By Clay Riness —
Great restaurants usually begin with a chef, and so it is with Viroqua’s Driftless Café. Chef Luke Zahm, a La Farge native, earned his stripes on the job from the ground up, working at restaurants in Madison, Verona and La Crosse. Eventually, he realized that all the great chefs were sourcing their fresh foods from the Driftless Region … from his people. “That was the light bulb for me,” he says. “That’s when I knew it was happening at home, right in our backyard. Vernon County has the second-highest concentration of organic farms in the United States.”
He made his way back home with plans to open a farm-to-table restaurant. One day, he was having lunch at the Driftless Café and the owner offered to sell it to him. He accepted the offer. Unbridled success led him to buy the business next door and expand. Years of experience paid off, and today the restaurant is a popular destination eatery and local favorite. “It’s Viroqua. We want it to be accessible and affordable. And it works,” he says.
The atmosphere at Driftless Café is casual, the interior tastefully designed with pressed tin ceilings and local artwork that rotates every four to six weeks. There are 88 seats in two dining rooms. Zahm creates a different menu each night for the next day based on fresh, local ingredients, with the exception of one dish.
My father joined me on a bustling Wednesday evening for a Driftless Café experience and an enjoyable chat with Zahm. We began our meal with a glass of dry, fruity red wine and a cheese plate featuring four artisan cheeses, each of which was distinct and exquisite, paired with warm, fresh bread, savory mustard, some olives and a drizzle of blueberry preserves. At the same time, we savored a light and creamy chicken liver mousse plated with Hansen’s Country Bakery toast and a local raspberry jam. All flavors married perfectly.
The salad course featured dark local greens and thinly sliced sweet red peppers, cucumbers, radishes and onions. I enjoyed a light, delicately flavored lemon and peppercorn vinaigrette dressing while my father chose the blue cheese, which was just right.
The main courses were next. I was able to taste the house-made linguini that my father lovingly enjoyed. It featured locally grown zucchini, chard and tomato along with a gentle sauce containing hints of basil, fresh tomato and mild onion. The pasta came topped with a perfectly cooked soft-yoked egg. Once broken into the pasta and gently combined, the dish took on a rich creaminess and a satin finish on the palette. Flavorful, tantalizing and flawless.
As for me, I had to have the only dish that’s always on the menu, the Organic Prairie tenderloin. The steak was served with baby purple potatoes roasted to mouthwatering tenderness, Lacinato kale and a rich beef demi-glace. The loin was perfectly seasoned and seared with a lightly crusted exterior, sliced into two thin halves, and presented cut side up to showcase the juicy, medium-rare finish. Between the succulent flavor of the sear and the buttery, tender texture of the interior, it was outside the boundaries of delicious.
After the main course, we were just about at the “couldn’t eat another bite” stage. So, for dessert, my father and I shared one small serving of cheesecake custard topped with a dollop of raspberry sorbet, a wonderfully complementary flavor profile which melted on the palette. It was the perfect end to an amazing experience, which spotlighted skillfully prepared, seasonal, locally sourced food.
After we left, my father said, “Wow. I remember when that was a place where you went for soup. It’s a full-blown gourmet place now.” Yes, Dad. It certainly is.
Stop by and visit the Driftless Café at 118 W Court St. in Viroqua. For more information, call (608) 637-7778 or visit driftlesscafe.com.