We — and by this I mean, “my wife and I,” not the royal or editorial we — love Spanish food. To be more specific, Spanish food by way of a couple of excellent tapas bars in Boston, and a honeymoon in Spain. For that reason, we spend a fair bit of time ordering ingredients online from La Tienda and cooking for ourselves, or just being frustrated — we’ve had intermittent luck locally at Rincón 38, but never reliably enough to integrate it into our regular rotation.
It turns out that the cosmopolitan, artfully prepared, bang-on authentic Spanish experience we were searching for exists in our time zone. It’s just a bit of a drive to the southeast. Madison, Wisconsin’s Estrellón is killing it, and it’s now at the top of our list in a city with a competitive restaurant scene that punches out of its weight class.
Estrellón is the latest venture for Chef Tory Miller, the city’s reigning heavyweight champ — he has helmed the rightfully famous L’Etoile for more than 10 years, opened sidecar restaurant Graze in 2010, and opened the extremely strong, Korean-influenced Sujeo in 2014.
Miller’s ambition with Estrellón is large and lovely. The dining room and bar are both chic and spacious. Spanish hams hang over a tapas prep station that straddles the two zones, and the place hums with activity. Glass towers filled with wine bottles strongly suggest that the liquid refreshment here is every bit the equal of the solid, and our experience tested that proposition and decreed it legit.
Service on our visit was good, but with an asterisk. Waitstaff and bartenders generally knew their stuff and made their way through the room efficiently, but a general sense that they were a little too busy to deal with our questions prevailed. (Read yesterday’s Tap for more expansive thoughts on this.)
And the food? Well, that’s what we’ll return for. The Paella Valenciana ($55 for a portion that feeds two to three, pictured top) is one of the best renditions of this dish we’ve had anywhere. The shellfish was tender and properly cooked, the rice neither mushy nor hard, the chorizo palpable but not overpowering, and the entire dish — edible flowers included — a feast for the eyes.
Our assortment of croquetas ($3 apiece) was one of the highlights of the night. All three varieties were straight-out-of-the-fryer hot and crisp, a world of difference from croquettes that are pre-made and reheated. Jamón and manchego alike were excellent, but the richness and depth of flavor in the bacalao (salt cod) croquetas took top prize.
We were specifically directed to the menu’s fresh vegetables, in this case, grilled asparagus ($13) with a surpassingly light and delicate green-garlic-sorrel aioli. The dish was a visual stunner, and its simplicity and charm won over our tastebuds as well.
Dessert was a Basque cake, and it ranks among the best things we’ve eaten this year. Tender, creamy, and just a bit batter-y, it was soft, rich, vanilla-flavored, and topped with a tart but balanced preserved cherry topping that tied everything together. If we can master this in our own kitchen, we shall walk as gods through the dinner parties of our friends. It seems like a long shot, though.
Dinner at Estrellón made us wistful for Solera at its height. But the nature of restaurant trends and the ever-evolving nature of the scene suggests we’ll get back to this kind of food in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro eventually. Sooner, we hope, rather than later.
Spanish cuisine in Madison, Wis.
313 W Johnson St
Madison, WI 53703
OWNER / CHEF: Tory Miller
Cafe: Tue-Sat 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Sun 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Tapas bar: Tue-Thu & Sun 4:30-9 p.m.
Fri & Sat 4:30-10 p.m.
Tue-Thu & Sun, 5-9 p.m.
Fri & Sat 5-10 p.m.
BAR: Beer + Wine
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / Yes
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Possibly with some discussion
ENTREE RANGE: $11-$17, with a Paella Valenciana for 2-3 at $55
NOISE LEVEL: Amenable din
PARKING: Take your chances in downtown Madison; some nearby ramps, but they’re sometimes full