First off, I am a mere boy when it comes to food. I love to learn about it in all its complexities, but I am still very much a sheltered lad. Driftless Cafe, to me, was my first classic food experience. Multiple courses, lots of tiny details, many big words and names that I hope to give some justice to. Distressed wood, Edison bulbs, concrete slabs, corrugated steel giving a familiar farm feel, a slight nod to the local farms surrounding it, but with a cleaned refined finish to remind you this is a top-of-the-line place to eat. Driftless Café is a lovely setting that reflects what it wants you to know most: “We have the best food resources right in our area. Our organic farmers are some of the best in the world”.
My partner and I had a reservation for 6 p.m. on Friday. I was excited because I have had Driftless Café a couple of times, typically within the budget and pallet of a college student. That is to say, I’d had their pizza and burgers. I was amazed by their otherworldly quality with affordability. Despite my already developed appreciation, I was not ready for the mind fuck of a time I would have walking in the door that night. We sat down at the bar which allowed for an awesome experience with the staff. A tall man with a long charcuterie board and a beard comes out of the kitchen and sets it down. Let’s get into it.
Butter board and then some
The spread is beautiful. He explains that in certain places in France they have butter tastings and he wanted to feature some amazing butter spreads from Carr Valley. The first butter he tells me is an end of season butter. This butter is rich and happy just like the cow was after getting fresh pasture to nom on for the whole season. He said to think of grass and sunshine whilst my nibbles and I totally got it. This is an intro to my homeland. The second butter is similar to the first but a little nuttier, the third butter is a goat butter aged to perfection. It’s a strong flavor of blue cheese but the creamy soft texture of butter. This spread won 1st Place 2015 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest and 2nd Place 2014 American Cheese Society Competition. Carr Valley is one of the best cheese producers in the world, and it’s based in La Valle, WI. I am already amazed and we just hit up butter on some killer sourdough. This was served with raw honey and truffle shavings. There were other fun foods to toss upon the buttered breads: radishes, dried figs, olives, tomatoes, and pickled crosnes (pronounced crone). If like me, you’ve never had a crosne, it is a root veggie that looks like 4 to 6 corn kernels stuck together in a row and pickled. They have the crunch of a carrot and the taste of artichoke.
The brioche bread vehicles carry precious cargo. Yes, I’m still on the charcuterie board. A bacon jam that rocks my world. Sweet cinnamon counters savory salt. A sprinkle of microgreens and chopped radishes bring some crunch to the party. The brioche vehicles on the other side of the board come with a vibrant purple: beet hummus fun-fettied with Hidden Springs feta. The hummus is smooth. It starts with a soft sweet taste and finishes with a bite of cumin. The feta on top is creamy and salty and just a perfect match.
A sunny side up egg cooked beautifully; the yolk a consistency of creamy yogurt dusted with the best cheese in the world. NBD. I was geeked I saw this and Car Valley being sold at the Co-op, took a pic and sent it to my partner. I didn’t realize the amazing food I have access to. This all was a blanket over another first for my innocent mouth – foraged fiddlehead ferns that were seared in sesame oil, lemon juice, and pepper. Its flavor profile is similar to asparagus but the top is more full and tends to contain a bit of the Fibonacci played out by the young unfurling fern. Tossed with croutons for an extra crunch factor to bring in textural variance. On plate two I already know the night is going to be full in more ways than one.
Paired with a Chardonnay
Course III – full on mind melter
Chef Luke did his homework, but how much we will never know, and he found out I’m a geology nut. – The craziness is I don’t know where the background research stops. Also on Facebook I posted my recent charcuterie experience and my want for hummus, specifically beet hummus. Both of which were served in the first course. That’s my tin hat portion; Now back to your normal programming – He selected the next dish with me in mind. I had posted on Facebook about inclusions that are found in different minerals. Scallops with a lemon curd inclusion. He set down the wooden bowl in front of me and I was instantly blown away. I don’t know if or how to play hard to get in this game, but the dude had me. Like the soft interior of the scallop I caved and was ready to consume anything and everything they could toss my way. The savory pillows seared to perfection were in a miso bath with chili oil, scallions, and chive. The umami factor here is a record high yet yanged to the lemon curd and just brought me to a place of zen. If you look at the broth and see the baubles of chili oil also look to be an inclusion of sorts. Here’s a quick taste timeline. Sweet curd, the heat of the chili oil, quickly calmed by the miso, with an end hint of chive.
Paired with a vodka tonic- lime juice & cherry saffron bitters.
With each course, a story is given. I wish I had brought a recorder but I had my pen and shitty handwriting at the ready. The story of this next course is one of hope from a dark past. The main feature of this course is the Oneida white corn. This corn plays a significant role in their heritage; it was given to them by the Sky Woman. This corn is something that should only be supplied by the Oneida nation and is taken very seriously. He said when he was on the land and they plucked a huge ear of corn, the grower started crying as this amazing corn showed she was doing something right to allow the corn to grow so well, appeasing the sky women. So the relationship to the food here is very strong. Rice pearl inclusion of Tempura fried oyster mushrooms and fiddlehead fern atop of a Oneida white corn mush medley with maple and calabrese chili sauce. Savory and simple to spotlight the corn and how good it is. Its sweet warmth reminded me to take this slow and savor it. It was a gift and should be treated with respect. The tempura offered a crunch counter and the umami of the oyster mushroom gave it a hearty roundness, the hot sauce tied everything together nicely.
Dairy cows are a beautiful animal that supplies Wisconsin with some of the best milk, cheese, and butter in the world. The end of one’s life should be just as useful as when it was alive. This beef tenderloin showcases that. It was from a dairy cow which tends to be very different than the big bulky beef cattle that we are used to. Its soft supple existence is reflected in the tender grain of the loin. It’s cooked perfectly and placed on top of salted kale and onion with a demi-glace of the gods. This is a super reduction of flavor love. He said it would start out 6 gallons and wind up about a pint. This plate underlined the importance and brilliance of using a dairy cow to the fullest.
Served with Red wine- Classic
Ending on a sweet note- Course VI- fin
Pound cake reminiscent of bread pudding with caramel glaze and house made berry ice cream- this was a super soft and rich affair. Was I in love? Of course. The pound cake was so soft anyone without teeth could make it disappear in seconds. A toothless wonder of sorts, the sweetness of the caramel countered by the berry tart of the ice cream really just won my heart. At this point, the world’s best cheesemaker had entered the restaurant and I couldn’t help but stare at my plate instead.
The entire affair boasted more so the ingredients we are lucky enough to have locally, than the amazing skill of the people at Driftless Café. Both of which are world-class and we should indulge in them. If you haven’t heard of Organic Valley, who are you? One of my buddies moved to Germany and he misses Wisconsin cheese enough to smuggle it IN A TOTALLY LEGAL FASHION. Go to a creamery; check out a farmers market. It will elevate your food game and you get to support our very talented neighbors in the process. Too lazy? Go to Driftless cafe and be blown by the natural rich flavors of the Midwest. Actually, just go there anyway, it will show you farm fresh to freshly foraged in the best way possible while maintaining a humble yet brilliant existence.
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La Crosse Local is an arts, food, and entertainment podcast and publication for La Crosse County and its surrounding communities.
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