restaurants in the Midwest. They and investor/co-owner Dianne Christensen are preparing to expand about 100 percent in capacity, 75 percent in physical size and 30 percent in staffing on Madison’s Capitol Square this summer.

The distance of their anticipated move – less than one block – belies the breadth of change to come.

The three owners want to uphold a 34-year reputation for award-winning fine dining as they add a new dimension: a casual gastropub that serves locally grown food, some presented in unconventional ways. The business will be next to, but separate from, L’Etoile.

“Modern American comfort food” is how Tory classifies his gastropub menu, still in development.

He sees nothing wrong with a good Friday fish fry, for example, but this version will be about “sustainable sourcing, perfectly cooked” with “a vodka batter, not beer, because the liquid evaporates faster, so the batter gets super crisp and thin.” Add a tarter sauce with from-scratch mayo, plus capers and fresh herbs – “a familiar taste, but with something extra.”

The approach, Tory believes, fills a void because he thinks mainstream restaurant meals with truly local/sustainable ingredients are rare. “If I want to go out and have fried chicken, the options aren’t there for me,” he says. “I like to cook with other cooks in mind,” which also means offering eclectic choices – oysters and pates to burgers and hot wings – with unconventional spins.

“I’m excited to be able to cook breakfast, or add ground beef and pork” to the gastropub menu. Consider meatballs of ground rabbit or chicken, with ground pine nuts instead of breadcrumbs as the binder.

A quick lunch might mean Rueben sandwiches “made with our own corned beef and rye bread.”

Odess Piper, a pioneer in the “go-local” movement, established L’Etoile in 1976. By 2001, she had earned Best Chef in the Midwest honors from the James Beard Foundation.

“The new L’Etoile team keeps busting out with new takes on the local food scene, so this step just seems like a natural fit for their passion and creativity,” she says, of her successors’ plans to expand.

“In these years since I sold the restaurant, folks who know L’Etoile keep thanking me for choosing the Millers to take it over. It gives me the feeling that they have a lot of people pulling for them, not just me.”

Tory was invited to cook Thanksgiving dinner at Manhattan’s James Beard House in 2006, the same year Gourmet Magazine ranked L’Etoile as one of America’s top 50 restaurants. L’Etoile also made the Saveur Magazine “top 100” list of restaurants in 2008.

“The move will allow us to carry out our mission” of being a champion of local farmers and make their food accessible to a wider range of income levels, says Dianne Christensen.

“People don’t feel comfortable coming to L’Etoile for a salad, cheese plate and glass of wine,” she adds. “We wish they did.”

The change also means better handicapped access, the addition of private dining and breakfast-to-dinner food options (the second-floor L’Etoile is only open for dinner).

The chef anticipates significantly more purchasing and preservation of local and sustainable ingredients. For example, he averages 175 pounds of potatoes for mashing and house-made chips per week. “That will easily triple,” he says.

The move is contingent on the transfer of a liquor license, but Madison Alderman Mike Verveer expects no complications because “it’s obvious L’Etoile is a community institution of national renown. I can’t imagine any controversy whatsoever, given their excellent track record. I’m just relieved that they’re staying downtown.”

“We don’t want to be a big bar hangout, but right now we’re sending people elsewhere for a drink before they have dinner with us,” because L’Etoile’s six bar seats are insufficient, Traci Miller notes. “So we’re losing income.”

The chef says much of the new business venture is about walking the talk: “If opening a second restaurant in a casual style makes it easier for more people to eat local, sustainable food, then that’s a good thing.”

L’Etoile has long listed names of key food providers on the menu, and the gastropub (which has yet to be named) will do the same. The chef likes the notion that “L’Etoile guests leave feeling that they’ve learned something about what they’ve eaten.”

So serving three-figure dinners for two isn’t the limit. “Let the food be the food,” Miller says. “It doesn’t have to be one price point.”

L’Etoile, now at 25 N. Pinckney St., Madison, expects to move into 10,500 square feet of the US Bank Plaza building at 1 S. Pinckney St. before August. For more: www.letoile-restaurant.com, 608-251-0500. The restaurant also is on Facebook.