This is a review post. I live in Madison, but thought I'd post about my recent experiences with these restaurants for others who might be curious. To give a little context, we go to Chicago three or four times per year, have done Alinea and similar spots, and are generally adventurous eaters with (what we consider to be) good palates.
Harvest: Zero stars. Would never return.
Husband and I wanted to go to one of these places for our anniversary and initially selected Harvest because we liked the menu better. I made the reservation for the day of and informed the reservation-taker that it was our anniversary and that we'd be celebrating.
When we arrived, no one acknowledged the special occasion. We were seated by a window, and then a very large party was seated directly next to us. They were loud and we could hardly hear each other. This wouldn't have been annoying except the rest of the restaurant was completely empty.
The drinks were good. Nothing special, but good. We ordered appetizers. I got seared scallops and he got pork belly. These were the "best" parts of the meal, and they were not very good. My scallops were room temp and were over a light bechamel-type sauce. They were on a bed of red cabbage, which dyed the bechamel a very unattractive purple-grey. They were solid, but definitely not worth the $16 price tag for two scallops. Husband's pork belly was undercooked in some places and overcooked in others. So fatty he could not eat it, and did not finish.
We both ordered different steaks for dinner. Mine was a hangar steak with chevre mashed potatoes and more of the same red cabbage I had with my appetizer. I guess they had a lot. His was a NY Strip with a cheddar polenta cake and ... more red cabbage. The waitress informed us when we ordered that "the chef" recommended the steaks be served at medium-rare and we acquiesced.
The steaks came out cold. Mine was well done; his was medium-well at best. My potatoes were absolutely bland and tasteless. The best part of his was the polenta cake, which was overcooked in parts and gummy in other parts.
We paid a total of $200 for the meal. We did tip our waitress well. Kitchen troubles are not her fault. No dessert, of course. I wrote a similar email to the "contact" email address listed on the Harvest website and did not receive a response. That was the last straw for me.
L'Etoile: Four stars (out of five). I would definitely go again.
First, they acknowledged that it was our anniversary right off the bat, which was great. The amuse bouche was good, as was the complimentary glass of champagne. For an appetizer, I had the beef carpaccio and he had a tortolloni appetizer. Both were excellent and we enjoyed them very much. Nothing that was out of this world, but both were solid and inventive.
For dinner, I had a mushroom carmelized onion tart, which was served with a root vegetable "hash" and an over-easy egg. It was really out of this world. I was a little reluctant to get a vegetarian dinner, but I had zero regrets as it was enjoyable, flavorful, and not too filling. Unlike a quiche, it had no eggs and was really just the onions and mushrooms. It had an incredible texture and flavor.
He got the steak special, which had mushrooms and a bleu cheese butter (and some unremembered-by-me starch). The steak was cooked very well: crispy on the outside, juicy, just the right temp, and the compound butter was a wonderful complement; he loved his meal. I ate all his mushrooms and they were also excellent: buttery and tender and just generally good.
We got dessert, too. I don't remember what we got (which doesn't mean it wasn't good), but we both agreed the desserts were excellent. Total for the meal was about $230.
L'Etoile was great. I'd definitely go back. For the record, we also like Lombardino's a lot and I'm a fan of Sardine (he's not such a big fan).