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NJ Reviews by Location Princeton & Vicinity Jersey Shore New Brunswick

Madame S

Note: December 2007 - Restaurant now Bank 34 - same owners and same chef.
34 Division Street
Somerville, Somerset County, New Jersey
(908) 722-9995

By The Artful Diner
October 22, 2007

In light of the fact that Madame S is presided over by chef/proprietor Manop Sutipayakul -- also the owner of Origin Thai, just across the street, and Origin Thai II in Morristown -- you expect a great deal from this establishment. Well, sometimes it delivers... and sometimes it doesn't.

The setting, of course, is completely conducive to casual fine dining. This is especially true in the evening when the lights are low, the tables candlelit, and the mood decidedly romantic. Ensconced in a former bank, the restaurant's interior boasts rich hardwood floors, majestically high ceilings, two walls of large plate glass windows, and a sparkling tropical fish tank. Yes, there's even a burnished vault, which now serves as a repository for coats rather than cash.

The cuisine, however -- globally-infused fare with a strong emphasis on seafood -- can be inexplicably inconsistent. An appetizer of deep-fried soft shell crab topped with a salad of red onion, tomato, and cashews immersed in an ingratiatingly addictive coconut-pineapple dressing ($14.00), for example, was an absolute revelation to the palate. The rings of fried calamari ($11.00), on the other hand, were as chewy as old rubber bands... and just about as tasty.

The pristinely plump steamed mussels ($12.00) came swimming in an incomparable tomato-infused sea awash with chunks of fennel, herbs, and crumbles of feta cheese. Undoubtedly the most outrageously delicious shellfish broth it has ever been my pleasure to ingest. Conversely, the salade lyonnaise ($10.00) -- frisée combined with potato, bacon, and tiara of poached egg -- was as dry as dust, lacking the traditional punch of a pungent Dijon vinaigrette.

Among the other starters, the lobster salad ($15.00) -- beautifully textured lobster meat served on a bed of frisée anointed with a first-rate sesame vinaigrette -- was excellent; the Peking duck spring roll ($9.00) served with a sweet and sour dipping sauce was good but not exceptional; and the steamed lobster ravioli bathed in a mushroom broth ($13.00) prompted a certain degree of ambivalence. The broth was a real winner... but the ravioli was inordinately mushy.

If appetizers are marked by a certain degree of incongruity, main courses are positively fickle. In several visits, in which I sampled eight entrées, the absolute standout was the Australian rack of lamb kalamata ($28.00). All well and good. But for an establishment that touts itself as primarily a seafood restaurant, this is oxymoronic, indeed... especially when the treasures of the sea suffer by comparison.

The one exception is lobster, which Madame S does exceedingly well. Like the salad noted above, the broiled lobster with fine herbs set on a seabed of fettuccine pesto ($34.00) is obviously the kitchen's culinary magnum opus.

Fish dishes, however, are problematic. Quality is not lacking, but there are glitches a plenty in preparation. The Dover sole à la meuniere ($33.00), for example, is beautifully pan fried, but it suffers from a surfeit of herbs and seasonings that completely obviate the fish's delicate natural attributes. The roasted troncons (literally translated "chunks" in French) of turbot ($22.00) are nicely paired with a sauce vierge and tiny clusters of honshimeiji mushrooms, but the fish is dry and overcooked.

Then, of course, there are several instances in which the members of the supporting cast embarrassingly outclass the supposed star of the show. In other words, you find yourself eating around the center of attraction in order to savor the bit players. This is surely the case with the broiled organic cod ($20.00). The pillow of spinach is nicely sautéed and perfectly seasoned, and the accompanying red wine sauce with lentils is nothing short of superlative. But the cod itself is the bland leading the bland, completely under seasoned and slightly undercooked. The king salmon ($19.00) is yet another case in point. Despite an apparently significant splash of teriyaki, the salmon is surprisingly bereft of pizzazz... but the soba noodles and bean sprouts are exceptionally delicious.

But it is the steamed Chilean sea bass ($27.00) and the grilled bronzini ($24.00) that somehow epitomize my feelings of disappointment. The former is paired with ginger, chives, and finished in a seasame broth; the latter companioned by pumpkin and pan-fried new potatoes. Taste-wise, you're waiting for the wow factor to kick in... but, somehow, the combos just don't quite work.

And, in microcosm, this is typical of the piscatorial presentations here. They are good, yes... though hardly what I would call exceptional. And, given Mr. Sutipayakul credentials, and the quality of the ingredients, a little exceptional wowing is precisely what you have every right to expect.

Desserts, on the other hand, are right on target and demonstrate a touch of class. Be sure to try the pear frangipane tart accompanied by a dollop of delicious pear gelato ($8.00), the apple financier ($7.00), or the Madame S spring roll wrapped around ripe banana and mango ($7.00). Espressos ($2.50/$4.00), cappuccinos ($3.50), and lattes ($3.50) are also excellent.

Service is both friendly and accommodating... but it can be a bit on the disorganized side. Even relatively early on several quiet-as-death Friday evenings, servers bearing gastronomic gifts still arrived at table with that "Who gets what?" look in their eyes.

A foolish consistency may very well be the hobgoblin of little minds, as Emerson so adroitly put it. For a restaurant, however, consistency is an absolute sine qua non. And this elusive quality appears to be, unfortunately, Madame S's Achilles' heel.

Cuisine: Seafood/Fusion
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.; Sat, 12:00 noon - 3:00 p.m.; Sun, 12:00 noon - 4:00 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Brunch: Sat, 12:00 noon - 3:00 p.m.; Sun, 12:00 noon - 4:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Accepted; recommended on weekends
Parking: Street parking; municipal lots
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.madamesseafood.com

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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