Chef Michael Brisson of L’etoile is standing on the front porch of The Charlotte Inn leaning comfortably on one of two columns that frame the doorway to the main house. It is late afternoon and he has returned from the mainland where his 17-year old son Edison ran a cross-country track and field event. “He came in eighth overall, but it wasn’t his best race by far,” Brisson says still mulling over the results. “He’s the best on the island and I think he expected to do better,” he concludes revealing something of his own life’s approach.

At L’etoile you can dine in the
conservatory or on the terrace
enclosed by ivy-covered lattice

Brisson himself is a runner and sometimes hockey player in his mid-forties whose vivid-blue eyes and steady gaze convey the intensity with which he competes. And while his athletics are strictly amateur, he plays with the pros in the culinary arena, a business where you’re as good as your last meal and the winner is the one who lives to fight another day. Still, Michael Brisson never hesitated to set high expectations for his own enterprise. It started 19 years ago when he opened his gourmet Vineyard restaurant and fearlessly named it The Star.

Before coming to the island Brisson refined his culinary craft at two of Boston’s most cherished establishments, Café Budapest, which until its owner’s passing a few years ago, was annually voted Best of Boston, and the AAA, Five Diamond restaurant L’Espalier, which the Zagat Survey has often rated #1 in Boston for food and décor. It’s here as Chef de Cuisine that Brisson’s innovative New England-French style cooking earned him the gourmand’s buzz as someone to watch. It’s here as well that he developed his vision for the perfect island restaurant. So when the chance came to return to the Vineyard and command his own ship (he had worked at the inn’s Chez Pierre in the early '80s) he sailed back in a breeze.

Artful Dining

Above: Salad of Native Greens, Poached Foie Gras, Regianno
Parmesan, Spiced Walnuts, Citrus
& Pomegranates with Pineau
des Charenttes Vinaigrette.

Above: Assiette of Sweet Neck Farm
Oysters, House Smoked Shrimp &
Duck Trap River Smoked Salmon
with Mignonette, Mango-Washed
Relish & Cucumber Salad

Grilled Squab with Aged Balsamic-Jack Daniels Glaze on Truffled-Creamy Polenta.

Table for Two!

Still standing on the front porch, I ask the Chef what we should have for dinner this evening. With the conversation now turned to his main passion he becomes even more energized. “Oh, you’ll definitely want to try the lobster and for sure the Foie Gras, but this is the right time of year for scallops, too. And we do a really good squab,” he continued. “I’ll tell you what,” he finally decides, “Why don’t we fix you a special tasting menu and that way you can try it all!”

At L’etoile, Michael Brisson’s wonderful creations are served in stylish surroundings inspired primarily by his wife, Joan Parzanese, a competitor in her own right who has run marathons in Boston and New York. Whether by flickering candlelight in the glass-canopied conservatory dining room or beneath the stars on the terrace enclosed by ivy-covered lattice, her flawless taste extends to the smallest detail: Brentwood chairs, crisp white linen, and gold-trim bone china. The gold-star motif extends to the menus, napkin rings, and upholstered chairs, all coming together to establish a refined atmosphere.

We arrive shortly after 7:00 p.m. and are seated in a candle-lit corner near a window with a superb view of both the nearby gardens and the restaurant’s charming interior. But tonight our attention will be focused wholly on the sublime cuisine being proffered by the man in white. In keeping with his emphasis on freshness and timeliness — many of Chef Brisson’s creations feature ingredients from the island’s fields, streams, and seas — the menu evolves with the seasons and undergoes almost complete revision every six to eight weeks. Our waiter is Matt Frederick, who has spent eight years at L’etoile, and he is one of the Chef’s best representatives. Matt will present each course with panache, adding to the excitement we feel with the arrival of each new dish.

Knowing we’ll want both white and red wine to match the changing menu, Matt starts us off with a half-bottle of Trimbach Appelation Alsace 2002 Riesling — a medium sweet white that works tremendously well with our first course of Sweet Water Farm “Edgartown” oysters with verjus mignonette. These buttery delights, the Chef earlier claimed, are the sweetest oysters he has ever served. Next, we savor a butternut squash soup with caramelized bay scallops, spiced walnuts and a drizzle of Verblanc. Hmmm, two courses in and we’re already at Heaven’s gate.

Sautéed Yellow-Tail Snapper Fillets
on Fried Green Tomatoes, Asparagus
and Sweet Pea Risotto with
Champagne-Citrus Beurre Blanc.

What comes next is one of the most delightful dishes we’ve ever encountered: a portion each of squash blossom stuffed with lobster plus seared, sesame-coated Yellowfin tuna. Who ever thought to eat squash blossoms, anyway? A seemingly hard act to follow, Chef Brisson dazzles us again with a dish of spiced, crusted Foie Gras with Gold Bud peaches, Riesling and leek sauce, plus grilled squab with an aged, Balsamic-Jack Daniels glaze.

We need time to take in all of these taste sensations, and as we savor the last bites of our little birds, Matt arrives with two small glasses of 1999 Late Harvest Riesling from the Kent Rasmussen Winery in Napa. It is the perfect conclusion to the first act.

At Table Seven: The Vegetable
Terrine and Etuvee of Native
Lobster, Tropical Vegetable,
Mango & Grilled Shrimp Slaw.

Moments later he returns with our intermezzo, an Apple Cider Sorbet.

With our palates prepared for another round of pleasure, Matt is back with a half-bottle of 2002 Bethel Heights Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Many connoisseurs have said that the Oregon Pinots have captured the crown as best in the U.S., and this medium-body treat from the states’ central valley is no slouch. In fact, it is the perfect match for our next course, Etuvee of native lobster with a roasted corn, scallop and sun-dried tomato fritter, lemongrass, roasted garlic and basil sauce. “Wow!” we blurt out in amazement, “This must be the grand finale.”  But no, as we quickly discover, there is an encore. In fact it’s the ideal ending to a tasting sequence that has moved us well inside the pearly gates. For his curtain call Chef Brisson has prepared a trilogy of Allen Farm “Chilmark” lamb and a chevre-sunchoke Napoleon with Shiraz-Port jus. If we weren’t already in Heaven we might say this dish was to die for.

Feature by Jim Hollister, New England Correspondent. Photos by Jim Hollister and L’etoile.

L’etoile at The Charlotte Inn on South Summer Street in Edgartown is open year-around for dinner, although only on weekends from November through May. The menu is prix-fixe at $72 — $78. Dinner is served from 6:30 to 9:45 p.m. For reservations call 508/627-5187. Chef Michael Brisson’s special tasting menu is available upon request.

Chef Brisson appears triumphantly at our table while we linger over chocolate layered cake. We have spent most of three hours getting to know his creations, but have barely noticed the time. He has taken us on a culinary grand tour and his itinerary has been inspired. His plan is a complete success and we depart convinced that L’etoile truly is a gourmet treasure you too should discover.

Stay At The Charlotte Inn