From the time chef Odessa Piper founded the farm-to- table restaurant in 1976, one would regularly see her or her staff shopping at the Dane County Farmers’ Market, which takes place on Capitol Square right in front of L’Etoile (which means “the star” in French). Chef Tory Miller has owned the restaurant since 2005, but sustainability, support of local purveyors and a dazzling seasonal menu remain at the root of the menu that earned Miller a James Beard Award in 2012.
Known for its location as much as its food, Ishnala – which translates to “by itself, alone” in the Ho Chunk language – overlooks Mirror Lake and is surrounded by hundreds of acres of pristine state park forest and meadow. Massive Norway pines even grow through the restaurant’s roof. A seat next to the window is obligatory. A meal should start with a brandy old fashioned and prime rib-wrapped asparagus spears and proceed to roast Wisconsin duck with Wollersheim brandy cherry sauce or twin lobster tails. Ishnala opens for its 68th season on April 15.
“Uncomplicated” is the word the owners of this 100-seat charmer, noted for its romantic atmosphere, use to describe the menu. It’s accessible (pizzas, pastas, entrées like braised lamb shank) with ingredients used in unexpected ways (lamb spiedini, for instance). The 4-year-old, nestled inside an 1890s former hardware wholesaler, has also helped bring dining culture to an area better known for its college bars.
For over 26 years, Stefano Viglietti has made his homey rustic-Italian place a destination (along with his fabulous Neapolitan-style pizzeria, Il Ritrovo, across the street), a reason to drive hours for a plate of ossobuco or pasta with his nonna’s ragu. It’s all in the details. The cuisine is top-notch, plus Viglietti hand-picks the list of exclusively Italian wines and employs a staff whose service style is big-city- meets-Sheboygan-nice.